“What is a Kei-Car ?”
***** (K|C|F) *****
[ W h a t i s a K e i – C a r ? ]
A Kei car, K-car, or (軽自動車) ‘kei-jidōsha‘ literally ‘light automobile‘, is a Japanese category of small car of 660cc or less, which includes passenger cars, microvans, & pickup trucks. The trucks are known as ‘kei-tora‘ (軽 トラ), ‘tora‘ being a poorly contracted Japanese version of the word ‘truck‘. The cars have to adhere to a set length, width, height & weight which is strictly controlled:
Maximum (as of 1/10/1998): Length: 3.4 m (11.2 ft) Width: 1.48 m (4.9 ft) Height: 2.0 m (6.6 ft)
After World War II, the kei-car was born as the public car. It was in May 1955 that the Ministry of International Trade & Industry (MITI) announced a promotional program called the ‘People’s Car‘. Their executive summary of the ideal car was described as, ‘A 4-seater with a top speed of 100 kph, priced at ¥150,000 (£1,145)’.
The engineers of the Nakajima Aircraft Company developed the first truly successful kei-car (above), the Subaru 360 (1958 – 1971).
( The Suzuki Wagon R (above), is the best selling kei-car in Japan since 2003 )
Kei cars are designed to comply with Japanese government tax & insurance regulations, and in most rural areas are exempt from the requirement to certify that adequate parking is available. Some roads are also specifically marked for ‘kei-cars only‘, due to their narrow width. This especially advantaged class of cars was developed to promote popular motorisation in the post-war era. While successful in Japan, the genre is generally too specialised and too small to be profitable in export markets.
[ The Different Types of Number Plates ]
Pre 1974 private plates: Pre 1974 commercial plates:
Today’s private plates: commercial plates:
Until 31st December 1974, kei-cars used smaller license plates than regular cars (230 × 125 mm). As of 1975, kei-cars received the medium-sized standard plates (330 × 165 mm). To set them apart from regular-sized cars (not kei), the plates are now yellow & black rather than white & green.
[ T A X A T I O N ]
(prices quoted are subject to change)
Vehicle Excise Tax: The taxable amount is 3% of the purchase price, compared to 5% for larger cars.
Automobile Weight Tax: The amount is ¥13,200 (£83) & ¥8,800 (£55) for a 3 & 2 year period respectively, as compared to the ¥18,900 (£119) & ¥12,600 (£79) charged for larger size passenger cars. The savings are thus more than 30% in both cases. This weight tax is paid after the vehicle has passed its safety inspection (*shaken).
* Shaken, is a contraction of ‘jidōsha-kensa-tōroku-seido‘, meaning ‘automobile inspection registration system‘, and is the name of the vehicle inspection program in Japan for motor vehicles over 250cc in engine displacement, similar to the MoT in the UK, but much stricter.
Automobile Liability Insurance Premiums (Compulsory Insurance): A 24-month insurance contract typically costs ¥18,980 (£119) at the time of registration, versus ¥22,470 (£141) for a larger car.
Annual Road Tax: Tax is based on the engine’s displacement. Due to the popularity of light cars, a tax was placed on the size of these vehicles called the ‘Light Motor Vehicle Tax‘. The car tax on light cars ‘below 1,000 cc‘ is ¥7,200 (£45), or *¥4,000 (£25) for commercial vehicles, some local governments may charge more based on local regulations.
*(¥) The sign ‘¥‘ is not Japanese, it is a sign used in the West to denote Yen currency.
To promote the growth of the car industry, as well as to offer an alternative delivery method to small business and shop owners, kei-car standards were created. Originally limited to a mere 150 cc (100 cc for 2-strokes) in 1949, dimensions and engine size limitations were gradually increased, in 1950, 1951, and 1955, to tempt more manufacturers to produce kei-cars.
(1961 – 1962) Suzulight 360 Van:
With the 1955 change to 360cc as the upper limit for 2-strokes, as well as 4-strokes, the class really began taking off, with cars from Suzuki (Suzulight) and then the Subaru 360, the first mass produced kei-car, finally able to fill the people’s need for basic transportation without being too severely compromised.
