The first Japanese car we got was a small two-door with a 41bhp 797cc engine, priced at £799. And it came from a brand you might not expect…

What was the first Japanese car to be sold in the UK? Clue: it arrived in early 1965.

A Toyota, perhaps? The Corona arrived in 1965, yes, but it wasn't the first. It must be a Datsun, then? Nope — 1968. A Suzuki? Again, no.

I'll put you out of your misery: it was the Compagno, from the independent little Daihatsu company. Offered as a Berlina saloon, an estate and a cute Spider convertible, it began what Autocar described as the "long-threatened" Japanese "invasion" of our auto market.

If you were around at the time but don't remember the Compagno, that's probably because the importer, Dufay, managed to sell just six examples in five years. The best-selling car of 1965, the Austin/Morris 1100, managed to shift an incredible 157,679 units in that year alone.

The Compagno was certainly not helped by having the badge of an unknown brand (although it was designed by Vignale), but its price was an even bigger hindrance. It was actually one of the best-equipped cars of its type, with foglights, reversing lights, a radio, a cigarette lighter, wing mirrors and a clock all coming as standard. The problem was that you could get the familiarity of an Austin Mini for £280 less or a Hillman Imp for £260 less.

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One of the few cars registered was CGH 8B, which Autocar tested on 20 August 1965. And, remarkably, it's still taxed and on the road, in the care of International Motors, which imported Daihatsus until 2011.

We described the car back then as "well made but technically unadvanced". It had a two-door, four-seat body sitting on a separate chassis, and "in the design of the suspension, engine, transmission and brakes, it follows very closely much that was popular and conventional on British cars some eight or 10 years ago". Like the Morris Minor, then.

The Compagno's four-cylinder, 797cc unit had "decidedly little power", at 41bhp and 47lb ft, "for the car's weight of 775kg", we reckoned. In fact, "with liberal use of the four gears, one may make quite good progress among town traffic, but for this one needs to keep the engine revving hard. Above 50mph, acceleration tails away, and the car would not reach 60mph on one-mile straight against a strong headwind". 

"Sometimes, full power is needed to climb quite gradual hills with a full load on board," we added.

Despite this, the car felt "quite lively" — an impression helped by "the gross optimism of its speedometer", but not "unsuitable gear ratios". Second gear was "much too low", while "third is a shade high, so that there is a very wide gap to be bridged by zooming the engine hard in second before changing up". At least top gear was "a good compromise for easy cruising and reasonable flexibility".

However, "engine refinement compensated to some extent for the restricted performance", and one soon developed "a heavy-footed technique" in driving the car, because "the power unit doesn't seem to object at all to consistently hard driving". It simply "buzzed" rather than "thrashed or roared", and in top gear was "remarkably unobtrusive".

We saw fit to praise Japanese engineering concerning the Compagno's transmission: "If early steering column changes for four-speed gearbox had been as crisp and easy in action as British cars as the one on the Daihatsu, they might still be popular today.

"Many of the changes can be made with only the fingertips, while very effective synchromesh also enables the driver to thrust the lever from one gear to the next without any attempt at matching speeds."

The clutch was very light, mind you, meaning "the Daihatsu is not an easy car for a fast getaway, as some controlled clutch slip is necessary to keep the power up".

The suspension was not so impressive, even taking into account that "the rather hard-used demonstrator car was in need of a check-up and new dampers". It gave "a loose and springy ride, with pronounced vertical jogging of the rear end on any but the very smoothest roads".

We continued: "The front suspension absorbs bumps fairly well, but the rears produce uncontrolled leaps and bounces, making many roads seem much worse than they are." Meanwhile, "on washboard, severe vibration caused violent scuttle shake threatening to ruin the instruments and radio".

Naturally, handling was also not a forte. "When sharp corners are taken with verve," we detailed, "there is considerable roll and sufficient howl from the Yokohama tyres to arouse pedestrians. As well as feeling a shade top-heavy, the Daihatsu oversteers badly, even with only the driver on board."

This wasn't helped by "loose and spongy" steering with "a lot of springiness to exaggerate the impression of free play through corners". At least there was "fair directional stability" and the nose of the car "answered to small wheel movements at speed".

Thankfully, the brakes weren't on the Compagno's list of shortcomings, being strong and resistant to fade.

In terms of practicality, the Compagno was clearly engineered for the Japanese driver. The driving position itself was good, if forward vision was obscured by the steering wheel, but the seat provided "far too little reg room" and if slid all the way back "tends to shoot forward under braking". The rears didn't give much space for feet, either, although they did for heads, and were supportive and gripping through corners.

The interior was attractive, too, with an imitation wood dashboard and padded plastic areas, although the "fluffy weave" on the door trim rather ruined things. In addition, we couldn't help but notice rust pimples on the exterior brightwork.

Did Autocar's road testers of the time see the impending threat of the Japanese manufacturers, which would soon play a large part in the mass death of too many British car makers to name, as a real one? Not quite.

"The Daihatsu is shown up by most European cars of similar engine and body size," we said, "not only on matters of performance and economy [we averaged just 34.8mpg], but also on many aspects of its road behaviour, although these competitors are more than £200 cheaper."

That said, we recognised that "the Daihatsu does impress for quality of workmanship, and there are many who understandably attach great importance to this and prefer a car that is well made, even if outdated and of inferior design, to one which is technically superior but badly constructed".

History tells us the rest (for Japanese cars as a whole, but sadly not for Daihatsu) and warns, perhaps, that we should probably stop disregarding the promise of Chinese manufacturers…

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19 July 2018

You mentioned in the article  that in 1965  that 157000 Austin/Morris 1500's were sold. I guess it should have read Austin /Morris 1100.  Sorry to be so pedantic!!


19 July 2018

Accuracy, a sub-editor dnd effective proof reading have long ceased to be a requirement at Autocar.

19 July 2018



21 July 2018
Howie wrote:

You mentioned in the article  that in 1965  that 157000 Austin/Morris 1500's were sold. I guess it should have read Austin /Morris 1100.  Sorry to be so pedantic!!



In addition to that error it is also the case the car tested by Autocar in 1965 was actually registered, according to DVLA in October 1964 !

19 July 2018

Sorry, my mistake.

19 July 2018

Indeed that should have been 1100 and not 1500 – my mistake, now amended. Apologies.

19 July 2018

I love the styling inside and out.  I note the "hoffmeister kink" about the C pillar which BMW seems to regards as its own, even though Triumphs and many other makes who retained the same designer also featured this!  Interestingly, that designer was Michelotti rather than Vignale.

19 July 2018
With hindsight, it was the quality of construction that heralded the Japanese future success.

I am yet to see any equivalent quality from a Chinese offering. Crap fakes don't count.

19 July 2018

First Japanese cars, then it was Korean cars which were taken as a cheap novelty but are now mainstream, Chinese cars are next. I see a lot of MGs locally as the ex-Rover dealer became an MG dealer, the 3 looks like it could be European and the SUV looks like anything from Japan.

19 July 2018

In 1966, I'm certain that Isuzu cars were displayed in Fraser's department store in Argyle Street in Glasgow. Never came to anything, however, and it was Datsun and Toyota that appeared in the early 1970's. I recall the Autocar test of the first Toyota Celica that prompted me to visit the nearest dealer in Drum near Kinross.  I never bought one, or even had a test drive.  I don't even think they had a demonstrator, or even a showroom.


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