Only 6 in Malaysia, this Daihatsu Midget II is a whimsical lil' truck
CY Foong · Mar 3, 2023 02:00 PM
Daihatsu is Japan’s oldest engine manufacturer and is also one of the weirdest car brands. Maybe that might be due to its range of tiny cars but while its association in Malaysia is often tied down with Perodua, Daihatsu actually played a vital role in transport history in the developing markets.
That might be an interesting intro to what is possibly the weirdest Daihatsu model ever but the Daihatsu Midget II’s history can be traced back to the most important mode of transport in Southeast Asia, South India, and parts of West Africa.
I’m talking of course about the tuk-tuk. Those three-wheeled autorickshaws that constantly dot around Bangkok, Delhi, and Lagos might sport a different name today but the first tuk-tuks were based on the first Daihatsu Midget which was also one of Daihatsu’s first vehicles ever.
The essential 3-wheeler
Daihatsu was first established as Hatsudoki Seizo Co. Ltd. in 1907 in Osaka. At first, it only produced industrial-grade internal combustion engines during Japan’s industrial revolution period at the turn of the 20th century before moving to motorcycle engines.
Despite praises for the company’s motorcycle engines, many Japanese buyers saw their domestic products as being inferior. Yet, Hatsudoki Seizo saw an opportunity to develop its own model instead.
The three-wheeled Model HA and HB would become the first Daihatsu-badged products with the name being a combination of the first kanji of Osaka (大 which can also be pronounced as “dai”) and the first word in the company’s existing name.
The Daihatsu three-wheelers would become a massive hit for the company with a wide variety of engines, body variants, and carrying capacity though they were essentially modified motorcycles. Eventually, the company would rename itself Daihatsu Motor Co. in 1951.
Following World War II, three-wheelers would start to dominate the market as they have a larger carrying capacity than a motorcycle while also being easier to move around the narrow and sometimes bombed-out streets than a 4-wheeled vehicle. However, the existing three-wheelers were mostly trikes so Daihatsu came up with a solution in the form of the Midget.
Launched in 1957, the first variation of the Midget was designed as a simple, economical, and easy-to-handle vehicle that can carry enough loads for delivery or other transport necessities. You might even call it Japan's first people's car. Eventually, the Midget received some improvements over the next few years including a two-seater cabin and a proper steering wheel.
Still, the pre-updated Midget with its single seat and handlebar steering would become the progenitor for the early tuk-tuks in Southeast Asia and South Asia.
The original Daihatsu Midget was on sale in Japan for 15 years with production ending in 1972. 336,534 units of the Midget I were sold but towards the end of its production run, the little trike that drove Japan’s post-war economy was falling out of favour with buyers who much preferred 4-wheel commercial vans and trucks instead.
Outside of Japan though, production of the original Midget continued where it became the ultimate symbol of cheap mobility for a growing population or just a tool for Western tourists to call “exotic”. The original Midget’s influence on the world is immense but very few forgot about its connection to the tuk-tuk.
Daihatsu never forget the Midget’s success as without the three-wheeler, future models would never be made. Perodua might never even exist though one could only imagine if Suzuki were P2’s partner instead.
Nearly 2 decades later at the 1993 Tokyo Motor Show, Daihatsu unveiled the Midget II concept which was, as written on the little truck itself, a successor to the original and a modern reimagining of the icon. This time though, it is a four-wheeled pick-up truck with a spare wheel grafted on the front.
The 30th Tokyo Motor Show also had a showcase that displayed 52 classic cars from the post-WWII to 1975 era under the banner “How Vehicles Changed”. Perhaps it’s this exhibition of nostalgia that gave the Midget II a production greenlight when it made its debut in 1996.
Classic car connoisseur
The Daihatsu Midget II was only sold in Japan during its short 5 years on sale. The kei truck is just too small for other markets and because of that, it is sometimes mistakenly categorised as a quadricycle or golf cart.
Initially, the Midget II was only available as a one-seater pick-up truck with a 4-speed manual transmission. Being a kei vehicle, even the engine is small with a naturally-aspirated 660-cc 3-cylinder carburetted engine that made 31 PS and 50 Nm.
Later on, Daihatsu would introduce a cargo van and a 2-seater version of the Midget II but these variants are only offered with a column-mounted 3-speed automatic transmission. Towards the final years of the Midget II’s production, Daihatsu offered a fuel-injected 3-pot engine to meet emissions regulations but it was still not a fast machine as it only made 33 PS and 51 Nm.
But to the owner, Akash, it didn’t matter that this tiny kei truck had very little power. He was interested in it from the moment he first saw it in a magazine and wanted to add it to his collection of cars.
According to him, this Midget II is one of at least 6 in Malaysia and its previous owner worked at a Perodua dealer in Setapak. When a friend told Akash the then owner is looking to let it go, he immediately drove down from Ipoh at around midnight, saw the truck first hand and bought it right then and there.
Though this blue Midget II has a few aftermarket parts fitted, most obviously the different set of wheels on the front and rear, its mechanicals remain original from the day it rolled off the plant in Japan back in 1997.
The spare wheel cover is as much of an iconic trademark of the Midget II just like its single-seat cabin. Being a commercial vehicle, the interior of the Midget II is bare with only a single speedometer on the dashboard and a blower. Yes, air-conditioning is a luxury option for the Midget II.
Akash owns a classic car dealership that’s located in Ipoh and his dealership also sold a first-gen Honda Insight that used to belong to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Still, this Midget II is not going to be for sale; he sometimes attends classic car meets in the north with it.
Unfortunately, we never had a chance to drive the truck around Taman Canning but from his experience, Akash said that driving the Midget II is both a whimsical and scary experience. It’s nice to get the stares and into the conversation about the unique design but aside from being slow, it has a tendency to roll even when manoeuvring through a roundabout.
Still, it is a fascinating truck and one of the last few eccentric JDM products that were sold in Japan following the end of the Bubble Era. Daihatsu would not revisit the Midget II but it has become a sought-after truck, especially in America as early models become eligible for import under the 25-year rule.
It’s a one-of-a-kind truck that tied quite well to the original three-wheeler Midget but with a more modern approach. Since many of these kei trucks were used to deliver around the small streets of Japan’s megacities, most of them have high mileage on the odometer. Akash's blue Midget II on the other hand seems to be one of the outlier ones with low mileage.
More than 25 years later, the Midget II is more of a novelty vehicle that gets all the looks and is a truck that would be impossible to replicate today as modern vehicles emphasised safety features more than design. It’s a look into the past when carmakers go for daring whimsy than practical convenience.
Special thanks to Akash Classics Malaysia for allowing us to get up close to this quirky Japanese kei truck. Check out their Facebook page to see their selection of classic cars on sale.