The extraordinary story behind the only Daihatsu Wildcat in India
Some of the best stories you hear begin with a coincidence, isn’t it? In fact, discovering the only Daihatsu ‘Wildcat’ TAFT in India was a coincidence as well. I was to head to Cochin to drive the new Maruti Suzuki Alto K10 and wanting to spend more time in the lovely city, was on the lookout for a tuned car to cover as the car tuning scene is quite big there. In my search, I scrolled through a bright yellow SUV which at first glance, looked like the classic Toyota FJ40. Something felt off, having me scroll back for a closer look. It was akin to the feeling when you chance upon a gem in the used car classifieds. A few calls later, I managed to track the owner who, by coincidence, turned out to be a friend of a friend and was open to us taking a closer look.
Before that, I did some reading on the obscure Daihatsu TAFT. TAFT stands for ‘Tough and Almighty Four-wheel Touring’, probably the coolest name in the 4X4 kingdom. The premise was simple. A short wheelbase SUV coupled with a capable 4x4 drivetrain, like the Willys jeep, Toyota Landcruiser FJ40 and the Suzuki Jimny. The Daihatsu TAFT was sold from 1974 to 1984. This one is the second-generation TAFT F20 and was also sold overseas under the name Wildcat and Scat. While the earlier generation models came with a 1.0-litre petrol unit, it was upgraded to a 1.6-litre petrol engine in the later generation models. The TAFT also came with 2.5-litre and 2.8-litre diesel powertrains. It came in a soft top, hard top and pickup versions and even a long-wheelbase pickup variant.
It was a Sunday morning when I met Sunu Babu at his friend’s garage, situated in an oasis hidden in the middle of the bustling city. Sunu’s life story too is as interesting as his Daihatsu. Being an IT professional for 11 years, he decided to take a break to follow his passion for restoring motorcycles. He started by restoring a Karizma which he showcased at the India Bike Week in 2017. That led to a few build commissions (mainly Royal Enfield motorcycles) coming his way. However, his motorcycle customisation venture was put on hold when the COVID pandemic and lockdown happened in 2020.
It was by pure coincidence that Sunu discovered the Wildcat. During the lockdown, he snuck to his friend’s place and that night over long conversations, his friend spoke of a derelict SUV lying abandoned in the market. Curiosity got the better of him and he headed towards the market at midnight in pouring rain to investigate. Sunu describes it as a scene straight out of a Bollywood flick. It was love at first sight as Sunu peered through a maze of moss and metal, at a shape that showed promise. He immediately knew he had to have it.
Getting possession of the Daihatsu was no easy task as it came with a colourful history. The story goes that the Wildcat was imported from Dubai in the nineties. It landed in Uttar Pradesh and over the years landed in Kerala where it was used for a while before being abandoned. Over nine years, it lay in a state of despair, even being completely submerged twice due to floods. What remained was the bodyshell and half an engine. It should have been easy to get the Daihatsu for scrap value but its owner being a car collector, knew of the Daihatsu’s rarity and needed quite a bit of cajoling to let it go.
Now came the even more difficult phase - restoring the SUV. Sunu took the help of his friend who runs SuperBee customs (hence the SuperBee logo on the car). Its rarity meant finding parts was a challenge. Sunu turned to online forums where a fellow TAFT enthusiast from the Middle East directed him to contacts in South America and South East Asia. Overall it took over two years to restore the Daihatsu Wildcat.
The Wildcat isn’t exactly Concours-spec. Sunu had two paths ahead. One was to restore it to factory spec which besides being expensive and time consuming, would mean that once restored, he would have to take great care to keep it that way. Sunu decided that he wanted to use his restored Wildcat, to be able to drive it at whim. That’s why some of the parts on the Wildcat are from other SUVs. That way, should one of the parts break or malfunction, Sunu can easily source it and ensure his Wildcat is driveable.
The first time I see the Daihatsu Wildcat, I am amazed by its presence. Parked beside a high-top Mitsubishi Pajero, the Wildcat looks as imposing despite being almost three-fourths of the full-size SUV’s length. The bright yellow paintjob, tall height and large MT wheels help. Part of why the Wildcat reminds me of the Toyota FJ40 is because that was the inspiration behind the paintjob. Hence, the yellow bodywork and white roof and wheel. Sunu wanted to use the original steel rims but with wide MT tyres so they were modified from the original 6J to a wider 9J rim size.
It’s tiny for an SUV! While the original Wildcat had a soft top, Sunu decided to turn it into a pickup and I think it looks better than the original. The rear bed has a polished American pickup-styled wooden floor that uses mahogany wood sourced from his friend’s lumber mill next door. Sunu could not find an original dashboard so he had a plank of teak wood fashioned for it. Talk about Indian ingenuity.
The old-school dials and steering are from the Willys jeep and the two racing bucket seats fill up the tiny cabin. A simple bench seat would have been more apt and comfortable.It is a task climbing up the tall cabin and plopping into the seat but once inside, the visibility is impressive. The sloping bonnet allows you a good forward view.
The 1.6-litre petrol engine starts at the first crank, as it did when restored from its original condition. Even the wiring was done in-house as there were no kits available for it. The motor impresses with its refinement and peppy nature and has enough grunt as I found out, ploughing through a slush patch with ease. The large steering wheel has a mind of its own, like all classic vehicles and the gearbox needs to be properly slotted to avoid the horrible grinding noise from the straight-cut gears. I am impressed by the cushy ride quality despite the leaf spring suspension setup. No AC here. The panel below the windscreen has a flap that lets a lot of air in. I would not mind going on a long trip with this.
That’s the beauty of the Daihatsu Wildcat. The attraction is not just skin deep, there is a genuine joy to be had behind the wheel. The feeling of driving something special. And for me, most of it is owing to its colourful history, a lot of which is curated by Sunu Babu. It will be part of his legacy, a story to be passed down his generations.