Curbside Classic: 1982 Mazda Porter Cab – Back When Kei Trucks Looked Cool

Kei cabover pickups and vans are not the most stylish vehicles on the JDM, usually. It’s not part of their brief. They’re strictly business, with very few exceptions. To find anything worth looking at, you really have to dig back to the ‘70s, when Japanese designers had a brief but fascinating period of trying to out-whacky each other across every single segment.

Don’t get me wrong: the whackiness level never diminished for other types of JDM vehicles. From sports cars to family saloons, Japan has produced a steady stream of completely crazy automotive creations since the ‘50s at least, and this tradition is alive and well. But kei trucks, for some reason, went from plain in the ‘60s to somewhat outlandish in the ‘70s and back to boring again, where they have stayed pretty much ever since.

The Mazda Porter Cab is a good example, as are many of its contemporaries above. Nissan and Toyota weren’t in this segment, so it was really a race of the second-tier carmakers. The Daihatsu Hijet (bottom right), Honda TN (bottom left), Mazda Porter, Mitsubishi Minicab (not pictured because rather boring-looking), Subaru Sambar (top right) and Suzuki Carry (top left) really made an effort to make their faces distinctive in those days.

So first, a little Mazda Porter history. The name appeared in 1968 on a rather dull kei wagon / pickup derived from the Mazda B360, which means it had a 4-stroke 4-cyl 360cc engine driving the rear wheels via a 4-speed manual and a cart-sprung live axle.

In 1969, the cabover Porter Cab appeared – and a much more interesting-looking machine it was, too. These 1st generation Porter Cabs were powered by an air-cooled 2-stroke 360cc twin from the Mazda Chantez. The sliding windows were soon traded for wind-down ones, and the only available colour switched from white to a sort of olive green – except the massive headlamp surrounds and the bumper, which kept on being white. The Porter range switched to a slightly more powerful 30 hp 2-stroke twin in 1973, but stayed at 360cc.

In 1976, the Porter wagon / pickup was nixed, leaving the Porter Cab alone to carry the torch for Mazda kei trucks. In August 1977, the Porter Cab had a major development both inside and out. On the outside, the only available colour switched from light green to bright blue. The massive deep-dish headlamp surrounds went from a circular shape to a squarish TV-screen-like form, with the colour of said surrounds and bumpers now being gray. The truck was widened by 10cm and had a longer tail, but several components stayed the same (such as the doors).

Inside, a new dashboard appeared, as well as a new engine. Mazda were kind of struggling in the mid-‘70s. It was the height of their Wankel phase. There was neither development money nor production capacity to come up with a new kei-sized engine (the regulations had just upped the limit to 550cc). So they did what all Japanese carmakers have always done: they bought an engine from another Japanese carmaker – in this case, Mitsubishi’s excellent Vulcan OHC twin.

Years passed and the Porter Cab stayed the same. In 1983, the colour was changed to white; in 1985, an unnecessary piece of black plastic trim was glued on the front, connecting the TV screens. As the ‘80s wore on though, the Mazda kei truck fell behind its competitors on the technological front.

Many were following Suzuki’s lead in switching to 3-cyl. – including Mitsubishi – but the Porter Cab kept its twin. All were proposing 4WD by the mid-’80s, but Mazda never bothered, just like they never got around to making a van version of the Porter Cab. Finally, in 1989, production stopped. Mazda gave up making their own kei trucks and just rebadged the Suzuki Carry as the Mazda Scrum, which is still the case today.

This little Mazda is mildly customized of course, but seems very original. The white paint on the doors is a bit of a puzzle, but otherwise the body looks in incredibly good condition for its age. The interior has had a few modifications as well (not keen on that seat fabric, myself…), but nothing overly drastic.

For once, I’m not guesstimating the model year – I’m positive it’s a 1982 truck. Because I found it online by sheer luck, while researching info on these pickups for this post. Our feature pickup was sold last year on this auction site. There’s no doubt it’s the same one – the white doors, the wheels, the rusty mirrors – everything matches perfectly. The only things that were added since then were license plates, a new battery and a cover to hide that rust spot on the tailgate.

According to the ad, this truck was on the road until October 2015, when its shaken was not renewed for whatever reason and it just sat in a corner of a sheet metal factory for about two and a half years. The odometer, when the ad was posted in April 2018, read 29,920km (just under 18,600 miles) – but the seller is honest and reminds us that the counter only has five digits, so it could have rolled over once or twice. Given the state it’s in though, it’s not impossible that this Porter Cab is indeed a very low mileage 37-year-old pickup.

The sweetest part of it all is that this little Mazda changed hands for ¥153,000. That’s just over US$1400. I imagine fixing it up and passing the shaken would cost about that much again, but still – I bet there aren’t many of these around in this condition. Food for thought. I’ve always had a thing for Mazdas, but I never thought I’d be tempted by their kei pickups too.


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CC Outtake: Late 60s/Early 70s Mazda Porter Van – “May I Take Your Luggage, Sir”, by Jim Brophy