RAC Cars News


Half A Century Of Japanese Cars In Britain

By raccars Published

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In 1964, no-one in the UK was particularly excited by the announcement that a small Japanese saloon car was to be imported by Dufay - in theory, a manufacturer of film stock. The British Motor Show of that year was instead championing the Sunbeam Tiger, the Mini Moke and the Vauxhall Victor.

By May the following year, the Daihatsu Compagno became the first Japanese car to officially go on sale within the UK. Four variations were available: two and four door Berlinas, an estate and a Spider. Prices started at just over £799 - quite a large sum for the time, thanks to import duty, and £200 more expensive than the Ford Anglia - but Dufay proudly championed how much car buyers were getting for their money. The Compagno was in fact rather sophisticated, with comfort and convenience features, including a heated cabin, tinted windows, whitewall tyres, reversing lights, fog lamps, reclining seats, a cigarette lighter, wing mirrors, an electric screewash, a clock and a radio with automatic aerial.

Unfortunately, British buyers weren't convinced and when the Compagno was phased out in 1970 there were only six models registered in the UK. Daihatsu, chastened by the experience, waited almost a decade before attempting any further UK sales. It's a pity because the Compagno was a very competent and stylish car compared to similar offerings by UK manufacturers.

However the UK, for some reason, struggled to take Japanese cars seriously, despite their considerable success elsewhere. The Compagno's build quality was noted by an auto press that was, nonetheless, rather uncharitable about its other capabilities. But reviews of the time clearly missed the mark of what the UK motoring public wanted from its cars, because the same virtues were what made the later Toyota Corolla and Nissan Bluebird so popular.

Where the Compagno 800 Berlina model that introduced the range to the UK did fall down was in its performance, which meant it couldn't even catch a Renault 4 on the motorway. A spacious boot and slick four speed transmission didn't make up for a puny 66mph top speed in the eyes of the speedy British public. Perhaps if more effort had been put into the promotion of the range topping 1000 Spider model instead, the Compagno's fate would have been different, as this was not only a very handsome car but, with fuel injection technology, was far more refined and brisk than its entry level counterpart.

Today the Compagno barely registers in the memory of the British auto industry.

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