The ‘70s were a wild time for car customizing. Super-garish paint and striping jobs combined with unbridled unabashedness to create some of the most colourful and, in some cases bizarre, customs. It was definitely a time when bigger and flashier was better. Sure, cars were becoming far less powerful than only a few years before, but that just meant that you had to make it LOOK better, even if it wasn’t going to be as fast.
This trend reached its zenith with the Vannin’ craze. If you want some more examples of Vannin’, just check out my Gold Rush and Sundance Express articles. With the amazing rolling bordellos that were Street Vans, customizers had a huge canvas to play with. Amazing scenes, massive striping jobs and acres of other airbrush artistry were skin-deep, but they were definitely a big part of the van’s appeal. Even on cars, fancy stripe work, often in the “sunset” (yellow, orange, red) spectrum, was also a sure-fire clue you had a late ‘70s or early ‘80s custom on your hand. In fact, things were so big, that even the manufacturers themselves got in on the action, like Ford did with its Cruising Van and Pinto Cruising Wagon.
However, what were you supposed to do if a van was just too darned big for you to afford or even to park? Since the start of the decade, there’d been a real demand for smaller, lighter-duty truck-like vehicles than the ones the Big 3 produced. Since disasters like the Pinto and Vega showcased that the big boys didn’t really yet get small trucks, they decided to leave tucks to their captive import brands. Thus, we got things like the Ford Courier, Chevy LUV and Dodge D50. By this point, though, other brands had started to take a bite out of the market, including Japanese brands under their own banners, like the Subaru BRAT and the Datsun 620 light trucks.
It only makes sense that customizers would catch on to these vehicles as well. Thus, a subsegment of the custom world came to be; minitrucks! To this day, the minitruck subculture is alive and well, even though modern “small” pick-ups are now the size of older F-150s. With the smaller trucks, it didn’t necessarily mean less radical customization; it just meant a little less room for paint and murals. However, custom minitrucks ranged from mild to wild. Anything you could do on a big truck or van, or car, could be done to a minitruck. The trucks’ car-like size made it more acceptable, too, to use some car ideas on them, where it could be a bit much on a larger truck.It’s also no surprise that there were “pros” who set out to create minitruck show rods, just like had been done with vans and cars before them.
One of the favourite tricks of the day was making the car wider, and more streamlined, with flares. These were strongly inspired by the IMSA cars, whose road-racing versions of everyday transport usually sported wider tires and massive flares to contain them. These “IMSA flares” were a big trend, and it wasn’t long until they were incorporated on the minitrucks, giving them some much needed “meat”.
One of the more famous “show trucks” of that period was the Harry Bradley-designed “California Sunshine”. This was more than just a bit of paint on a truck. This was a full on, ICAS (International Championship Auto Shows)-reconginzed show rod based on the oh-so-humble Datsun 620. Now, if you’re a regular on the Lagoon, you’ll recognize Harry’s name as the designer of a number of decal schemes for some of MPC’s wildest customs, like Wild Breed and Long Shot. However, the California Sunshine was a real vehicle, first.
It was a radical departure from the base Datsun 620, with big IMSA flares and a whole new nose. There was a massive chin spoiler and a whole new bar grille and big, square headlights. There were fancy wheels and weird, “split” side exhausts, and a roll bar. The paint made the truck, though, being white with a full sunset stripe going yellow-orange-red-purple and ending, in some spots, in black. This was thematically repeated on the hood, but going outwards from the central crease. A black tonneau cover and custom interior finished the job, while the roll-panned rear bumper cleaned up the back end. It was exactly what you’d expect from an ICAS truck, and I looked really cool.
In fact, it was so cool, that the California Step Side company manufactured flare kits for both long- and short-box Datsun 620s, so you could make your own version of California Sunshine! The truck’s style was so popular there were even toys made, like my Zylmex Datsun Sunshine.
With that in mind, it should be no surprise that MPC jumped all over it. Heck, they had a Datsun 620, so they should be able to do what Harry did and create their own California Sunshine, right? If your answer was a Last Dragon-esque “Sho ‘Nuff!!” then you, my friend, know how MPC ran its business in the heady days of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Despite there being other custom versions of the 620, like “Rising Sun” (cough… nice racism… cough), the good folks at MPC did indeed punch out their own copy of Harry Bradley’s seminal custom minitruck!
I first encountered this kit at Wheels and Wings, a hugely well-stocked shop in Toronto, Ontario. It was, sadly, water damaged, and the box was roached. Faring even worse, the decals were non-existent. At the time, I wasn’t into cars as much as now, so I decided that I’d not be able to do it justice without the decals. So, I left it behind. However, I’ve always regretted that, and have wished I’d bought it, if only to do it some other ‘70s custom-way.
