Charade love was the real thing

In late December 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned from his job, as President of the USSR. At that time, I was just about ready to resign from my job: doing phone surveys, like Newspoll, into the night. That’s because I was also getting up at 5:00 each morning, to work for free at a community radio station, 45 minutes’ drive away. I’d finished uni during “the recession we had to have”, and hadn’t found full-time journalism work. So the split shifts meant I was tired. Perhaps that’s why on New Year’s Eve ’91 I decided to get involved in a charade – a Daihatsu Charade. This car would eventually bring me and my future wife together.

It’s a brave car company that names its dependable little runabout “Charade”, but Daihatsu did that for over 20 years. The Cambridge Dictionary says a charade is “an act or event that is clearly false”. The truth is, the car was a good Japanese product at a bargain price.

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For some reason, I was driving my second car (a 1981 Mazda 323) through Kedron in Brisbane, when a dark metallic shape on the corner of the Byrne Ford caryard caught my eye. My 323 was a good car, but it was using a little oil and just starting to show rust spots in the doors – so I suppose I was looking for a replacement I could afford – just not that seriously.

If I’d had the money, I would have bought a Niki but I was still only making casual wages, so I couldn’t afford a new car. The Charade was a dark grey 3-door, only a few years old, and I’m pretty sure it was just under $6,000. With my trade-in I could afford that!

I got talking to a salesman, went for a test drive, and loved the peppy “thrum” of the 3-cylinder engine (yes, 3 cylinders – a friend’s father refused to believe it was a triple cylinder until I lifted the bonnet and showed him the 3 spark plugs!)

The gearbox was light, it was easy to steer through traffic, but the Charade’s interior was a monument to plastic, with entire door trims and seats covered in it. It may have even had plastic for the floor coverings. I would later find that this plasticky interior made it easier to clean out the car after a trip to sandy North Stradbroke Island.

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With the test drive finished, it was time to talk a trade-in, and the changeover money. I don’t recall being offered a lot for the 323, but it would get me on the way to a later model car. However even as a 21-year-old, I drove a hard bargain: I asked them to discount the Charade’s price, seeing as they weren’t giving a great trade-in. The salesman went away to “check with the boss” (yeah, right) and after a few minutes, came back looking unimpressed and said flatly: “happy new year, you’ve got a deal”. Perhaps my offer helped them just fill a monthly quota – it was December 31st, after all.

“You’ve got a Charade too?”

Now I had a nicer (and slightly more economical) ride, for my early morning and late night work. Then just a couple of weeks after buying the car, I got my first full-time job in radio, thanks to some networking by my former uni lecturer. I’d be working at a station over 600 kilometres away, in Gladstone. So the Charade was packed up with what little I owned, and with a Phil Collins “No Jacket Required” cassette playing in the tape deck, I drove north alone into the unknown.

A few months after arriving in Gladstone, a co-worker invited me to a cocktail party she was throwing. I don’t think there was any romantic interest from her (my wife will probably dispute this) – and there wasn’t really any from me, but I went along anyway to meet new people in this town.

I arrived at her house one afternoon, and met her flatmate, Andrew, who was very interested in my car. He asked if he could have a drive of this strange little 3-cylinder, and I obliged. Off we went, with me in the passenger seat. As we left the end of his street, we came face-to-face with another Daihatsu Charade (a red one) at a set of stop signs. The woman in the other car noticed Andrew driving mine, and did a double-take. He explained to me that she was another flatmate in their share house, who’d recently bought a 5-door Charade. Upon our return, I got to meet the lovely lady, and the rest is history.

I only kept my Charade until early 1993, when I bought a dealer demo Mazda 121 with my full-time wage. However we kept hers until we’d been married a few years, and were looking for something bigger to ferry a baby around.

The eBay Charade

In 2011 I was wasting time on eBay, when I noticed a white 1990 Charade with just 140,000kms up for auction, priced at $450 (unregistered). How could I resist? It was a 2-owner car, being sold on behalf of someone who wasn’t computer literate (i.e. an older person). The car was in reasonable nick, but had scraped a power pole, so the panel on the front passenger side had been replaced with one from the wreckers (albeit a slightly different shade of white). I won the auction, and by adding $75 to the price, the seller delivered it to my home – all the way from the Gold Coast!

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I had to spend a few hundred on new shock absorbers, to get the roadworthy. Plus, the rear hatchback had a habit of falling down, because the gas struts were gone. However I bought a couple of used ones from a wrecker very cheaply, and fitted them. Then, some floor mats and shiny wheel covers completed the makeover.

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It was a good car to drive around for a few months, although it did have a bad habit: sometimes when starting it, the car would shout BRAAARP! and not turn over. A mechanic will know what causes this, I don’t – and despite this, I still managed to sell it for around $1,800 to a young first-time driver. That’s the sort of capitalism Mikhail made way for.

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