Does a Japanese heart and an Italian name make for a British bargain?
By Mike Duff / Saturday, 8 October 2022 / Loading comments
After the Yin of last week’s Volkswagen Phaeton V10 TDI, Brave Pill is going full Yang this time with what must be about the most opposite car possible. Yep, it’s a four-cylinder, front-wheel-driven Japanese supermini.
Don’t worry, there will be plenty of time to discuss the question of risk later on. Followed by a shouted argument about risk and then likely a drunken punch-up in the car park about risk. But first the sheer improbability of the combination of a Daihatsu Charade wearing the name more commonly applied to playboy-spec seventies sports cars needs to be addressed.
I once wrote what was meant to be a humorous story in which I listed both unlikely (but real) Japanese car names alongside others I had made up, and then asked the readers to spot the difference. Sadly the whole premise didn’t work, because while it was great fun thinking up with unlikely monikers like the Pantry Raider Excelsior, Brave Sir Knight and Café Crème L.Q. Jones, none of my efforts could get close to the reality-shifting surrealness of the real thing. This is the country that produced the Mitsubishi Mini Active Urban Sandal or Honda Vamos Hobio Travel Dog.
While ‘DeTomaso’ looks less incongruous writ large on the side of a Charade, the name is likely to trigger memories of the brawny Mangusta and Pantera sportscars created by Alejandro De Tomaso’s eponymous company. Yet both come from the same origin. That’s because, after establishing his own company, De Tomaso took control of Innocenti in the mid-1970s. He then led the Italian assembler of Mini-based hatchbacks through a switch to Daihatsu power. And although De Tomaso’s connection to the company wasn’t a long one, it soon passing into Fiat’s control, Daihatsu clearly appreciated the connection enough to commemorate it with an edition name.
The first De Tomaso Charade was a concept car fitted with a 1.0-litre turbocharged engine that was shown at the 1981 Tokyo Motor Show, with the name then applied to a production version a couple of years later. It clearly struck a chord, because range-topping De Tomaso versions of the Charade would be offered all the way through to the retirement of the fourth generation version in 2000.
Our Pill is one of this final iteration, a 1996 car that has been freshly imported from Japan by a specialist dealer in Coventry. While the third-gen Charade had used a tiny turbocharged three-pot in its most potent version, the fondly remembered GTti, the bigger Mk4 was switched to a naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine. Displacing 1.6 litres and with a 16-valve head this made a competitive 122hp as sold in Japan where it carried the De Tomaso branding, although export markets had to make do with a less potent 105hp version which was simply known as the GTi. With a combined total of more than 120,000 of both variants, this was almost certainly the most commercially successful car to wear the De Tomaso name.
Japanese buyers expected plentiful goodies in the nineties, even on superminis, and the De Tomaso got a Nardi leather steering wheel, branded Recaro sports seats, alloy wheels and a chunky little bodykit as standard – plus air conditioning. While an automatic version was available, our Pill has got the proper five-speed manual.
While it isn’t in box fresh condition, the Charade looks pretty enticing in the pictures, even if the advert’s claim of 95,000 miles (more likely kilometres) represents a serious total for any Japanese market ‘mini. Some of the DETOMASO graphic has peeled off on the driver’s side, the headlights seem to have faded slightly and that Nardi steering wheel is a bit scuffed. But the grey cloth trim looks factory fresh, the paintwork is crisp and unscuffed and the images make clear there is no rust – with the floorpan looking clean enough to eat an upside-down dinner off thanks to Japan’s salt-free roads. We don’t have any MOT history for the simple fact the car hasn’t undergone one, something any buyer will need to discuss in greater detail with the vendor.
Bringing us back to the question of the level of peril inherent in such a mechanically simple and modestly powered car, and the strong possibility of triggering a pile-on pagga in the comments. Is something like this ever going to be as courageous a choice as something like last week’s V10 TDI? Of course not – not least as the worst possible outcome for any potential buyer is the ‘walk away’ cost of writing off the £5,995 asking price. There have been many previous Brave Pills that could cost you that before breakfast and double that by lunch.
But anyone who reckons the Charade is as timid as a double scoop of vanilla ice cream should consider the challenge inherent with keeping something so obscure on the road. Good luck in tracking down rare spares or parts if anything does go wrong: with Daihatsu’s withdrawal from Europe in 2013 the nearest dealer is somewhere east of the Urals.
Yet given the febrile prices being asked for some frankly terrible, barely tepid European hatchbacks of this era, a rare groove does look like an enticing alternative. Also, consider the fun to be had from buying it and gatecrashing a meeting of the De Tomaso owner’s club.
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