Of course, what happens when I do that? You’ve got it! My peerless brother jumps in and manages to right my foolhardy wrongs. Thus, it was for my birthday in 2022 that he gave to me a STILL SEALED California Sunshine kit. This box was perfect, and I was, as you can imagine, extremely excited to finally have my hands on one of these things! I’ve not seen another one since the one I left behind, so I know he had to hunt around for a while to find one. So, let’s dig right into this awesome, overblown custom minitruck, shall we?
As is well-known, I’m a sucker for awesome box art. This box art is great, and it has so much of what makes MPC kits of this era awesome to own, even if you don’t build them. You’ve got a plain white background, sure, but that only serves to set off the massive sunset-themed visual assault that is the California Sunshine titling. Taking up about the upper third of the box, this bit of titling is, itself, a bit of art. Like so many other MPC customs, the two words don’t actually match stylistically. The California, in yellow and orange, is very scripty, like an Coca Cola sign, or maybe even more like the writing on an old-timey baseball uniform. They yellow outline almost makes it glow, like the proverbial sunshine itself. Oddly, the Sunshine part is written much smaller, and is red outlined in the yellow.
Thankfully, the crew at MPC wrote “Datsun Mini-Pickup” at the top, because if you didn’t know that was the Sunshine’s starting point, you’d likely have a hard time figuring it out. The only really distinctive feature left from a Datsun 620 is the “spear” that starts on the door and goes into the side rails on the pickup bed. Beyond that, this thing is custom all the way!
It’s also in your face all the way, with a huge, front three-quarters shot of the Cali Sunshine just ready to roll you over with IMSA flares, sunset stripes and HUGE tires. I will admit I LOVE the new grille! With a will width horizontal bar and square headlights, this thing looks more European than Japanese, and it’s a huge contrast with the original, very “round” look of the Datsun grille. Adding an aggressive sportiness to it are two large fog lights at the centre. These remind me of the central lights on some Shelby Mustangs, likely on purpose.
Right away, the weird louvres (Is it a decal or a piece?) across the top of the windscreen take your eye to the cabin, where the custom bucket seat backs immediately tell you this is non-standard inside and out. The black tonneau cover with yellow rollbars is amazingly unifying, since there’s also a wild hood decal with black on the outside, and a fading “sunset stripe” in the middle. The end result is amazingly balanced, given how wild the truck really is!
And wild it gets the further down the body you go. The IMSA flares even have flush, NACA-type inlets on them! The paint is amazing, going from white to violet, transitioning through the sunset striping. The truck looks low and fast, and the tires take up the entirety of the fender wells. They’re even so meaty that they project beyond the flares, letting you know there’s some serious rubber on this thing. The wheels are very deep-dish chrome with an odd pattern in the middle. The aero-mirrors are almost easy to overlook with all this colour and these new, unexpected shapes coming at you!
It may not be as overtly gaudy as some MPC boxes, but the California Sunshine does a good job of making up for this, as it is naturally an extremely lound piece of kit. My box is a dual English/French boxing, indicating it was made for, if not in, Canada. With all that orange and those sunset stripes, this box delivers an impressively hard visual hit. It’s a lot like Bear Bait’s box, in that respect. In each case you’ve got a small, unassuming vehicle all IMSA-ed up and sunset striped, and the juxtaposition is very artistic in itself.
The one side of the box shows a couple of shots of the Cali Sunshine. The main focus is on the rear end (so many jokes I could make…), and this thing proves to have a lot of booty. With the fares, there is a lot of extra width, and the continuation of the sunset striple as if coming out of the back “tunnel” of the flare looks amazing. The black Datsun writing and the “voids” behind he flares also help to tie the truck together, while the rollpanned back end looks great. You also get a look at one of those very unique wheels (Not sure they were ever used with anything else…) and the crazy, quilt-like custom inerior!
On the other side of the box is the expected, and much-loved, full size pic. I’ve always liked that about MPCs, and it helps a lot with lining things, like the decals, up.
There’s always an element of danger with MPC kits: Tire Melt! For some reason, the vinyl in MPC tires melts whatever it touches, but it’s especially hard on the clear window pieces. When you can’t inspect an MPC kit (because it’s still sealed), it’s very much a “Shroedinger’s Cat” situation. The windows are both fine and melted at the same time. Only by not opening the kit could I guarantee that the kit was perfect. Mind you, not opening a sealed kit from 40 years ago should be a no-brainer, right?
HA!!!! FIE ON YOUR RESALE VALUE!
