Curbside Classic: 1971 Subaru Sambar (K64) – The Porsche Of Kei Vans

What would we associate with Porsche and Subaru? How does that Venn diagram work? Well, I guess motorsport credentials and a predilection for boxer engines would be obvious examples. But in the present case, we’re talking about a kei van/truck powered (if we can call it that) by a two-stroke parallel twin. So why did the Sambar garner this strange foreign nickname in its homeland?

The build quality of Subaru’s wares is not particularly known for being outstanding, one way of the other. That’s quite unlike the reputation earned by Porsche since the very start of their history as a carmaker.

Likewise, one would never accuse the German carmaker as being overly generous in terms of passenger space, unlike the cavernous capacity of the Sambar van: it may be small, but it can haul four people and a fair bit of cargo in great comfort – not something easily imaginable in a typical classic Porsche.

However, one key feature shared by this Sambar and contemporary Porsches was definitely the notion of lightness. Not in an obsessive Lotus kind of way, but Porsches were necessarily pretty light cars to be competitive sport cars while using a relatively small engine. Ditto with the Sambar: in van form, these little things only weigh 535kg (a shade under 1200 lbs.) – the featherweight of the van world.

But the chief attribute that some Japanese gearheads picked up about the Subaru Sambar, from the very start of the breed in 1961, was that its engine was in the rear and its torsion bar suspension was independent all around. This was a rather unusual set of characteristics, to say the least, for a commercial vehicle. But then the Sambar was based on the 360, which itself was a VW Beetle scaled down to kei size, so the tongue-in-cheek Porsche reference does make some genealogical sense.

Our feature car is a second generation Sambar, which took over from the gen-1 in 1966. The new Sambar made for much better utilization of the limited available space, and in doing so was made to look a little bit like the VW Transporter. The basic platform remained unchanged, with a swing axle rear end and the 360’s 25hp air-cooled parallel twin tilted on its side and mated to a 3-speed (no synchro on 1st) with “overtop” overdrive for all gears, providing the Sambar with effectively six forward and two reverse gears.

The second generation Sambar had a calm and successful existence until February 1970, when the platform was given a major overhaul. The old 360 was on its way out and the Sambar would now be using the new R-2 as its organ donor bank. The engine stayed the same, but the swing axle was replaced by an (again) very VW-sounding CV-jointed semi-trailing arm setup. While they were there, Subaru also talked the front door off the ledge (it was no longer of the suicide kind) and remodeled the front end somewhat, including by sticking a piece of plastic with “SUBARU” on it between the headlights.

The very last modifications applied to this generation of Sambar took place in the first weeks of 1972, when a thick plastic fake grille was grafted to the front end, along with a new dash. This only lasted about a year, as the R-2 was on the chopping block – and thus so was this generation of Sambar; both models went out of production in March 1973. Subsequent Sambars kept the rear engine layout until Subaru gave up designing their kei trucks in-house ten years ago.

The van I recently found in Tokyo is halfway between the 1970 and the 1972 models, with the plastic “SUBARU” bit taken off, a seemingly popular modification aimed at emulating the plainer look of the early gen-2 Sambars, but with the improvement of front-hinged doors and a better rear suspension.

Another benefit of the R-2 parts bin was the 4-speed gearbox: while it lacked the overdrive feature seen on the prior 3-speeds, it was fully synchronized (like a Porsche!), making the newer Sambars that much more user-friendly.

As far as the cabin goes, the Sambar does have a slight tonal resemblance with the early 911s and the 912, in that it belongs to the “black plastic everywhere” school of interior design. A pretty widespread trait in late ‘60s automotive products, for sure, but not as universal as it would become a couple of decades later. This was still a time when the dreaded plastiwood had not conquered every bit of the range, but it eventually (plasti) would.

The rather limited width of that bench seat, along with the wheel wells and levers encroaching on the floorspace must make the front passenger feel a tad boxed in. But that’s the name of the game with keis of the 360cc era: they were designed by and for people who were a lot thinner and shorter than now.

Since the 7th generation was launched in 2012, Sambars have become re-badged Daihatsu Hijets. This meant a far more traditional front engine / RWD layout and yet more consolidation for the kei truck market, which is pretty much a triumvirate of the Daihatsu Hijet, Suzuki Carry and Honda Acty. Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota just re-badge either the Hijet or the Carry; Honda were the last solo player, but their Acty was nixed last year without an immediate replacement.

The issue with kei trucks (and the kei class in general) is that investments are as consequential as they would be for a standard car, but the cars and trucks are necessarily sold for a smaller price, and not in too many markets. The second gen Sambar did make it to US shores, but that was the exception rather than the rule. Furthermore, safety and ecological concerns have only made development and production costs higher over time, further reducing profit margins. These issues were definitely not a top priority back in the 360cc era, which is why older kei trucks were more varied then than they are now.

Given this context, Subaru should be commended for having kept true to their rear-engined approach for 50 years on the Sambar. What other carmaker would have done that for this long, or even longer, with one of their most famous nameplates? Starts with a P…


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Junkyard CC Capsule: Subaru 360 Sambar Van: The First Kei Truck, by PN

CC Outtake: 1968 Subaru Sambar – Late Night Snack, by Mr. Tactful