They say that size isn’t everything, and that it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it. Well, there’s a caveat to that; it also depends on your situation. Let’s face it, what might be just enough in once place, might be more than enough in another, while the reverse is also true. If you were painting a room, you wouldn’t need a tanker-truck full of paint, right? You’d need a couple of pails at most. However, if you were painting an arena, well… those buckets wouldn’t even scratch the surface.
This interesting “perceived acceptable volume criterion” is no less applicable to cars. I’m sure you’re thinking “Yeah, but I mean, c’mon. There’s a lower limit on how small you can make a car, right?” Well, sure, there is, but what is perceived as “too small” in North America is often “just right” in congested urban areas found in many Asian cities, particularly in Japan.
Most of us who grew up in the Automotive Dark Ages think we know about small Japanese cars. We saw the wallowing, rear-drive land yachts of the 1970’s, with their pit mine’s-worth of sheet metal and ravenous multi-litre engines give way to the relatively puny, front-drive econoboxes of the ‘80s. These largely joyless, tinplate abominations looked almost toy-like in comparison to the American Iron from only a decade before. With horsepower figures in the double digits and displacements to match, these little “shoeboxes on wheels” were soon found everywhere, as the new realities of fuel, and space, efficiency came home to roost.
The fact was, of course, that these cars weren’t as bad as they seemed, and as the 80’s proceeded, the automotive industry managed to dig itself out of the soulless pit of commuter boxes and start to generate interesting cars again. The other fact, that a lot of us in North America didn’t know, was that these “tiny” foreign cars were actually, by far, not the smallest that the Japanese makers had to offer.
That’s right… if you thought a Civic or Corolla was small, then let your brain chew on this for a while: in Japan, there were cars much, MUCH smaller. In Japan, there is a class of vehicles called “Kei” cars, or K-Cars for short. Don’t confuse this with Chrysler’s ubiquitous front-driver, though. No, these Kei cars are the smallest form of passenger car in Japan, and are very popular. Their small size is mandated by insurance and taxation, and they are designed to allow the population to be motorized without sucking up all the available space, which isn’t much.
Kei Cars are big in Japan (figuratively speaking) but they are relatively unknown here. The reason is that they’re just too small. They weren’t designed for the long distances and larger spaces of North America. They would be like a can of paint in an arena, present, but barely accounted for. Given North America’s reaction of “too small” to some of their larger brothers, Japanese automakers decided to keep the Keis at home, where they made sense.
Due to the popularity of Kei cars in real life, it’s not a surprise that there are a number of kits of them. It’s also not surprising that these, like their real counterparts, don’t make it over to North America all that often. Just like the real things, a kit of a Kei car doesn’t mean much to most North American modellers. That, however, doesn’t mean that it escapes my notice here at the Lagoon! I recently had the chance to acquire a kit of a 1981 Subaru Rex Combi. It was so weird, and so small, and so…. something, that I had to pick it up!
So, strap in (it’ll be tight, I promise) and let’s see what this little oddball has to offer!
The Box and the Rex:
(No, they’re not the same. The box is faster…)
With a car as sexy as the Rex Combi, you don’t really need a flashy illustration, artsy-fartsy background or even the illusion of speed to sell it. No, with a car like this, the car is enough. Just like with other greats (say, the TC3) a plain box is all you need. Looking at the front of the (surprisingly large) box, one is greeted by a simple, static illustration of a… well… uh… shrunken 80’s Ford Fiesta (?). No, no. that’s not it. But then, again, what is it? Against the dark, almost gloomily inky green of the background sits brightly the two-door, two-box, econo-est of the econoboxes: the Rex Combi!
As box art goes, it’s not very aggressive nor does it take any artistic risks. However, it is surprisingly eye-grabbing, and, despite the subject matter, it does draw one in. Resplendent in its bright yellow with blue stripes (odd choice, but okay…) and oh-so-chic blacked-out rear window trim and bumper ends, the Rex cuts a most sputteringly economical figure. Sure, the colour-coded bumpers and slot mags may make it look tough, but remember, this was the early ‘80s! Whether in Japan or America, lots of stripes and fancy wheels meant nothing. It could be that this trim is just for show.
