(Everybody welcome Ryan, who has been #blessed enough to own one of the most recherche Japanese cars of the last thirty years! — JB)
I’m not a monogamous guy, at least not when it comes to cars. Since my college years, I’ve consistently owned two vehicles at all times. The idea was to have a nicer, newer car for trips and weekends, then add an old beater to tackle the dull daily commute, run errands, and save wear and tear off the new car. After all, variety is the spice of life. It was also enjoyable to have a few choices depending on my mood in the driveway.
My Daihatsu story begins with the “beater” before it, a 1987 Subaru Justy. It was a lucky find on Craigslist back in 2006: two owners, only 110,000 miles, working air conditioning, trustworthy mechanical condition. The interior was a little rough, however, with sun-weathered seats and torn carpeting. Outside, the paint had faded and the C-pillar had a large nasty dent, almost as though a ninja had done a pseudo-chop across it. But it passed California’s strict smog regulations, and for the mere price of $550, all the aesthetic faults could be forgiven.
That car proved to be reliable and solid as can be during the four years I owned it. Aside from some electrical gremlins caused by the previous owner’s decision to wire up some foglights at home, the car never needed any attention. I drove it from one end of California to another — continually. But part of me always wished to bring the Justy back to its original ’80s econo box glory. Since the costs involved were prohibitive, I had to scrap that idea no matter how much I wanted to see the end result.
To fill the time and also to prove that I can’t stay committed, I frequently browsed Craigslist for a potential newer, cleaner beater to replace the Justy. There’s a sea of cheap, abused Japanese and American compacts from the ’80s and ’90s just ready to be plucked from eager sellers. Keywords such as “Tercel” or “Escort” (not in the other sense) resulted in lots of options, but none deserving of serious attention.
One day, the thought randomly crossed my mind that Daihatsu once existed on these shores with cheap and cheerful models. I had serious doubt that anything would pop up on Craigslist, but it was worth a try. I remembered my kindergarten teacher having a Charade. They were also common in my native Australia, once upon a time. Then, voila, one result: a 1988 Daihatsu Charade with only 48,000 miles and in great condition. There were a few fuzzy photos attached, and the ad had been posted for over a month. “Being real,” I said to myself, “There’s no way this car would be that clean, and even if it were, that it would still be for sale.”
I emailed the owner to inquire if it was still for sale, and he came back quickly with a resounding yes. He mentioned he’d had it for only six months to use as a commuter, but couldn’t get comfortable in it. He needed something bigger. A Chevy dealer had sold it to him, and the original owners had kept it for 21 years before that. Asked about its condition and if there were any issues, he replied, “It’s in great shape, with just a dirty headliner.”
We’ve all heard this before. Ads claiming a used car is in like-new condition and brilliant inside and out. Once we get there, though, it’s got a laundry list of issues that the seller seems surprised by. All these problems must have happened just after the ad was posted!
I had low expectations, but I drove the 100 miles from LA to Temecula to see the Charade anyway. If this car was a dud, at least it was a nice drive and there would be a casino out there where I could kill some time. I honestly thought it would be a bust, and my day was already planned on it being one. It was a 21 year old economy car. How well kept could it be?
Turns out the answer was: very well, indeed. The car’s home was in a nice, newer neighborhood, and the seller was a Daihatsu collector of sorts. He had two Daihatsu Rockys stored in his garage. He’d been trying to sell the Charade for some time. He’d had a young fella painting his house who expressed interest in the car but didn’t have enough money saved to buy it. After a brief look around, pleased that it had only minor dents and the interior was immaculate, I took it for a spin without the seller accompanying me.
The car started right up, the A/C worked perfectly, and everything seemed solid. There was a strange whirring from under the hood at higher rpms, but otherwise it was very clean. Prepared to be disgusted by its condition, I ended up doing a walk around in a nearby parking lot and thinking to myself, “This is actually in really good shape. Really good shape.” The headliner only had some light grime near the visors that could easily be shampooed out, and the interior was like stepping back in time to 1988. Every detail, from the dash’s tight parting seams to the cloth stitching, was exactly how it looked when it left the factory in Osaka.
But what about the miles? The low amount of wear and tear didn’t contradict the low mileage, but was the odometer legit? The gauge itself was of the six digit variety, so it hadn’t rolled over Ford-style. After a quick stop at Kinkos to get online and check the Carfax, I confirmed that the miles were indeed true. Until it was purchased by the seller eight-months earlier, it had spent its whole existence in the San Fernando Valley. Maybe it was owned by an older couple who kept it garaged and drove it to the grocery store? Maybe someone who didn’t like driving? We may never know. Whoever it was had left in the car the original owner’s manual, warranty booklet, and an information packet from a long defunct Daihatsu dealer in Inglewood.
This was a car I couldn’t pass up. It would be a waste to do so, and there would never be another chance to find such a rare car in superb condition. The seller was asking $1,800. I was prepared to buy it for that, but thought I’d throw an offer at him, pointing out a few dents and the whir from the engine. I mentioned $1,400, but he settled for $1,450. With that brief negotiation, I was now officially part of the tiny and ever-shrinking Daihatsu family.
