Awesome JDM Camper Vans and Conversions You’ll Want to Import
As the world’s largest market for recreational vehicles, the U.S. enjoys a huge variety of options for those looking to go RVing. But when it comes to small, capable campers with cool names, the Japanese market has us beat. Whether it’s their just-right size for #vanlife, their widely available diesel engines and four-wheel drive, their forbidden fruit appeal, or a combination of all those factors, JDM RVs and camper vans put our boring commercial-van-based RVs to shame. We’ve assembled a list of 10 JDM campers that may trigger intense feelings of want—and many of them can be imported to the U.S. now that they’re more than 25 years old.
There are a few caveats, however. Though you can legally import just about anything 25 years after its production date, finding an importer willing to source a JDM camper for you can be tough. These are niche vehicles even in Japan, and shipping some of the taller RVs can pose logistical challenges for importers used to bringing over low-slung Nissan Skylines and Mazda RX-7s. Also, depending on what you want, finding parts can be a nightmare. One owner we spoke to had his van out of commission for months because he couldn’t find a replacement exhaust manifold. We imagine some of the more specialized parts installed by third-party upfitters would be even harder to find 25 years later. But there’s no doubt in our mind that any hassles would be worth being able to hit the open American road in these awesome vans—either now or when a few of them become eligible to bring here in the next few years. Enjoy!
Based on the Dyna medium-duty truck, the Camroad (pictured above) is a chassis-cab vehicle designed by Toyota specifically with motorhome upfitters in mind. The Camroad was available with a range of gas and diesel engines and could be had in 4WD with locking hubs. Several upfitters used the Camroad as a camper base, so many different floor plans exist. Some models could even sleep up to six people—a tight squeeze considering the van’s 102-inch wheelbase and roughly 197-inch overall length. That makes it shorter than most Class B camper vans, though at the tall end (its roof towers just under 10 feet in the air). Sadly, those of us in the U.S. will have to wait a couple years before we can import one of these parking space-sized RVs. The Camroad was first sold in 1997.
Nissan Atlas Camper
Similar in size and spec to the Camroad, the Nissan Atlas is a medium-duty cabover truck that was a popular starting point for many JDM RV conversions. Like the Camroad, Atlas campers are usually found with an overcab section for sleeping or storage, a turbodiesel engine, 4WD, and sweet ’90s foam coffee-cup graphics.
Toyota LiteAce/TownAce Camper
If you’re familiar at all with JDM Toyota vans, you’ve noticed that a lot of them have “Ace” in the name. That naming tradition goes back to the ToyoAce in 1956 and has spawned numerous variations on the moniker since. LiteAce and TownAce (and eventually the questionably named MasterAce Surf) are two virtually interchangeable names for a compact cabover van/truck slotting between the MiniAce and HiAce. Though the model range dates back to 1970, the sweet spot for camper vans seems to be the M30/M40 and R20/R30 (the basis for the U.S.-market Toyota Van) generations spanning from 1982-1996. These trapezoid-shaped vans have that classic JDM space wagon vibe and are unexpectedly capable when equipped with a turbodiesel engine and 4WD. The TownAce van pictured here was imported and upfitted with a pop-top camper body by Texino Campers in L.A.
No list of JDM camper vans would be complete without a mention of the mighty Mitsubishi Delica. We see more and more of these every year in California—and the more we see, the more we want one. The most popular version to import seems to be the third-generation L300 model, produced in Japan from 1986 to 1998 (overlapping a few years with its successor, the L400). This JDM van is known for its ruggedness thanks in large part to a chassis and 4WD system derived from the Mitsubishi Pajero SUV. Delicas can commonly be found with a factory bull bar with off-road auxiliary lights, a Crystal Lite multi-pane glass roof, rock sliders, and fold-flat seats, making them attractive to aspiring vanlifers who want to go off-grid. Plus, with awesomely conspicuous 4WD graphics and names like Star Wagon and Space Gear you’re bound to get attention wherever you set up camp.
Suzuki Every Van Joy Pop
They may be small, but Kei vans are big in Japan. With parking spaces at a premium, Kei-class vehicles are highly attractive to those living in Japan’s more densely populated urban areas. And as it turns out, they’re also attractive to enthusiasts in the U.S. Kei vans like this Suzuki Every 660 Joy Pop sold by Driver Motorsports are easy to bring overseas, according to the importer. Since 1982, “Every” has been the name for the microvan counterpart to the Suzuki Carry Kei truck. The 660 in the name refers to the 660-cc displacement (the size limit for all Kei cars) of the engine, which is located between the front and rear axles. This 1990 Joy Pop-trim example came with a high roof, fold-flat seats, a five-speed manual, and fun, colorful decals that really help sell the name.
The Isuzu Fargo cabover commercial vehicle was produced from 1980 to 1995 (a second generation exists but is essentially a rebadged Nissan Caravan). The passenger van version could easily work as a stealth camper, but many Fargos were converted into dedicated RVs with overcab sleeping compartments. As usual, turbodiesel engines and 4WD were common options.
Daihatsu Hijet Camper
The Daihatsu Hijet is a microvan/Kei truck in production since 1960. In passenger van form, the Hijet could be had with dual sliding doors and fold-flat rear seats, making it a decent candidate for a ultra-compact and minimalist camper van. Its cabover layout makes the most of what little space there is behind the front seats, and an aftermarket pop top can provide much appreciated extra headroom.
Toyota Hilux Camper Conversion
OK, so this is just a Toyota pickup truck fitted with a camper shell in place of the bed. But if you want a unique overland rig, you can’t go wrong with a Hilux. Its reputation for durability and ruggedness is legendary (remember when they tried to kill one on Top Gear?), and technically, you don’t even have to import one. The pre-Tacoma truck we know here in the U.S. simply as the Toyota Pickup was our version of the Hilux, and camper conversions (like the rare Sunrader) are out there on the used market.
Another popular JDM microvan is the Subaru Sambar, which has gone through seven generations since 1961. Though the regular Sambar could work as a tiny camper, a bigger variant called the Domingo would work even better. With its high roof and longer body, the Domingo wasn’t small enough to meet Japan’s Kei car regulations, but that also meant it offered more space and didn’t have to adhere to that segment’s 660-cc engine displacement limit. By 1986, a version with a 1.2-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder and 4WD was available. Additionally, the Domingo offered swiveling front seats and fold-flat rear seats.
Honda Acty Street
We already covered the Honda Acty in another list, but it is so cool and fun to say we’re talking about it again—specifically a variant called the Street. The 1981-1988 Honda Street was a passenger-specific version of the Acty Kei van offering unique styling, a high roof option, 4WD, and a five-speed manual transmission. It also got larger wheels for improved ground clearance.