Friday, May 06, 2011

Kato Motors in Kiyose, Tokyo: Subaru 360 heaven!

While in Japan last month, I was browsing through the May issue of Nostalgic Hero, a Japanese magazine dedicated to vintage Japanese cars, and noticed a very nice red Subaru 360 featured in one of the articles.

In one corner of the article in small print was a web address for a dealership...Kato Motors. I figured, heck, I'm in Japan, how can I pass up a visit (and shoot some Polaroids)? The dealership is in Kiyose in Tokyo prefecture, which is about an hour by train from Ikebukuro station in Tokyo via the Seibu Ikebukuro Line. I planned a day to head out there, and wander about Kiyose and some of the other small towns in the area if time permitted. This was March 31, 20 days after the earthquake and tsunami, so I had to make sure the train I needed was running. Though some of the alternate trains were down, the semi-express and local trains were still on the go.
I get to Kiyose about 9:30am, Kato Motors doesn't open up until 11am. So I wander around Kiyose for a couple hours. The dealership is a couple blocks from the station, and the town is fairly small (though the Tokyo metro area is mostly connected for miles, so you could keep walking for a long, long time and still be in "the city"), so I made a nice circuit. Kiyose is basically a farm town, with lots of cool, big Danchi (public housing or apartments, kind of like projects in the U.S.). A few shots in the area before we get to Kato Motors...
A danchi, shot with Type 672:

One of the many fields, also shot with 672. Not sure what the main product was in the area, though I did see some aloe. Nice kei truck, as well.

More danchi and some diosaurs, from the Rolleicord III...

And a tricked out Cedric. This shot made me think of the U.S., where you will see really nice cars in crappy apartment complexes...

While wandering around, it was supposed to be sunny, but it rained. Only for a short time, though, so still a pleasant walk. So after my trek, I headed back to Kato Motors.
Kato Motors is owned by Noboru Kato, and has been in business since 1977. Though he had a few other car makes, he specializes in Subaru 360s. What is a Subaru 360? Basically a VW Beetle clone. They were produced in Japan from 1958 to 1971, and were sold in the U.S. in 1969 and 1970. The basic shape changed very little during its entire run. I'm sure you've already clicked on the Kato Motors link above, but if not...here is a row of beautiful 360s! Shot on Type 690...

They look a lot like Bugs? They are actually smaller, and though they use a similar rear air-cooled engine style, the engine is actually only 356cc two-cylinder. The VW Beetles are four cylinder. So the 360 has much less power, and should have a top speed of around 60mph. They are very light, though, and can be quite speedy on the get-go, or so I've read (though U.S. magazines ragged on it, but more on that in a few). A few more Polaroids of the Subaru 360 with ID-UV and 690!

I saw three different 360 models on the lot...

Of course, I didn't just stand outside and take photos. I went in to meet Kato-san (and his quiet mechanic). Between my broken Nihon-go and his broken English, we managed to communicate! Very nice visit and amazing collection of stuff in his little office...

I looked through a couple photo albums, and he told me about his trip to California sometime in the 1990s for a Microcar convention. They had a microcar rally, with a Kato Motors Mazda Carol, which he said was "very quiet, but very slow"!

I took a couple Polaroids of Kato-san outside, one for him and one for me...

Always cool to see someone holding one of my shots! While outside, he took me around the side to show me an early Subaru 360 kei truck (they made trucks and vans, as well as the beetle-esque model). Probably 1958 or 1959, he was in the process of an engine overhaul. There is another Kei truck in the front, as seen in one of the shots above.

He also had Subaru R2 and a cool little Daihatsu, and some kind of van which is not a 360...
And a pretty little Honda Life and a Honda 600...

There was this kakkoii karuma in the back, but I can't remember what it is...

All in all, an excellent visit and I'm glad I made the effort. Noboru Kato was super friendly and it was a pleasure talking to him, and it makes me want a 360 even more than before!
As mentioned previously, the Subaru 360 was available in the U.S. in 1969 and 1970.

You can read more about it here, but, short story, it sold very poorly and received terrible reviews in the auto magazines (with some flat-out lies about the car's lack of power). But the past is the past and now they are collectible! They aren't super expensive, ranging from $1000 to $6000 depending on condition. This is pretty close to the Japanese Yen value, though they float around 400000円 to 800000円, or $4500 and up, depending on exchange rates. But they have many more years to choose from, and I'm sure the earlier models are worth more. This isn't too far off from VW Beetle prices, as you can get a basic 1970s Beetle for around $2000, though some models can go as high as $20,000. I am casually keeping an eye out for a nice 360 for a nice price, myself. You can read more about 360s and collecting at the Subaru 360 Driver's Club and the Vintage Microcar Club. A couple of interesting books available on Amazon.co.jp are the Subaru 360 Complete Book, which has a lot of technical info and not as many pictures as I had hoped, and Memories of Japanese K-cars, which is one of my favorite car books ever, beautiful stuff.
If you are making a trip to Tokyo, or you live in Tokyo, spend an afternoon in Kiyose and visit Kato Motors! Yeah, Tokyo Tower is okay (nice view, but 20,000 either very young or very old short people), but think outside of the tourist box!

This is a different post than my usual camera stuff, though I still have film shots! It's just hard to keep coming up with new camera stuff to talk about, particularly as I hone in on my specific photographic needs and what I actually want to use on a regular basis. But I do want to spend some more time talking about the Bronica S2, maybe comparing it to the Kowa Six. At some point I should talk about Impossible Project film, as that is interesting to me, in good and bad ways. I also have totally nerdy Polaroid post in the works. You will be like, uh, yeah, okay Polaroid nerd, I guess that's interesting if you like Polaroid film.
Until next time, some more Subaru 360s!

2 comments:

  1. Richelle9:58 PM

    Thank you for sharing your fun experience, and taking some great shots! I love how so many people in Japan were willing to share with me when I lived there, even though my Japanese wasn't so great either :) I had lots of wonderful experiences that way. It's true--to really enjoy your time in Japan, you have to "think outside the tourist box."

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  2. Love the Polaroid shots! Thanks so much for sharing your experience with all of us! As a Subaru and Camera nut this is just a great read, and so much fun!

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