I found these unusual Japanese keis a block or two apart, virtually at the same time, in Chiang Mai. Two examples of the Pike car / neo-retro wave that Japan and the world endured in the ‘90s – with remnants stretching to the present day. Get the eyewash ready and let’s start with a look at the Daihatsu Atrai.
I did see a few of these “Classics” in Japan, but not in Thailand until now. These are based on the 8th generation Daihatsu Hijet S100 (1993-99) kei van, which is still abundant in many Asian countries. Abundant, but not usually so dolled-up: I’m pretty sure these were only sold in Japan during the three model years they lasted (1997-99).
Like the S100 Hijet, the S120 Atrai is propelled by a 3-cyl. 550cc SOHC (or optional Turbocharged DOHC 12-valve) and could get optional 3-speed auto and optional 4WD. There was one big difference, chassis-wise, between the standard Hijet and its people-carrier sibling: starting with this 3rd generation Atrai, Daihatsu gave it an all-new coil-sprung IRS (hence the different alphanumeric reference), instead of the leaf-sprung live axle found on Hijets and older Atrais, such as the 2nd generation (S80) below.
By the mid-‘90s, the retro wave was so strong in Japan that even boring kei vans were falling prey to the mania. In fact, vans were excellent victims: tack on a gimmicky front and as much gingerbread as possible and you can sell these for a premium price. There’s the nub: are there enough folks out there willing to part with more money for a little goofiness and individualism? Japan’s answer to the world was a big HAI!
And so, shrunken faces of classic vans of yesteryear came back to life, albeit limited to 600cc. As a natural progression of the retro disease, kei pick-up trucks such as this Suzuki Carry started to become infected as well. The retro treatment was applied to the VW Transporter and Citroën Type H, to the amusement of many.
The VW bus version, based on the rear-engined Sambar Dias, became especially popular in the ‘90s. What I find particularly interesting about these is how they pushed the envelope all the way to adding the actual Citroën and VW logos; in the case of the latter, it’s so massive that it’s tantamount to free mobile advertising for VW. I’m sure the Japanese worked out deals with these companies prior to making these kits, but I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall when they were hammering that one out.
There were several very distinctive retro kei vans in the ‘90s, but the one that really got the Anglo-retro thing going was the Subaru Sambar Dias Classic (1990-99). I’m not sure what kind of old van Subaru Classic were trying to pay tribute to. Seems like a “Desperate Riley meets drunk Bugatti in a dark alley” kind of deal. Regardless, it seems it sold very well throughout the ‘90s; these are still seen pretty often in present-day Japanese traffic. Which is why Daihatsu eventually responded, in 1997, with the Atrai Classic.
It certainly looks very unique, like a deep-sea-creature version of a Hijet. Not quite as distressing as some of the more extreme Mitsuokas, but still rather strange. The giant fluted grille is a bit perplexing on a vehicle this size. Daimler never did a minivan, as far as I’m aware.
They did have a flourishing bus branch, though. I caught this one on location years ago. London and many other British cities used to be served by Daimler buses like these in the pre-Routemaster days, well into the ‘70s.
The traditional Daimler grille, though still present, was more discreet on these buses than on the famously over-styled Daimler cars of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
I’d say the very last of these excessive Daimlers, the Jaguar 420G-based Daimler DS 420 limousine (1968-92) probably inspired the Atrai’s grille design. So the Atrai Classic channels both the Daimler buses and the contemporary cars. A logical, yet quite bizarre concoction, shaken and disturbed, served in three cylinders. Kampai!
Before I saw these, I wouldn’t have been sure whether Daimler qualified as iconic enough anywhere but in Britain. But it looks like Japanese anglophiles constitute a large enough subgroup of automotive otaku. I guess the people who bought the 1997-99 Atrai Classic fell into two categories: those who got the Daimler reference, and those who didn’t but just thought it just looked cool.
And to be fair, it doesn’t look too bad in there, either. They felled a acres of the finest formica forests for that interior. Add a discreet tartan pattern and give that thing A/C and a radio-cassette player as standard and voilà! Value was added. Lady Docker would have been proud.
So in partial conclusion, I’m not really sold on this Daihatsu, but it does make one look twice. And I’m sure it’s a lot better to sit in than the Hijets I usually ride in (about which more in some later post). But one thing’s for sure: nobody, but nobody can out-retro Mitsuoka.
We’ve been confronted by this most eccentric Japanese carmaker before. Crazy saloons, barking-mad limos, ludicrous hatchbacks. This is the Mitsuoka kei car – the first I’ve ever seen. And this one, with its missing trim piece and complete absence of any script or logo, left me quite puzzled at the time.
Of course, it was obvious that this was an homage to BMC. Sources on the web say Mitsuoka channeled the Mini-based Wolseley Hornet, and I guess it’s pretty much there. But I also see the 1300 (bottom left) and the 18/85 “Landcrab” (bottom right), especially with those peculiar lights.
I couldn’t get the Landcrab out of my head, but I was also pretty stumped as regards this car’s genetics. I had simply no idea what this was, not being too much of a kei car aficionado. Suzuki? Daihatsu? Nissan? I really don’t know how to tell the really small and new-ish ones apart.
With a little research, I managed to piece together this tiny car’s weird and convoluted history. It is, underneath, a 5th generation Suzuki Alto (1994-98), a modern FWD design with a 657cc triple providing 51-54 hp. Suzuki sold platforms to Mazda, who designed their own body and sold these as the Autozam Carol.
The first Autozam Carol came out in 1989. It marked Mazda’s return to the kei car market after 12 years of absence. Calling it Autozam was a bit strange (and is probably worth its own post), but calling it Carol made perfect sense: the original 1962-70 Mazda Carol kei car (below) had been one of the marque’s big early hits.
The new generation Alto was then used for the third generation Carol in 1995. The Mazda designers gave it an even more pronounced neo-classic nod to the ‘60s Carol, with its distinctive sunken headlamps. I had totally forgotten this relatively salient feature of the 1962-70 Mazda Carol because that Mitsuoka’s grille made me err toward the Landcrab, which has a similar squint.
And so Mitsuoka used the 5th gen Alto-based 3rd gen Mazda/Autozam Carol to launch our second feature car, the first-generation Mitsuoka Ray, in 1996. As a ‘90s retro design based on another ‘90s retro design? It’s the automotive equivalent of a hat on a hat. Rather pointless, any way you look at it. But if you can make it look good, you’re a genius. And genius can skip a generation.
In 1999, the Carol switched bodies and, for some reason, Mitsuoka decided to switch to the Suzuki Alto. The Ray II therefore looked quite bizarre for a few years. Then the Ray III arrived in 2002, now sporting four doors. The retro-based-on-retro scheme was back, along with the requisite round headlamps: the new Ray was really a Daihatsu Mira Gino (itself an Austin Mini lookalike) with added make-up. Just like a Wolseley Hornet, really. Production ceased in 2004. I don’t believe Mitsuoka have fielded a kei car since.
Speaking of eternal regrets, I’m afraid I was unable to capture this minuscule Mitsuoka’s doubtless superb interior. Couldn’t even really see it myself. Curse those tinted windows, scourge of the CCurbivore! So I’m going to end it here for today. Another twofer might well follow pretty soon. Because sometimes, you don’t just find one CC, you find two, and they make a great pair.