After three decades of faithful service to the people of Katsuyama city in Japan, the tiny red firetruck had worked its last shift.

Retirement did not look bright for the shiny red engine, which is about the size of a double bed. Would it be sold for parts? Perhaps, stripped of its hoses and siren, the truck would find new life as a farm vehicle.

But then Brett Rogers spotted the truck on an online auction site. It was so cheerful, so quirky. It would be perfect for Baltimore.

Rogers, 47, an attorney, is not often this spontaneous. The Roland Park resident is partial to button-down shirts and understated gray sweaters. Before the firetruck entered his life, he spent most of his free time at his daughters’ sports and school events.

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But in late 2021, the little red truck captured his imagination. He asked his wife if she would mind him parking a tiny fire engine in their garage, and paid about $10,000 for it. The little fire truck sailed to the United States by boat, arriving in Baltimore about a month later.

Rogers named the truck “Yama,” the Japanese word for mountain, both as a playful poke at its size and an homage to the city from which it came. He registered it as a historic vehicle with the state motor vehicle administration and signed it up for insurance.

Brett Rogers with Yama, his 30-year-old Japanese firetruck, in Charles Village on January 24, 2023.
"There are standing lawnmowers that have more horsepower," says attorney Brett Rogers about Yama, his 30-year-old Japanese firetruck. (Krishna Sharma)

With the help of his teenage daughters, Rogers created an Instagram account for the truck and began taking it to car shows, birthday parties and anywhere else Yama’s presence was requested — all for free, just for the love of Yama.

“It always gets a positive reaction,” Rogers said. “The only time people don’t seem to like it is if I’m going uphill and they’re behind me.”

The truck makes a high-pitched squeal when it reaches its top speed of around 60 miles per hour, so Rogers avoids driving it on highways. “There are standing lawnmowers that have more horsepower,” he said.

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The truck is in pristine condition; the paint gleams, both inside and outside, and the seats are covered in clear plastic. It would appear brand-new if there weren’t a few clues that indicate it was manufactured in 1993, such as the ashtray tucked under the AM radio.

A pair of white gloves were stored inside Yama when it arrived, a hint at the sort of treatment the truck received in its birthplace, Rogers said. The truck can fit four people — a driver, passenger and two others on small seats in the open air.

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Miniature trucks, or kei trucks, are common in Japan, where they are celebrated for fuel-efficiency and squeezing into tight spaces, according to J.D. Power, a vehicle research firm. The pint-sized vehicles are used in place of standard-sized work trucks and construction vehicles, as well as firetrucks. Although Japanese firefighters use larger vehicles to fight most blazes, the truck was likely kept in reserve to combat fires in narrow alleys, Rogers said.

Rogers has connected online with the owner of a similar firetruck, Kiri, in San Francisco. He’s also noticed other kei trucks on the road, such as Sparkplug Coffee’s 1995 Suzuki Carry.

Yama’s engine can siphon water and shoot it from the hose, although Rogers has never tried it. He did replace the old non-working siren with a functional one. And he rigged up the loudspeaker to play the theme from Super Mario Bros. as well as the Orioles and Ravens fight songs.

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Rogers has learned to perform basic maintenance on the truck, such as changing the oil, through YouTube videos. The tiny engine is accessible through the passenger’s seat. The gas tank holds just seven gallons and Rogers must kneel to fill it.

Brett Rogers uses online translators and videos to learn how to work on and maintain Yama, his Japanese firetruck. January 24, 2023.
Brett Rogers uses online translators and videos to learn how to work on and maintain Yama, his Japanese firetruck. (Krishna Sharma)

He has yet to deal with any serious issues with the truck, which has just 8,000 miles on the odometer. “If this thing breaks, I’m going to be in trouble,” Rogers said.

Another challenge is parallel parking. Although Yama is tiny, it lacks power steering and the driver sits on the right, making the whole process particularly awkward. Plus Yama emits a distinctive beep when backing up.

“Imagine parallel parking with everyone within 20 feet staring at you,” Rogers said.

Still, Rogers is delighted to see the happy faces of children and adults as Yama goes by. Firefighters often ask to pose for photos with it. Passersby are often agog to see the tiny truck at a traffic light or parked on their street.

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“What is it?” said Shervon White in wonder as she admired Yama while it was parked near her home in Abell one day this week. “Oh my God, it’s so cute.”

Julie Scharper is an enterprise reporter for The Baltimore Banner. Her work ranges from investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and abuse to light-hearted features. Baltimore Magazine awarded Scharper a Best in Baltimore in 2023 for her series exposing a toxic work culture within the Maryland Park Service.

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