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.
17 thoughts on “Tears Are Not Enough”
Indeed a unfortunate loss, the same could also be said for the coupe versions of the mk1 and mk2 Mazda MX-5 as well as the Fiat Barchetta coupe.
The Alpine W71 project is another one could considers it could have also utilized the naturally aspirated 170-200 hp 2-litre engines used in the Clio RS 170-200 models as well as later on potentially even the 227-252 hp 3-litre V6 in the Clio V6.
The last that comes to mind would have to be the mid-engined 1975 Nisssan AD-1 concept. Like the overall looks (though the front lights could do with more work reminiscent of the Alpine GTA), it just needs an engine along the lines of the Nissan Cherry Turbo (followed by CA units) as well as a Nissan EXA style rebody or two from the 1980s.
Returning to Nissan, while they opted for a mid-engined layout with the AD-1 concept and a front-engined FWD layout for the EXA. One would have actually expected Nissan to be the mostly likely candidate to develop a small front-engined RWD sportscar like the Mazda MX-5 and Daihatsu X-021.
Good morning, Eóin. Looks are, of course, subjective, but I’m surprised by your assessment of the Mk1 MX-5 as “not…a ravishing beauty.” For my money, it was a near perfect design, neat and compact with lovely detailing, for example, those delicate chrome door handles. It wasn’t slavishly retro, more a reinterpretation of classic design cues. If you see one parked next to an original Lotus Elan, on which it was supposedly based, it’s actually quite different.
I had one for a couple of years and it was an absolute delight to own and drive. The engineering was simple and straightforward, but extremely well executed and entirely appropriate for a small cheap(ish) roadster. The Daihatsu sounds overly complex by comparison. The larger 1.8 litre engine corrected the small power deficit of the original 1.6 model.
The Mk2 MX-5, which was a rebodying of the original, proved how hard it is to improve on the Mk1. It contrived to look bigger and slightly flaccid to my eyes. It lost the pop-up headlamps because they were prohibited, but the deletion of the lovely bespoke door handles was unnecessary and a shame.
Here’s the lovely original:
Agreed, Daniel. As far as I remember the MX-5 was well received over here when it was launched. I can still remember where I saw the MX-5 for the first time. It was red with German plates. Up until today I’ve never driven one. Strange as apparently MIATA is always the answer.
I like the X-021 as well, especially the space frame and front suspension. Would have been lovely to drive with such little weight as well.
MX-5 also had double wishbone suspension, but definitely hard to see aluminium construction making sense. Presumably the cabin would be tighter than the already marginal Mazda and the boot is definitely a lot smaller.
As was the Daihatsu distribution network, plus people wouldn’t associate Daihatsu and sports car. That’s not a barrier, but definitely an obstacle to sales.
Interesting – it could almost pass for a small BMW Z-Series of some sort, especially from the rear . The silver colour probably helps with that impression. I wish I could gauge its size better – cars like this often appear to be on the small side.
However, I think it would have had a oointkess struggle against the MX-5, which absolutely nailed it. The design reminded one of the Elan, but wasn’t a pastiche and it was made by an admired Japanese maker, renowned for advanced engineering and sports cars. A cute (ish) car, but not one with very strong gender associations and quite well-sized / accommodating. Also one capable of being tuned and raced, credibly.
High consistency and relevance, one could say.
Mazda made getting it right look easy – it’s not. As an example of what can happen, just look at the Reliant SS1, launched in 1984.
Hi Charles. I couldn’t agree more about the Mk1 Mazda MX-5 and yes, those wheel arches on the Scimitar SS1 were a bit of a fright:
The later, facelifted 1990 SST and 1992 Sabre models were plainer and better, but the MX-5 had the market for small roadsters pretty much sown up by then:
BTW, glad to see that it’s not just me that has ‘Covfefe’ moments with the keyboard!
‘Oointkess’ – or, ‘pointless’, in English. Perhaps it could be a new word, meaning utterly futile.
