Home » This Tiny Kei Truck Camper Is The Antidote To Comically Large Expedition Trucks

This Tiny Kei Truck Camper Is The Antidote To Comically Large Expedition Trucks

Kei Camper Ts
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The term “overland” has been meandering its way across various industries from simple cookware to vehicles. The height, literally, of this craze appears to be the expedition truck. Builders love putting a gargantuan sleeping chamber on an equally massive commercial chassis, making for a multimillion-dollar vehicle that’s hard to get into a Whole Foods, let alone a trail. I have the antidote. Meet this 2007 Subaru Sambar camper. It’s ready to explore for less than the cost of even one of those new overland side-by-sides.

This cutie came straight to my inbox from reader Charles H, thank you! My inbox is also filled with press releases about gigantic overland expedition vehicles that only a fraction of our readership can dream of owning. These vehicles are so large that they can operate only in wide, open spaces. Matt recently wrote about the Krug Expeditions Bedrock XT2. Now, as Matt pointed out, that $690,000 apartment on wheels is coming from a legit company. However, the truck itself is just about the worst tool for the job if you’re trying to get anywhere even remotely described as tight. The Bedrock XT2 doesn’t have a chance of fitting on the trails I ride unless it moonlights as a logging truck.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

The powersports manufacturers have been trying to solve this by putting more proper bodies and roof tents on side-by-sides. For $32,999, Polaris will sell you its Xpedition, which is a side-by-side with a more plush ride and interior for longer drives. That price doesn’t include a roof tent to sleep in or an enclosed cab. Opting for the top-of-the-line Northstar nets you locking doors with power windows, heat and air-conditioning, and more or less everything you’d expect in an off-road SUV. That costs $44,999 and remember, you still can’t put a license plate on it.

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Even better than the expedition truck and the overland side-by-side is this little Subaru. Its price is still too high for the difficulty you’ll have in actually driving it, but everything else is so right.

One Of The First Kei Trucks

The Subaru Sambar has the distinction of being one of the first of what was then a new generation of truck. The Sambar was an evolution of a project to introduce a Japanese people’s car. In 1955, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) unveiled its concept for the car to get post-World War II Japanese people on wheels: “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 with their interpretations of the concept.

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Subaru’s response launched on March 3, 1958.

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Subaru

At the time, the company was experienced in aviation. This new car, called the 360, would be its first production car. The little 360 would also be Japan’s first mass-produced Kei car. Despite the fact that the Japanese government called for a simple, affordable car, the Subaru 360 was an advanced vehicle for its day. The car was powered by a rear-mounted 356cc vertical twin engine that had all of 16 horses to its name. To ensure the car hit its speed target, Subaru constructed the 360 with a thin steel monocoque and saved further weight by using fiberglass for the roof. Braking was handled by drums and the 360 had a full independent torsion bar suspension.

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Subaru

The 360 was a home run and Subaru didn’t rest on its laurels. The 360 platform was used to create an adorable two-door and a wagon. The two-door was so hot that Malcolm Bricklin even sent some to the United States. The 360 also gave birth to a pair of beloved Kei vehicles, the Sambar truck and van.

The Sambar truck made its debut in 1960 for the 1961 model year. That makes it one of the earliest four-wheel Kei trucks. Some sites say that the Sambar was Japan’s first Kei truck, however, the Kurogane Baby does beat the Subie by a year. Subaru boasted the Sambar truck’s low bed height as well as easy city maneuverability.

This Subaru Sambar

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The Sambar has enjoyed a long life of working hard for generations. This little truck comes from the Sambar’s sixth generation, which launched in 1999. Improvements made to the sixth-generation Sambar include a larger body with increased side impact resistance and all trucks came equipped with a fuel-injected engine. Dual airbags arrived in 2008 and if you got your Sambar as a van, you also got sweet power sliding doors.

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This Sambar comes from the 2007 model year and we’ll get to the importation stuff in a moment. It has a 658cc inline-four, but the seller doesn’t specify which one. Subaru sold these trucks with a naturally aspirated engine with all of 48 horses to its name and a supercharged version with 57 ponies.

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It does have a three-speed automatic as well as a 4×4 system. Don’t expect this truck to be fast; your cruising speed is probably going to be 60 mph on a good day.

I spent hours trying to figure out who or what company built the fiberglass camper body, but I have come up with no definitive answer. What I have found is a series of social media posts from the camper’s previous owner in Japan.