I’d waited a long time to get one of these! While there are some kits on my For Sale page, the California Sunshine wasn’t ever going to be one of them. Nope, this one is for building! Thus, I took a pic of it still sealed, and then promptly cut the plastic open to get at the awesomeness, and potential disappointment, inside. I was buoyed by the knowledge that I could just use my Round 2 Datsun 620’s windows should I encounter the dreaded Tire Melt, and thus let nothing stop me.
Lifting the lid, I huffed in all the trapped ‘80s air I could. It smelled just like a time before Transformers, when Reagan was still in his first term. It smelled, well, stale and plasticky. It’s more about what the air represents, I guess… Letting light at this guy for the first time in four decades, I was pleased to find that there was, indeed, no Tire Melt on the windows! The proverbial cat was alive in the box after all! Now, the decals, as you’ll see later… they did ironically take a couple of hits. They were alive, but more in the “walking wounded” class.
The kit comes on 7.5 sprues of whitish plastic, and the cab is separate. There’s also a separate chrome rack and a “glass” rack with the back and front windows, as well as a sun roof. Rounding out the package are two red glass tail lights and four thick tires. There aren’t any metal axels in this one, in case you’re looking for them. That’s more of an AMT thing, I think. The reason I say 7.5 sprues is because one sprue is just a foursome of tire halves, and really isn’t worth counting as a full rack.
The parts were white, maybe, at some point, but sealed or not, the years have turned the plastic more of a light cream colour. This is hardly a surprise, since the plastic would have been a bit more yellowish and soft than the hard blue-white stuff Round 2 uses today in their reissues. The good news is that this kit will be easier to sand because of it. The bad news; it’s an MPC, so I’m sure there will be lots of sanding! As far as most of the parts go, we’ve all seen them in the reissued Datsun. But, have we?
Since the California Sunshine is a custom show truck, there are a number of extra pieces above and beyond some other versions of this kit. The IMSA flares are new, of course, as is the chin spoiler and rear rollpan. The bed-mounted rollbar is also something new, but the tonneau cover is not. One thing that’s not immediately obvious are the seats. The California Sunshine replaces the normal bench seat with a pair of “semi buckets”, with a flip-down armrest between them. I guess this is more of a “split bench”, then? Regarldess, it is different, and it has a totally different pattern of stitching and padding. Oh, and it wouldn’t be a patented Sprue Lagoon car review without mentioning that, even though you can’t see most of it, the seats DO have backs. That’s right, Japan: that’s how seats are made. Take notes, and do better. Grrrr…
The rest of the kit is more or less as per the Datsun 620’s OOB review, linked above, as well as right here.
One great thing is that this does indeed come with a FULL SET of the plastic, halved, stock tires and wheels, as well as the hubcaps for them. Unlike the reissue, that means you can build this truck stock. Well, kinda. You actually can’t build this thing fully stock, but you can put super-lame rubber on it if you want! If you don’t want, though, there are four very thick, beefy goodyear tires in the box. Being old, they are the kind with raised letters; if you want them white, you’re going to have to work for it! Still, it’s nice to see kits with proper lettered tires… who’d have thought that would become a point of nostalgia?!
The windows were very clean on my example, and I am thankful for that. The chrome rack is also pretty nice, being very brightly chromed. It’s also quite different from the Datsun 620 reissue, since it has different wheels, the rollbar parts, unique sidepipes and, of course, the custom grille with square headlamps that are so much a trademark of the California Sunshine! Strangely, there aren’t any of the “big rig”-type exhaust stacks in this kit, although there’d be nowhere to put them due to the rollbar. The rims are very, very deep, and if they have to be stripped down, I’d worry about getting chrome paint back in there and having it look decent.
Overall, the kit gives off a perfect “MPC Crazy Custom” vibe, like so many other MPCs. It has decent detail marred in inconvenient spots by unnecessarily large injection pin marks, nice texture on the engine block/tranny and interior, and nice engine bay detail to boot. I’m more than willing to bet that there will be fit issues, because you know that’s how MPC rolls. Still, having built my share of MPCs, I don’t foresee something so bad that a veteran can’t handle it.
Instructions and Decals:
Since this kit is a Canadian issue, we have to have special two-sided instructions: one in English the other in French. This also means the instructions are far larger than they need to be, and are one of those “mini tablecloths” that MPC likes to put with their kits. This makes them a bit difficult to have on the bench, as they either have to be constantly refolded or pinned up somewhere.
As instructions go, they’re fine, being typical of MPC kits of the era. They are hand drawn, black and white and generally show what you need. However, there are going to be spots (like the front bumper) that are a bit vague, and I can tell right now that the way of putting in the conventional rollpan under/inside the chin spoiler isn’t going to be easy, because the instructions don’t really show any alignment. I’m sure the kit doesn’t have any, but that’s another story.
