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Iconic Daihatsu Cars of the Showa Era

Explore the journey of Japan's oldest surviving car manufacturer Daihatsu, from its tarp-fitted mini truck Midget to its pioneering sports kei car Copen.



The original one-person Daihatsu Midget. (Provided by Daihatsu Motor Co., Ltd.)

Ever since I can remember, we owned a Daihatsu Midget. I spent my middle and high school years in Ikeda City, Osaka Prefecture, where my family ran a store selling Western apparel. As someone who was raised in Ikeda, where Daihatsu Motor Co., Ltd. is based, I've always wanted to be driving a Daihatsu car in the later years of my life.

When I conveyed that to Hiroaki Maruyama, the head of the Daihatsu public relations department, he kindly said, "I'm very grateful to hear those words. Daihatsu will always be a citizen of Ikeda City." 

The Daihatsu Midget was the vehicle that spread the name throughout the world. Its sports kei car, the Daihatsu Copen, is still made by hand at the Ikeda Plant today. 

Driving Through the Showa Era

Here's a throwback to some of Daihatsu's iconic cars.

Daihatsu became a household name when the Midget went on sale in 1957. That means it's one year younger than me. The original Midget could only seat one person and had a handlebar, a tarp-covered cab, and a kick-starter. 

According to Maruyama, an anecdote about the origins of the Midget's tarp goes as follows: On a rainy summer night in 1956, the CEO of Daihatsu's car dealer was walking around the Umeda area of Osaka. There, he saw a scooter loaded with beer bottles. The scooter slipped and fell over, and all of the bottles broke.  "If only it had a tarp!" thought the CEO, and that's how the Midget got its covering.

Film Appearance

The model of the Midget my family owned appeared in the movie Always: Sunset on Third Street (2005). It also dodged attacks from a rampaging Godzilla in another film. Released in December 1959, this Midget had a round handle on the right, a steel cabin, an electric starter, and a passenger seat.

The Midget model that appeared in the film "Always: Sunset on Third Street." (Provided by Daihatsu Motor Co., Ltd.)

Filling Japanese Cities

TV commercials began in Japan in 1953, and the Midget rode on this huge ad wave. It all started with a 30-minute TV show that aired every Sunday at 6:30 pm on TV Asahi. The show was titled Daihatsu Comedy Yarikuri Apart ("Daihatsu Comedy: The Apartment Building Where People Get By")

The slapstick comedy revolves around university students and a landlord family who reside in Naniwa-so, an apartment building in an old neighborhood of Osaka. Starring in the show were popular actors Kon Omura, Juro Sasa, Ichiro Chagawa, and Gannosuke Ashiya. At the end of each episode was a live commercial with bantering between Omura and Sasa.

"Perfect for narrow turns?" one of them would ask. The other would exclaim, "Midget!" 

"A cheap car?" "Midget!"
"A convenient car?" "Midget!" 

This was followed by Kon Omura spreading his arms and repeating "Midget!" The commercial left a huge impact on Japanese viewers. 

Maruyama explains, "At the time, the Midget was called 'the city's helicopter.' We sold 8,500 cars during months with high sales. It was said that cities were full of them."

The Daihatsu Midget drives through the nostalgic Rokugodote area in Ota Ward, Tokyo on January 14, 2007. (©Sankei by Fumio Oyama)

The Midget II

In 1996, years after the original Midget, Daihatsu released the one-person truck Midget II. It was built by hand using techniques perfected by experienced craftsmen in the Midget Workshop of the Ikeda Plant. 

The car has a unique face, with a spare tire attached to the center of the hood and round headlights protruding from the body. A two-person version was released in 1997. 

The Daihatsu Midget II (Provided by Daihatsu Motor Co., Ltd.)

Ahead of Its Time

If the Midget II were released now, it might have been a hit, as people are used to seeing electric cars with cute chameleon-like faces. But alas, the Midget II was too ahead of its time.

Its selling point was that it had an even smaller body than most kei cars. That made it better for the environment, but it also meant it only had a maximum load capacity of 150 kg (330 lb). Unfortunately, production ended in 2001.


First Sports Kei Car

The Midget Workshop in the Ikeda Plant has closed, but the legacy of its craftsmanship is being carried on by the Daihatsu Expert Center. It was there that the first sports kei car, the Daihatsu Copen, was born in 2002. 

It is a flexible production site with no belt conveyors. Skilled craftsmen working on this floor have attained a high level of precision. They have all achieved the second-class or higher certification of the company's internal program. These seasoned professionals channel their knowledge, skills, and passion into crafting the Daihatsu Copen, a true masterpiece.

The first-generation Daihatsu Copen, released in 2002. It has a plump, rounded body. (Provided by Daihatsu Motor Co., Ltd.)

A Timeless Classic

I was 46 years old when Copen first went on sale and fell in love with it immediately. It cost ¥1.5 million JPY at a time when an officer worker's average salary was ¥3.8 million JPY. On the other hand, purchasing a two-seater sports car while having a five-person family seemed ridiculous. I could do nothing but look on enviously.

In 2014, the Copen Robe, XPLAY, and CERO went on sale. These are the more elegant "children" of the original Copen. But I always liked the plump and round look of the first generation.

The Copen remains in production on a made-to-order basis. A total of 2,800 units were sold between April and September 2023. When I expressed my surprise at the figure, Maruyama revealed that the Daihatsu Tanto had sold 70,000 units. Copen's figures are no match, but the sports car continues to be supported by ardent fans and hobbyists.

The Daihatsu Copen is handmade by highly skilled workers. March 2004 at the Daihatsu Expert Center in Ikeda City, Osaka Prefecture. (©Sankei)

Some Good News for Ikeda Residents

Ikeda City has been collaborating with Daihatsu on the "Angel Vehicle Loan Service" since 2017. The project aims to transform Ikeda into Japan's most supportive city for children and child-rearing parents.

Parents in Ikeda City who have three or more children can borrow a new Daihatsu Boon or Thor for free for a period of three years. To qualify, they must meet specific criteria, including having resided in Ikeda City for more than six months before the child's birth and having paid all city taxes. After three years, they have the option to purchase the car at a discounted price.

Katsura Bunshi VI, a rakugo artist with honorary citizenship in Ikeda would say, "Newlyweds, come to Ikeda!" 

The Daihatsu Boon (Provided by Daihatsu Motor Co., Ltd.)


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Ryuichi Tadokoro


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