Rest assured… it is. What you can’t see from the illustration on the box is that the Rex is packing a 33 cid (or 544cc) Inline 2 (yes, TWO) pumping out 31 hp. Uh huh… Now, that’s 1 hp per cubic inch, so that’s not as bad as it sounds. Well, okay… it is. Of course, the car is only 126” long and weighs in at only 1246 lbs. Those mean-looking slot mags are also only 10”, too, if you were wondering. The Rex Combi was designed as a four seater that could be “converted” to a small cargo vehicle. By comparison, my 1980 Trans Am, which is a purely sporty car, with no practicality at all, is 197” long and tips the scales at 3100+ lbs!
And that, right there, is why Kei cars were never exported to North America! To a North American, they just don’t make sense. How can a family car, or even a commuter car for that matter, be so tiny compared to a performance/sports car? In our minds, it can’t. However, in Japan and other Eastern markets the Rex did very well, and continued for a long time. The nameplate was eventually dropped in 1992, after 20 years of tiny, efficient motoring.
On the side of the box is the same illustration, and a write up, in both Japanese and English, about the Rex. The car’s virtues are hyped up strongly. Again, to a culture that considered the Civics of the 80’s to be tiny, it’s hard to understand how praise can be lavished on something that is little bigger than a large ATV. However, we’re not the intended market for this kit any more than we were for the real car. That is the fun part of this model; it’s a culturally displaced artifact for me, and likely for many of you reading this, as well. However, for those who grew up with these things, the large “The Best Car: Vintage” badge for Aoshima’s series of nostalgic Japanese motorcar kits makes sense, I’m sure.
One problem with the box is that it doesn’t show what the kit actually looks like! There are no pictures of a built up kit on the sides at all, so that means we’re going to have to pop this one out to see what we get!
Despite owning many, I’ve not built an Aoshima car kit. The only Aoshimas I’ve built are a couple of the ancient Farpro Japan kits that I have, and thankfully, upon opening up the Rex, it looks nothing like that. There are four sprues of shiny, black plastic, as well as a separately bagged clear sprue for the windows and lights. As it said on the box, the main body is moulded in white, which along with red and yellow, seems to be a fairly common colour for the car. Given that there aren’t that many parts, there are enough bags in the box, and only two sprues ever come in a bag. This is a far cry from the famed “MPC bag-o’-random-loose-parts”, I can tell you!
There is also a separate sprue for the rims (those cheeky little slot mags) and another separate bag for tires and associated hardware. Before going any further, I must offer all due respect and gratefulness to the Japanese for knowing how to properly finish, and package, rims. The finish on these rims is excellent, and conveys polished aluminum very well. Also, like all Japanese wheels (and nearly NO ONE ELSE’S) they are attached at the BACK, where chopping the rims off WON’T SHOW once the car is assembled! Regardless of any other shortcomings, the Rex, like all its fellow country-mates it seems, has wonderful wheels, wonderfully presented. We, the builders of AMT, Revell and MPC, bow down to your mad rim skillz.
Right off the bat, I’m struck with how overly normal the kit is, despite the quirkiness of the subject matter. Everything’s about normal size and shape… what’s the big deal? Then I realized… it’s 1/20!! This poor little dude is smaller than a 1/24 Civic, but being a Kei Car that’s to be expected. The quality of the pieces is fair, and there certainly isn’t flash like one finds on MPCs or Revells! There’s also a fairly simple instruction book and the decals to make the cool side stripe! This isn’t a Masterpiece level kit, but it’s no worse than any other Japanese car kit I own.
That having been said, one thing I dislike about Japanese car kits is that they’re curbsiders. I’d love the chance to build more detailed Japanese engines. However, the Rex is no exception, and other than some under-engine “from below” detail moulded into the front suspension, there’s nothing under the hood on this Rex. (Stow the “There never was!” comments… no need to harp on the car’s utter lack of power. Behave!) Another area where Japanese car kits tend to fall down (compared to their American counterparts) is in detail, especially interior detail.
