Leslie’s Advent Calendar – December 19

December 19 – Toyota Probox

Today’s object is a professional box. A box that does things professionally. That means it has to be able to hold stuff in a manner that allows it to be transported and stored easily. And it has to do this professionally, so it has to do it all the time and do it well. Given that Japan has a history of naming cars inappropriately – the Suzuki MightyBoy is neither male nor abundant in strength – I think Toyota did pretty well in naming this one.

You won’t ever have seen a Probox in the UK, but it’s a fairly easy thing to imagine. You could probably make one out of Lego by building a big oblong box and sticking a smaller box on the front of it, because it really is that simple. There are no curves, no fancy interior features and no attempts at style. Just seats, doors and loads and loads of space.

This, then, is a car designed by the Bauhaus. The rear looks a little ungainly on account of the fact the rear pillars and tailgate have been squared off to allow more stuff to get inside. The interior features seats, seatbelts, carpets, a speedometer and precious little else – and it goes without saying that the rear seats can be folded down to allow you to get more things inside. It’s not going to move fast with an unrefined 1.5-litre lump driving the front wheels, but then it doesn’t need to. It won’t accelerate quickly, but when has traffic ever screamed away from the lights like the starting grid at Silverstone anyway?

If you’re from Britain, you’re probably wondering what the point is in a spartan, functional estate that is marketed not at the private buyer, but at the commercial sector. You could be forgiven for asking why people don’t just buy vans instead if they want to lug stuff about. This is a car designed for the Jay-Dee-Emm (Japanese Domestic Market, or JDM as it gets called a lot by car people), and Japan is a place where only sumo wrestlers are allowed to be big. If you try to take a van down a narrow street and park it in a low garage, total chaos will ensue. If, on the other hand, you design a vehicle that’s no bigger than a car but does away with all the luxuries that make passenger cars expensive and is designed to lug things around, then you’re onto a winner. The wee engine keeps the tax bill down too.

This, then, is a car designed for a niche market, but judging by the number of them I see on the roads here it ticks the right boxes – in fact, Nissan and Honda do similar versions. This is a car that fully lives up to its name, professionally fulfilling the functions of a box on wheels and no more. What’s right for one part of the world is not necessarily right for another, something Saab and General Motors would have done well to think through fifteen years ago.

*After banging on about how many of these things occupy Japan’s roads, I haven’t seen a single one since. I was, however, enamoured enough with the Probox to buy a Tomica car (Japan’s equivalent of Matchbox) to sit atop my desk at work. In the absence of pictures of real Proboxes, this 1:57 scale replica will have to do:

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