The drive back home was not dramatic, which is exactly what you want when taking a gamble on an older car. As silly as it may sound, I had a sense of pride and of being unique while scooting home on LA’s frenzied freeways. In this city obsessed with standing out from the crowd, I reminded myself that there were probably far fewer Daihatsus in this town than Ferraris.
Driving the Daihatsu is an experience in itself. With only 52 horsepower being pumped out of the miniscule three-cylinder, it’s not a car to be in while in a hurry. Acceleration is pretty leisurely, and even slight hills can pose a challenge. The transmission itself is pretty slick and makes the most of the car’s modest power. It does eventually get up to speed and once there, can stay at steady freeway velocities. At that pace, the tiny 13-inch tires are affected by ruts in the road as well as from headwinds generated by other, heftier cars. Handling is not power assisted and can get skittish on sharp bends. There’s a flingable, go-kart feel, but it’s all within reason. All of this may sound like a nightmare to anyone remotely interested in cars, but it’s not the case.
There’s an honest-to-goodness feel to this car that’s intoxicating. No fancy gizmos. No electronic nannies. Want some fresh air? You’re gonna have to crank those windows yourself. Airbags and safety? Not really. Need to check for vehicles in the right lane? Oops, the right side mirror is still on a shelf in Japan. The Charade does come well equipped by ’80s econo standards: air conditioning, a rear defroster, intermittent wipers, and interior quality that echoes Camry more than Geo Metro. Still, it’s really just an engine, manual transmission, some seats, a steering wheel, and a body around it. This is a car that demands you drive it, and not just skip by on luck. Making the most of the small engine requires concentration, while the compact, diminutive size makes you aware of everyone around you.
The visibility is unlike that found in any modern car. There’s an almost 360-degree view from the driver seat. Plenty of leg and headroom, too. And there’s no electronic distractions in the form of touchscreens that freeze or fussy, voice-activated commands.
There is an elite feeling with the Charade. To most people with untrained eyes, it’s just another old ’80s economy car — nothing more, nothing less. Some people see it and ask if it’s a Datsun — or worse, a Daewoo. Once in awhile, someone does see it and realizes what it is. Those people are either car enthusiasts or former owners. No exceptions. They get excited, remark on the condition, and say “Geez, I haven’t seen one of these in 20 years.”
That rarity can be troublesome when it comes to repairs. Luckily little has gone wrong, a testament to how well built anything from Japan circa 1988 is. The whirring sound during the test drive turned out to an exhaust manifold leak. There’s also an oil leak going on at the moment. My regular mechanic couldn’t, and didn’t want to, touch this car. A quick online search revealed a repair shop about 20 miles away from home that specializes in orphaned Asian brands (Daewoo, Isuzu, Suzuki, etc.) and they are able to get parts. Otherwise, the only other issue has been a muffler. There were no known Daihatsu mufflers in the country, and one for a Hyundai Excel had to play the role. Looking for parts for the Charade requires contacts, determination, and some creativity. It’s all a labor of love, and the challenge is part of the thrill.
Trim and body repairs are also a concern. The larger dents have been taken out by a professional and smaller ones will get their due in the future. The replacement of trim or interior panels, however, seems impossible.
Disaster almost struck in October 2015. The Charade was parked in my apartment’s garage out of the elements in the covered spot nearest to the entrance. A neighbor in their Toyota Sienna confused the brake and accelerator and hit the gate that protects the parking lot. The gate came off its hinges and nailed the Daihatsu’s passenger side door, resulting in a massive dent and scrape along the whole side of the car. It was heartbreaking after so much love had been put into the car. The Sienna driver claimed full responsibility and the car was taken to a reputable body shop, said shop having to Google “Daihatsu Charade” to see what was arriving at their door.
Upon looking at the damage, they were confident it could be repaired and no replacement parts needed. The big concern was that the insurance would evaluate the Charade’s worth against the cost of the damage and deem it a total loss. My heart sank, and my husband, typically not a car guy, was very upset that we could lose the car. Turns out that the insurance company couldn’t even determine the value of a 1988 Charade, and it was agreed between them and the shop that the $700 in repairs wouldn’t justify a total loss. The repairs were done professionally and the car looks as good as ever. It was a reminder how our time with this car, or any car, is precious and could be cut short.
It’s been six years since I bought the Charade, and it currently has 55,000 miles. We love this car. It’s been affectionately named “Yoshi” and, in a strange role reversal, no longer serves the role of a beater. The dilemma was that it’s just too nice to leave out in the elements and the harshness of daily driving. My current newer car, a Chevrolet Sonic, sits outside under a car cover and does most of the errand running. Yoshi is only used for short little trips and to go to the occasional car show. Otherwise, he lives a life of leisure during his retirement being one of the few of his kind in existence.
There’s a bond with the Charade that’s hard to describe. Many may not understand it, and probably don’t want to. Part of being a car fanatic is not having to explain it. It’s all about the love of the car, no matter how small, slow, or quirky it is.