Ron and Celine Sino Cruz’s – Kei car: 1986 Diahatsu Hijet.
Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) during the post –war era of 1949 started the “People’s Car Program” which developed the idea of the “Kei” car or “K-car” or “kei jidōsha.” This idea means “light automobile” which is a Japanese category of small vehicles that included passenger cars, vans and pick-up trucks. Aimed to be used as delivery vehicles for small shops, Kei cars were equipped with 150cc engines – a low-cost transportation solution to a rapidly growing country. Although the pint-sized machines quickly evolved in terms of performance (from 150cc to 660cc engines), Japanese were completely drawn to the Kei cars not just because of fuel-economy but the tantalizing benefits of reduced tax and insurance charges. Kei cars offer savings of at least 30% compared to their full-size counterparts due to its weight class and specification.
Ron Sino-Cruz and his wife, Celine have been thinking of what would be the coolest car to get for a project build. For them, the Kei car always came to mind. In both the Philippines and Japan, they searched for street legal versions to be shipped over and also checked the local area for purchase but had no luck. Years ago, Ron found a street legal Cali registered Kei car, a 1986 Daihatsu Hijet van parked in front of a liquor store. He asked the owner to sell the Diahatsu but he refused. The owner was using the Hijet to advertise his liquor store. He had painted the microvan to look like an Oreo cookie, where the Top was Black, White in the middle and Black bottom half. Oreo graphics plastered all over the microvan and had a sign “Got Milk?” on both its sides. Ron had told the owner of the liquor store that if he ever decides to sell to call him right away.
Years go by – at least 10 good years and while searching for a new project – one of them is checking Craigslist, the same Hijet pops up. Exactly one week before Halloween last year, Ron rushed to the location of the Hijet after work and sweet talked the guy to give him a good deal. Finding a street legal, California registered chassis is the hardest part in finding a Kei car. There are kei trucks all around his area that are used strictly for off-road purposes on private properties like the ones you’ll see on college campuses and private ranches. Most either have the smaller engine or a speed restrictor which will keep the cars from running over 25 mph – which is not legal for on-road driving After all the reeling and dealing the seller on Craigslist, Ron was now a proud owner of an Oreo themed kei car.
The Daihatsu Hijet was originally equipped with a 550cc motor and 3 speed transmission. This was then swapped for the newer 660cc motor with a 4 speed tranny that produced a whopping 52 hp and 46 ft-lbs of torque. The Hijet was in complete shambles when Ron and Celine first got it. It was missing the interior panels, rear seat, wiring for a radio, a window and a few exterior parts. All had to be sourced from Japan and imported through their good friend Mak from Virage Development.
A lot of TLC went in to build the Hijet. Husband and wife tagged team to re-wrap all the door panels, swapped out the entire carpet and installed the rear seat to get the basic amenities in. Custom seat belts had to be added as these were required in the Kei car that are street legal. Friends Tim and Devon helped in re-wiring the van to accommodate the new radio system. This included a Clarion head unit, a pair of 5” Pyle door speakers and three 10” Kicker comp cvrs powered by a 1000 watt class D Kenwood amplifier. Completing the interior, the missing window was installed and smoked clear window visors for the front and rear roll down windows were also put in.
The Oreo theme of the exterior was not cutting it for Ron. The Daihatsu was sent to Mike of Idesign in Walnut, Ca for a custom white over orange paint job. The idea was to make it look retro so no clear coat was applied to it. OEM stripes and custom logo were applied to the doors. And on the rear of the microvan, the mooneyes van spoiler were also added. This was a retro design even before roof spoilers were in style. All the parts except mechanical parts are hard to come by now a days for the Hijet. For this specific model, the s80v, there are not a lot of them on the road today since most are too old or obsolete. The newer models look similar but body and interior parts are different in dimension. Luck was just in Ron and Celine’s side as they found most parts in a short period of time. It was done to the point were Rod had to modify modern version headlight cover to fit the older van. It is not perfect but it does the job and adds to the rawness of the Hijet.
The Kei car was lowered the only way Ron knew and had Tony from Valley muffler VMS it. Slapped some SSR MK2 13×7 and 13×8 wheels mounted on some smallest tires they could find – 195/50/R13. They also tossed in a custom Thule Roof rack, custom pink wood steering wheel with Razo and Mooneye accents to round it all out.
Every build isn’t complete without encountering issues specially for an older vehicle. When Ron first got the van it went up to 25 mph. With the swapped motor and tranny, this went up to 35 mph – just enough to get on the street. After numerous tunes this was brought up to 48 mph. After driving for a month, mostly always tapping 48 mph every time, the exhaust system got very hot. The back half, right after the collector completely disintegrated and fell off during the drive. Instantly, the microvan sounded really loud but gave the Hijet an additional 8 more mph. Being that the exhaust was literally under the passenger and driver seat, fumes will fill in the passenger compartment. The Hijet was then brought back to Valley muffler for re-piping. In the end, with the inline switch, additional fuel pump and wide open throttle, the Daihatsu can top out at 63 mph at high rev but not at long distances. Freeway ventures is not always the primary option when husband and wife travel using the Hijet. They take surface streets whenever they go from the Valley to Irvine. Both have shared that San Diego may be their next driving adventure.
In Japan, there is an miniature pull back toy car that is very collectible called the CHORO Q. It really has a big cult following both here in the US and overseas. With the pint size van and Ron’s wife Celine constantly calling it a “Cutie”, the Hijet needed to be tagged. The two words CHORO Q + Cutie were merged and with some Japanese accent put into it – you can now say, “You’re a Cutie” = “CHORO QT”.
Ron daily drives the Hijet from Pasadena to DTLA 5 days a week. It is currently livable and reliable. As for future plans, Ron might add a pop top or glass from Japan or a rag top to the van. For now, it will be used as his daily work horse. Ever since the day both Ron and Celine got the Daihatsu Hijet, it has been a barrel of fun for the couple. It continues to bring smiles to everyone who sees it on the road. Both consider that the Kei car: Diahatsu Hijet aka Project CHORO QT can be finally be checked off their bucket list.
Until the next one…
Ron’s shout outs-
Shout out to my wife Celine for bearing with my car addiction, my family for putting up with the garage and storage issues, the guys from our team, Supastar, especially Tim, Devon, Art and Leonelle for their time and dedication to late night work on the van to get it street ready, to Mike at Idesign in Walnut, Ca and Tony A. and lastly Mak from Virage Development.