In 1961, the Japanese manufacturer Subaru introduced the Japanese first Keitora (for kei class truck), the Subaru Sambar. The vehicle has still been in production since its first appearance in 1961. It is offered both as microvan and kei truck based on Pickup truck style. The Sambar has a long successful history and still admired and popular in the Japanese domestic market. It is also assembled in Korea, China and in Finland where it is built under a joint venture with Elcat Automotive.
The term Sambar is derived from a type of deer indigenous to India. The Sambar has been a rear-wheel drive, rear-engined vehicle since its first appearance, where an all-wheel drive arrangement was made available as an option from 1980 onward. For the initial two generations, the engine used was an air-cooled type found in Subaru 360. All the later generations feature a water-cooled engine found in Subaru Vivio, Subaru Rex and Subaru Pleo.
The Sambar was regarded as the first Japanese kei truck to use a cabover design together with the passenger cabin atop of the engine.
First Generation (1961-1966)
The first generation Sambar introduced as a rear-engined, rear-wheel drive platform and a 4-wheel independent suspension. It was first revealed at the Tokyo Motor Show both as commercial and private versions in 1960. It shared its platform with the Subaru 360. It was powered by an EK series engine.
The idea was to design a vehicle that could perform the role of Subaru 360, i.e. to transport small load, like commercial delivery van. This vehicle was also given a nickname as “kuchibiru” Sambar. The front-engined Suzulight Carry was introduced as a competitor to the Sambar in 1961 followed by a cabover version as well in 1966. Daihatsu also joined the competition with their Daihatsu Hijet cabover in 1964.
Second Generation (1966-1973)
The second generation Sambar was launched in January 1966 as a redesigned model. This generation was nicknamed as ‘baban’ Sambar. For this generation, a truck version was also released.
Although, it carried the same EK series 356 cc engine, but with updated 20 hp iteration found in the Subaru 360.
The vehicle received a faux grille at the front had nothing to do except for adding to the contemporary looks of the vehicle. For the second generation Sambar, Mazda and Honda introduced their competitors in the form of 1968 Mazda Porter and 1970 Honda Vamos.
Third Generation (1973-1982)
On February 10, 1973, the third generation Sambar was launched under a nickname of ‘Tsutomu Tsuyoshi’ Sambar. It was powered by a water-cooled 2-stroke 2-cylinder 356 cc EK34 engine. The truck was designated as K71, while the van version received a model code of K81.
The engine received an upgradation in 1976, where the EK34 was upgraded to EK21 4-stroke water-cooled version used in the Subaru Rex. An electric window washer pump was also introduced in this model. Three month after the first engine upgrade, the revised emissions standards forced the company to upgrade the engine again to a 490 cc EK22 engine for the truck K75, panel van K76 and van K85. In 1977, the engine was once again upgraded to 550 cc EK23 model. The Sambar at this time was marketed in the export market as Subaru 700 featuring a 665 cc EK series engine.
Fourth Generation (1982-1990)
The fourth generation Sambar was launched on May 9, 1982 with a chassis code of KR. It was also accompanied by a commercial version ‘Try’ with a designation KT. It featured an independent all-wheel suspension having MacPherson struts at the front. In order to accommodate larger drum brakes, the wheel size was increased from 10-inch to 12-inch. An optional all-wheel drive setup was also offered with a dual-range transmission.
The Japanese version was powered by a 544 cc, 2-cylinder EK23 engine rated at 21 kW (29 PS). However, the export market came with a larger 665 cc version of the same EK series rated at 23 kW (31 PS). The fourth generation was also offered as left-hand drive. A 6-valve engine with 25 kW (34 PS) was released in April 1989. The Japanese Domingo was powered by a 3-cylinder EF10 1000 cc engine and was introduced in 1983.
The European market received a larger version of Sambar in 1983, featuring larger engines. The larger versions were normally known as Subaru Libero, Domingo (Japan), Sumo and 1983 Columbuss.
Fifth Generation (1990-1998)
In 1990, the fifth generation Sambar was launched by Subaru. By this time, the engine regulations were revised and allow the automakers to use larger engines allowed the Subaru to use 660cc engine for this generation. The all-wheel drive model was introduced as a Subaru Dias Wagon. It was nicknamed as “Kuniko Yamada” Sambar.
The EN07 engine was used for this generation. Options were available for the supercharger and intercooler packages. Subaru’s ECVT transmission was offered with a tandem arrangement for full-time all-wheel drive as well as a viscous differential.
A completely redesigned model was introduced in 1994 which was very much identical to the Domingo. It was powered by a 3-cylinder EF12 engine for which the displacement was enhanced to 1200 cc and a single-overhead camshaft was introduced. The ECVT was dropped from the lineup in October 1995 and was replaced with 3-speed automatic transmission mated to the EMPi engine rated at 45 bhp (46 PS).
Sixth Generation (1998-2009)
On May 2, 1999, the sixth generation Sambar was launched. For the sixth generation Sambar, the EN engine was no longer entertained by carburetor. Also the EF series engines were not built anymore. The Dias was equipped with a 3-speed automatic transmission.
Toyota invested a good amount of money in the Fuji Heavy Industries on June 26, 2007 as a result of which the parent company Subaru had to end its production and all of its vehicles be taken over by the Toyota-owned Daihatsu models. The Daihatsu models were supposed to be sold rebadged as Subaru. The Subaru loyal customers failed to show interest in the rebadged versions. After the Toyota acquisition of FHI, the Subaru Dias Wagon took the place of Sambar which was a rebadged model of the Daihatsu Atrai van.
Some new features were introduced to the Sambar lineup in July 2008 including power sliding rear doors, dual front passenger airbags, leather interior and power windows.