From the instructions, you can see that the engine has a good number of separate parts, and like the Round 2 reissue, also comes with either a standard air intake and air cleaner, or a pair of side-draft carburetors. I’d have thought there’d be a turbocharger in here since the California Sunshine is so customized, but I guess I was wrong.
The decalling instructions are pretty weak, showing you roughly where they go on the truck, but not much else. That’s okay, though, in a way, since the decals, as you’ll soon see, are labelled not by number, but by position!
The decals are, in many ways, one of the major draws of this kit. Being custom-made for a wild show truck like this, you can bet they’re colourful, and the full range of “extended sunset” (including purple and black) striping is presented on the decal sheet. There’s a lot of Murray Kelly going on with this decal sheet, I can tell you! (Murray Kelly printing is where my grandfather worked. They did everything in orange, violet and black. So does the California Sunshine!) The sheet is fairly large, and includes the main striping on the body, hood and tailgate, but also the decals for the wildly-coloured seat inserts and the door panels that are similarly gaudily treated.
Weirdly, while the seats on the side of the box are shown in the decalled scheme, the main illustration shows the seats to be different, with straight-black inserts, and they don’t wrap up to the top of the seat! Also, the seats are a different shape. Oh MPC… what have you done now? I will admit… this discrepancy does make me nervous. So many times MPC recycles things (like in the 1980 Road Runner) that aren’t quite right, and it can be quite a challenge to get it all sorted out…
The decals in my copy, sadly, took some tire melt damage. There’s a bit of damage on the hood black panels, but that’s easy to fix. Harder to fix will be some of the weird patchiness in the sunset stripe decals, and the tire damage on the seating decal. Finding paint to match will be tough, so I suspect it will be time to bust out the photo editing software and do some cloning, then run a new decal sheet. I expect these original decals will work when hit with Testors Decal Bonder spray; Gold Rush’s responded well. However, left on their own, I imagine they’ll fragment badly due to age. That’s how MPC decals usually work. So, a good pre-use scan and archiving is in order regardless.
The decals, while colourful, aren’t as well-printed as you might think. They’re very “dotty” and there are spots where things get a little “out of register”, if you will. Worse than that, I do have some serious questions about if they’re the right shape. MPC has a very uneven track record with that kind of thing… I don’t like the fact that they just drew in a black line for the scoop on the rear flare; this is not going to go well. I’ll have to do an overlay to see if the line is even in the right spot! There’s no way on earth the decal has enough volume in it to conform to the scoop without distortion, and if you cut the decal on the black line, and it’s wrong, then you’re screwed.
On top of that, you’ll still have exposed paint in the flare that will need to be touched up in the appropriate striping colour, and this holds for things like the tail light bezels and rollpan as well. So, while I did wait a long time to get one with the decals, it seems like the decals on this thing may not be all they’re cracked up to be, and may not be that useful after all!
The real California Sunshine truck is a truly period piece. Combining Harry Bradley’s flair for flares and lurid striping with the emerging minitruck scene created a uniquely striking piece of automotive art. It’s everything good and bad about the time period, automotively. The rise of minitrucks was a response to the cost, in terms of capital outlay and fuel, of Vannin’ and it embraced the same trends on a smaller, easier to park and drive, scale.
The MPC kit of the California Sunshine is another truly period piece. It combines MPCs love of reissuing kits ad nauseum with its love of crazy decals and wild custom treatments. It is everything good and bad about MPC in that era. You get a cool new custom truck with only minimal capital outlay from MPC, and they get your money for minimal engineering work!
As a kit, the California Sunshine is no better or worse looking than any other MPC of the time. There’s a bit of flash, but mostly it’s just some rude seams and sharp edges that need a sanding or scraping. The fit will likely be decent on most parts, but the flares could go either way. That’s the nature of bolt-on parts; just like in real life! The new chrome pieces are cool, though, and I hope they work out right.
Like most MPCs, this kit could be easily gluebombed by a tyro, but it’s an expensive way to go about learning to build a car kit. Some skill will be needed on this, I guarantee it, but on top of that, it’s painting skill that’s really going to come to the fore with this one. With the decals likely not doing all the job, this kit is a lot like the AMT Ford Street Van in that considerable extra paintwork will be required. For that reason alone, this kit is not even recommended for those who can build well but don’t like painting. To build this one, you’re going to need skills across the board, and patience to boot.
I love the California Sunshine, and I’m super-excited to get into it. Whether or not it’s a nightmare, finally having one is a great feeling. It’s kitschy and gaudy and silly; it’s an MPC custom! If that’s your bag, and you miss the days of mullets and vented shirts, then grab this one if you see it! Just be ready, since it likely won’t be ALL sunshine all the time!