Toyota Hiace: five decades of masses transportation
Is the Hiace the most unlikely JDM Icon vehicle?
Think of the minibus and a converted van with many seats will spring to mind for most of you, as in nothing much to get excited about. But not all minibuses were built equally. As for the last five decades, the Toyota Hiace has been the benchmark for moving many people around in a single-vehicle.
Since its introduction in 1967, the Hiace (pronounced High Ace) has yielded six generations around the globe, with variants including a van, campervan, pickup, ambulance and minibus, to name but a few.
In 2019, you can buy a Hiace New Shark minibus which can carry seventeen people. Yes, it has enough seating for a football team, the subs bench, the manager and an assistant with space to spare. Along with winning the name game, the current Hiace is as long as a small cottage making all seven-seat SUVs look rather feeble by comparison.
Introduced in the era of free love, the Hiace entered the world in 1967 as a cab over van design that didn’t look all that remarkable. But it was crammed full of innovation, with the Commuter version being capable of hauling fifteen people. Early versions had the luxury of a heater (ultrarare at the time) and design quirks such as reverse-opening side doors.
At its most potent, this first generation had only 83bhp from its 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine, making it remarkable that it could move so many people around with so little power.
By 1977, the second-gen Hiace arrived keeping the people carrying ability at fifteen in Commuter spec, while adding more vastness and innovation. The vastness was its five-metre length in ‘super-long’ spec, with the innovation being the addition of sliding doors making it easy for the thirteen rearmost passengers to climb aboard. People hauling power was raised to 98bhp via a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, and for the first time, a 2.2-litre diesel engine boasting 74bhp.
The third-gen Hiace arrived in the early 1980s with all the retro styling of the era. Velour seats, a super high roof in Commuter spec, and two-tone bodywork were in with a more traditional sharper-edged design that helped cement the phrase ‘multi-purpose vehicle’ (MPV) into automotive history. Both Standard Van and Long Van body styles were available, with a 2.2-litre diesel engine, optional four-wheel drive and automatic gearboxes.
If anything, the third generation saw minor tweaks to the Hiace, while managing to be mostly unremarkable aside from the uber-cool period-correct bodywork striping.
The fourth-gen Hiace arrived at the end of the 1980s with seating for ten, multiple sunroofs, and a range of larger 3.0-litre diesel engines and reliability comparable to a Soviet T-34 tank. So much so, that Toyota kept production going for a whopping fifteen years. With many examples clocking up close to 400/500k miles on their original powertrains, all before being sold off to developing nations to see out their working lives in far harsher conditions.
By the time the mid-noughties had rolled around, Toyota had gone big with the Hiace, and when I say big, I mean 18-feet of people carrying ability with enough space inside to launch a Rick Astley comeback gig. In total, including the driver, the largest Hiace could swallow a total of sixteen people. Smaller nine-seat and fourteen-seat versions could be had as well, in a vehicle that was basically a few seats short of being an actual bus.
A new 6th generation version was introduced in 2019. After five decades the cab-over layout has been replaced with a conventional sloping bonnet design, allowing for a new range of engines to be fitted. The Hiace has somehow got bigger as well, with the Long/High Roof models measuring in at almost 20-feet in length with the ability to carry seventeen people including the driver. The pick of the power units comes from a choice of a V6 petrol engine, or a 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel unit and even the option of a manual gearbox.
Want a Hiace minibus in the UK? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you cannot have one. As they are only sold in places such as Asia, the Middle East, Oceania and Latin America – basically, everywhere but Europe…
For me, this current generation with all of its football team moving ability confirms the Hiace’s rise to automotive greatness. Its longevity, smart design and seemingly unkillable later models surely making it a legend among people carriers which is absolutely worthy of JDM icon status.
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