NORMAN — In 2011, Wayne Saunders bought himself a birthday present that is undoubtedly the smallest street-legal truck in Norman. It’s a 1970 Subaru Sambar 360.
Assembled in Japan by Fuji Heavy Industries, there’s nothing weighty about the miniscule workhorse. It tips in at 1,020 pounds and is powered by a 360cc engine. Most American motorcycle riders would reject a motor that size as being too small. This little two-cycle beast powers a truck that can haul a driver, passenger and payload in the shallow bed. It easily cruises at 50 mph. “I like that it gets 60 miles to a gallon of gasoline,” Saunders said. He found the Subaru for sale on-line by its original owner in Long Beach, Calif. Saunders named the miniscule truck “Smokey” because two-stroke engines burn oil by design as piston lubricant. Smoke comes out the tailpipe and there’s a message stenciled on the rear glass that states, “If it’s not smokin’ it’s broken.” One reason Smokey was for sale is that she couldn’t pass California’s tough tailpipe emission standards and couldn’t be registered there.
Wayne Saunders has an affinity for micro vehicles that predates his first Oklahoma driver license over fifty years ago. His first ride wasn’t even a car, it a succession of motor scooters. But the 14 year old had his sights set on a big wheel motorcycle. Against his mother’s wishes, Saunders’ step-dad helped him acquire a 1947 Triumph 650cc Thunderbird motorcycle. She protested that the bike was too big. “When he learns how to put it together, he’ll know how to ride it,” his diesel mechanic step-dad wisely replied. The big British bike was actually a frame and three bushel baskets of parts needing to be assembled into a functioning motorcycle. It took young Saunders over a year of working to buy needed components and put the Triumph back together. But that experience helped launch a decades-long career repairing and selling small vehicles.
Saunders wanted the Subaru because he’d owned a Volkswagen single cab pick-up which was similar but larger. “I owned it for 20 years but sold it and that VW is now in a museum in Mexico,” he said. “I’ve always had a fondness for small cars and thought Smokey would be a great little parts runner to drive around and have fun in.” He was not familiar with the Subaru Sambar but recalls that a motorcycle shop in Norman had a few for sale years ago. In 1970 Smokey’s new sticker price was around $1,249. Then as now Saunders was in the rolling stock business. In a long profession he has repaired and sold Norton motorcycles, VWs and Porsches in central Oklahoma. Saunders Import Cars dealership was a fixture at 1210 N. Flood Ave. for three decades. He has an eye and taste for unusual automobiles. Unlike Smokey most in his current collection are restoration works in progress. They are primarily from the late 1950’s era. Included are a Trojan 200 (Heinkel) micro car, Berkley 328, NSU (Neckar-Sulm) Sport Prinz and BMW 600 Limousine. These are obscure rides built by former aircraft manufacturers after WWII for Europeans wanting to squeeze efficiency out of every drop of gasoline. They are weird little cars and finding replacement parts for them is a challenge.
“When I was in high school and thereafter everybody was into hot rods and big engines,” Saunders said. “The motorcycle shop I was working for at the time traded for a Berkley 328 sports car. On a tight road racing course that little car would win against a Mustang or early Corvette.” This reinforced Saunders’ conviction that maybe you don’t need more horsepower to go faster. “Handling and power to weight ratio were often overlooked,” he said.
There are engineering features on Smokey not found on other vehicles. “I was familiar with two-cycle engines from working on motorcycles but the Subaru has an oil reservoir and pump rather than mixing oil with the fuel,” he said. “They use the frame rail as a channel for an air-intake tube that runs from the front of the truck to the rear engine so you don’t pick up dirt from behind.” Smokey has no air conditioning other than an outside vent that opens a breeze to your knees. The only gauges are a speedometer and fuel. Controls for lamps and windshield wipers are on the dash. The transmission is a 4-speed manual with the last gear on the shift knob oddly labeled “OT.” It stands for Over Top.
Smokey is in full compliance with all laws for operation on Oklahoma roads. Saunders has never been stopped by the highway patrol for a safety check. “I get some smiles from them now and then,” he said. “I was going down Flood Ave. the other day going 33 mph (limit 25). A police officer had his radar set up, looked at me and just shook his head a little bit. I didn’t realize I was going that fast.”
Have you seen a cool vehicle around Norman? Writer Doug Hill’s always on the lookout for future Dig My Ride columns. Email him at Hillreviews@hotmail.com.