The Volkswagen bus is an instantly recognizable cultural icon. What if I told you that you can buy one with subaru reliability and AWD? Now how can you. Several companies are converting the capable little Subaru Sambar into a VW bus model. There’s just one problem, Subaru didn’t even sell the Sambar in the US, so you’ll have to import one if you want to cruise around North America.
The Subaru Sambar was a Japanese market microvan.
Subaru’s Sambar was a small mini-truck with a body-on-frame and minibus chassis. The Japanese automaker built it from 1961 to 2012. A superior cab design allowed Subaru to offer this chassis with a relatively large bed or roomy interior, for a vehicle with a 71-inch wheelbase.
Like other Japanese microvans and “Kei-class” mini-trucks, the Subaru Sambar started with an I2 engine, 10-inch wheels, and a manual transmission. Late in its run, Subaru offered the Sambar with a supercharged I2, automatic transmission, and 12-inch wheels.
I’ve spent my fair share of time driving Kei-class mini trucks, and it’s hard to describe just how “mini” they are. They barely have room to tow adults next to each other and they ride very low to the ground. The engine would be considered small on a motorcycle here in the US, so the change is often not optional. If you add the cabover design, it makes sense that every bump in the road would feel huge.
It’s probably a good thing that most Japanese built mini trucks top 50 MPH. But 50 MPH in a Kei Class truck or van feels more like 100 MPH. Driving them is like no other modern vehicle, a very visceral and analogue experience.
VW-like Subaru Sambar
People import Kei Class mini trucks and minibuses from Japan. Like any foreign market vehicle, you have to wait until they are 25 years old and pay an import fee, but then you can register them in certain states and drive them on public roads. Registration laws vary by state.
As the number of Subaru Sambar microvans on North American roads grew, some modders realized that the front end looked a lot like a small Volkswagen bus. So enthusiasts developed kits that included some chrome trim, retro bumpers, retro hubcaps, and a Volkswagen badge. Many Sambar minibus owners also do a two-tone paint job with the iconic “V” shape at the front of the van.
There is a wide variety of Volkswagen bus “clone” Subaru Sambars. Some simply have two-tone paint and an aftermarket badge. Others have every detail rolled back, from chrome hubcaps to VW van-style bumpers.
Vintage Subaru Sambars are great on their own
Driving a tiny VW bus clone is cool. And with prices for first-generation VW vans going through the roof, it could be a smart choice. But I have to say vintage Subaru Sambars look great on their own, no VW bus clone kit needed.
Considering that Subaru built the first Sambar in 1961, you can import a vintage Sambar minibus that is as old as the first VW buses. Subaru even offered these early generations in a wonderful two-tone paint job.
Below, learn what Subaru means in Japanese, or check out a retro 1970 Subaru microvan in the video below: