The Daihatsu Motor Company started in 1951 as the oldest car manufacturer in Japan. It had a strong presence in the country for around 3 decades, during which it became known for its small ‘Kei’ cars and off-roaders. The company was the result of the restructuring of Hatsudoki Seizo Co. Ltd., a major Japanese company of the previous era.
It made a strong mark in Japan during the 1950s, and during the 1960s, it began to export its models to Europe as well; however, it didn’t become a success in Europe until the late 1980s. The automaker next entered the market here and in the United States in the 1970s and 1990s, respectively. When Daihatsu entered the market here in 1975, it did so in a joint venture with New South Wales-based York Toyota distributor, Thiess Toyota, and Nichimen, a shipping company.
Daihatsu started with light trucks, using gaps in regulations to avoid paying taxes by providing fully built-up bodies of their trucks. This technique changed the way light trucks were made in the country and improved the quality of trucks as well. It also improved competition in the country between local truck body builders.
Daihatsu made another major impression on the automotive market when it introduced light four-wheel drives called soft-roaders. Other carmakers soon followed and the soft-roader segment of 4x4s became one of the most competitive automobile segments. Internationally, the company has long focused on electric vehicles, with its first venture being pavilion cars for the Osaka World Expo of 1970. It continues to make electric vehicles and golf carts like the DBC-1, using its own mild hybrid system.
By the end of 1990s, Daihatsu had done away with its New South Wales distributor and developed a completely new network of dealers. It was acquired by Toyota around this time, and Toyota Australia distributors began to market Daihatsu models. However, in 2005, Toyota Australia decided to shut down the Daihatsu brand in the country. Daihatsu has also moved away from European markets, but Australia was the first – and for a long time, the only – country to lose the brand. In the aftermath of the deal, over 79 dealers, including Toyota dealers, were affected here.
The first passenger vehicle sold by Daihatsu here was the Compango, which had a 4-cylinder, 800cc engine. The introduction of the Compagno brought the company to the attention of the buying public. The Compagno was available in 4 different models, but Daihatsu did sell some commercial Delta trucks in the country before the compact car. These Delta trucks, part of the SV10 and SV15 series, became popular for their reliability, ruggedness, and hauling and load-carrying abilities. They were introduced all the way back in 1965, and they were followed by a smaller but sturdy 2.5L concrete mixture that brought about a sea of change in the way small trucks were made in the country.
Through the years, Daihatsu has had a number of cars imported and sold here. For example, the Daihatsu Terios, which lacked the off-road capabilities or power of most other 4x4s but had a breezy interior and exterior with lots of equipment at an affordable price, was imported. The styling of the vehicle was also rather unusual with a narrow and tall stance. The 2 Terios models introduced used the same modified 1.3L engine present in Daihatsu Charade along with a 5-speed manual transmission.
Another breakthrough model for the Daihatsu was the Pyzar, launched at the Melbourne Motor Show in 1997. It was a medium-size MPV that offered lots of space and had a versatile seating arrangement. The vehicle had just one body style that mixed some elements of a station wagon with a hatchback, and it was recognizable by its high roofline.
Of course, no discussion of Daihatsu can be complete without mentioning the Charade. It was the leading model in the company’s line-up for more than 16 years. The car got a few updates and revisions along the way, including one in 1996 that included a completely new body style and a better engine. The Charade was especially popular among women and youngsters.
The reason for Daihatsu to back off from the market here could be traced back to the Asian financial crisis of 1997, but one major factor for this decision was the incredibly competitive market and the lack of a future for Daihatsu in this small and compact car market. When the company entered this market, there were only 10 competitors; however, when the company left the country in 2005, there were over 20 of them. Among all the available cars, the Daihatsu models suffered the greatest setbacks in terms of sales.
This is evident from the status of the Daihatsu Sirion. It was introduced late into the company’s line-up, but it did carve a niche for itself with its unique styling and engine despite not being much of a seller. With its large front headlights and big mouth grille, the car was considered cute. When compared to its competition, including the Mazda2 and Ford Fiesta, it lacked a lot in terms of equipment. There was no ABS available and only two airbags were present. The car was also behind other competitors in terms of handling. Even the Sirion Sport, an upgrade of basic Sirion model, lacked the handling prowess of the Fiesta and Mazda2. The fierce competition ultimately made the Daihatsu leave the country.