Daihatsu Charade: the “Little Giant Killer” of the Safari Rally

Quick, think of a Japanese car that has won the Safari Rally. A Daihatsu Charade is probably not the the first thing that pops into mind. The 3-cylinder compact is most remembered in the States as the car that spearheaded Daihatsu’s ill-fated attempt to break into the US market, an attempt that lasted only five years and surely broke some kind of record as shortest-lived marque in America. However, for years Daihatsu sent the humble hatchback to run the grueling multi-day rally, even earning the name “Little Giant Killer”.

The first-generation Charade was launched in 1977 as a lightweight and sturdy compact. Daihatsu boasted in advertisements that the car’s entire footprint took up only five square meters. Though its 1.0-liter engine had only three cylinders, it was a four-stroke engine, which made it a sophisticated standout in its class. It even won MotorFan magazine’s 1978 Car of the Year award.

To really prove its durability, thought, Daihatsu decided to enter it in the 1979 Safari Rally. The cross-Africa race was considered one of the toughest in the world, and was essentially a rite of passage for many of Japan’s carmakers at the time. Nissan had won it with Bluebird 510 and 240Z,  and Mitsubishi with the first Lancer 1600GSR. Toyota would go on to win it multiple times with the Celica as well.

Daihatsu actually entered several international rallies. The Charade claimed victory in its class at the 48th Monte Carlo Rally in 1981. The following year, Daihatsu entered three Charades into the Safari Rally’s II-1 class for 1.0-liter and under engines. That year the route stretched 5,012 km (3,114 miles). To merely finish the race was considered an achievement. After all, it was nicknamed the “car breaker” because so few cars that started actually made it to the end. In 1982, only 21 of the 73 cars entered would cross the finish line.

Not only did the Charade finish, but it won its class and came in 17th overall. Amazingly, the only repairs required on the largely stock Charade were four shock absorbers that were replaced at some point. In addition, the Charade returned 19 mpg, even driven at full throttle through challenging terrain. Lightness, Daihatsu argued, was the Charade’s greatest weapon.

A stock Charade weighed between 1,390 and 1,455 pounds, depending on trim level. Soon, the lightweight nature of the Charade was used heavily in advertisements back home, as was its win in one of the world’s most demanding races. The Daihatsu Charade is often disparaged in English-speaking parts of the world, but don’t let its unassuming looks fool you. The Charade is an accomplished rally machine, and “Lightness is a weapon!” is one of the great ad copies of all time.

Images courtesy of Daihatsu, Toyota

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7 Responses to Daihatsu Charade: the “Little Giant Killer” of the Safari Rally

  1. Lee L says:

    This is the first time in my life I’ve thought “I should buy a daihatsu charade.”

  2. Kieron says:

    My first car at 17 was a 1988 G110 Charade. I had the GTti and it was awesome.

    • David says:

      In Australia we didn’t get the GTti but when I built my Charade in the early 2000’s I found a CB80 engine and modified it, when finished my Charade was making 100kw @ the wheels on 20psi, used to see off a few Evos and WRXs at the traffic lights.

  3. RainMeister says:

    Remarkable. This story ranks right up there with Hino Motors winning the 1966 Times-Mirror race at Riverside Raceway with the Pete Brock prepared Contessa coupe. Who would have ever remembered or guessed.

  4. Jim Klein says:

    A college roommate of mine had a Charade, (one of the newer ones obviously, not this one), it was around 1990 and was still a new car at the time. That little three-banger 2-door hatchback was a fun little car to drive around and the cabin was very well assembled with materials that seemed far better than the class it competed in required. Good memories, and Daihatsu has had me as a fan since. I had an Isuzu I-Mark at the time, we were the two in the household with the odd cars…

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