Like a first kiss, everyone remembers their first car. Along life’s journey, learning to drive and getting behind the wheel of your own car is a significant event. It represents a coming of age, a rite of passage.
I couldn’t wait to drive, so I booked my first driving lesson the day I turned 17. Four months later, I passed my test and the road was finally mine. I’ll never forget the moment, just a few minutes into my very first solo drive, when I glanced across to the passenger seat and it was empty. A feeling of complete panic and horror washed over me as I realised it was just me now.
The panic didn’t last long, though, and I went on to complete 500 miles of pointless driving over the next two days. It seems a world away now, a period of my life almost completely free of responsibilities and concerns. If nothing else, the fact that a litre of fuel cost just 40p was a bonus.
It is almost impossible to recreate those first moments behind the wheel. Regardless of what or where you drive in later life, nothing will match the sheer thrill and sense of anticipation when you’re behind the wheel for the first time. So for that reason alone, I will always hold the Daihatsu Charade XTE higher than any other car in the world.
The Charade was the genesis of my love of driving. The first rung on the automotive ladder. Like the toy cars I played with in my childhood, the Charade was everything to me. It wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t remotely desirable, but it was mine. My very own car. I have a massive soft spot for the Charade.
So it saddens me to discover that there are potentially only five Charade XTEs left in the UK. According to the ever brilliant How Many Left? website, there are just two Charade XTEs on the road and a further three untaxed. Sadly, I’m almost certain that my very own KAA 10Y isn’t one of the five. According to the DVLA it was last taxed in 1996, just three years after I sold it to a college friend.
The Charade XTE has experienced a monumental fall from grace since 1994 when there were over a thousand of the cheeky little tykes roaming the streets. By 2006 the number had reached ten and they’ve continued to disappear since then.
Of course, this makes me very sad. To many people the Daihatsu Charade XTE is just an appliance. A soulless city car with no redeeming features and completely devoid of any historical value. Well maybe so, but to me it has huge social and historical importance. I took my first tentative steps on life’s great highway in that car and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them completely disappear.
So, right here, right now, I’m starting the campaign to rescue the Charade XTE from extinction. I owe it to the little car. The timing is rather good too, as 2012 represents the 20th anniversary of me passing the driving test and buying the Charade. Forget the Olympics, for me, 2012 will be the year of the Charade XTE.
As you can see from the decidedly grainy photos from the time, my particular Charade was silver and was first registered in August 1981. It had a few dents and scratches, but in general was quite presentable. OK, who am I trying to kid, the base of the rear doors were completely rotten and as you can just make out, there was a long stretch of rust around the rear arches. But absolutely none of this mattered to me, as it drove brilliantly and was loaded with standard kit. The glass was tinted, it had rear wash/wipe, a rev counter and a radio. You need to bear in mind that in 1981 such things were considered luxuries and simply weren’t available as standard on other small cars. It was also unique in having a three-cylinder engine and a five-speed gearbox. I’m almost certain that the Charade XTE was the first 1.0 litre car to come with a five-speed ‘box, but I’m prepared to be told otherwise.
I can’t remember all that much about the interior, but if I memory serves me correctly, it was a sea of red and brown plastics. The fact that it had a five-speed gearbox and rev counter won me few kudos points in the college car park, but the sound system didn’t. It still had the original fitment head unit, the make of which escapes me, but only one of the two speakers worked. This meant that you only got to hear half a song. This wasn’t always a problem, but it did make listening to tracks such as Bohemian Rhapsody quite amusing. The section towards the end of the song that involves lots of ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Let Me Go’ was a particular highlight.
But who needs a decent radio when you have the quickest car in the college car park? Yes, I know there’s a certain degree of ‘rose tinted glasses’ about this, but you have to remember that in 1992, school leavers and college-goers simply didn’t have access to finance deals and newer cars. There were a few kids who were given new cars by wealthy parents, but in general, the college car park was a sea of old Metros, Fiestas, Chevettes and Allegros.
Within my circle of friends, the Charade ruled. It may have had a tiny three-cylinder engine, but the actual performance belied the 0-60 time of 16 seconds. This was helped in no small part by the fact that the body was constructed with a combination of cling film and paper foil. But across the subsequent nine years on the road, most of this had disintegrated and taken away some of the original 691kg of weight. But regardless of this, it was genuinely quick off the line and a huge amount of fun to chuck about. It was a frugal thing too, capable of 49mpg, some 10mpg more than all of its competitors.
I cherished that thing. It was washed weekly and was treated to wax more times that it probably warranted. On a number of occasions it was treated to some Redex, although this was probably more down to the thrill of seeing clouds of smoke pouring out from the exhaust and across the college car park. I never did grow up.
For the best part of nine months I loved and worshipped that car. It cost me just £30 and came complete with a tank of fuel and six months tax and was totally reliable up until the point I sold it. A week later it required a new clutch and gearbox, so I clearly moved it on at the right time. I must have picked up the theory of Bangernomics earlier than I thought.
Since the Charade XTE, I moved on to newer, more expensive cars, but not one has delivered the same warm feeling and sense of pride. I know it will be impossible to recreate the same emotions some 20 years later, but I just can’t standby and watch them all disappear. So in the same way that I hunted down the Box of Frogs, I’ll now be on the constant look out for another Charade XTE. I just hope I make it in time before they all disappear.
In the words of Shaw Taylor, “Keep ’em peeled.”