NEWS: The world’s first mass-produced compact 4WD car, restored

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Known as the world’s first mass-produced compact 4WD car, the Kurogane Type 95 began production in 1936. Only six are known to have survived, but three years ago a seventh one was discovered in a Kyoto auto repair shop, where it had sat for 60 years. This fall, it was finally restored. 

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Nicknamed the Yonki (meaning “quad-force,” a reference to its 4WD), it was developed by the Japanese army for use in unpaved regions of the world. It was classified as a compact, capable of holding three passengers in a 2+1 configuration, but unlike the Subarus and Mitsubishis that would follow the same formula decades later, it was used primarily for slow, deliberate tasks such as reconnaissance and transport.

Powered by a two-cylinder air-cooled twin of displacements varying from 1.2 to 1.4 liters, it had no weaponry or armor to speak of. An independent double-wishbone comprised the front suspension, while the rear was supported by leaf springs.

Prior to the Type-95, Kurogane — quite possibly the meanest marque ever, as kurogane literally means “black metal” — was primarily known for its tractors and three-wheeled half-motorcycle, half-pickup trucks.

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Exact production numbers are hard to come by — NHK claims 4,700 while the Asahi Shimbun says 4,800. Three years ago, a 1938 model was discovered in Yuzu Nagata’s auto repair shop in Kyoto. Nagata remembers his father, who founded the shop, purchasing it in the 1950s and the shop’s staff tooling around in it. But in the 60 years since, the car had fallen into a state of disrepair.

That’s when Masahiko Kobayashi, a director of an association seeking to open a military technology museum in Japan, got in touch with Nagata. Nagata donated the car to Kobayashi’s association, but on the condition that it be restored for the museum and not re-sold. “More than anything,” Nagata told NHK news, “I want people to know that this unique automobile was made in Japan.”

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Kobayashi then embarked on the three-year restoration process. About 70 percent of the parts were salvageable, but the rest had to be sourced from internet auctions or the Russian collector. Kobayashi told the Asahi Shimbun that he went to Moscow three times to get parts.

The rest of the restoration was an exercise in gathering photos and plans. Kobayashi told the paper, “It took me considerable time just to find out that the seats were brown.” Even then, they could not be restored and replicas had to be created.

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Kobayashi had estimated about ¥10 million would be needed, but in the end the crowdfunding effort he headed raised ¥13.24 million (about $130,000 USD). Nagata was invited to the unveiling of the restored car, which NHK captured in a video you can watch on their site.

Predating the original Jeep and the VW Kubelwagen by four years, one can see why Kobayashi was eager to preserve a significant piece of Japanese automotive history. It is the only surviving example of the Kurogane Type 95 in Japan.

Thanks to Tom B. for the tip.

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11 Responses to NEWS: The world’s first mass-produced compact 4WD car, restored

  1. Dimitry said:

    I saw an article about it in Nostalgic Hero, cool!
    I’m actually curious what parts were sources from Russia, is there any additional info?

  2. Gary said:

    WOW – what can we say! Talk about engineering marvels!

  3. Bonzi Lon said:

    Wonderful little car. Really love that grille.

  4. Scotty G said:

    Wasn’t the oldest Toyota, the AA, also found in Russia fairly recently? How has Russia ended up with so many of Japan’s automotive treasures? Just lucky, I guess..

    It’s nice to see such a thorough restoration of the Kurogane, I would rather have that over any Bugatti on earth.

    • Dimitry said:

      @Scotty G
      Don’t forget that Russians captured a hefty amount of Japanese equipment in Manchuria following the surrender of the IJA there. American LendLeased Studebakers that eluded American collection remained in civilian service for years following the war, so it only makes sense that some Japanese stuff did as well.

  5. Ronald Ochoa said:

    I hope Mr. Masahiko Kobayashi is considering publishing a book on the restoration and history of the car; including photos before and after, the early variants and any other data related to the cars and the company. It will be a great history-car book. Thank you

  6. Michael Riefer said:

    I’ve got one less the body, made into a go cart. The serial number on the engine says( I was told) makes mine an early model. Love to have a complete one!

    • Ben Hsu said:

      That’s amazing. Where did you find it?

      • Michael Riefer said:

        In a military museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Was built out of parts found on Iwo Jima after the hostilities had ceased. They were using it as a base for b29 bombers to bomb Japan. It has the engine and frame from a kurogane. the rear axle is out of a US jeep, the fuel tank is an air tank out of a US bomber, the dash and seat are out of a Japanese airplane. All and all it is way cool with photos of it when it was delivered to Brooklyn, NY after the war. I bet it ran like crazy on one of those airfields over there!

      • Ben Hsu said:

        You piqued my interested when you said photos. Are they online anywhere? I’d like to see them.

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