Modern social media is a weird beast. It picks out videos it thinks we’ll like on our behalf; that means as I’m scrolling through apps like Instagram and TikTok, I’ll often be served a load of rally videos. And drifting. And Japanese cars in general.
One day, all three of those well-trodden topics suddenly coalesced into a single, scarcely believable viral video. I saw it: you probably did too, along with hundreds of thousands of other people.
A black Toyota Hiace van. Going sideways. On gravel.
We love mad builds at DirtFish: Sam Albert’s Ferrari V8-powered Impreza; the HPD Maxxis Passport SUV, and the AP4-spec Toyota RAV4. So there was only one thing to do: find out who built this van and ask them an important question – why?
Said Hiace is built and primarily rallied in Japan; the man behind it doesn’t speak English. This wasn’t a problem for two reasons: one, I had Toyota Gazoo Racing kindly helping with interpretation. And two: you don’t need to be fluent in Japanese to get an idea of how Takahiro Kitami goes about rallying.
Kitami-san – an older gentleman sporting white hair and matching moustache, bedecked in his branded mechanic’s jacket – is the last to join, slightly after our arranged start time; that’s not what I’d expected in a country where a train being 60 seconds late is a cause for complaint. He begins the interview by lighting up a cigarette.
Oh. He’s old-school. This is going to be good.
So, how does one go about converting a Japanese van into a rally car?
“There are no Hiace [performance] parts so I created everything as a one-off,” Kitami-san explains to DirtFish. “It costs about 10 million yen before the cost of the vehicle.”
That, for context, is roughly $68,000 (£55,000). Plus around $17,700 (£14,300) for a stock Hiace in DX GL spec. Which puts it on a par with an FIA Rally4 car, cost-wise. It’s clear, then, that this hasn’t been bodged together in the back of a shed. Sanko Works, Kitami-san’s firm, wants the Hiace to fly and isn’t messing about. Mad rally builds don’t come cheap.
But remember, he’s old-school. Kitami-san isn’t interested in modern nonsense like computer-aided design.
“I don’t use CAD at all,” he says, with a cheeky smile. “I do hand drawings for everything.”
It’s quite similar to driving my Impreza. But the Hiace engine performance is a bit lower. It means for the driver, the throttle is wide open a lot!Takahiro Kitami
And what you pay for upfront, you save on spare parts. It is, ultimately, a box van built to do hundreds of thousands of miles with bulletproof reliability. “The shock absorbers are changed every two rallies but the rest [of the parts] last the whole season,” says Kitami-san.
It still has leaf springs on the rear (though combined with shock absorbers), something which remains common on trucks but is unheard of on rally cars since the days of Escort Mk2s. And many other aspects of the car are much the same: it still fundamentally looks like a normal Hiace from the outside and the engine is still the little two-liter four cylinder unit it came out the factory with.
“It’s quite similar to driving my Impreza. But the Hiace engine performance is a bit lower. It means for the driver, the throttle is wide open a lot!”
Instead, much of the work has been on the gearbox and suspension. “I tried maybe over 100 specs,” says Kitami-san of the gearbox and his attempts to fine-tune the gear ratios over time. The dampers, while originally bought off the shelf, are now completely revised after plenty of tinkering with their design. And it has a limited slip differential that was developed in-house.
For what the Hiace rally van lacks in brute power, it makes up for in unique charm: after three years of running a pair of them in-house in partnership with CAST Racing, they’ve had enough interest to build two more.
One of those is even for a works Toyota team. Sort of. Rather, it’s for Toyota Auto Body, a subsidiary of the big daddy Toyota Motor Corporation. Plus they have a second customer Hiace currently in the workshop being prepared for another customer. If you’ve got 10 million yen and a donor Hiace, you can get one too.
After three years the Hiace has reached a maturity, of sorts. “According to the regulations [in Japan], the current Hiace is the limit,” explains Kitami-san. “You cannot make it faster. If I want to do that, I need to change the engine but that’s not allowed.”
But let’s allow our imaginations to run amok for a moment. Imagine if Kitami-san had free reign: what would the chain-smoking mechanic do if he could spend hours on end changing whatever he wanted?
“I would change it to four-wheel-drive and a more powerful engine. You can’t only win with the performance of the machine but I think it could be pretty close to Rally2,” he claims.
My eyes widen at the thought. Imagine Andreas Mikkelsen in a Skoda Fabia RS looking at the WRC2 timesheets in Aichi and finding himself dropping a few seconds to a van.
“I want the challenge!” concludes Kitami-san.
The rally Hiace is a weird beast. But exactly the right kind of weird. The type that’s had years of constant tinkering put into it trying to find every last tenth of a second.
Viral moments come and go in the blink of an eye; the Hiace certainly doesn’t given its lack of power. But unlike a viral video, this mad creation appears to have a long future ahead of it.