Unexceptional Classics

Character, tech and fun: the Charade had the lot, then Daihatsu went and ruined it

by Giles Chapman
14 March 2023 4 min read
Character, tech and fun: the Charade had the lot, then Daihatsu went and ruined it
Photo: Dorset 4x4

Daihatsu’s original, and unassuming, Charade is all too easily bracketed with other mid/late 1970s Japanese cars as fairly low on merit. But that’s wrong. It was actually the world’s first sub-1-litre car with a four-stroke three-cylinder engine, and also the first ‘triple’ with a five-speed gearbox.

Daihatsu spent 10 years designing it as a step-up from the country’s tiny ‘kei’ city cars [like this lovely lot we drove a couple of years ago – Ed]), and in November 1977 it was ready to roll, offering up to 60mpg yet with a fifth-gear ability to cruise on the motorway in a manner that was denied even to the Ford Fiesta and Austin Metro. The lightweight if noisy engine managed to imbue frugal motoring with some unique joie de vivre from its meagre 55bhp.

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Daihatsu dubbed it its ‘5 m² car’ after its footprint, and this second-tier Japanese manufacturer was rather taken aback when the five-door Charade scooped the 1977 Japanese Car Of The Year gong. Sales rocketed, helped by a three-door Runabout model with wacky porthole side windows, an example of which won its class on the unforgiving 1982 Safari Rally in Kenya.

By 1987 the Charade had undergone its second total styling revamp. The newly distinctive lines now brought a touch of Citroën to the nose and wheelarches. The unique 993cc engine in petrol or diesel (the smallest then on UK sale) versions could each be had with a turbocharger, which gave a rowdily eager burst of acceleration to keep well abreast of hatchbacks with 300cc more capacity.

This G100 model brought about the one Daihatsu likely to linger fondly in the mind of enthusiasts (assuming, that is, they’ve no mental space for the two-seater Copen roadster, or have simply never heard of the Cuore Azanzato TR-XX R4). This is the Charade GTti, that terrier-like three-door to which Daihatsu endowed ‘the works’ in the form of a twin-cam, fuel-injected and turbocharged three-cylinder engine. For a sub-1000cc car, the performance was quite stunning. It could sprint to 60mph in 7.7sec, with a 113mph top speed. The always entertaining handling, given the right driver, could almost scuttle a Porsche 911, while the hard, rally-car-like ride and sharp steering made it feel even more visceral. Beyond being even a screaming Mini Cooper S successor, the 12-valve, 100bhp GTti immediately became the most powerful 1-litre production car ever made. And just like the Cooper S, it was Tupperware-light, hitting the scales at just 808kg.

So the GTti was definitely a thing, and actually quite a great and brilliant thing. Daihatsu also offered a mechanically identical GT-XX model in Japan, replete with luxury features like an electric sunroof, air-con and power steering, that is now very rare compared to the just plain rare of the GTti. It was available until 1993, surviving the fitment of a catalytic converter and continuing to be, in the contemporary words of a usually-cynical critic, “…possibly the most entertaining one-litre car ever made.”

The regular Charade, though, underwent a wave of dismaying conventionality when it gave up its three-cylinder turbo petrol engine for a conventional, 1.3-litre four-cylinder unit in 1989. It was far quieter but much of the character evaporated despite the Charade’s many strongpoints, such as its roomy and fairly tasteful cabin.

But exciting verve was not really required for what became the G100 Charade’s under-sung place in the car history books. For it is this car that underpins the whole idea of mass car ownership in China. Tianjin First Auto Works took out a licence to manufacture the car in 1988, and offered it as the TJ7100 hatchback and TJ7100U saloon. From then until 2012, myriad versions pretty much established the retail car market, not just for taxis in which role the TJ7100U excelled (until in 2006 its smoky engine was deemed out of step even for Beijing’s smoggy thoroughfares) but also for the prosperous, aspiring citizen anxious to get as far away as possible from scooters, bus fares and spitting in the street.

The distinctive contours of the Charade/Xiali proved highly influential in the Chinese market. While getting cobwebby in the West, it remained highly fashionable throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. The three-cylinder engine throbbed bravely on, and was supplemented by Toyota power as one exterior facelift piled on top of another. The Xiali led to a large number of copycat replicas from such little-known start-ups as Ling Kong, CMC Zhonghua and Anda’er. Geely, meanwhile, took out a licence from Tianjin FAW to make their own versions, but even they were still recognisable as Charades. Bearing in mind the model name, it’s just hilarious that the gen-three Charade became one of the most aped vehicles in history; one day, when the whole concept of domestic classic cars takes hold in China, someone will produce a 400-page book about the G100 and its official and unofficial progeny. It will be hailed as the definitive work on an icon as dear to enthusiasts’ hearts nationally as the Renault 4 is to France or the Seat Ibiza to Spain. Whether many of the Xialis or its clones actually manage to survive to be cherished in the near-future is another matter.

For the 1994-era, fourth-generation Charade, the car seemed to have discarded every vestige of individuality. Even the new four-cylinder GTi saloon was a follower and not a deranged renegade and with 120,000 examples made it compared poorly to the 227,000 tally of the old GTtis. And of the G100 Charade in its ordinary form there were 579,700. On this basis, there will always be space available for a boggo 1-litre turbo Charade at a certain ordinary-car extravaganza in the UK, with hopefully a GTti or two out there in the car park. You know the event.

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  • Clive Davies says:

    I owned an early non turbo Charade in the late 80s and though top speed was little more than 75/80 it held to the road like glue and braking was excellent. The Charade was great fun on minor roads and I wish now I’d got one of the hotter turbo models.

  • Peter Nunn says:

    Japan Car of the Year started in 1980 (with the Mazda Familia/323 winning the first JCOTY). So it’s hard to see how the Daihatsu Charade won JCOTY in 1977…..as it didn’t officially exist then.

    Just sayin’

    • James Mills says:

      This has us perplexed, as Daihatsu’s own literature – which author Giles Chapman possesses – details how the Charade won Japanese Car of the Year in its debut year. Did the competition evolve or were there competing COTYs there, Peter?

  • Daz says:

    Currently restoring a GTti…great cars,very few left and bits are tough to find,youll be lucky to see one alive in the wild!

  • Jay Johnson says:

    I’ve just spotted one sitting in the woods. Flipped out when I did as I had no idea what it was. All I knew was I had to have it, I’ll give it another week. If I can’t find who owns it (and I am trying to buy it legit) well they might just have to find me. I’ll still pay him, cuz this car looks like all it needs is a wash and some gas.

  • Jay Johnson says:

    And it’s the GTti in white!!!

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