Curbside Classic: 1976 Toyota HiAce – Days Of Wine And Loaves

Dad had arrived home shaken. As always, he proceeded to unbutton his shirt by the entry hallway, though this time looking visibly rattled. He then directed his words to Mom, who listended attentively:

  • Mr. Ignacio gave me a ride from work… And you know what? As he drove down the road… he pulled a machete out the window! He then started cursing and swinging it towards any pedestrian in view, just as he sped by!

Dad stopped, shaking his head disapprovingly. Mom spoke, in a voice that expressed concern but lacked surprise:

  • Was he drunk… again?
  • Of course he was! Geez, it must have been another of his bouts…

Dad’s voice trailed off, his face baffled by the event. He seemed to wish to add more detail, but was too startled to do so.

Mr. Ignacio and Dad had been long acquainted, way back since his college days. Natives of Suchitoto, Mr. Ignacio’s family provided Dad with lodging during his School Of Agriculture days. The town was a humid enclave full of one story colonial houses, a vibrant commerce scene, and unrelenting sun; away from the capital and surrounded by subsistence farming, it was an ideal setting for the School Of Agriculture. Needless to say, the two men developed a close relationship during those days, and not long before Dad left for Puerto Rico to further his studies, the pair set up an agriculture supplies store that became moderately successful.

Dad remained in contact with the Ignacios during his time abroad, as they were the closest he had to waiting relatives. Not long after our arrival from Puerto Rico in 1976, Dad took us to meet the man. The family was large, 2 girls, 2 boys, and his wife; all busy bees in the family’s bakery business.

For that was Mr. Ignacio’s official profession, baker. The entrance of the Ignacios home was graced with one of Suchitoto’s largest and best bakeries, with their mid ’70s HiAce performing faithful delivery all over town. The HiAce would also serve as our family’s commuting transport, as Mr. Ignacio enjoyed picking Dad up whenever his schedule coincided with Dad’s working hours. Lots of pleasant exchanges must have taken place in that HiAce; as well as unsavory ones, like the machete-wielding experience.

In those pre-civil war days we would visit Suchitoto often, and Mr. Ignacio’s family was always gracious and welcoming. To Brother and I their place had almost magical qualities; the ovens, the bakery implements and cooking tools, the agricultural supplies, all spread throughout the large house and all smelling of freshly baked dough. The Ignacios were staunchly Catholic and hardworking, with the boys and girls taking active part in the bakery business. On visits, the oldest son would invariably be next to Mr. Ignacio, carefully shaping loaves by hand. The little ones would help at the sales counter, or doing other menial tasks. In the baking room a large and dangerous dough-mixing contraption sat; as a rule only Mr. Ignacio would operate the treacherous machine.

Lost in our more civilized present is how reckless machinery used to be in all areas of industry; even in trades as benign as bread making. The epicenter of Mr. Ignacio’s bakery was the large mechanical dough-mixer, a large cast metal device with huge force and mixing arms that swayed in wide movements. On a few occasions Brother and I watched the machine in action, with a sense of foreboding. Our feelings were well warranted; Mr. Ignacio would eventually lose two fingers while using the machine hungover.

I’ve no insights into what demons played within Mr. Ignacio’s soul (considering the Catholic background, any option is possible). Whatever they were, they must have been a legion. It was an odd and distressing feeling, for whenever we met him he was always polite, approachable and amiable. Yet there was no way to hide the sad truth of his condition, even if Mom and Dad did their best to manage such discussions in whispers. Once or twice a year Mr. Ignacio would disappear -literally- in one of his drinking binges, with his wife calling Dad in desperation. Frantic searches ensued, from bars to hospitals; panic would take over the Ignacios home until the patriarch appeared, days later.

HiAces are now somewhat rare in San Salvador’s streets, and I had been in search of one for the longest time. I finally got lucky with this rather derelict sample, and the image of Mr. Ignacio popped to mind right away. A first generation HiAce, the beginning of one of Toyota’s longest running nameplates.

The sort-of-predecessor to the HiAce has been covered at CC before: the ToyoAce. With the commercial truck selling well in its various formats in its native Japan, it became clear there was need for a smaller and easier to use model to attend fast changing market needs. It would be the HiAce (“High Ace”), and the model’s case would be further supported with Subaru and Prince’s precedents, both doing good business with their ‘family-sized’ vans (The Sambar in ’61, and the Homy in ’65, respectively).

The HiAce followed the common Japanese cab over format, in FR layout, in an efficient one-box package. Aimed to small businesses, the model was launched in ’67 in pick up form, and as a van the following year. Styling was simple and clean, with efficiency being the model’s raison d’etre. Besides small delivery businesses, the HiAce also served corporate commuting transport needs; offering 8, 12 or 15 passenger capacities.

Benefitting of Toyota’s ample roster of engines, the HiAce could be had with 1.3, 1.5, 1.6 or 1.8 mills. Top speed was 110 Kmh (68 Mph), and shifts were managed via steering column. In ’72 a sliding door was added to the driver’s side, becoming the model’s most common form; at least in Central America.

Toyota placed much effort in bringing a ‘car-like’ experience to the model; the steering was canted towards the driver, in an interior that was simple, yet attractive and of easy use. The model became not only popular in its native Japan, but also Africa and parts of Latin America. Outside of VW Buses, the HiAce was the next most common van in 1970’s Central America. Or so memory tells me.

Other than some trim and a revised grille early on, the model changed little during its ’67 – ’77 run. Like most, this post’s HiAce benefits from dual sliding doors. Also from this view, the vertical clamshell back doors are clearly seen.

The clamshell was extolled in Toyota’s print, showing the van’s low floor and ease of loading.

Obviously, the model had a pretty spacious cargo area. As seen in the photo, a bunch of modular seating options were offered as well.

