Arnold Klappe was on an ambitious overland tour of East Africa when he saw an unusually angular Japanese van that spoke to his adventurous, West Coast soul.
It was his first glimpse of the famed Mitsubishi Delica, a boxy, diesel-powered vehicle that strongly resembles the iconic Volkswagen vans of a bygone era.
"Everyone has those thoughts: 'If I won a million dollars what would I do?'" Mr. Klappe says. "I'd buy a Delica, modify it a bit – and drive it around the world."
When Mr. Klappe returned to Canada, he was delighted to find vintage Delicas shipped across the Pacific from Japan were enjoying a mini-renaissance in his native British Columbia. Their niche popularity has spawned a Delica drivers' club. But there are also safety concerns about Delicas, with various provinces and organizations across the country mobilizing to prevent even more of the vehicles from washing up on Canada's shores.
The number of made-in-Japan Delicas from the mid-1990s in B.C. has been growing slowly but steadily over the past five years, from roughly 1,000 in 2009 to around 1,400 in 2013, according to the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC). By contrast, Manitoba's provincial insurer says there are only 30 Delicas in the entire province, while Saskatchewan has only nine – and no new registrations so far in 2014. In B.C., one auto importer alone – Steven Lee of Rising Sun Auto Import – estimates he has brought in 65 to 80 Delicas each year for the past five years. Some shipped to B.C. are driven further east, but provinces with private insurance providers make a total tally difficult.
There are various reasons why most Delica vans in Canada – and more than half of the members in the national Mitsubishi Delica Club – are found in B.C.
Vancouver is just across the Pacific from Japan and has a thriving port, so it is the obvious unloading point. More important, Japan has strict vehicle inspections and high depreciation that discourage the use of aging vehicles, which quickly become prohibitively expensive to maintain. That, combined with strict rules for disposing of used vehicles and a perceived cultural preference for newer ones, leads to a steady exodus of high-quality used vehicles from Japan to ports in Southeast Asia and the Russian far east, as well as in B.C. The price for a Delica: anywhere from $6,000 to $15,000.
But to Mr. Klappe and others, there is one outstanding reason for their West Coast connection: Delicas are basically a more modern, practical version of the VW "hippie" van of old – a vehicle particularly well suited to people who love the outdoors.
"It's definitely West Coast," Mr. Klappe says. "If you go up on Vancouver Island or Whistler or Squamish, they're all over the place."
This is despite the fact that imported vans have to be modified. Because the van was originally designed to drive on the left-hand side of the road, its high beams are angled straight into incoming traffic in North America – requiring a fix. There is also the olfactory factor: As recently as 2005, nearly half of all Japanese male adults smoked, and Delica importers are sometimes confronted with ashtrays on wheels. Others take modifications further, installing camping stoves, interior lighting and surfboard racks; some even rig their Delicas' diesel engines to run on waste vegetable oil. The Delica Club's online forum is filled with pictures of Delicas from around the world outfitted with monster truck wheels and tank-style treads.
"I've come across people who are doing extensive tours of North America, Central America and South America with their Delicas," says Mark Szekely, who started the club after setting up a website to sell his first used Delica.
The vehicle, and other bargain-priced Japanese imports, have raised the ire of officialdom.
Concerned by the rising number of right-hand-drive imports, ICBC analyzed crashes involving vehicles like the Delica. In 2009, the agency published its alarming findings: Right-hand-drive vehicles were 40 per cent more likely to be in a crash, and 56 per cent more likely to cause one, than left-hand-drive vehicles. The driver's position is believed to make everyday manoeuvres – such as pulling away from a curb or making a left-hand turn – much more dangerous.
Currently, Canada has a 15-year ban on importing used cars manufactured abroad that do not meet Canadian safety and environmental regulations, which is the reason nearly all the Delicas in Canada are mid-1990s models – and none is newer than 1999.
In 2010, Quebec moved to ban the import of new right-hand-drive vehicles, noting that drivers "do not have an optimum field of vision." Although making an exception for commercial vehicles and collectibles, Prince Edward Island followed with similar legislation, leading a person in an online forum to joke that "[s]tatistically, you are more likely to get hurt by a damn lobster or collecting potatoes" than an imported right-hand-drive car in PEI.
Mark Francis, an ICBC manager of provincial vehicle registration who is on a national working group on the issue, says they asked Transport Canada to increase the number of years before a vehicle can be imported from 15 to 25. That number – which would be in line with the United States – would effectively kill the importation of modern Delicas by making it no longer economic for Japanese exporters to warehouse them.
"We're taking their junk, as we view it," Mr. Francis says. He adds, however, that the lack of any high-profile crashes involving these vehicles means there's little incentive to act. "We're not expecting them to do anything in the near future."
The Canadian Automobile Dealers Association and other industry groups have also lobbied against these imports, fuelling an impression among some Delica owners that big business is trying to make a profit while cracking down on their fun.
At the moment, Mr. Klappe is having a lot of that. Thinking the inside of his van was a tad small, he bought not just one but two Delicas, and then cut them apart to fuse them together into a Godzilla-esque monster van that he can drive – and sleep in – comfortably on travels through B.C., the Northwest Territories and on planned trips to Morocco, Mongolia and South America.
"They're a quirky little car," he says. "It was a vehicle that was designed for the West Coast."