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Rough translations of their posts suggest that the camper body may be custom. What I can tell you for sure is that despite how well it is integrated into the Sambar, the previous owner says the camper body simply bolts into where the original truck’s tray was. So, if you wanted to, you could take the body off and put it onto another Kei truck.

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The camper body is short on features. It’s said to have AC power, a sink, and two water jugs for said sink. That’s it. You’re left building it out as you want to and that’s exactly as the previous owner did. Still, you’re left with a lovely space to fill out, including a real bed area in the camper’s overhang. There’s also a roof vent installed, which can be your gateway to a roof air-conditioner.

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I love the wood touches in the interior as well as the fact that the exterior looks pretty modern. It’s also just a bit weirder than usual. There are lots of campers built out of Japan’s larger trucks and even up to buses, but these Kei campers are just too cute. You also don’t see too many Kei campers here in America.

Some Catches

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On paper, this sounds like a sweet ride. It’s a tiny camper built on a platform known for some decent off-road capability. It’s also about as small as a side-by-side, but mostly without the side-by-side tax. Forget spending millions of dollars when you can just buy this for $27,000.

I do have a few problems with this particular one. That price is a lot. You could buy a lot of real trucks and vans for that. You can buy a lot of real campers for that, too. I could see perhaps $17,000 for something as unique as this is. The price is especially difficult to grasp when you realize how this truck was imported. Since the Subaru is younger than 25 years old, it was imported as an off-road-only vehicle. Officially, this vehicle is forever branded as an off-highway vehicle. Now, some states won’t care and will still hand you a license plate, but that’s just a whole headache.

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One alternative is buying the truck and transferring the camper body to a different truck. I suppose you could also just use it like a side-by-side. This Subaru Sambar has more features than a Polaris Xpedition, but for way less money. Sure, the Polaris will be better off-road and with more power, but there’s so much potential here.

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If you see as much potential in it as I do, head on over to the seller in Elkmont, Alabama and get your next adventure started. Just, keep it in the slow lane.

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Strangek
Strangek
1 month ago

“Hold me close my tiny camper.”

Kody Dagley
Kody Dagley
1 month ago

I really want one of these! I’ve been watching a Youtuber in Japan called Coupy Channel for several years now…he goes camping in his two RVs and films his adventures. His larger RV is a Toyota Camroad-based one but he has a little Daihatsu Hijet-based camper as well and it looks like such a fun thing.

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
1 month ago

I don’t really get the whole kei truck thing. I get that they’re cute and cheap and (somewhat) capable. But for an insignificantly larger sum of money, you can get a 6/4 scale Japanese cabover truck, like an Isuzu Elf or Toyota HiAce, with a ~2L engine, that would do much better at keeping up with modern American traffic. Yet they rarely get exported.

Cake_taco
Cake_taco
1 month ago
Reply to  Eggsalad

Sure, but if you’re going that size you could probably find a truck that was sold domestically (Nissan NV200, Ford Transit Connect, etc) that would do the job and be less of a headache. Part of importing a kei is that they’re cute, but they’re also a scale of car that simply doesn’t exist in NA so if you want something genuinely tiny they’re the best option.

Fatallightning
Fatallightning
1 month ago
Reply to  Eggsalad

There was a pretty snazzy Elf Camper that hammered for 27k on BaT, https://bringatrailer.com/listing/1996-isuzu-elf/ As far as the kei import ratio, I think it’s purely profit. I’ve seen those things stuffed 7 deep into a container. They also are more well known in the states, are dirt cheap in Japan, so the potential profit is much higher. I personally want one of the retired “full size” fire trucks.

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
1 month ago
Reply to  Fatallightning

I’m no economist, but there’s something wonky going on when I can buy a pretty HiAce with low kms on the clock AND ship it halfway around the world for less money than buying a 250,000 mile 1999 USDM Tacoma.

Fatallightning
Fatallightning
1 month ago
Reply to  Eggsalad

I think most people are scared of or unaware of how relatively simple and inexpensive importing a grey market car is. I’ve done it twice from England, where admittedly the common language makes it a little easier. Or people are put off of RHD, but plenty of LHD markets ripe for the picking. I’m currently shopping Pajeros, which doesn’t have the US/foreign market discrepancy like say a Land Cruiser, but I want a diesel SWB.

