The Mazda T2000 Is Not Your Typical Workhorse
Photography by Dennis van Loenhout
Oh Japan. Your uniqueness, your quirkiness, and your, well, weirdness, will never cease to bore. Japanese cars have become synonymous either with flawless reliability in a somewhat boring package or—think Nissan GT-R—wild explosions of exquisitely-engineered madness. Well, brace yourself for both and meet the 1972 Mazda T2000. This, more than a whole parking lot of GT-Rs combined, is efficient utility and that madness combined. Creating a three-wheeled truck that will haul around two tonnes of cargo without falling over or feeling uncomfortable is an unbelievable feat, and just wait until you see its turning circle.
In 1931 Mazda was born into this world, by introducing the Mazda-Go Type-DA. This was also a three-wheeled “truck” that Mazda likely still hails as a machine of class-leading performance and maximum loading capacity. Likely though, then-company president Jujiro Matsuda just thought something along the lines of “I know how to build a bike, so let’s attach a box, truck yeah!” At first, these Mazda-Gos were marketed through the dealer-network of Mitsubishi, which is why the three-pointed Mitsubishi logo can be seen on early examples.
Regardless of the reasoning behind the concept, Mazda managed to get itself noticed. This happened mainly by taking a caravan of Mazda-Gos across the country in 1936. The group covered the 2,700 kilometers between Tokyo and Kagoshima in 26 days. It showed the public how good these Mazdas really were, and the caravan went the 1936-equivalent of “viral” in a heartbeat. The Asian market dug the three-wheeled truck, so the Mazda-Go went through a natural evolution in the decades to come, long before the company ever built a proper car.
Grow a fourth wheel it never really did, but it started resembling a proper truck more and more all the same. After World War II, in 1950, Mazda introduced the third generation of its three-wheeler, engineered by a young guy called Kenichi Yamamoto. Yamamoto, who recently passed away at the respectable age of 95, would later go on to not only become president of the company, but the man who would steer Mazda down the famed avenue of the rotary engine. He was also the one to fit Mazda’s three-wheeler with a windscreen and headlights, helping to alleviate the headaches of deliverymen throughout Asia.
As the years went on, more “luxury” parts and safety features would be added, ranging from a second headlight (I did say luxury!), to a proper steering wheel, a brake booster, some gears, actual doors, a heater, a headrest, and even something that could be described as a roof. This 1972 example of the Mazda T2000 has it all.
This truck has found its way to Holland, to a loving collector of Mazdas who’s also a specialist technician for the brand’s rotary-powered models. “The T2000 has been on my list for a long, long time, but they’re hard to come by,” says Kees Hoebeke, “when I saw this one advertised for sale in Japan, I just couldn’t resist. It’s just brilliant.” The T2000 tried his patience though, because getting it over to its new home was quite a mission.
At first, Hoebeke was told a clutch problem prevented loaders from getting the T2000 on to the boat. Therefore, it had to be shipped by container. But, this T2000—fitted with the longest loading bed available—meant a bigger container was required, a size that wouldn’t be completely filled by the T2000. Not efficient. So, he decided to wait until he had another car to ship from Japan to make the rented space on the container worth it. Eventually the T2000 shared its container with a very different type of Mazda, an RX-7, and the pair arrived in Holland almost a year after the initial purchase of the T2000. “I collected it from the Amsterdam harbor and took it home on a trailer. Never attracted more attention!” laughs Hoebeke, who was baffled when he first fired up the T2000. “The clutch”, he says, “seems to be fine!”
Up until this point, this story has had a slight hint of irony, maybe even sarcasm to it. It’s not easy to take a three-wheeled truck seriously after all, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Technically, these were among the soundest machines of their time. The Mazda-Go had to make do with a single-cylinder, air-cooled engine that barely made it past the 10hp mark. As Asia’s post-war economy grew in unison with Mazda’s confidence, so did the engines—and therefore the loading capacities—of these quirky trucks. The one you see here is powered by a two-liter four-cylinder engine that’s good for 81 horsepower, enough to give it a loading capacity of two metric tons.
Make no mistake, that makes this truck a pretty serious hauler, and therefore, depending on where you lived, the Freightliner or the Scania of contemporary Japan. See, the growing economy called for swift and efficient transport. That explained the ever growing seriousness of these trucks in terms of engine, capacity, and driver comfort. But why the hell did they have three wheels for so long? Well, that’s not difficult. Taxes! Three-wheeled trucks were charged less tax than even the smaller four-wheeled variants, so figuring out why three-wheelers remained popular for so long in Japan isn’t hard. There’s another reason though: the single front wheel allowed for more steering lock, so the trucks were more nimble on the twisting mountain roads and in the insanely crowded cities of Japan. Plus, one less wheel means less production cost and therefore a comparatively lower retail price: in its longest form, as featured here, a T2000 would have set you back a little under 700,000 yen, the contemporary equivalent of about 2,300 dollars.
You might not notice this from the pictures, but the Mazda T2000 is a big boy. The three-wheeled layout makes it look all cutesy, but at a length of 20 feet, a width of six, and a height of just about 6’5” all make for a pretty huge thing in the flesh, which is kind of flabbergasting. And so is the drive.
Driving the Mazda T2000 is an insane experience, at least from the perspective of the western and modern world. It shudders and shakes and bounces weirdly on its single front wheel. The steering takes a lot of getting used to; it is very responsive, thanks in part to the big wheel. And thanks to this truck being centered around the single front wheel, it “aims” differently than you’re used to. It is nimble however, its turning circle being almost unbelievably small. The engine howls at you from directly under the seat. Of course, a two-liter, 81-horsepower unit is going to need its breath if it’s going to haul cargo around. Therefore the four manual gears are extremely short, meaning you reach high revs and another shift point quite quickly. It makes the Mazda feel rather powerful, although its top speed is reported to have been a mere 60mph, 50 when loaded. But to be honest that feels like enough, even when its empty. Don’t try that 60mph at home, kids.
On the plus side though, that one safety feature, the brake booster, certainly does its job, because with an empty loading bed a T2000 does know how to stop quickly, making you head-butt the window and then the headrest on every occasion you aren’t braced for. The engine heat radiates through the seat, filling the cabin, which suddenly makes you realize the canvas roof of the T2000 does make sense after all as opposed to a completely sealed space. What’s funny and impressive at the same time though, is the rate of speed at which you can chuck this truck into a corner. Unless you do something really suicidal, the T2000 will not flinch. It won’t tip over. It’s Japanese. It’s proud, you know.
However in 1974, the unthinkable happened. The T2000 ceased production to be replaced later by a new T2000 that did in fact have four wheels, but was nothing more than an ordinary van. And as is the way with workhorses, they quickly disappeared without anyone really noticing and the aforementioned ordinary van becoming the norm. That’s a fate undeserved. A few years ago Top Gear sung “praise” to the three-wheeler, featuring a Reliant Robin that was tipped over by Mr. Clarkson at every opportunity. Little does he know that the Mazda T2000 is arguably the three-wheeler in its ultimate incarnation. One that deserves some respect, damnit.