(1969) Honda N360 (1970) Honda Z
The kei-class then went through a period of ever increasing sophistication, with an automatic transmission appearing in the Honda N360 in August 1968, with front disc brakes becoming available on a number of sporting kei-cars, beginning with the Honda Z GS of January 1970.
Daihatsu Fellow Max SS: (Daihatsu 360 in Europe)
Power outputs also kept climbing, reaching a peak in the 40 PS (29 kW/39 hp) Daihatsu Fellow Max SS of July 1970. Sales increased steadily, reaching a peak of 750,000 in 1970. Throughout the 1970’s, the government kept whittling away at the benefits offered to kei-class vehicles, which combined with ever stricter emissions standards, lowered sales drastically through the first half of the decade. Honda & Mazda withdrew from the contracting passenger kei-car market, in 1974 & 1976 respectively, although they both maintained a limited offering of commercial vehicles.
[ Since WWll, engine sizes have changed 3 times ]
Suzulight 360 Daihatsu 550 Smart 660
The 360cc era (1949-1975) | 550cc era (1976-1990) | 660cc era (1990~)
You may have noticed that some kei-cars bear stickers or magnetic signs on the front and rear of the car, these are explained below:
Shoshinsha / Wakaba sign: (for new drivers up to 1-year)
Kōreisha signs: (for the over 70’s*)
* Advisory for 70 year old’s, compulsory for 75 years and over.
[ Early Manufacturers Include ]
Auto Sandal: Cony: Gasuden: Hope Star:
Kurogane: NJ Taro: Suminoe:
[ Later Manufacturers Include ]
Autozam: Daihatsu: Honda: Mazda:
Mitsubishi: Subaru: Suzuki:
[ KEI | MICRO | TRUCKS ]
Micro-trucks are known as ‘kei-tora‘, being a poorly contracted version of the English word ‘truck‘ (torakku). They cost as little as ¥1,000,000 (£6,400) or less !!
[ The main manufacturers, models and No of Generations ]
(1960 ~) Daihatsu Hijet (10G’s)
(1977 ~) Honda Acty (4G’s)
(1966 ~) Mitsubishi Minicab (8G’s)
(1961 ~) Subaru Sambar (7G’s)
(1961 ~) Suzuki Carry (11G’s)
K E I | S P O R T S | C A R S
The sports micro-car was born after the ‘bubble boom‘ in the latter years of the 1980’s.
[ Saloon cars with Sporting pretensions ]
(1968) Suzuki Fronte SS (1969) Subaru Young SS
(1970) Honda Z Coupé (1971) Suzuki Fronte Coupé
(1987) Suzuki Alto Works RS-R (1989) Daihatsu Mira TR-XX
(1989) Mitsubishi Minica Dangan ZZ-4 (1992) Subaru Vivio RX-RA
[ Production Sports Cars ]
Suzuki Cappuccino: (1991 – 1997)
Honda Beat: (1991 – 1998)
Autozam AZ-1: (1992 – 1995)
Daihatsu Copen 1G: (2002 – 2012)
Daihatsu Copen 2G: (2014 ~)
Honda S660: (2015 ~)
Caterham Seven 160: (2016 ~)
And not forgetting the ‘s . . .
(1970 ~) Suzuki Jimny (3G’s)
(1994 – 2012) Mitsubishi Pajero
The 1989 Mitsubishi Minica Dangan ZZ (pictured earlier) has a 657cc turbocharged 3-cylinder engine with 5-valves per cylinder that revs to 9,500 rpm and a computer-controlled AWD system. It later appeared in the 440 bhp Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution !!
It’s a well known fact that Japanese micro-cars make good test beds for their bigger brothers !!
N O T E :
Although this site is dedicated to kei-cars, from time to time we mention other types of car, mostly of vehicles of more than 660cc that do not fall within the kei-class category and also other micro cars from around the world. Occasionally vehicles up to 660 cc which exceed the k-power rating will also get a mention when related to a relevant article, for example . . .
See: Honda ‘S‘ Series in “Sports”
***** (終) *****