Daihatsu’s abortive 1991 MX-5 fighter. Could it have been a winner?
It could be said that the arrival in 1989 of the Mazda MX5 was the catalyst, but in reality, it was part of a movement which had been building for some time. Ever since the compact, lightweight open two-seater had been relegated to the outliers of the specialist carmakers, the enthusiast press began agitating for a mainstream roadster revival.
Those leading manufacturers who had abandoned roadsters (or were soon about to) however had little patience for such nostalgia-laden entreaties, not when punters were buying performance hatchbacks like they were going out of fashion. But fashions change. Throughout the 1980s, the worlds of film making, music and advertising cast their eyes back towards the post-war boom era, mining its style, look and soundtrack. This apparent yearning for simpler times also manifested itself in product design, especially those emanating from an increasingly assured Japanese car industry.
Mazda were not the first to market, but the Miata was a breakthrough product, quickly becoming the darling of the enthusiast set. A shameless homage to the sportsters of the 1960s, Mazda engineers were alleged to have for instance engineered-in an element of resistance into the MX-5’s gear-shift mechanism to provide that authentic ’60s feel – akin to a latter-day musician consciously adding tape hiss to a recording, despite the fact that modern technology had long rendered such hardware-based limitations to the past.
Despite its attractive appearance, neat proportions, and unaggressive demeanour, what the MX-5 was not however, was a ravishing beauty. But with the floodgates open, and carmakers (especially Japanese ones) taking more than a passing interest in roadsters again, others sought to emulate, or indeed to eclipse.
Amongst those was Kei-car specialists, Daihatsu. Having cast its first stone into the US market in 1987 with the subcompact Charade model, before following this up with the Rocky/Sportrack SUV the following year, it must have been with at least one eye on America (where the bulk of roadster sales were gained) that the X-021 concept was prepared for the 1991 Frankfurt motor show.
Built on an aluminium spaceframe, with double wishbone suspension front and rear – the front suspension employing race-inspired inboard springs and dampers. Power came from a 1589 cc 16-valve twin cam four, developing 140 bhp at 6600 rpm, mounted well behind the axle-line and driving the rear wheels. Shorter in length and wheelbase than an MX-5, the most telling aspect of the X-021’s specification was its weight, a factor of Daihatsu engineers’ efforts and of its GRP body panels – ergo power to weight ratio, which shamed that of its more portly Hiroshima compatriot.
After the original concept was shown, it was displayed in open chassis form a month later at Tokyo while the following year at Geneva, a second prototype was presented, suggesting serious production intent. This car was driven at Daihatsu’s Shiga test facility near Kyoto by US monthly, Road & Track in July 1992, and apart from the cockpit being deemed something of a tight fit, it acquitted itself well; indeed so well sorted did it appear (even the hood proved watertight), that the US publication speculated at it spearheading a return to the US by the Japanese carmaker (Daihatsu having abandoned the US market the previous year).
It’s unknown whether Daihatsu entertained any serious plans for production; for domestic consumption (roadsters were big in Japan during the early ’90s), or for export, but following that 1992 appearance, the X-021 vanished from view, never to trouble Mazda’s unimpeded route to immortality.
A car of promise, poise, good looks and strong performance, all it seemed to have lacked was a name and a pedigree. Much like Suzuki’s promising mid-engined R/S1 of 1985, a Japanese carmaker best known for unexciting economy cars created an alluring sportscar concept which despite its strong appeal, simply could not summon up a compelling business case. Like their Hamamatsu rivals, Daihatsu took the Kei car route later that decade with the 1999 Copen. A poignant tale then – oft told, but in the auto business, there’s little space for sentiment.