When looking for the best deals in life, sometimes you find yourself in some pretty strange places. I was standing in in front of an empty lot, unkempt and unused and freaky as hell. Well, with the exception of a mound of random car parts on one side, a ratty Jeep Cherokee ready to either be restored or recycled on the other. And of course, right in front of me, was the “good deal” I traveled so far for.
Four Multicabs for fifteen thousand pesos each. Cheap, huh? But when they say you get what you pay for, you really do. No engines, no papers, practically shells with scrap values less than the asking price. The agent, a self-stylized freelance salesman with a brain most befitting a ocean-dwelling invertebrate, honestly thought he would hustle me with this load of junk. I’m not that dumb, but I deserve the dunce cap for wasting time chasing this lead.
Our family runs a distribution business, selling consumer goods to the smallest of outlets, traversing the narrowest of roads in our assigned territory. Given that the fleet was mostly made up of six-wheeler trucks that were definitely not Elf-sized, I was assigned to procure a different set of vehicles more suited to the task. Small, fuel efficient, ample space for cargo, and cheap to procure – what else to get than a Multicab?
So far I acquired three Multicabs for the family biz: a red 4WD Suzuki FB, a 2WD dropside which smoked like a pack-a-day pundit and later fitted with a van body I bought from a dude in Tondo, and a Daihatsu 660cc panel van that wiggles its ass out whenever I brake but goes like stink, relatively speaking of course. Each feels different; no two Multicabs are alike. Among the three I have witnessed two engine overhauls, two steering box failures (necessitating the passenger to literally kick the front tires to turn), two incidents of theft (in the same slum area in Taguig), and multiple incidents of breakdowns which needed them to be towed back to the office.
When they were new in Japan, their manufacturers exploited a law put in place to foster industrial progress and to make vehicle ownership more accessible to the masses. The keijidosha class regulation limited engine and vehicle size. However, the cars were cheaper to run due to reduced road taxes, and at least for people living in rural areas, they didn’t need to show proof that they had adequate parking space for the car.
Kei-class cars had 360cc engines when they first came out in the 1950’s, and as the years progressed and road conditions changed, the displacement limit was bumped up to 550 and finally 660cc’s today. To put that into perspective, Project Elantra’s G4GF motor sucks in 1975cc’s of fuel and air in its four cylinders. My first aquisition was a red Multicab with an F5A three-cylinder engine. The whole engine displaces 550cc, barely bigger than one cylinder of the Elantra’s!
The F5A is so small you can almost lift it yourself. When disassembled, as it was when needing to repair it after the timing belt snapped and fux0rd the thing up, I brought it to the machine shop in a box you’d gift a mini-component sound system in, and drove it there in the not-so-copious cargo bay of our Getz. The pistons are the size of those in motorbikes; the con rods are the thickness of chicken bones. And on a good day, with the stars on perfect alignment, the motor produces 30hp.
The power output may not seem much. Well, it really isn’t, but thanks to short gearing, the car can easily get out of its own way. However, when loaded with two people in the cabin and about half a ton of goods inside the enclosed “FB” body*, it struggles but still manages to eke forward. Four-wheel drum brakes make stopping the vehicle a hairy proposition, especially with a heavy load. But then again, when 80 kph is the end of the world for this particular Multicab, there isn’t much velocity to dissipate. Forget about cornering capability; you can barely steer the car since the wheel doesn’t have power steering or even a basic sense of effecting lateral motion. And a vague tiller is bad when avoiding an accident. Forget the NCAP, the crumple zone consists of 1/16″ thick metal, the plastic bumper, and the appendages you call your legs. And maybe your chest too, as the steering wheel is poised to skewer you like a human kebab.
And yet I like it. It goes fifteen kilometers for every liter of gasoline. It fits in even the tiniest of navigable alleyways. Parts, though you always have to bring a sample with you to an auto supply, are surprisingly plentiful. And it embodies that quintessential Pinoy spirit of making do with the scraps of more well-heeled countries. We turned US Jeeps into our nation’s transport backbone, the jeepney. And now we have the Multicab, which was the brainchild of Norberto Quisumbing Jr., the founder of Norkis.
Besides founding the company best known for the multi-line retail of motorcycles with branches spread across the nation, Quisumbing introduced the motorized pedicab, or what we now call the tricycle.** Norkis also became an innovator in reconditioned motor vehicles, starting with motorcycles, the Multicab (the name also coined by Quisumbing and now serving as the genericized trademark for the breed), and a quaint little car called the Legacy, which was a Daihatsu Mira kei car with the body aft of the B-pillar chopped off and a pick-up bed grafted back.
Business success brings forth copycats. Much in the same way that Sarao and Francisco Motors were overrun by small-time backyard jeepney builders, Multicabs are now converted and rebuilt by many a mom-and-pop operation that sell them by the troves, as much as they are equally and swiftly disposed of from Japan. The possible variants of Multicab abound. Pick your poison: FB, aluminum panel van, dropside/pick-up, microvan, and a hybrid of the microvan where the rear quarter of the body is turned into a pick-up bed. If there are any more configurations, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Want a cheap, everyday car that sips fuel like a sommelier? Get the microvan. Want to go off-roading? Get one with a 4×4 tranny with a two-speed transfer case, lift the body up, and fit in knobby tires and 13″ rims. Need to lug gravel, sand, and other hardware? Get a dropside and fill-er up. Need to transport people? Get one with an FB body. Want to go fast? Don’t get a Multicab at all.
The keitora that the Japanese chuck out has not only brought forth the Multicab, but has also spawned several vehicles based on its mechanicals. For example, check out Genesis Giron’s mini owner-type jeep, or the “Pop Car” featured in the 2011 Manila International Auto Show. These vehicles further prove the latent creativity that we Filipinos have, where we make do and do wonders with what we got.
Multicabs are also becoming the replacement for the passenger jeepney on some urban routes, especially in the provinces. Not only being thrifty and occupying a smaller road footprint than the average jeepney, they also emit less emissions. Why not pepper public transport with Multicabs? Forget the e-Jeepney. (Or not. The e-Jeepney looks to me like a Multicab powered by a Tamiya Atomic-tuned motor and Motolite batteries.)
Electric propulsion may not be the future – what with poor range and the anxiety that comes with it. But the sound of sheer silence may be better than the noise that these three-cylinders make. They idle nice enough, but a stab of the throttle emits a noise that is more flatulence than the result of a reciprocating cycle. And I end this piece, leaving you, the reader, of visions of a cantankerous Multicab farting along as it struggles to get out of your way.
* FB, meaning “Family and Business”, is a common truck body style fitted to small-sized trucks in the Philippines. Termed originally coined by Almazora Motors Corp., a truck body builder, for a body option initially made available to Mitsubishi L300 buyers. Essentially a box body featuring side-by-side, two-row, jeepney-style bench seating; sliding side windows (or none at all), at least one rear door, a step board for easy ingress, perhaps air-conditioning if the passengers are lucky. As the moniker suggests, the body style is an acceptable configuration for both personal and commercial use.
** Information obtained from this source.