A newly opened exhibit at the Toyota Automobile Museum puts the focus on Japanese trucks of the Showa Era. “Road Transporters” hosts a number of workhorses from Toyota’s collection, ranging in age from the 1930s to the 1990s, with special attention paid to the 50s and 60s. It’s a compelling peek in to the early days of Japanese trucking and an opportunity to see some very rare vehicles that’ll make a Hakosuka GT-R seem downright common.
According to the exhibit description, Japan’s auto industry employs 5.49 million people. Among them 2.71 million, a little over 49 percent, are in the road transport sector. Not only that, but trucks and vans paved the way for Japan’s cars, as private car ownership didn’t really take hold until the 1960s. “Trucks and vans were the pillars of mobility in the country—not only for freight but also for passengers,” the curators said.
The oldest vehicle in the exhibit is a 1937 Mizuno-shiki 3-wheeled truck. These half-motorcycle, half-pickup contraptions were a quick and inexpensive way to move cargo in the days before cars or a widespread road network were common.
Even some well-known companies today have a few 3-wheeled trucks in their early history. Examples like this 1953 Mazda Type CTA helped get Japan back on its feet after the war. As time progressed some of these 3-wheelers became at least partially enclosed. Further evolution eventually made fully enclosed cabins as the motorcycle handlebars were replaced with steering wheels and floor pedals for brake and clutch, as in the Mazda T1500, which is also part of the exhibit.
From the beginning Toyota was building large trucks to jumpstart Japan’s motorization. Headlining the exhibit is a mean green 1950 Toyota Model BM. In postwar Japan resources were still incredibly scarce. Because of a gasoline shortage, many vehicles from this era were converted to run on the gases burned by coal or wood via an on-board stove. This particular truck has an on-board wood gas generator to power it.
Naturally, trucks built by Toyota are heavily featured, like this 1959 Toyota Toyoace. These started production as the Type SKB in 1954 before being renamed Toyoace in 1956. With limited resources, Toyota cut costs by using only flat glass and mostly flat sheetmetal. Insulation for the spartan cabin consisted of an asbestos coating, and turn signals were of the semaphore type. Still, chief engineer Tatsuo Hasegawa, who designed the Sports 800 and Publica, managed to add a bit of design flair into the utilitarian rig with its waterfall graphic.
At the same time, more conventional trucks were beginning to appear. Trucks like this well-patina’ed 1959 RK35 Toyota Stout shared a chassis and front end with the Toyota Master sedan, which also had body-on-frame construction. Even Hino had its own pickup, prior to its absorption by Toyota. The gray truck (right) is a rebadged Hino Briska, powered by a front-mounted Contessa motor. It was rebranded as a Toyota Briska when sold through Toyota sales networks. If Toyota does revive the Stout name, this will be its progenitor.
By the 1960s Japan was about to enter its golden age of motoring. After scraping by for decades, companies finally had a bit of cash to splurge on features like curved glass on this RK170 Toyota Dyna. Incidentally, the Stout was originally just named the Toyopet Truck and the Dyna was named the Toyopet Route Truck, which caused a lot of confusion among customers. Toyota held a naming contest for the two, and from 3,013 entries the names Stout and Dyna (as in dynamic) were chosen. The trucks were officially named on June 3, 1959, 64 years ago this week.
As with most exhibits at the Toyota Automobile Museum, the exhibit includes trucks from rival manufacturers as well. Of all the trucks in the exhibit the Datsun 222 is probably most familiar to Americans. It’s a sibling of the Datsun 1000 that we got in the US and a hugely compact predecessor to the compact trucks that proliferated here in the 70s and 80s. It’s a size smaller than the Toyopet Truck SG, predecessor to the Stout (left).
In addition to the trucks on display, the library at the Toyota Automobile Museum has a special display of truck books and brochures. Other trucks in the exhibit include an RR17 Toyopet Masterline Light Van, Suzuki Suzulight SL, Honda T360H, KF10 Toyota Tamaraw, and a Toyota Deliboy. Road Transporters goes until July 17, 2023.
Images courtesy of Toyota.