Greg
Greg
1 month ago

This is a prime example of “just because you can”

17k, titled sounds pretty good. 27k Never getting a plate, not so good. Not to mention the reality of how small that space is.

The only winning point here is its based off the Sambar.

The Artist Formerly Known as the Uncouth Sloth
The Artist Formerly Known as the Uncouth Sloth
1 month ago

by any chance, you weren’t in Utica, IL last night?

Outofstep
Outofstep
1 month ago

Oooo this reminded me that YouTube recommended a video of a dude doing a Kei truck camper build. Guess I know what I’ll be doing with my workday https://youtu.be/4NFMSulBEVU?si=W57FjcCNiIX3-hGy

AKBrian
AKBrian
1 month ago

Aww, yiss. Tiny campin’.

SonOfLP500
SonOfLP500
1 month ago

Don’t be fooled by the wide-angle interior photos, kei-campers are not the TARDIS: they are tiny outside and inside. All the fittings are scaled down, too (that sink in the last photo is probably about the size of a large cereal bowl), so seeing one in person gives an inkling of how Gulliver must have felt in Lilliput. The bed area in the overhang is probably claustrophobic even for small children.
Sambar for the win, though. Before they became rebadged Daihatsus, Sambars were the best engineered and strongest kei trucks. I have seen, and fallen in love with, that photo of the blue one before.

Greg
Greg
1 month ago
Reply to  SonOfLP500

I commented before reading through them all. You are spot on here.

Church
Church
1 month ago

The Autopian: This $690,000 Off-Road Camper Is The Softest Way To See The Toughest Places
Also the Autopian: This Tiny Kei Truck Camper Is The Antidote To Comically Large Expedition Trucks
I love the dueling opinions! Keep mixing it up and giving us the best.

Church
Church
1 month ago

I would absolutely rock one of these.

Sir Charles
Sir Charles
1 month ago

I saw something cool on FB, sent it to my favorite writer at my favorite website, and she wrote an article about it! Made my day! Now if someone would just buy this and throw in a busa motor……

Nic Periton
Nic Periton
1 month ago

Did anyone know there was a sort of mk1 ish Fiat Panda camper?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nl0_jFM-oEk&t=105s

Gee See
Gee See
1 month ago

James at Low Buck garage did a DIY version with his usual flair https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezOexHUfIL8 He also have a bus / camper conversion.

Last edited 1 month ago by Gee See
Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
1 month ago

If you’re hankering for a Kei truck camper Romahome used to build Class C motorhomes on Suzuki Carry or Bedford Rascal chassis before switching to Citroën C15s.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
1 month ago

Got passed today by a Sambar van while downtown. I wish politicians would leave these alone, they’re perfect in so many applications. Become a Ragin’ Kei-Jin and write your congressman.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 month ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

It isn’t really politicians, per se, most of the anti-kei stuff is being done by DMV employees.

However, they do, ultimately, work for politicians who have the power to override that stuff if they wanted to.

Space
Space
1 month ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

You might have better luck writing your Governor or state senator, kei cars are under attack by bureaucrats at the state level.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 month ago
Reply to  Space

Because employees of state DOTs all belong to the same professional networking organization, and, at some point, there was a conference a lot of them attended where an invited guest speaker railed against kei cars, and an email list they all subscribe to further reinforced that point and gave tips on how to block registrations

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 month ago

I like that a lot: good size, and I like backroads anyway. A shame about the price and off-road only status.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 month ago

Transfer the body to a 25+ year old Sambar Dias Classic. Still not sure that would work in my state, though, I’ve heard they’ve recently started to get weird about anything kei or that the person behind the counter at the DMV randomly decides is a kei.

Andrew Wyman
Andrew Wyman
1 month ago

If I were single, and the price was 10k cheaper, I would actually consider something like this. I really like the inside, and how it appears to be more spacious than I was expecting. I feel that camping in this would be great, and it would definitely fit in camp areas very easily.

Chris D
Chris D
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Wyman

You are absolutely right. It would be very slow going up the Rockies, though. Keeping the weight down by being careful with your build would be key.
Keis are awesome, except for people over about 5’10”.
The price is a huge issue with this one, especially with the lack of on-road plates and lack of motor home amenities in the back. For the money there are many better alternatives. This should be at under ten grand as it is, and then only a die-hard Kei fan with a good friend at the DMV would want to purchase it.

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