Curbside Classic: 1992 Daihatsu Leeza Turbo Spider – Itsy Bitsy Spider

Given that this is CConvertible Week™ and after Paul regaled us with that stunner of a 1948 Ford Sportsman, I thought I might share another rarity from a faraway land and a very different time. They do share a few common traits: they’re both red and only lasted a couple years. The venerable Ford is now expensive and rare, and the latter is certainly true of this Daihatsu.

But otherwise, one must concede that we’re looking at a pretty different type of car. For one thing, the Daihatsu is a two-seater – it really is very small. It’s also FWD, has an all-round independent suspension and a 660cc OHC 3-cyl. engine, so it’s about as different from a ‘40s Ford product as a four-wheeled vehicle could get.

Launched in 1986, the Daihatsu Leeza led a discreet existence as a two-door 550cc kei car. Based on a shortened Mira platform, the Leeza was offered as a four-seater hatchback or as a two-seat “van” – the body was exactly the same, but the tax was not. In 1990, the Japanese authorities decided to change the kei car regulations and enable engines to grown to 660cc, as well as making the bodies a smidgen wider.

But it seems the Leeza was not at the very top of Daihatsu’s list of priorities: it took them over six months to revamp the range to the new 660cc rules. By this point in the model’s life, the van version had taken over completely: it was the only version available with a turbo, and as a very small but decently-equipped vehicle, it filled a (tiny) niche on the JDM kei market more or less on its own. By comparison, the saloon version offered an impossibly small rear seat and very little else, so it fell out of favour pretty quickly.

At the 1991 Tokyo Motor Show, Daihatsu surprised everyone by displaying a left-field coachbuilt special based on the Leeza. There was something in the air in those days – something that had pushed Honda to create the Beat, Mazda to make the AZ-1 and Suzuki to devise the Cappucino. Kei cars were going a bit nuts, so Daihatsu followed suit, albeit half-heartedly: whereas the other players actually created novel vehicles, Daihatsu merely cut the roof off their low-rent van and went “tah-daaah”!

The Spider went on sale in the spring of 1992 with the 660cc turbo triple providing 64hp to the front wheels via a choice of a 5-speed manual or a 3-speed automatic. It seems Daihatsu knew pretty quickly that the Leeza Spider would not radically alter the model’s fast-approaching end, yet they didn’t scrimp on anything to make the car into a sort of miniature MG.

The only body colours available were red or black, both with a black top and interior. Said interior included genuine leather seats at least – a touch of class not commonly seen on kei cars. Originally, the Spider was supposed to be a (tight) four-seater, but Daihatsu wisely scaled it back to a decent two-seat configuration. The extra cowhide for legless rear passengers would have made the whole project even more uneconomical, I’m sure. (This last sentence, for those who have issues with identifying irony and sarcasm, was not meant to be taken entirely seriously. Just like the car itself.)

Our feature car, which has seen better days, has sadly lost its tasteful mock-wire wheelcovers. A real shame, though at least we seem to have all the requisite (and numerous) decals, so we’re good on that front. Apparently, these do tend to fade or peel off and are impossible to replace. Some Leeza Spider owners have had to resort to scanning them on better-preserved cars and arrange for re-prints.

The issue is that, as I stated before, these are very rare cars. Just how rare is a matter of some debate on the Interwebs: English- and French-language websites I’ve consulted all opine that Daihatsu only made 200 Spiders before the Leeza range as a whole was put out to pasture in the summer of 1993, so the Spider was only in Daihatsu showrooms for a little over a year. Japanese websites usually say 380 or “less than 400” units – quite a discrepancy. Whatever the truth of the matter, we’re talking about a seriously niche model.

The final tidbit about this little bundle of turbocharged joy has to be the name. It is said that Daihatsu picked “Leeza” to put their clientele in mind of the Mona Lisa. Was the model supposed to be something of a Renaissance for Daihatsu? Hardly. And it certainly was no oil picture either. Perhaps it was the hubris of the name that made the Leeza’s extreme discretion an inevitability. Veni, vidi, but certainly no da Vinci.