Ever wondered why there has been a sudden increase in small, right–hand drive mini-trucks entering the market? The Japanese mini-truck or Keitora “Kei” truck, typically referred to in Japan, is a small yet practical truck that has been around since the 1940s. Their uniqueness, versatility, and personality have made these small trucks popular with many JDM enthusiasts. Historically, branching from the keijidōsha (Kei Car), they have received a particular denomination and status. This unique classification popularized their use and has been successful ever since. However, modern Kei trucks cannot be sold in the United States or Canada due to the current regulations. Although, throughout the world, there are many variations of these trucks. From its history, import status to the United States, to its current love and uses, Kei trucks are becoming more popular every day.
History of Kei Trucks
The denomination “Kei truck” was created by the Japanese government in 1949 due to the demand for more affordable, versatile vehicles. Japan was coming from a great catastrophe in 1945, when the United States dropped both “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, having a casualty total estimated from 129,000 to 226,000 people. The defeat in the pacific war did not only have an enormous toll on the population but also an economic burden. Which led the government to seek ways to help the population obtain valuable, affordable products.
For a vehicle to be considered a Kei car, it must have the following specifications:
- 9.2 ft maximum length
- 3.3 ft full width
- 6.6 ft of maximum height
The introduction of Kei cars in 1949 provided the following benefits:
- Lower taxation
- Lower cost of gasoline
- Lower insurance price
These incentives alongside the specifications that the trucks have, made them an excellent product for the Japanese population. In their introduction year, they had a four-stroke 150cc engine or a two-stroke 100cc engine. From that point forward, the government working closely with the automobile manufacturers, modified the truck’s specifications to meet new emission demands and customer demands.
The current Kei car regulation specifications are:
- 11.2 ft maximum length
- 4.9 ft maximum width
- 6.6 ft maximum height
However, in 2014, there was a significant reduction in tax incentives for Kei cars. The imposition of higher sales, gasoline and Kei car taxes significantly reduced their benefits from those of a regular car. Nonetheless, through the years Kei truck manufacturers have created delirious cars that make these small trucks amazingly fun and unique. From turbocharged engines to superchargers, and special vehicles, the Kei truck family is impressive.
Modern Kei trucks have a different setup from those produced during the ’50s and ’60s. Those legally imported to the United States have a 660cc engine and are usually fixed with a 4 – or a 5 – speed manual transmission. In Japan, these are considered working trucks: meaning that the individuals who purchase these vehicles use them to work. On the other hand, others used these trucks for farming, the reason why most of these trucks come with a 4-wheel drive option. Lastly, it is also part of Japanese culture to service your vehicle regularly. This is because Japanese cars are inspected often. In addition, most of these trucks are very reliable. This factor, among many others, is why individuals decide to export them to the United States.
Kei Trucks Make & Models
To import a Kei truck into the United States it must first be 25 years or older. This age limit is for the government to bypass the DOT (Department of Transportation) and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) standards for the vehicle to be considered legal in the American domestic market. These are the most common Kei trucks that can be imported from Japan:
Often bought because of their bulletproof engines, the Honda Acty is a fantastic option for your first Kei truck. However, their headlight design and the premium can be seen as drawbacks that can make you consider other possibilities. There’s also a van version of it called the Honda Street.
Overall, it is described as a great option. Thanks to Its durability, the Daihatsu HiJet is a fun mini truck to cruise around in.
Often described as the best-off roader of all the Kei trucks, its design is stunning, not to mention that it is also on the affordable side of the Kei trucks.
Often described as the “peppier, more spacious options.”, there’s a minivan version of it, which is an amazing bargain. Each Kei truck has a unique back story and a different drive feel. However, what made everyone so excited about these trucks?
Of the vast selection of unique Kei trucks, there is to choose from, the one that caught our attention is the Honda Vamos from the 1970s. Manufactured for only three years, the Vamos was created to respond to Suzuki and Daihatsu’s introduction of the Jimny and Fellow, respectively. The Vamos was produced from the platform of the Honda TN360. It had a 354cc, air-cooled 2 – cylinder engine mated to a 4-speed manual transmission. Its jeep-like style, with a military look, makes this Kei truck marvelous. There were only 2,500 of these produced, making it quite a collectible. Can you picture yourself driving this car to the beach?
Why have Kei Trucks become so popular?
