CC Capsule: 1965 Mazda T1500 – Sumo Trike

(first posted 10/18/2017)      Three-wheelers are generally pretty small affairs – and they are all the more cute and cuddly for it. This Mazda pick-up, however, presents a rare case of what biologists call “insular gigantism”. Let’s examine what is probably the largest road trike ever made for the civilian market, as we welcome the Mazda T1500, once a common sight on Japanese roads, into our dojo.

Japan, not unlike the UK, made a lot of three-wheelers back in the day. And as in Britain, the reason for this had to do with tax: a three-wheeled vehicle paid much less road tax than a four-wheeler. But unlike Britain’s famous trikes (BSA, Morgan, Reliant, etc.), Japanese ones were reserved for the utilitarian market, not sports cars or family saloons. For years, Daihatsu, Mazda, Mitsubishi and other smaller Japanese firms made three-wheeler pick-ups and vans with tiny motorcycle engines – one or two cylinders, 300-600cc, air-cooled. But by the time Mazda came out with the T1100 in 1959, things had gotten weird.

The T1100 was one of the first Japanese trikes with a proper car engine, a water-cooled 4-stroke 4-cyl. mated to a 4-speed gearbox that was (unusually for a RHD vehicle) mounted on the right side of the steering column. The thinking was that there must be a niche of small businesses that might require a faster pick-up with more cargo capacity – while keeping the tax advantages brought by the missing wheel. Sales were brisk and Mazda soon followed up with the T1500 in 1962 and the T2000 in 1965, at which point Mazda were good enough to put brakes on all three wheels.

The T1500 we have here has a 1484cc engine delivering 60 hp (gross) enabling a top speed of 110 kph (70 mph) – a relatively frightening amount of power for such a vehicle. The wheelbase is relatively long and the rear wheels set further apart than in smaller trikes, improving both stability and cargo space, but this is still a rather daunting proposition. The Terminator-sounding T2000, quite logically, had a 2-litre engine good for 83 hp. Nobody ever topped this, as far as I can make out.

The main competitor in this niche was the Daihatsu CO / CM / DO / DE family, which were either powered by 1.1 or 1.5 litre V2s or a 1.9 litre straight-4. Daihatsu also proposed a 2.3 litre Diesel version, which Mazda never attempted. Mitsubishi, for their part, quit the trike game in the early ‘60s without an attempt at going beyond the kei class. Kurogane also made trikes in the 1 to 1.5 litre class, but they went out of business by the early ‘60s.

The Mazda T-trikes and their Daihatsu counterparts were therefore the kings of three-wheelers in the ‘60s and into the ‘70s. Both stopped production in the mid-‘70s and this type of vehicle was never again proposed in Japan (or indeed elsewhere, as far as I know). The reason might well be a change in the tax law – I’m purely going by Occam’s razor on this, as information in English is hard to obtain. Odds are the Japanese legislator decided to limit the trikes to the kei class, i.e. 360cc max, around this time. A triumph for common sense, for once? Well, in typical Japanese fashion, it’s yes and no.

Three-wheelers went back to their motorcycle roots and have abandoned the utilitarian field. But until about five years ago, one could drive a three-wheeled vehicle, which had all become motorbike-style open-top contraptions, or a quad bike without a helmet and with a standard stick-shift car license, as the law considered them as cars. The helmet and motorcycle license have since become mandatory. Common sense prevailed, in the end. But it did take four decades.