The MX-5 didn’t do much to help the cause of the fwd Lotus Elan, either, as it gave some legitimacy to the “no proper sports car is front wheel drive” argument. Plus of course it was a volume car from a volume maker, and thus inherently more reliable and affordable….
Hi Michael, yes, the MX-5 fatally undermined the prospects for the FWD Elan and It was a shame because the Elan, apparently, had excellent handling, despite being driven from the ‘wrong’ end.
Hello Michael – true. Didn’t they get the moulds wrong on that, or something?
Oh, there was something about that, yes – I’d totally forgetten it. I can’t remember the details, either, other than that it wound up wider than intended, leaving it looking overbodied…
Suzuki is a funny company. They remind me of the underachieving neighbour in Ever Decreasing Circles, Paul. Have Suzuki ever made a bad car? And lots of cars they make are deep-down good. But Suzuki have avoided ever playing the great roles like an aspiring lead actor might. Instead they do well-observed smaller studies that are way more interesting than the more obvious things. The Jimny, the Copen, the Swift, the Ignis and even the Baleno (both iterations) are useful, efficient, robust and sometimes idiosyncratic vehicles – never less than sensibly engineered. If they wanted to Suzuki could make a fantastic large family car but they don´t want to. Instead they´ll make something nobody thought they wanted but which will quietly satisfy lots of people anyway.
Someone will say the word Kizashi at some point. No-one´s perfect. Probably no-one expected a car like that from Suzuki. It seems to have been okay. They only offered it with a 2.4 litre engine which was silly as a 1.8 and 2.0 would have been more market-friendly, and there was no diesel.
Suzuki are a different breed, in the most desirable meaning. It’s absurdly suffice to reiterate how much hope there lies in Suzuki and Daihatsu for saving the essential, lightweight driving pleasures, that this century deprived us of so blatantly.
Maybe there’s still some hope.
The X-021 was almost forgotten, and it’s so good to be reminded of its mysterious stillbirth. In hindsight, had it existed, it goes without saying that I’d have
owned one by now. I ‘visualize’ it as a 3/4-sized S2000, with a very different,
linear power delivery and instant throttle response (lightweight), that
could double as a surprisingly frugal daily commuter.
The way the entire front of the load-bearing chassis is narrowed-down, with an uncompromising single-seater thinking, is just phenomenal, with a strong
Lotus 7 flavour about it. Caterham 21 springs to mind.
The engine is squeezed so far backward, that it inevitably triggers a ‘what if’
thought about whether they might’ve played with the idea of fitting
the G100 1.0 3-cyl. Turbo, which, what with being one cylinder
shorter, would shift the weight distribution even more rearwards,
to make for probably astonishing dynamic demeanour. Who knows.
One of the saddest never-to-be automotive stories, that’s for sure.
Along with the 68-105 hp 1.0 3-cylinder G Turbo, Daihatsu could have also probably gotten away with fitting more standard 72-123 hp 1.3-1.6 Daihatsu H engines to a production version of the Daihatsu X-021.
Daihatsu could have potentially have had a winner on their hands. Given the boom of sports cars and coupes following the Hot Hatches about to be going bust into the 1990s. Especially seen how successful the Mazda MX-5 (Miata), Ford Puma, Toyota Celica and the MG F/TF. It could have been a nice alternative to the Kei sports cars like the Suzuki Cappuccino and Honda Beat.
Is it just me, or does the Daihatsu roadster resemble the TVR Griffth that arrived around that time? And that’s a good thing!
Thanks for stopping by Luke. I hope you enjoy the site. There was a touch of the Griffith about the Daihatsu – or was it the other way round? The timelines suggest it might simply have been a coincidence.
Oh you welcome, Eoin. Yes, I really enjoy the site. I find it really interesting and insightful looking at the automotive industry from another angle by you and everyone from DTW. Especially the obscure stuff. I’ve spent hours reading through the archive.