Kei trucks give their owner something that not many vehicles have these days: character and practicality. There are thousands of stories of Kei truck owners that can marvel at anyone. They are fun, zippy cars that can satisfy anyone’s driving adrenaline without having to go fast. They are practical vehicles: their beds can be used for many uses, from moving cargo boxes to delivery vehicles, among other tasks. These are vehicles that will get you noticed for sure. Let’s be honest. Have you ever seen a 6-foot by 5-foot-wide truck in traffic heading to the Empire State Building? I can picture it driving alongside an F-250 and thinking, “I can probably fit that truck on that other truck’s bed.” It’s quite the picture, honestly. Three stories from 3 different Kei truck owners can best describe what it is like to live and use a Kei truck. Let us start with the first one.
Steve Carbonaro, turned his 1992 Honda Acty into a pizzeria beast. Steve and his company Carbonaro Pizza Co. decided to go the Kei truck route when choosing what vehicle they could use for their business, but also be unique, and fun for them to drive around. They installed a fully operational wood pizza maker with everything needed: a wood-fired oven, prep table, refrigerator, and storage. The fact that the Acty is small and practical helps him to move around tight spaces with ease. On the other hand, it is cheaper to buy this than a full-size truck, and it becomes an attention grabber anywhere you decide to park. Who would not want to know why someone placed a pizza oven on what seems to be an ATV with a long bed?
The second story is for all the off-road lovers that are interested in getting one of these trucks to go out exploring, camping, even cross country. Mike Festival, owns a 1990 Suzuki Carry 4×4 with a 4-speed manual transmission. He purchased his Kei truck from someone who had modified it for off-roading. The exterior was painted, a lift kit was added, among several other modifications. When Mike initially purchased the truck, he was told that it had a distributor issue. Throughout his journey to make this truck mechanically sound, he had to do some wrenching. The practicality, off-road prowess, and fun driving experience sealed the deal with Mike. A compliment to this whole experience is that he does all the mechanical work. Like many car lovers, Mike prefers to have the “hands-on” experience that makes you connect deeper with a vehicle – making you love and appreciate it more. Want to know more about this build? See Mike’s latest YouTube video
Our last story is about a man who uses his Kei truck for business. The owner of Cardinal Landscaping NY could find everything he wanted in his Suzuki Carry. For him, the possibility to have fun, while simultaneously staying reliable, and unique were some of the reasons for his decision. For any business, these types of trucks or vans give a particular character to the individual. I mean, wouldn’t you be mesmerized to see someone driving with the steering wheel on the right?
Each JDM Kei truck lover has a different reason why they love their trucks. Being their versatility, their fuel economy, and off-road capability, you name it. But a prominent characteristic is that every owner wants to show their personality through their Kei trucks. That’s the bottom line with any vehicle: how can you customize them to make them reflect your personality.
Now, here’s the other side of the story: Where and how can you find your own Kei truck? There are several different ways you can purchase a Kei truck. There are certain clarifications that must be made before describing the actual procedure of importing or purchasing a Kei truck:
Import & Purchase Process
So, you finally decided to purchase a Kei truck. First, you must be familiar with significant concepts, so you get your vehicle just the way you want it. Here’s a quick summary:
- Do you wish to drive your Kei Truck on the roads?
- What is your purpose in purchasing your Kei truck?
- What do you want to use your Kei truck for?
These are crucial questions to decipher what method best suits you when looking for the ideal Kei truck. You can either import the truck yourself or use a broker to get everything done for you. The other route could be to purchase those already brought to the United States and legalized already. Here’s the breakdown for each procedure.
Import by Yourself
Be wary of the different procedures that you must follow to avoid fines or having your shipment seized. You might consider this option if you are looking for affordability, and better quality for the pricier vehicles or rare Kei trucks if purchased from a US dealer. As stated before, there can be drawbacks to this method. The first thing you must learn about is the process of the formal entry. This process is made when you want to import a vehicle that is $2,500 or higher. For this, you must create your own Customs importer number and file the paperwork no later than ten days in advance. However, if the value is lower than $2,500, you can file for an informal entry. With this process, you do not need an importer number or a custom bond.
Always seek a vehicle exporter. They can either let you choose from their inventory, or have access to auction vehicles, which can be a deal. Almost all transactions are done through bank transfers. If any broker asks for a Western Union or MoneyGram transfer, stay away from them. Many scammers use this methodology as there is no security in the transfer being made. Lastly, when considering purchasing a vehicle, you must understand that it must be 25 years or older. Due to a law in the United States that restricts the import of non-US-origin vehicles that do not meet safety or environmental standards. However, if you import your truck as an “off-road vehicle with speed limiters,” you can legally import any Kei truck without any issue. However, these trucks must be modified for only “off-road” use. If you want more information on this topic, you can find it here.