The Rex is no better than its brothers in this department, either. The interior is cheap and simple, with the opposite side of the chassis floor pan being the cabin floor. There’s no carpeting detail or anything cool like that, and the dashboard is simple. Now, that might be the case in the real car, too; I can’t easily say. However, I’m fairly certain that the real Rex at LEAST had backs on the seats. Sadly, again like so many other Japanese car kits I have, the seats are just hollow. There’s no back to them. WTF? So, you can make perfect rims, but you can’t figure out the BACK of a friggin’ SEAT? Seriously? C’mon, Japan! You guys can make mech kits that put almost any other kit to shame, but the back of a seat eludes you? Is there some kind of cultural thing going on here that I don’t get? I swear… you can lead the horse to water, but it can’t sit down, because there’s NO BACK on the seat!
Now that we’ve gotten past that, there’s not a lot to say about the rest of the interior, other than it is also afflicted with that other oh-so-Japanese car kit disease – motorization! I don’t know why almost every Japanese car kit is designed to be motorized, but they are, and it really wreaks havoc on the interior moulding and detail. In the Rex’s case, the battery is mounted under the rear seat, and thus the rear seat and trunk area suffer. Instead of a nice deep (vertically, not horizontally, obviously!) trunk area with some cute detail on it, we get… a shelf. It’s sort of like the tonneau cover/shelf thing so many hatchbacks have, so it’s kind of okay, but knowing it’s a cop out for motorization bugs me. It does, however, result in there being an interesting open space in the rear of the car where you can hide your… well… whatever fits in the 5 CC of space available.
Instructions and Decals:
In terms of building order and instructional difficulty, the Rex is, once again, more or less on par with its fellows from Japan. The instructions are clear and precisely rendered, and there is a bit of English on there, too. I think we can likely thank the Australia/New Zealand market for that one! There’s a large parts layout diagram, and I noticed that there are some parts that aren’t used, like over-fender flares, and some steering gear and underpans. These might be for some motorized race versions of the car, similar to the “Record Breakers” toys from 30-odd years ago.
Here are the rest of the instructions. This is not a complicated kit, and the instructions should be easy enough to follow.Given the simplicity of the kit, the instructions aren’t overly dense or complicated. They are physically large enough for what they do, though, and there’s plenty of white space. Sadly, the paint callouts aren’t in any form I can understand, but I know these things came in red, white and yellow. That’s all I know, but if the Honda Today kit I have is any indication, then Kei cars aren’t known for their extravagant colour palette. There are no separate instructions for decals, but there aren’t all that many of them, so it’s not too hard to figure out.
The decals themselves look nice and I can’t help but want to paint my car yellow, like the box, and slap the blue stripes on there. The decals are all in register and very crisp, which is what I expect from a Japanese kit.
I am drawn to the everyday and the weird. The Rex Combi is a perfect combination of the two. It’s so normal that it’s weird, and so weird that you can see how that would be normal. It’s a bit like the Japanese Transformers cartoons. It’s something so familiar you feel comfortable, but it’s so culturally specific that it almost feels like you’re seeing it in a funhouse mirror. The Rex is definitely how a car in a funhouse mirror would look, so I guess that’s okay!
As a kit, the Rex is nothing special, other than it’s in the “big” 1/20 scale. This helps novice modellers a bit, since it does make the pieces a bit bigger. It’s not a difficult kit, either; most Japanese cars aren’t. Other than fabricating seat backs (Grrrr…..), I have a feeling this one will just fall together. It would be a good trainer for newcomers to the hobby. However, unless you love weird stuff or have a real soft (or hard?) spot for this car in particular, I can’t say it’s a model that is really going to excite an experienced modeller. There’s not a lot of chance for superdetailing, there’s no engine and the interior is simple.
Overall, the Rex model is a mediocre representation of a decidedly quotidian metropolitan conveyance. Other than being familiarly unfamiliar, it just kind of blends in with other things on the shelf, and I can’t help but think the finished product will too. However, it’s that “blend into the scenery” nature of the kit that also makes it a neat addition to the stash; very few people will know exactly what it is upon closer inspection!
If you’re looking for a simple kit of something different, the Rex might just be your thing. If you like cars with room, style or displacement though, it really begs to be regifted. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it just happens you have to look a little harder to see this one!