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Here's What the Car Culture Is Like on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai

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author photo by Chris O'Neill February 2018

This past December, my girlfriend and I were fortunate enough to get to spend a few days on Kauai, the westernmost of the main Hawaiian islands. She was excited to hang out on the beach, go hiking and drink mai tais. I was excited to look for cool cars.

And all that other stuff too, sure, but I really wanted to know the answer to one question in particular: What's the car culture like on the small, isolated Hawaiian islands?

Buggy in Kauai

Kauai is the smallest of the main Hawaiian islands, and it stands out for its lush forests and jagged mountains -- quite different from its counterparts to the east. One road covers around 70 percent of the perimeter, inhibited on the northwest side by the breathtaking Na Pali coast; driving around the island takes about 3 hours. In addition to the gorgeous cliffs of Na Pali, the Waimea canyon is another major attraction, often referred to as the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific." Over seventy movies have been filmed on Kauai, including "Jurassic Park" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." The eastern half of the island is the more developed side; beaches of Polihale State Park to the west are driveable, and it's a popular camping area for adventurous overlanders.

Midsize Pickups in Kauai

It turns out the car culture on the island is fairly conventional. The vehicle of choice seems to be the small pickup -- not surprising, considering its ability to ferry around a surfboard or three. I did take note of an especially odd phenomenon of sky-high lifted Toyota Tacomas on disproportionately small wheels and tires. There was also a high count of Nissan Frontiers, especially those with the unique factory roof rack.

With that said, I saw some other interesting specimens: a Volkswagen Beetle Dune Buggy, a regular Dune Buggy, an Isuzu VehiCROSS, and a few Land Cruisers and VW Camper Vans -- but it's the Tacomas and Frontiers that are especially thick on the ground in Kauai. In addition, there were three other encounters that I found particularly exciting:

   Mercedes-Benz Unimog 406 Double Cab

Mercedes-Benz Unimog 406 Double Cab

Built from 1963-1989. The Case Corporation officially imported a version of the U900 into the US from 1975 to 1980, selling it as the MB4/94. I think this one probably served most of its time outside of the United States, though, as I don't believe there were any double cabs among the U900s imported by Case. The tired registration sticker in the windshield shows that it was last road-legal in New Jersey in 2005. How it has ended up rusting away on a ranch in Kauai, we'll never know.

1992 Daihatsu Rocky

1992 Daihatsu Rocky

Along with the subcompact Charade, the Rocky was one of the two models offered by Daihatsu during its brief U.S. presence, which lasted from 1988 to 1992. A total of 7,249 Rocky models were sold in the U.S. during this time. A variant of the Rocky was sold in Japan as the Toyota Blizzard, which was often referred to as the "Baby Land Cruiser," making it doubly awesome. I could count on one hand how many Rockys I've seen in my lifetime, even if that hand only had two fingers. Needless to say, there aren't many of these still around. This clean, rust-free example, which was missing its spare tire, seems to have lucked out winding up in Hawaii, where I'm pretty sure they don't often use road salt.

Junky Toyota VansJunked Toyota Van

Triumvirate of Toyota Vans

The silver one is a 1987, but neither of the other two had license plates. The grey one in the rear had an Acura wheel, and I didn't get close enough to the blue one among all of the clutter to tell anything unique about it. The locals running the service shop across the street told me they belonged to the owner, who has refused to sell them. They couldn't for the life of them fathom my interest in these "4-cylinder pieces of crap".

As far as the United States go, Kauai is a very unique place with some surprising automotive variety. This was my first time in our 50th state, and I find it fascinating how much of an outlier it is, metaphorically and literally. Combine that with its vibrant landscapes, and it's high on my list of places to return to soon. Now I just need to figure out how I can take that Unimog camping on the beaches of Polihale...

Chris O'Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He managed to work in the auto industry for a while without once crashing a corporate fleet vehicle. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.

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Here's What the Car Culture Is Like on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai - Autotrader