Curbside Classic: 1969 Daihatsu Compagno Convertible

(first posted 3/4/2018)      After working out that my grandfather used to own a Daihatsu Compagno ute, I was inspired to return to this car that I photographed at a car show and the quite interesting story of one of the more significant Japanese cars that I doubt more than a handful of readers will have heard of.

Daihatsu was formed out of Hatsudoki Seizo Co. in 1951, which since 1907 had built steam engines and railway carriages, and subsequently diesel engines and three-wheel trucks – like this 1957 example.  It seems the 1907 date is why Daihatsu is sometimes referred to as Japan’s oldest car maker, although several other companies built cars before them, for example the 1917 Mitsubishi Model A.

Daihatsu started in the passenger car game with the 3-wheeler Bee that very same year (1951).

For the 1961 Tokyo Motor Show, Daihatsu displayed a 700cc sedan prototype.  This was part of an era of enormous expansion for the Japanese automobile industry and the Japanese economy in general as the immediate post-war recovery period was past, some industry restrictions had been lifted and there was a push to double Japanese incomes.

This car seems to have been based on the 1960 HiJet (360cc) pickup (at left above), which was also sold as a van from 1961.  From 1962 the wheelbase was extended and the 800cc engine fitted to what was called the New Line.  Of course the HiJet is much better known as a cab-over van; this change would come in 1964.

The Compagno was the first four-wheeled car from Daihatsu, and first appeared at the 1963 Tokyo Motor Show as seen above in van format, which in Japan then typically still had a full complement of windows.  Styling was by Vignale, and is similar to quite a few cars of the era such as the Fiat 1100 or Peugeot 404, scaled down of course!  A passenger (station wagon) version soon followed; as was typical with different taxes applicable to commercial and passenger variants, it cost 20% more.

The production version was as a full-range, mainstream car.  The wheelbase was a compact 2,220 mm or 87.4” with an overall length of 3,800 mm (149.6 in) and a width a titchy 1425 mm (56.1 in).  This was typical of the new “National car” class that had been announced in 1955 by MITI (the Ministry of International Trade & Industry) as a step up from the Kei car (which was then restricted to 360 cc engines and 3,000 mm overall length).  Most of the Japanese manufacturers offered such a car, but one thing that was unusual about the Compagno was its separate chassis.

The sedan also debuted in November 1963, including a Deluxe version that featured a Nardi-style 3-spoke steering wheel.  The Deluxe was particularly well-equipped, as detailed below.  Interestingly the car above seems to have a column gearshift, rather than other cars with a floor-mounted shifter.

The Compagno is notable in apparently being the first Japanese car imported into the UK, announced at the 1964 Motor Show with deliveries commencing in May 1965, by a film stock manufacturer from Birmingham that was also selling Japanese cameras.  The cars were offered as an 800cc two- or four-door sedan, the two-door wagon and a 1,000cc convertible, although from the 1966 ad below it seems that most were soon upgraded to the 1,000cc engine.  A top speed of just 66 mph was reported for the 800cc test car (pictured above), and the British testers were quick to determine the car was behind the times in general with poor handling although they were complementary of build quality.

On the other hand, standard equipment included many items that were normally optional in other cars at the time- heater, reclining seats, cigarette lighter, a clock, electric windscreen washers, reverse lights, tinted windows, fog lights and even a radio with an automatic aerial (“These cars have everything!”).  This must have contributed to the price being 25% higher than its competition, and while the luxury small car was a ‘thing’, attempting to enter this market with a new and unproven make was unwise to say the least.  Not surprisingly very few Compagnos were sold; perhaps as few as 6 units!  Can any UK readers give an insight as to how much of a dealer network Dufay had?

This is the engine, possibly from our red convertible.  Note that it is a uniflow design, an aspect that reflects the era in which it was designed; just before crossflow designs took over for inline engines.  While the engine was not powerful (41 hp for the 800cc or 55 hp for the 1,000cc), it was smooth and refined.  The Spider came with a twin-carb engine and 65 hp.

1965 saw the Compagno Spider was released, where the Vignale styling really shone.  It really is a little gem.

The rear view is reminiscent of many cars, until you realise the fairly tiny size of the thing in relation to the number plate – which is just 372 x 134 mm or 14.6″ x 5.3″, slightly wider but not as tall as a US plate, or a Japanese one for that matter.

In today’s world it is easy to say the car should sit lower, or that it should have larger wheels and tyres, however all manufacturers gave much more consideration that their products might be driven on less than ideal surfaces.  And larger diameter tyres require larger wheelhouses, which eat into interior space – an important factor in a small car.

I can see this being a fantastic town runabout, ideally on fine days at least!

Here is another shot of the interior, this time with a floor gearshift.  Note the umbrella-type hand brake at the bottom of the dashboard adjacent to the gear knob.  I’m not sure if the small tachometer is original.

Also in 1965 the four-door version of the sedan was released, which not only improved rear seat access but also improved on the look by eliminating the upside-down tapered B-pillar of the two-door sedan.  This later gained the twin carb Spider engine in the GT model, which was then replaced by a fuel-injected version.

From 1966 the Campagno was offered in Australia, also with 800cc to start with but soon the 1,000cc engine was added.  Sales continued until 1968 when Daihatsu withdrew from the car market.

The pickup (or ute) version of the Campagno was also introduced in 1965, and arrived in Australia in 1966.  This probably seems strange to our North American readers, but there are several things to keep in mind.  Not only had there been earlier Daihatsu utes, but many other small cars had ute versions; everything from Austin A30s to Toyota Crowns.

The ute was rated to carry a very credible 500 kg (1,100 lb), albeit in typical Japanese fashion – better suited for city streets than the motorway to say the least.  Or if you have a set of mud & snow tyres or similar for the rear, it might be handy for the farm!  The modern equivalent might be a UTV or side-by-side, but those don’t have the same weather protection or open road capability.  The ute continued on sale in Australia until 1973, although production had stopped in 1970.

Japan Air Lines postcard.


Ultimately the Campagno was not the car to set Daihatsu on the path to becoming a significant automotive power, and Toyota took an interest in the company in 1966.

Daihatsu continued on with small cars, and soon added four-wheel drives to its portfolio too.  For example it returned to the Australian passenger car market in 1971 with the Kei-class 360X, known elsewhere as the Max or Fellow.  This was a conventional front-wheel drive car with a two-stroke engine, so I can only imagine how well that sold.  It would take until the 1977 Charade for Daihatsu to start to build any sort of prominence.  In more recent times though, Daihatsu has withdrawn from scores of different countries including Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.  In 2016 Toyota purchased the remaining portion of Daihatsu and now owns it completely.

Interestingly, at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show Daihatsu showed a new Campagno concept; a four-door coupe that echoed the original car’s styling.  It is proposed to use either a 1.0L turbo or 1.2L hybrid drivetrain.  Who knows, they may just work their way back yet?


Further Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1989 Daihatsu Charade – Treat And Retreat

Curbside Capsule: 1997-2005 Daihatsu Terios – Twenty Years Early

Curbside Classic: Daihatsu Midget II

Curbside Classic: The Japanese Retro Trial (1st Witness) – Daihatsu Mira Gino Series 1 & 2