What is the best car in the world? Something with a Rolls-Royce badge? Maybe a Citroën, from the days when Citroën was truly great? A Mercedes-Benz, perhaps?
No, the greatest car ever to grace this planet is a 1982 Daihatsu Charade XTE. Allow me to explain.
Firstly, let me say that this is a ‘best in the world’ thing in the same way that your father is the best father in the world, and your mum makes the best roast dinners in the world. It is, then, a very personal thing. But as the Daihatsu Charade celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2017, it’s high time Japan’s response to the Ford Fiesta is given some much needed airtime. Happy birthday, little one.
The Daihatsu Charade wasn’t the first car I drove on a public road – that honour belongs to the driving school’s Nissan Micra – but it was my first car. That’s if you exclude the Saab 95 V4 I bought six months earlier, in the unlikely hope that I could save it from the after-effects of playing the role of garden gnome.
To me, that Charade was everything. Ever since I crashed my first Matchbox toy car into the skirting boards at home, I had waited patiently to get behind the wheel of a real car. I had my first driving lesson on my 17th birthday, and within four months I had passed my test.
The Charade played a key part in my transition from learner to driver. Two, maybe three nights a week, my dad would have to grin and bear it as I took my Daihatsu on random tours of New Milton, Highcliffe and Christchurch, perfecting my gear changes and learning the rules of the road.
I don’t recall my father ever shouting at me, but the odd look and long periods of silence were signs that I was getting a little over-confident.
Ditching my rose-tinted glasses for a moment, my Charade was far from perfect. Even before its tenth birthday it was suffering from Japanese tin rot. Back then, cars from the Far East arrived with plenty of standard features, but very little in the way of rust protection.
Things were OK at the front, but the line of rust along the edge of the rear doors was so severe that people would stand and stare, thinking they were looking at Hampshire’s answer to the Grand Canyon. I ‘fixed’ it with filler and silver paint. From a distance, it looked pretty good. And when I say from a distance, I mean from Dorset. Or the Isle of Wight.
The Charade cost £30 and came complete with half a tank of fuel, a fresh MOT and some tax. It was, and still remains, the best value car I have ever bought.
It was also well equipped (for the time). A five-speed ‘box was a novelty back then, especially on a small car. Other novelties included a rev counter, radio, intermittent wipers, rear wash/wipe and ‘deluxe’ cloth upholstery. As you’d expect from a Japanese car, everything worked.
I also liked the aerial fitted along the A-pillar and the vents in the bonnet. To me, those vents gave the Charade sporting credentials, even if the car was as sporty as Bill Werbeniuk in a Diana Moran leotard. As I knew no better, I chose to give the Charade lettering on the mud flaps a lick of silver paint.
Long before the logbook arrived through the post, I had transformed the Charade from a ropey old banger to a slightly less ropey banger. In fact, after a day armed with polish, wax, tyre paint and interior shampoo, it was looking like a car far better than its price tag suggested. It may not have been long for this world, but it would be going out with pride. No, not the rebadged Mazda 121…
Crucially, it was mine, and all for the cost of a Saturday morning shift at Sainsbury’s. To me, it was the coolest car in the college car park and, in my head at least, it was also the quickest. The 0-60 time was something in the region of 16 seconds, but in reality it felt far quicker. It helped that parts of the body had rusted away, giving the Charade added lightness.
The Daihatsu Charade Superleggera, if you like.
But the truth is, the Charade felt as quick, if not quicker, than the countless 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3-litre cars jostling for position in the Brockenhurst College car park. I swear the three-cylinder engine was more tuneful, too.
I passed my driving test on a Friday, meaning I had the entire weekend to get used to flying solo. Once I got over that stomach-churning feeling of looking across to an empty passenger seat, I was free to drive wherever and whenever I liked.
That weekend I did 750 miles, but I couldn’t tell you where I went or what I did. I was simply loving my car and the thrill of driving. The Charade didn’t miss a beat. Well, it was Japanese, so what would you expect?
It was like turning back the clock to the days when I’d spend hours pushing miniature cars along the living room floor. Simply exchange the sofa for houses, the carpet for tarmac and the cat for pedestrians. Oh, and avoid hitting the skirting boards.
This was a long time ago – I passed my test in May 1992, which means I’m about to celebrate 25 years behind the wheel. Yes, that makes me feel incredibly old.
In a quarter of a century I’ve driven some fabulous cars on some amazing roads. I could regale you with countless stories of perfect drives and life-affirming experiences, but nothing comes close to the utter joy of living with the Charade.
That’s the ‘first car’ effect for you. It’s akin to being given a key to the front door or being told you can cycle beyond the end of the street upon which you grew up. It’s a rite of passage and a sign that you’re growing up.
Not all ‘firsts’ are as successful or memorable. I’ll leave you to your imagination – and personal experiences – to decide which first-times fall under the category of ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
But the Charade XTE will forever hold a place in my heart. Sadly, it lived on for another year before being sent to the great Japanese scrapyard in the sky. All that remains is the front number plate, which I replaced when I bought the car.
I’d do anything to bring it back from the dead, but perhaps it’s best left in the past, filed alongside Subbuteo, SodaStream and Tara from Seafield Close as things that were great in the old days, but probably owe much to the ‘rose-tinted’ Instagram filter.
Rust in peace, Charade XTE, and thanks for the good times.