Japanese Nostalgic Car features cover


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Baby Step
Honda revives the Step Van at the LA Auto Show.

A  tiny two-box van finished its long journey from left field today when it arrived at the Honda booth of the Los Angeles Auto Show. Called the Step Bus, the concept comes from a long line of
Honda unveils the Step Bus in LA
 Honda unveils the Step Bus in LA
oddly-named Honda microvans such as the Vamos Hobio, the That's, and naturally, the Life Dunk. John Mendel, senior VP of American Honda said, "Following the traditional Honda theme of 'man maximum, machine minimum,' the Step Bus seeks to create the largest possible interior with the smallest possible exterior." We suppose we'd have to agree with that, seeing as how the concept has no hinged doors and an engine that both sits between and motivates the rear wheels. Beyond that, Honda revealed no specifics but one can safely assume that its specs will land it right at the boundaries of the kei class.

The Los Angeles debut comes as somewhat of a mystery, however, because while mini-minivans are all the rage in Japan nowadays,
1972 Honda Life Step Van
 1972 Honda Life Step Van
it's hard to see Americans getting too excited about one when most are even repulsed by the common hatchback. New compacts like the Yaris and Fit may be hits, but even those tower over members of the kei class, that special Japanese classification limiting exterior dimensions and allowing only 660cc of displacement in lieu of tax, insurance and parking restrictions. Note the distance from headrest to windshield in the profile photos. Small! And finally, by naming it the Step Bus, Honda has chosen to evoke the name of a car that, despite being an icon in Japan, never actually sold in the US - the 1972 Life Step Van.

Ah, the Step Van. In a land obsessed with minivans, it was Japan's first, and having launched on September 20, 1972, likely the world's first as well. Based on the 1971 Life compact, itself the successor to the N360, the Step Van came equipped with the same 360cc engine and front wheel drive setup.
1972 Honda Life Step Van at the Kiryu Classic Car Festival
 Life at the Kiryu Classic Car Festival
The SOHC 2-cylinder was water cooled, in contrast to the Life's air-cooled engine. A rigid axle and leaf springs held up the rear, albeit with higher rates.

The unique-looking vehicle's primary mission was to serve as a delivery mule for Japan's rapidly growing economy of the day. Honda sold the Step Van on traits like a large rear opening and low floor for ease of loading and unloading and its "passenger car feel." On the inside, Honda's engineers fashioned nifty ergonomic touches, such as a slotted glove box for quick check depositing, an integrated pen holder, and a fold-out glove box door that doubles as a writing surface. Other cars with the "van" nomenclature existed, but they were either one-box types or what we Americans would describe as wagons.

Honda Life Pickup, 1973-1974
 Honda Life Pickup, 1973-1974
The subsequent year Honda released a pickup version with initial forecasts of 500 sales a month. Unfortunately, it lasted little more than a year on the market before it was cancelled with a run of 1,132. The Step Van fared better but still fell short of its 20,000 unit estimate when its service came to an end in December 1974 with 17,165 sold. Presumably, most were employed as workhorses and used that way. Still, sightings in the wild will surface occasionally in Japan. It wasn't until after production had ceased that interest, fueled just as much by nostalgia connoisseurs as car enthusiasts, began to emerge. Funny, how something that failed to capture the popular imagination by firestorm in its heyday has come to represent a sort of zeitgeist, with a strong and ever-growing cult following.

Regardless, modern references and tributes abound. Earlier this year at the Tokyo Automatic Gallery, boutique
Modest's Pocketvan
 Modest's Pocketvan
 images courtesy of Modest Cars
car builder Modest unveiled the Pocketvan kit, capable of decking out a modern-day Honda Vamos in classic Step Van clothes. Resplendent in old school light blue and sporting off-white painted steelies, it could be yours for ¥312,900! And despite generating only 30 horsepower at 8000 rpm, you can sling the Step Van around Suzuka or Nürburgring in Gran Turismo 4. It even comes in authentic colors like Ural Gray and Epoch White, but dude - 8000 rpm! And who among us could forget the speeding Step Van that helped Shep and the band escape evil henchmen in Interstella 5555, Daft Punk's 2003 anime companion piece to their magnum opus Discovery? Well, perhaps that last one isn't exactly the General Lee, but you get the point.

Step Van to the rescue!
 Step Van to the rescue!
It's not entirely clear where Honda is headed with this show car. Their JDM Zest kei came out just this past February, so perhaps the Step Bus foreshadows a replacement for the aging That's. There's also the hot-selling Step WGN, but it belongs in a different class altogether - you could probably park a kei car in its trunk. Suzuki, whose lineup consists almost exclusively of kei cars, recently knocked Honda off its bronze medal ranking in domestic sales. In Japan, it seems, one can never have too many keis. Any production possibilities would be speculative at this point, but the interior seems relatively down to earth and the overall package appears darn close to being production ready. We hope to see it on the road, if not in the States, at least in Japan. In any event, it's great to see manufacturers giving a nod to the nostalgic car community. end

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