Introduction: When Tom Konsler,1 Environmental Health Director for Orange County, NC until his recent retirement, first told me about his Japanese fire truck, I was fascinated in a “best toy ever” sort of way. And, when I related his account to a couple of my buddies, they were likewise captivated. So, I prevailed on Tom (this is nothing new – we prevail on Tom all the time, e.g., to fix our refrigerator’s ice maker or to replace a defective smoke detector attached to a 12 foot ceiling) to share the story on this site. Being the ultimate heck of a guy that he is, Tom agreed.
Chapel Hill’s 1994 Toyota HiAce Double Cab Fire Truck
By Tom Konsler
My first exposure to Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) vehicles took place when I noticed that a rural postal carrier in the Boone area2 was piloting a right-hand drive (RHD) Toyota 4Runner. Given that I am a big fan of Toyotas but had no idea that a RHD version of the 4Runner existed, the next step was inevitable — yep, I flagged down the postman at his next stop to ask about his vehicle.
He recommended that I check out Duncan Imports in Christiansburg VA. Duncan’s business strategy is to buy vehicles at auction in Japan, process the massive bureaucratic paperwork to import them into the US, and then offer those vehicles, replete with a valid Virginia title, to customers.
And, indeed, later that year, some like-minded friends and I took a motorcycle trip to Duncan, which maintains an enormous private collection of rare and vintage vehicles. Along with cars and trucks like the postman’s Toyota 4Runner, Duncan also imports dozens of Japanese minitrucks and, to my amazement, a small collection of “pocket-size” fire trucks, including several Nissan Safari trucks converted into fire trucks that especially intrigued me.
After I spent a year obsessing about how one of these might make an interesting work truck, my wife, Gwen, and I finally realized that our only chance for closure was visiting Duncan Imports together, at which time I would either buy one of those trucks or dismiss the idea forever.
Immediately upon pulling into the lot, we came upon two bright red Toyota double cab fire trucks that had just arrived. It was love at first sight. We were both enamored with a Toyota model based on the HiAce (pronounced “High Ace”) Van, a cab-over-engine arrangement (no hood) with a short bed on the back. After a brief test drive, the hook (and ladder) was set, and we started the adoption process.
This is a 1994 Toyota HiAce double cab truck based on the mid-80s HiAce Van. The trucks were modified in Japan with a specialized bed fitted with boxes, racks, and compartments to serve as a fire truck. It originally carried a gas-powered water pump unit that extended out onto a sliding platform and utilized a suction hose with canvas fire hoses. Mine came with the hoses, but no pump. The equipment included a folding ladder, pike poles, two silver coated fireman’s jackets, various wrenches, a jump seat, etc.
The truck is powered by a 2.5 liter, four cylinder, diesel engine with a 5 speed transmission and a hi/lo range 4 wheel drive. It is quite maneuverable at 6 feet wide, 15 feet long and 8 feet high. With the exception of its height, it’s much more compact than today’s mid-size pickups.
The diesel Toyota drivetrain is renowned for its dependability and durability, but it is no powerhouse. Driving the HiAce reminds me of the family cars in which my siblings and I learned to drive – a Volkswagen bus and a Volkswagen double-cab pickup. There is no hood extending out front and the driver is perched over the front wheels. The boxy shape is anything but aerodynamic. To say it is slow is a polite understatement, and one soon learns that your best friend when ascending hills is momentum.
When we purchased this 25 year old truck, it had 8,500 kilometers (5,300 miles) on the odometer. In the ensuing year and a half, I have tripled the miles on it. With the low mileage, it should be a long time before it needs any serious repairs.
The Fun Stuff
The truck is an attention grabber both on the road and in parking lots. I always have to plan on extra time when going to the local Home Depot. It never fails that someone wants to talk about this unusual vehicle, where I got it, how it feels driving from the opposite side, etc. I love their excitement about seeing something new.
Speaking of driving from the right, it is not hard to adapt to the seating position. Visibility is great and I mounted a rear-facing camera on the back for a rear-view. One just has to remember that the turn signal lever and the wipers are reversed, which leaves me fumbling sometimes switching back and forth between our other vehicles.
The ride is definitely old-school with wind-up manual windows, no air conditioning or other creature comforts found on the most basic cars today. I may mount a radio in it someday, but I really haven’t missed the distraction. It is enjoyment enough to drive such a unique vehicle. I get such a kick out of the double-takes, smiles, and thumbs-up as I putt along. I’ve even seen people whip out their phones to grab an image or video, as I go down the road.
In addition to the rear camera, I’ve made a few other modifications, including mounting a lockable tool box on the right side, building shelves inside the existing tool boxes, and reinstalling a yellow flashing light on the roof. It’s probably good that this particular truck no longer has the siren. I‘m sure I would get myself in trouble. I’ve also built a solid wood deck on the sliding bed so it can be extended to carry long items and can serve as a work surface.
We strung lights around the truck and decorated it to carry several tiny elves and fairies in the 2019 Hillsborough Christmas Parade, but unfortunately the parade was not held in 2020.
Future plans include: additional organization of the tool boxes, working on some of the added-on body panels that are showing some rust, and adding a trailer hitch to tow a light trailer.
Just a short while ago, I saw that Duncan Imports had a Toyota HiMedic Ambulance model, but it sold before I could cave in to the thought of grabbing it to adapt as an adventure camping vehicle. Still, a guy can dream…
- Tom is, as far as I can determine, my stepson-in-law, once removed – or something like that. Anyway, he’s married to Gwen, who is the stepdaughter of my wife, The Duchess aka Penny Showalter. It should now be self-evident why this part of the backstory is relegated to a footnote. [↩]
- Boone is a town in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. [↩]