I’ve been bitten by the JDM kei car import bug again and it’s all thanks to a reader who came out to our Milwaukee reader meetup with a Honda Life. This has sent me scouring the internet for weird cars to bring in from Japan, but there’s one right here in America that fits the bill and more. This 1996 Honda Acty Crawler is already cool enough because it’s a former fire engine, then you look at the wheels and notice that there are six of them, four connected to each other through a track. Perhaps the craziest part about this truck that you can buy today is that the tracked part was actually a factory job!
I’m now off on a search to import another car. Of course, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel for something cheap, but this time I want a daily driver.
While I wait for the right Toyota Century, MGF, or Honda Life to show up, I’m finding myself looking around America for JDM goodness and I think I’ve come across something awesome. This Honda Acty Crawler has less than 8 hours left in its auction on Bring a Trailer, so if you want in on this beauty you don’t have a ton of time.
A Descendant Of Honda’s First Car
The Honda Acty can trace its roots back to Honda’s first vehicle, the T360 mini truck. As Honda explains, back in 1955, Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) unveiled the concept for a people’s car that would be: “A four-seater with a top speed of 100 km/h, priced at 150,000 yen.” A number of manufacturers stepped up to the plate producing tiny cheap cars. Examples to come out of the proposal include the 1955 Suzu-Light and the 1958 Subaru 360.
Honda was not among the first automakers to produce a Japanese people’s car, and Honda says that it was because Soichiro Honda wanted its entry to be just right.
Honda auto development, but found itself in a sticky situation in 1961. That year, MITI debuted a policy intended to spur the growth of Japanese industry. The Temporary Measures Bill for the Promotion of Specified Industries identified Japan’s automotive business as being less competitive on the global market alongside Japan’s special steel and petrochemical industries. Thus, MITI hatched a plan to fix Japan’s competitive edge in the global automotive market:
MITI was ready to propose the deregulation of automobile imports by the spring of 1963, and in order to increase the industry’s ability to compete on the global stage, Japan’s auto manufacturers were classified into three groups. This, it was believed, would ensure effective guidance according to the characteristics of each group. The first group would comprise passenger cars from two companies; the second would include special products such as luxury models and sportscars, including two or three companies; and the third would be Japanese micro-cars, or mini automobiles, with two or three companies. Moreover, the bill set rules concerning mergers and acquisitions within the industry, thus limiting the entry of new companies.
Honda objected to the measures, insisting that free competition was the path forward. MITI submitted the bill, anyway, and suddenly Honda found itself in a race against time to start making cars before it might not be able to. In January 1962, the order was sent to Honda R&D to develop two mini sports cars, two mini trucks, and have them ready for the 11th National Honda Meeting General Assembly that same year.
Honda showed off the S360 mini sports car at the Honda Meeting at Suzuka Circuit, which hadn’t even reached completion at the time. The car then made its way to the 9th Tokyo Motor Show, held that same year in 1962. Alongside the S360 was the S500 mini sports car as well as the T360 mini truck. Of these three vehicles, the T360 became Honda’s first production car when it hit the road in August 1963. The S500 followed it up in October and Honda decided that there wasn’t enough sports car demand to justify making the S360.
The T360 used a 356cc mid-mounted four-cylinder engine that produced 30 horsepower, or good enough to get it to about 60 mph. Honda’s tiny truck would get a 500cc version and in 1967, evolve into a cabover with the TN360. That truck would continue its evolution with a number of variants until 1977 when it was replaced with a new mini truck called the Acty.
This Acty Fire Engine
[Editor’s Note: That approach angle precludes this thing from being a true “off-road beast,” and the undriven front wheels don’t help, either, but let’s just roll with it. -DT].
[Author’s Note: That Cali lifestyle must be getting to our dear leader. Those front wheels are driven! Just the center ones aren’t, and don’t forget that crawler gear and locking diff! – MS]
The new Acty featured a larger 545cc engine, but with two cylinders and slightly less power with 28 ponies on tap. These trucks and their van variants had largely been spartan work vehicles, but Honda also introduced a more luxurious version of the Acty Van with the Street. Acty Street vans featured nicer interiors with a little more comfort and exteriors with more paint options and style.
This Acty comes from the truck’s second-generation facelift. The second generation launched in 1988 featuring round headlights and a mid-mounted 547cc triple making 34 horses. Just two years later, Honda updated the truck to align with revised kei car regulations. In the update, the truck gained the van’s rectangular headlights and both the truck and the van got longer by 3.9 inches. Power now came from a 656cc triple still mounted in the rear, but making 38 ponies sent to either the rear or all wheels.
