The cars we loved.
To many Americans the name Daihatsu rings a few bells if any. More likely to be seen in ’60s Godzilla films than on the streets of American cities, Daihatsu cars are usually associated with cheap small transportation sold in select regions of the world. So it’s surprising to know that for a brief moment, Daihatsu was associated with high style, via Europe with a dashing concept car called simply the Sport.
The Daihatsu Sport was a one off concept shown at the Geneva Motor Show in 1963 to showcase Daihatsu and the Japanese auto industries abilities. The evolution of Daihatsu products have paralleled Japan’s economic growth as it went from building simple three wheel carts with engines to sophisticated small cars like the Copen and Cappuccino.
Established in 1907, Daihatsu did not build four wheeled cars until the early 1950’s. Daihatsu’s first cars, like other Japanese manufacturers were small and well suited for the domestic market with no intent to export beyond Japan. With Daihatsu’s entry into the car business, it joined the a growing number of formally scooter builders who were converting to car production. To stand out in Japan Daihatsu naturally went to Europe.
European design firms were at the start of a new golden age in automotive design, turning out beautiful and distinctive cars with global appeal. Daihatsu commissioned the Italian firm Vignale to design a 2 + 2 sports coupe that would showcase Daihatsu’s engineering prowess (and good taste). The end product, was an advanced car for its time, combining Italian flair with Japanese simplicity.
Although it was awkward from some angles, due to what looked like a high greenhouse and low belt line, the Sport had small hint of the shape of the Ferrari 250 GT Lusso or any number of Italian coupes. It featured a water cooled 0.8 liter inline 4 cylinder engine with a overhead valve design. Although rated at only 50 hp, the lightweight rear wheel drive car promised spirited performance.
While on the floor at the Geneva show, the Sport created a small sensation as curious Europeans crowded around what was for many of them the first time any of them had seen a Japanese car. The unheard of notion of a Japanese car company exhibiting a concept at a European auto show was soon followed by Daihatsu becoming the first Japanese company to sell cars in Europe. The rapid expansion was a bold move for a company that had only been building cars with four wheels for slightly more than a decade.
The Daihatsu Sport was never put into production, but some of its design cues found their way to other cars that Daihatsu sold in Europe. Today the closest thing Daihatsu made to the Sport (in spirit) was the neat little Cappuccino, a small 2 door roadster. After Toyota took a controlling interest in Daihatsu in 1999, many of its cars have become uglier and cheaper versions of Toyotas.
The likelihood of a new Sport is nill as Toyota has decided that Daihatsu will continue to build niche and specialized vehicles for mostly Asian markets while Toyota focuses on more mainstream global products. It’s a similar arrangement that Nissan has to its sub brand Datsun. The original Daihatsu Sport was recently acquired by Daihatsu from a collector who kept the car in like new condition. It is now part of a “Classical Models” exhibit at its factory museum in Osaka Japan.