Curbside Classic: Mitsubishi VanUp – The Remodeler’s Truck

(first posted 2/11/2012)    The auto market prides itself on niche marketing. New body styles that we never imagined that there was a need for spring forth from the ever-fertile minds of the industry marketing boffins, and appear out of nowhere. But there’s one that’s been long overlooked: the van-up. Combining the best of two highly popular segments, the van-up offers unparalleled space utilization and utility. Well, if the manufacturers aren’t going to build one, a person just needs to roll up his sleeves and set to it. It’s the American way:

Finding this vehicle on the street provided a bigger than average hit to my CC-finding addiction. It may not be equally thrilling for you; to each their own. I would have been pretty excited even if it were an original Mitsubishi Van, given how scarce they’ve become. But this home-built concoction is awesome; as an inveterate (house) re-modeler (“honey, look at the wall/roof I took down today”) (Update: another chunk of roof this past Monday, just before it started raining Tuesday morning), I love when folks take the SawZall or cutting torch to a car, and give their creativity scope. Even more so, when the result is highly practical. Art cars are fun, but this is right up my alley. Oh, and he has the only remaining un-altered Mitsu van in town too.

Yes, this guy has the Mitsubishi van market cornered in Eugene. He’s been driving them for years (decades?), and loves them. So when he came across a rear-end damaged one, he saved it from its inevitable fate, and turned it into his dream vehicle, with a pick-up bed and storage compartments underneath. It’s a well thought out affair, even allowing him to slide long pieces of lumber into their own nook. The advantages of building you own vehicle: everything goes just where you want it to. And I’ve had the pleasure of watching it progress, from its crude beginnings.

This vehicle is a rolling protest to the excesses of today’s giant pickups. It probably has more interior space and almost as much cargo space as the giant jacked-up Mega-Cabbed beasts prowling our streets with their un-muffled over-boosted  giant turbo-diesels; the Prius of pickups, very Eugene indeed.

The Mitsubishi van jumped into the mini-van orgy of the mid eighties, along with the much more popular Toyota van and Nissan’s. Eugene is absolutely chock-full of the Toyotas, as they all seem to come here for their retirement years, and are apparently immortal. And the Nissan version makes for an interesting story too: the polar opposite of the ubiquitous and rugged Toyota, as Nissan recalled them all and offered to buy them back from their owners (CC here).

These Japanese vans were essentially 8/10 scale versions of the original Econoline-type van first built in the US in 1960, with their engine between the front seats and RWD. They’re highly pragmatic, simple and very rugged, and they and their numerous off-shoots are still being built by the millions in developing countries (China, among others). It makes for a very compact vehicle, albeit a front-heavy one. But unlike the American vans, they did have independent front suspension and available four wheel drive, resulting in some pretty remarkable off-road capable variants.

Realistically, these old Japanese vans are the true successors to the VW bus and van: a simple box, easy and cheap to keep running. And since VW made a double cab pickup, it’s only natural that someone would make their own successor to that highly desirable but now rare piece of machinery. What will take its place twenty years from now?