Daihatsu is largely unknown outside of Japan, but within it’s borders is famous for being the kei (mini) vehicle specialist. Whether it’s regular cars, sports cars, or mini trucks and vans, Daihatsu makes them all in kei forms. All this specializing has paid off for Daihatsu as they are consistently the best-selling mini truck brand in Japan.
Daihatsu: In The Beginning …
The name Daihatsu and how this business started are intimately tied together. To tell this particular story, we have to start back in the late 19th Century.
If you recall your automotive history, you’ll remember that Karl Benz applied for his patent for a gasoline engine-powered vehicle in 1886. But, unless you’re a keen student of Japanese history, you may not realize that until 1868 and the Meiji Reformation, Japan’s society had been cryogenically frozen in a feudal state for several hundred years. No Enlightenment. No Industrial Revolution. And then … boom! An American navy ship shows up, powered by coal with what appear to the Japanese to be weapons from another planet to make a demand — “Open up!”
You can imagine the shock. It reverberated up and down the islands, reaching every part of society. The surrounding choppy seas weren’t the moat of protection they had been. It was just a matter of time before the big-nosed foreigners took over. Or … Japan could make a U-turn and dive head-first into the modern world. Not just to catch up, but to beat them at their own game.
In 1907, Japan’s globe-trotting students, diplomats, and business people were reporting that this automobile thing wasn’t just a fad. It was here to stay. So, the largest mass-producer of vehicles in Japan reached out to researchers at a local Osaka educational institution with the goal of developing their own motor.
The company was (rather unimaginatively) named Hatsudoki Seizo Kabushiki Kaisha (Motor Manufacturing Co. Ltd.) but that decision to take a very literal name turned out to be a problem. You see, with new manufacturers popping up everywhere at that time, and no Google to tease out relevant information quickly, a generic name like this meant potential customers and suppliers with found it difficult to connect with them. So, it started to be called Motor Manufacturing of Osaka. More specific. But even more of a mouthful.
If only there were a way to make it more concise…. The solution was classic Japanese one. Take a couple of the kanji (Chinese characters) from the longer name and slap them together for a bit more zip. So, they took the long “O” from Osaka and the “Hatsu” from hatsudoki (motor), changed the “O” to another reading for the same character, dai, put them together … et voila — dai + hatsu = Daihatsu. Still, even with everyone calling them Daihatsu from before WWI, it wasn’t until after WWII in 1951 that the company formally changed its name to Daihatsu. Looking back from the 21st Century, where rebranding, new names and new logos seem to come along all the time, this time-lag seems almost epochal.
An old Daihatsu logo showing Daihatsu’s roots in Osaka by incorporating Osaka Castle.
What about Daihatsu mini trucks?
Okay, that’s a fascinating slice of history around the name, but I’m here because of Japanese mini trucks. How did Daihatsu get from developing its first motor back in 1907 to being the #1 best-selling mini truck manufacturer for more than the last 10 years?
Right, well it is a big leap from 1907 to now — over 100 years — and there is a big leap from that first 6-horsepower motor, to being an Asian automotive powerhouse, so let’s join those dots.
After testing one of their motors in a military vehicle application in 1919, they put a small 498cc gasoline engine into a 3-wheel motorcycle-type vehicle called the Daihatsu HA-Type. This HA-Type marked Daihatsu’s launch as a vehicle manufacturer.
But it wasn’t until another 3-wheeled vehicle became a huge hit both in Japan and the Asian market that Daihatsu really started to rise to prominence. That vehicle was the Midget. Launched in 1957 to mark the 50th anniversary of Daihatsu’s founding, this tiny delivery vehicle would be locked in mortal combat with it’s arch foe from Mazda until 1972.
The Midget was a 3-wheeler, so was not as such a direct ancestor of the 4-wheeled Hijet mini truck, but it was a step in the evolution from the HA, which was basically a 3-wheeled motorbike, as it had an enclosed cab. Check out how the the shape evolved from the original 1957 design on the left to having a more automobile-type cab with a steering wheel on the right.
It’s little wonder that the evolution to an automobile-type shape and cab would result in the inevitable addition of a fourth wheel, but it was really the sudden acceleration of the new kei truck market that pushed Daihatsu into creating it’s first mini truck under the now-famous name, Hijet, in 1960.
The Japanese government had created the kei (light) vehicle rules back in 1949 in order to encourage the development of simple, affordable vehicles that could have mass-market appeal with consumers just starting to emerge from the ashes of war. The aspiration was somewhat premature, though. Perhaps 1949 was just too early and the post-war economic boom hadn’t really had a chance to get going yet. But when Suzuki started to make in-roads in this new market in 1955, it was clear to companies like Daihatsu that these were going to be the delivery vehicles of the future.
Here’s the first generation Hijet. (Daihatsu’s now on the 11th generation!)
In celebration of the launch of the 11th generation Hijet, Daihatsu gathered pristine examples of each generation for the Tokyo 2022 Auto Salon. You can just see the front of the first generation on the right, and you can just about see the 10th at the edge on the far left.
Daihatsu, Meet Toyota
Even with a growing hit on their hands in the form of the Hijet, Daihatsu wasn’t immune to the winds of consolidation that were starting to blow through Japan’s auto industry in the early 1960s. A lackluster foray into the passenger car market provided the impetus to encourage a link up with another manufacturer.
With the Sanwa Bank as an intermediary, Daihatsu was hooked up with the younger, but more dynamic Toyota Motor Corporation. By sharing technology and development costs, both companies were able to benefit and grow their businesses. And despite Daihatsu being left behind in size by the growing Toyota, it still operated as a largely independent company. In 1998 Toyota became a majority shareholder, and then in 2016 it bought the remaining shares to fully incorporate Daihatsu into the Toyota group.
So, if you think about it, when you buy a Daihatsu Hijet, it’s like you’re buying a Toyota: You’ve got the same Toyota Group quality standards and practices standing four-square behind it. And, on the flipside, you have the benefit of Daihatsu’s specialist mini truck design and manufacturing skills on your side as well. Really the best of both worlds.
Daihatsu, #1 Japanese Minitruck Sales Winner Since 2010
It’s a tough market, but Daihatsu has been the #1 for annual mini truck sales for over a decade now. It’s quite incredible really. But it goes a long way to explain how Daihatsu’s Hijet was able to rack up 7.4 million sales by its 60th anniversary in November 2020. And here’s another stat to show how durable these Hijets are: Of that 7.4 million sold over 60 years, Daihatsu says that there were still 2.2 million in use at that time — 2020. That’s pretty impressive. It goes to show that, while a Hijet is inexpensive, that doesn’t mean it’s some sort of throwaway toy either. No, these Hijets are designed and built to last.
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