Curbside Classic: Daihatsu Midget II

If I made a mental list of things I didn’t expect to see in a small, Southern Alberta city while riding home from work, I suspect a Japanese Midget would be near the top, right up there with Cher and a lime-green Lamborghini. But here it was, parked outside an office building in what passes for a downtown here. I’d been aware of these, but so far had seen only photos. That doesn’t really prepare you to see one in the flesh. They are small. Really small, in a land of pickup trucks and SUVs.

The Daihatsu name isn’t all that well-known in North America, but elsewhere the company is quite successful at selling its mostly pint-sized vehicles. The Daihatsu Midget dates back to the 1957 DK model, built in response to research that revealed a large market for a high-quality, light weight small truck. It was a one-seater with three wheels, handlebar-style steering and an air-cooled, two-stroke engine. The driver sat centrally, atop the engine, in motorbike style. It was definitely more rickshaw than micro car. Nevertheless, Daihatsu sold 80,000 Midgets in the first year of production.

The MP model, introduced just two years later, moved closer to a real micro car with a steering wheel, doors and side-by-side seating for a driver AND a passenger. Again, the engine was an air-cooled, two-stroke unit whose displacement had been boosted by 55cc, to 305cc, to handle the additional weight. A three-wheeler like its predecessor, the MP saw extensive use as a light-duty delivery vehicle. Although Daihatsu discontinued production after 1972, other companies still produce MP variants to this day.

For 1996 the Midget name was revived, but this time for a more car-like vehicle that had four wheels and  available 4WD. Even such luxuries as air conditioning and an automatic transmission were available. Daihatsu offered single- and two-seat versions, in both van and truck body styles. Now here’s an oddity: The automatic was available only on the two-seater; if you wanted to shift your own gears, be prepared to drive solo, since the manual shifter sits in place of the half-size second seat. More odd facts? Well, these have a carburetor and four-wheel drum brakes. Still not odd enough? Try this: Accessing the radiator requires removing the front-mounted spare tire. How many other cars with more doors than seats can you name?

The Midget II, sold in the Japanese market, belonged to the booming Kei class. Post-1990 Kei-class vehicles were restricted to a 10.8’ length, 4.6′ width and 6.6’ height, and their engines to a maximum 660 cc and 63 hp. The Midget II is among the few Kei cars that doesn’t claim the maximum 63 hp. but only 30. Its engine, the standard Daihatsu triple used in other Kei applications like the HiJet, has been detuned more for torque (37 lb-ft @ 3200 rpm) than outright power. It is located mid-mounted under the seat and laid on its side.

Why would anyone want a Kei car? Mostly the answer is cost, pure and simple. Kei cars offer lower purchase tax rates, weight taxes, road taxes, insurance costs and, of course, reduced gasoline consumption in addition to a smaller list price. In 1998, Kei-class size restrictions were slightly raised in order to help automakers comply with safety requirements, but Kei cars remain very small vehicles.

So just how practical is the Midget II truck? Well, if you go by the official hauling capacity of 452 lbs (205 kg), then not very. But often and without question, they are overloaded in commercial service. The rear axle is suspended by leaf springs, and thus easily uprated. Bed length is 3’ 11” (1200 mm); in comparison,  Ford’s recently discontinued Ranger “small truck” had 6’ 1” of bed length. Of course, your Ford Ranger won’t get 70 mpg either.

As this curious brochure illustrates, the Midget is shorter than a giraffe; heavier than a human; lighter than an elephant; faster than the average man; but slower than a cheetah. Perhaps we could have more animal analogies  in marketing? Also, see if you can spot the Saturn SC1 and Ford Econoline in the brochure. I find it all quite curious, at least for a vehicle that never sold new in North America.

The video ads are even more offbeat.

Inside, the Midget II is rather sparsely equipped, even by air-cooled Beetle standards. Instrumentation consists of a speedometer, odometer and fuel gauge.  Controls are on the basic side as well, comprising a wiper control (yes, singular!), indicator, heater controls and a fan. Storage space is almost nonexistent, limited to a little tray on the dash and whatever you can fit on the spare seat (if so equipped) or next to the shifter. There also are a couple of little cubbyholes–unless you splurged on a radio, then there’s only one. So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this probably isn’t the best choice for a grocery store run.

Like the Volkswagen Type 2 van–another vehicle with its spare tire mounted front and center–the Midget has a rather cheerful demeanor that seems to lend itself to such often-wacky customs, including this tow truck and Citroën-inspired van. And because it attracts more attention than exotics costing ten times as much, it’s often  pressed into service as a promotional vehicle. Our particular example will undoubtedly escape that fate, since it’s owned by a local small car collector who drives it regularly.