Buy in the United States
Buying a Kei truck in the United States can be a great option. You do not have to go through the whole import process, there’s no wait time, and you can have a backup if anything goes wrong. However, this depends on who you are buying it from. For example, there are cheap, well–preserved trucks that do not have a title. These vehicles cannot be registered or cannot have insurance because of this. As stated before, there’s a chance that the vehicle that you are purchasing can be limited to 25mph because it has been imported as an “off-road use only” vehicle. These cannot legally be driven on highways, as they are mechanically restricted to this speed. You should check your state and local laws regarding this topic. Numerous dealers bring top-quality products; however, there would be a premium paid for it. Depending on the accessories that you want in your Kei truck. From there on, all is fair game! Just the usual: have an honest mechanic check your truck for any mechanical issues or rust.
Kei trucks are a fantastic bargain for what you get. The sky is the limit when it comes to these extraordinary trucks: they will go down in history as a unique piece of Japanese history. Their versatility, character, and uniqueness give this type of vehicle so much love in the JDM community. Don’t hesitate to give Kei trucks a try, if you have ever considered buying one: they are quite a catch.
Supercharged Kei Truck?
Have you ever considered that a Kei truck should have 4WD, a 5-speed transmission, and a 4-cylinder supercharged engine? Well, Subaru’s engineers indeed did. They created this phenomenal Kei truck that is not only versatile with its 4WD and bed but is also unbelievable fun. You can differentiate a normal Sambar from the supercharged version by an indicator on the dashboard and a decal on the rear of the truck. The supercharger makes this vehicle so much more fun and interesting to own. If you want to know more about this 1992 Subaru Sambar Supercharged, you can watch a YouTube review here:
Kei truck prices average around $10,000 for newly imported or locally used units. However, some owners love to customize theirs with wheels and lift kits. A clean, tastefully modified unit can go for up to $20,000.
Most JDM car importers and dealerships have Kei trucks in their inventories. These should be the first places to visit if you’re in the market for a Kei truck.
A Kei truck is a Japanese truck limited to body size dimensions and engine displacement size by Japanese Kei car regulations. Maximum length is capped at 11.2 ft., width 4.9 ft., and height 6.6 ft. Engine displacement is limited to 660 CC.
Due to their small engines, most Kei trucks can only do 60 miles per hour or thereabouts for front-wheel-drive or rear-wheel-drive trucks. Four-wheel-drive Kei trucks can reach speeds of up to 75 mph.
Kei trucks cost between $7,000 and $20,000, varying prices depending on the drive configuration, make and model, and year of manufacture, among other determinants.
Japanese Kei car regulations limit Kei truck weight to 700 Kg, around 1500 lb.
There are several types of engine oil you should use on a Suzuki Carry Kei truck. Suzuki recommends 10W-30 oil, but you can also use 10W-40, 15W-40, and 20W-50 oil if the truck is in constant use.
Provided a Kei truck is over 25 years old, you can legally import it to the US. You can import one through local importers in the US or exporters in Japan. There’s also the option of buying one in Japan and importing it through an import agency that will ship and clear the port documentation for you.
The Daihatsu Hijet, Suzuki Carry, and Honda Acty are the best Kei trucks you can buy. All come with a flatbed, and you can also find them with dump truck beds. Features are similar across the three, but the Suzuki Carry is the safest, with dual front airbags, ABS, and other essential safety features. The Honda Acty is the most powerful as the engine is rev-happy, just like any other Honda engine. If you want a Kei truck with some modern tech and a balance between the two, the Daihatsu Hijet is the micro-truck for you.
Identifying the make and model of Kei trucks can be tricky since all have similar front ends and beds. The easiest way is to look at the badging, where you’ll find the make and model. You can also check the interior for manufacturer logo badging. If you still can’t find the make and model, check the VIN online or the engine that might have some manufacturer information.
The maximum load you can carry on a Kei truck is 770 pounds (350kg) to 880 pounds (400kg), depending on the make and model and year of manufacture. Upgrading the suspension should enable you to carry more, but most Kei truck beds can handle as much weight as a pickup truck bed.
Most buyers will try and lower the cabin to locate the engine on a Kei truck, especially when inspecting one they want to buy. If this has ever happened to you, don’t worry, you are not alone. The engine on a Kei truck is underneath the bed. You can access it by opening the hatch in the middle of the bed.