You may wonder what was the first of those many cars to wander their way across thousands of miles of land and ocean from the Land of the Rising Sun, and park themselves upon the driveways of Britain’s households. Was it a nimble Nissan? A technical Toyota? A hearty Honda?
Nope! It was in fact this, the Daihatsu Compagno, a small Japanese motor that would open the floodgates and send a stream of Japanese metal down every road and street in the UK. But, in truth, it almost didn’t!
Launched in 1963, the Daihatsu Compagno actually owes much of its construction to the European manufacturers it intended to do battle with. Following the end of World War II, Japan’s motoring industry, as well as everything else for that matter, was in tatters, and many wondered if the nation would ever recover. Desperate to regain a foothold in the modern, industrial world, the nation turned to its former enemies for assistance, and for Daihatsu and Datsun, they came to Longbridge. In fact, it was actually something of a mutual trade; Japanese engineers and designers would come to Britain and observe our construction practices, while designers and engineers from Austin would go to Japan to help them organise their post-war models, providing them with technical assistance and parts to get the battle-worn nation mobile again.
The Japanese were indeed grateful, and in return paid Austin £2 million out of the kindness of their hearts, with one engineer writing that they “one day wished they could build cars and trucks as good as Austin.”
With this new advice and technical information available to them, Daihatsu decided it would pull out all the stops in creating the first Japanese family car that would be for the export market. As such, the car was designed to encompass numerous body-styles, be highly reliable, encompass a wider range of standard features and have some plucky styling. For they styling, the company once again turned to Europe for assistance, and went to the Turin-based styling house Vignale, famous for designing the legendary Ferrari 212 and the rare but highly sought after Cunningham C3. The result was the car looking something like a Fiat 1800 crossed with an Austin A35, a stout little body, a wide cabin, cute little headlights and just a fun little look.
Power came from two types of engine, an 800cc Inline-4 and a 1000cc Inline-4, producing a somewhat less than stellar 41hp, taking the top speed to a wheezy 68mph.
However, back in the day speed wasn’t everything, how was practicality?
As mentioned, the car was meant to be something of a pioneer when it came to standard features. In British cars such as Austin and Morris products, features such as a heater, reclining seats, tinted windows, a clock, a cigarette lighter, and a radio were all optional extras, the basic car being quite literally four-wheels and a seat. The Compagno attempted to give these optional extras as standard, but undercut the competition by being substantially cheaper.
On a more technical note, the car was also a little way ahead of its time with it being constructed on a ladder-type, monocoque chassis, a step-up from the current slew of British cars which continued to be built in the more traditional separate-chassis manner from before World War II, though by the time the Compagno was released, British manufacturers were starting to get the idea.
Still, with their baby now ready to be let loose into the world beyond Japan’s shores, the Compagno was put on sale here in the UK. As mentioned, the car was available in a variety of style options to keep it competitive with the likes of the Austin A40, including a spacious saloon, an estate, a pick-up truck, a van, and a spider convertible.
Now, guess how many cars were sold in the UK? Not 10,000, not 1,000, not even 100…
Yep, in a 7 year production run and with 120,000 members leaving the factory, Daihatsu could only shift 6 of these cars here in Britain. It truly is among the most abysmal failures in motoring history.
Why did it fail? Multiple reasons, mostly down to sentiment rather than it being a bad car.
Firstly, the idea of Japan selling cars was seen as a bit of a joke by the British public of the past, this somewhat demeaning and questionably racist attitude towards the Land of the
Rising Sun stemming from the idea that all they could ever build to transport them were bicycles or Oxen. Secondly, the British middle-aged, middle-class populous that this car was aimed at weren’t exactly forgiving of the Japanese, especially since most of them had been forced to build a railway for them through Burma. Thirdly, the price; while Daihatsu thought that allowing optional features on British cars as standard in their own little car would help buyers overlook the somewhat steep price of £800 (£15,000 today), this was still quite expensive for most, £300 more than a Mini.
Contemporary reviews didn’t help either. Autocar magazine, aside from seeing it as a novelty like everybody else, declared the car’s acceleration was “too slow to record” (and they may have had a point on that one), and that the suspension was made of Bamboo! Indeed, when compared to cars of the 1960’s, while the Compagno was very well-built and extremely reliable, the technology behind the car was over 10 years out of date, being pretty much an exact replica of the mechanics those original Austin engineers had given them back in the early 1950’s. The suspension was bouncy, the grip was both very light and very vague, the steering was so heavy it was like it was set in concrete and there were some internal issues, such as the indicators sounding like “a ping-pong ball bouncing down a long flight of wooden stairs.” Perhaps the most novel feature of the car was the manual provided, which referred to the Headlamp Flasher as a “Light-hooter”, and the Cabin as a “Room.”
However, the car wasn’t all bad, with its 800cc engine actually being quite a sweet little thing, with a smooth acceleration and some good, reliable mileage, coupled to an even sweeter little gearbox, which didn’t clunk and groan like contemporary Austins or Fords, but instead neatly slipped into gear like you’d want it to. There was good all-around visibility, opening quarter-lights, comfy seats, a spacious interior with some reasonable rear-legroom for the kids and was generally a cute little machine.
In fact, I’d say if you’d bought one (of the six) back in 1963 you’d probably have attracted some real attention from your neighbours. Though stylistically it looked pretty mundane, it was still a Daihatsu, and this was back when no one else had a Japanese car, which
would make you somewhat unique and interesting among your peers. Though sentiment against the Japanese was still a touch hostile, and not all of the attention you may have garnered would’ve been good, you’d still have had yourself a plucky, reliable and exotic little machine that would run forever while everyone else’s domestic model broke-down and died around you!
However, my modern opinion, blessed with the power of hindsight, had no relevance back then, and while the car sold strong on the domestic Japanese market, it really did fail to take on the European market and disappeared quietly in 1970.
The main point of the Compagno however is that it was the first Japanese car to get a foothold here on British shores, and within 10 years of it leaving sales, Pacific metals would be giving the once proud but now decadent European builders a run for their money. The Toyota Celica, the Honda Civic, the Camry, the Corolla, the Sunny, the Cherry, all these Japanese cars that went on to smash our own products like the horrid Morris Marina and Austin Allegro can all owe their success to this plucky little machine that was the spearhead of their commercial invasion. They gave us reliable, robust machines with some actual work being put into them, and they reaped the benefits (and rightly so!).