A number of these trucks were taken to equipment manufacturers to be converted into diminutive fire engines, where they can fight fires on tight streets in cities and towns. This particular Acty fire engine was converted by Shibaura Machinery Corporation. Normally, these trucks would use diesel water pumps to get water out of a lake or hydrant to fight fires instead of using a water tank.
Sadly, these trucks get exported out of Japan without their firefighting equipment, but it is possible to source what was left behind. Or, you can just drive it as-is and turn heads everywhere you go.
You might think that the extra pair of wheels and tracks were a part of the fire engine conversion, but that’s not the case. From 1994 to 1999, you could order your Acty truck from Honda with an extra pair of unpowered wheels and those rear wheels running on rubber tracks with solid rubber tires. The running gear remained unchanged, save for a manual transaxle with an ultra-low first gear and ultra-low reverse.
Add in its four-wheel-drive and a rear differential lock and it’s a little truck that could handle tough terrain. These were marketed to people living in rural and mountainous regions.
It’s unclear how many Acty Crawlers were made and it’s also unclear exactly how many of those ended up as fire engines. However, the seller believes that this one was made for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan, with five total ever getting built. The regular non-fire engine Acty Crawler is assumed to be rare and when you search about them online, there are few sources on them and just as few listings.
That makes this 1996 Acty Crawler fire engine a neat treat. It appears to be in great condition and it comes with some of its firefighting past still working including its emergency lighting, siren, and PA system. Also included is a bench seat in the bed, an illuminated sign next to the emergency lights, and its radio. I also love how it comes with its original Honda factory documentation that shows you how the track system works.
The truck’s a remarkably clean time capsule with an interior and underbody looking like it rolled out of a museum. Check out how the extra set of wheels looks underneath:
There’s more good news, too. If you wish to drive this on the road, it comes with four extra wheels fitted with regular street tires. So, you could remove the solid rubber tires and the tracks, mount on your regular tires, and use this as a normal kei truck, just with six eye-catching wheels.
Much of this truck’s fantastic condition comes down to its mileage. There’s the equivalent of just 2,200 miles on the odometer, less than 600 of which were added after it was imported into America in December 2022. That suggests that this truck didn’t do a whole lot of fighting fires. Now, it can live a happy retirement here in America, hopefully bringing smiles all around. If you have the hots for this six-wheeled mini off-road beast, it’s currently bidding at $13,501 with about six hours to go on Bring a Trailer.
(All photos to the selling dealership unless otherwise noted.)
Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.
MG XPower SV-R, Nissan President Sovereign, Dodge Magnum SRT8: Mercedes’ Marketplace Madness
Acura NSX, Studebaker President State, Mitsubishi Legnum VR-4: Mercedes’ Marketplace Madness
Tri-Magnum Trike, Volvo 1800ES Shooting Brake, Buick Super Estate Wagon: Mercedes’ Marketplace Madness
Packard Convertible, Nissan Be-1, Honda Today And Motocompo Scooter: Mercedes’ Marketplace Madness
So that’s me with the 97 Honda Life! And I apologize for nothing bringing it, what’s a meetup without a bit of obscure kei car fun!? We all need more tiny cars in our lives. And! It was doing 70 the whole way home without any trouble, so I just may daily this for a bit, it’s a gem of a ride.
OK! A few quick correction about a common misunderstanding…
I own a Japanese kei fire truck in San Francisco, and I’ve driven an Acty Crawler (so people have been sending me links to this auction all week). Along the way I’ve learned a bit about Japanese firefighting techniques and equipment, because, well, life is strange and takes us in unexpected directions.
First, yes, per the comments elsewhere there, these Crawler fire trucks were intended for use in the snows of Hokkaido, not offroading per se. So worrying about approach angles is somewhat, er, off piste.
Anyway… this bit: “A number of these trucks were taken to equipment manufacturers to be converted into diminutive fire engines, where they can fight fires on tight streets in cities and towns.”
That turns out to be kind of true but mostly not so much. Yes, kei trucks are fantastic on tight city streets — I can confirm this! — and yes, some kei fire trucks are used in urban areas in Japan (mostly by volunteer fire brigades that supplement professional fire services). However, that’s not really why these tiny fire trucks exist. The reality is, most kei fire trucks in Japan are used in rural or suburban areas by volunteer firefighters where space constraints aren’t much of an issue. Turns out, the main advantage of kei fire trucks is: they are hella cheap!
How cheap? Brand new, a contemporary kei fire truck costs about $30K or less, and they come fully equipped as a turnkey, off-the-shelf unit. Very affordable! That means they’re easy to procure, and to procure in sufficient quantity that many rural communities or industrial sites can afford to have one. And they do! So rather than have a few big fire trucks, Japan has lots of little ones.
