The Kick-Ass Kei-Truck Mission of RoundCat Racing

The new venture wants to see more of the tough trucklets in America.

Ken Saitowriter, photographer

While there's no wrong way to do a trip to the annual Monterey Car Week, whether you're driving a Toyota Camry or a multimillion-dollar supercar, it's hard to have more fun than driving around in a vintage kei truck for the week. For the uninitiated, kei cars (and trucks) are members of a uniquely Japanese vehicle class created by a set of stringent regulations governing their size and engine displacement.

Last year, I puttered around the Monterey Peninsula in a 1989 Honda Acty on loan from my friend Clark Sopper. This year, Clark kindly gave me a charming ex-fire truck Suzuki Carry he bought from an onion-farming island in Japan—its "low mileage, futuristic steering wheel and dashboard, and cast-aluminum fire-department hood ornament" are why he says he snapped it up. It being fitted with four-wheel drive and locking hubs sealed the deal.

The Carry is actually an outlier in his collection, as it's not a Honda. Unlike those trucks, he may eventually sell this one on, and he points out it has more of a utilitarian vibe. It certainly was less refined on the freeway compared to the Acty—no kei car feels truly at home on American highways, of course—but Clark mainly uses it around his ranch, so it has its uses. Clark built and added an '80s-inspired surfboard rack to add a bit of sportiness, and additional nonstandard features you might've noticed are the yellow "RoundCat" decals, which were done by a Tokyo-based artist.

RoundCat is Clark's newest project, and it's all about spreading the kei lifestyle. It's inspired from the adventures these trucks can take us on and how it connects us with new people. Clark sees kei trucks as a blank canvas—the same truck with a few modifications can be used to bring home plants, camp in remote locations, carry surfboards, or support a racing program at the track. The venture is still getting off the ground, but RoundCat is a developing a product line—such as a roof-rack system for rooftop tents and other accessories—and collaborating with companies in Santa Cruz and Japan. (Of course, this isn't Clark's only endeavor. The Acty I drove last year wore decals promoting his future-forward Highball design studio.)

Clark has big plans for RoundCat and kei trucks, which he sees as absolutely having a place in mainstream America, especially among rural/off-road users and design-conscious city dwellers. Indeed, the truck's usability and practicality as well as their ruggedness and simplicity make them ideal for light- to medium-duty off-roading and blasting down dirt roads, and RoundCat attended this spring's Overland Expo to speak to people about how they use their trucks, and might use kei trucks. It also intends to import aftermarket parts for the trucklets from Japan as a way to support the burgeoning kei-truck enthusiast community in America. RoundCat has also designed some "American Kei" parts for sale in Japan, and the company will be at SEMA this year.

While driving the Carry, several people asked me where they could get one—but these weren't the rugged off-roading types. That's where urban ownership comes in, and Clark pitches kei trucks as an affordable and stress-free way to own a classic vehicle. (After all, non-federalized vehicles have to be 25 years old before they can be imported to the U.S.) They're solid and reliable, they're cute and somewhat exotic, and they always attract the right kind of attention. They're pretty much the perfect runabout. The ultimate plan is for customers to be able to acquire one via RoundCat for not much money, and then accessorize it to suit their needs.

Clark's obsession began with the first kei truck in his collection, a Honda Acty Big Cab, a variant with a bit more passenger space—3.9 inches to be exact. The tradeoff is less cargo area, but the truck does offer reclining seats. Like other Actys of this era, the engine is a 550cc two-cylinder derived from Honda's contemporary 1100cc four-cylinder motorcycle engine. The Big Cab also has the honor of being the first kei truck to be offered with a five-speed gearbox.

The BigCab remains his personal favorite; it was produced in the 1980s and '90s, an era when Honda made its best kei trucks, he says. "Their design is restrained yet playful, and very well thought out from the perspective of ergonomics and usability," he adds. It's not entirely bone stock; the 10-inch AC wheels are period-correct modifications designed by Andre Courreges for the Japanese aftermarket. They're wrapped in Yokohama Advan A032R tires, which we were told "dramatically improved the performance." The BigCab led to a Honda TN Acty which in turn eventually led to a fleet of 11 kei trucks. With a number of them not getting the exercise they deserve, the collection is in the process of being thinned to five or so that he'll drive more regularly.

It's doubtful there's anyone more passionate about kei trucks than Clark—and it's contagious. Before driving his Acty last year, these trucks didn't really register on my radar, but I've since fostered a newfound appreciation and adoration for the little things. If Clark and Roundcat Racing have their way, so will a lot more people.

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