This mid ’70s HiAce carried one of Toyota’s logos of the period. A ‘T’ that according to some is a stylized sewing needle; a reference to Toyota’s loom-making origins (Can you see it? I’m not completely sure I do).

As is often the case, once I finally came across a HiAce, the floodgates opened. Kind of, actually more like a trickle; but a steady one. A Mad Max-like one appeared not long after, not far from my mechanic’s shop. Wikipedia mentions 1st gen. HiAces are rare, but if so, Central America bucks the trend a bit.

Another HiAce, in much better condition, appeared next to a Previa, as if both posing for a Toyota-van themed shot. For whatever is worth, Previas were not sold locally. The few around are strictly gray imports.

Finally, a restored one has been driving near home these past few months. Never got close to it, other than one time in traffic. This is obviously a Toyota fan, and a lot of love has gone into it. Considering the local penchant for unusual flourishes, it’s as clean a sample as I’ll encounter.

HiAces appear fairly often for sale at the local Marketplace. Unlike the one above, most look rather raggedy. How much longer will these early HiAces last on the roads? With the newest ones being at least 46 years old, I fear not much longer.

The Salvadorian Civil War started in late 1979, and in a short while, Suchitoto was engulfed by the conflict. Our visits ceased altogether. Military skirmishes became the norm on its streets, with many residents fleeing to safer grounds. The town’s houses became riddled with bullets, with some bombed to the ground. The vibrant town turned somber and desolate.

With some support from Dad, Mr. Ignacio’s family moved to San Salvador. Relocating to a corner house in a prominent street of a middle class neighborhood, the family brought their baking expertise to the city. We saw the residential home’s transformation; a store front went up, and large modern baking ovens took over the living and dining room areas. Meanwhile, the sleeping quarters were extended over the yard area.

Mr. Ignacio’s HiAce was replaced not long after, for reasons I can’t recall (if I ever knew them). A brand new orange VW Bus became the bakery’s delivery van. This coincided with one of Mom’s episodic hunts for additional income, and for a short while she became the Ignacios delivery driver.

Dad always shook his head on these schemes of hers, as Mom was an office worker by nature and was bound to get quickly disenchanted on anything but. Regardless, for a few weeks in the early ’80s, Brother and I became Mom’s ‘assistants’ as she drove the VW around town, all under the watchful eye of Mr. Ignacio’s eldest daughter. She would guide Mom on the delivery route (good thing, as she had a terrible sense of direction), and would handle the bakery’s clients upon arrival.

Our ‘assistant’ job? Other than carrying some crates of bread occasionally, I don’t recall much. On the other hand, the smell of freshly baked bread has been forever ingrained into memory.

As Dad predicted, Mom’s foray into the delivery business was a short one. Accustomed to compacts by then, she found the driving of the van ‘odd’ (her words). With that, the abbreviated chapter came to a close.

Not that Mr. Ignacio’s old habits died with their move to the city. Eventually he ended up in the hospital on at least two ocassions, with life-threatening degrees of alcoholic intoxication. He barely pulled over. Not long after, someone must have come to the conclusion that Catholism wasn’t working, and Mr. Ignacio was sent to the Protestants. Somehow this did the trick, he became a Born Again Christian and his drinking bouts came to an end.

Not that he was entirely Ok. In the following years, whenever we visited, he had a distant ‘glass-eyed’ look in his eyes, never quite managing to fully engage. He had the look of someone who had bottomed out far too many times, and forever lost a piece of soul in those depths.

Mr. Ignacio’s newfound faith brought some unexpected turns to the family’s bakery business; wishing to strictly adhere to biblical scripture, he began to bake with as little yeast as possible. From then on, whenever we were graced with his bakery’s bread, we made sure to eat all as quickly as possible. It hardened very quickly, and one could see why capitalist notions dispense with such biblical views.

Regardless of the aches and the anguish, the Ignacios stuck together, and pulled forward in unison. Thanks to the bakery business, enough savings had been accumulated for all their kids to attend college. I lost track of them years ago, but I do know all graduated and started their own families.

The town of Suchitoto remained pretty desolate even after the war ended, repopulating only partially in the ensuing years. Today this means it’s an oddity in overpopulated El Salvador. Unlike the rest of the nation, its streets are sparsely transited, projecting a serenity absent elsewhere. Lacking the ‘attack-the-senses’ trappings of modern commerce, the town is known for its quiet rhythm and is a popular destination for overstimulated city dwellers. Other than its unrelenting heat, there’s much to like about it.

Said heat is partially due to the artificial reservoir bordering a good chunk of the town. Filled in 1976 to power the country’s latest power plant, the reservoir’s not quite pristine waters add moisture in the town’s air under the ceaseless sunlight. Lovely to look at from the distance, the reservoir was created before the word ‘environment’ became a thing. Sediments and chemicals (from agriculture) accumulate at alarming rates, and is considered one of Central America’s most polluted water bodies. Birds don’t know better though, and the reservoir is nowadays a popular bird watching spot, as many species inhabit its surroundings.

The HiAce nameplate has made it to our days, looking boxier than ever and being just as successful marketwise. Meanwhile, the tradition of freshly baked bread has become rather scarce even in Central America. On our arrival, bikes with loaded baskets of freshly baked loaves were a common sight. Many families could not imagine eating anything but. Now a rare sight, whenever a few of these remaining sellers pass by, the smell of their goods just weakens my knees and softens my heart. Many memories are induced from those fleeting encounters; the joys and pains of bread making, all of which I had the fortune to be privy of.

(Note: The Ignacios name has been changed for the sake of privacy).

More on the Hiace:

Rental Car Review: 2017 Toyota HiAce – My Days As A White Van Man