Side note: Many Japanese fire trucks — even ones much bigger than this — don’t have water tanks. Japan is a pretty wet place with lots of streams, rice paddies, and cisterns around, and for (literally) hundreds of years their firefighting strategies have focused on scattering water pumps all over the place to take advantage of that. Also, when you don’t build fire trucks with big tanks to carry 100s of gallons of water, they don’t have to carry such massive weight, which once again makes Japanese fire trucks much, much cheaper to build and operate.
So there you go. Small, yes, but that’s not really the point. Cheap! Cheap is the point!
Separately, I own a Daihatsu Hijet, and I love it, but driving an Acty Crawler was a real revelation. They just exude… Honda! If my Hijet has VW Bus vibes, the Acty feels like driving a Honda Prelude. Remarkable fit and build quality!
I often saw crawler version of various cars at ski resorts back in Japan. A few years ago at the Tokyo Auto Salon, Nissan showed something similar where they made a crawler version using a Juke.
Mercedes, you want a weird daily driver to import, boy do I have you covered.
1990-1995 Mitsubishi Diamante.
“What? Those are boring!”
Exactly. It blends seamlessly into traffic, yet 25 years on, still looks sharp. Oh. And also it’s got (ahem): AWD, AWC, multi-link rear, world’s first TTCS (ASTC,) Preview Distance Control (autonomous cruise control,) steering wheel audio controls, active suspension, first gen INVECS, really comfortable seats, optional full leather interior, and it doesn’t have the 6G72.
Nope. It has the 6G73. 2.5L, 24 valves, and 173HP!
Yup. The 2.5 makes more power than the 3.0.
And they’re cheap. Pristine examples (we’re talking over grade 4) go for under $6k FOB all day long.
If I was going to import just one Kei car, it would be a Suzuki Cappuccino. They’re tiny and cute 🙂
While this doesn’t make much sense for recreational off-roading, (A decent SXS will blow the doors off a mini truck -and just about everything else- for the same money) it would be great for utility work around a large rural property.
Trailers are great, (UTVs can tow a surprising amount) but the more you load them, the less of your combined weight is over your driven wheels. A heavy trailer + soggy grass can turn into a fiasco if you aren’t careful. This machine would let you drive all over wet or snowy fields carrying its payload with relative impunity, while remaining fairly smooth and tolerable on local roads. Seems ideal for maintaining fences, carrying hay bales, firewood, plowing snow, etc.
You’re absolutely right! However, keep in mind that you can normally get a mini truck for well under $5k delivered to America, even cheaper if you don’t mind rust or fewer features. You will get destroyed by a side-by-side (and for good reason, those things are amazing!) but the kei truck won’t be as expensive…and in many states kei trucks can still drive on more roads than a SxS.
Honestly we need more 6 wheeled vehicles like this (not referring to duallies)
I wonder how much payload a Ford Maverick hybrid with an extra rear axle would have.
Some extra trivia, Shibaura is primarily a tractor maker and supplied Ford with small tractors starting in the 70s to compete with Kubota.
MITI’s forced mergers, and the postwar breakup of the Japanese aircraft industry are why the Subaru WRX and Nissan GT-R are cousins. Nakajima Aircraft was split into several small companies, most notably Fuji Heavy Industries which became Subaru and Fuji Precision Industries which rebranded as Prince Motors before being acquired by Nissan as part of MITI’s restructuring plan. Nissan also acquired Aichi which had switched from dive bombers to micro cars.
“less than 8 hours left in its auction”
“about six hours to go on Bring a Trailer”
This is my favorite part of the article. We can see how long it took Mercedes to draft the whole thing (much faster than I get any of my work done), and at the same time it makes me anxious about a bidding war I’m not even involved in.
A microbrewery should buy this and put a SS bright tank in the water tank’s spot and use it as a promotional vehicle. The extra traction may prove handy at outdoor festivals.
Maybe not much use offroad, but I bet it’s a beast in the snow. And re DT’s editor’s note– I think the front wheels are driven? It’s 4WD and the extra rear wheels are said (and look) to be unpowered.
The Cali lifestyle is getting to me. It’s too chill!
Don’t worry. Soon you will appreciate the potheads over the potholes.
That is beautiful. Around me here in the Portland area, there is an Acty Firetruck that I see being driven from time to time, but I have never seen a crawler in real life, nor did I know it even existed. Tracks bring up all those teen dreams of tracked vehicles.
Gotta love the l’il squirt. Don’t know what I’d use it for other than to make people smile, but that’d be enough. Imagine this with Santa riding atop in a Christmas parade.
I’d rather imagine Godzilla riding atop.