Celebrating 100 years of Mitsubishi cars

The Evolution is back, or so says Mitsubishi anyway. Triple-diamond fans were justifiably stunned by the revelation that the icon’s rebirth would not be some factory-homologation racing special, but an electric crossover. The beloved Eclipse, too, is being rebranded as a crossover. It just seems like there’s not a lot for Mitsubishi enthusiasts to celebrate these days.

Many consider the company’s failure in the U.S. a foregone conclusion. But before that verdict is read, let’s light a candle for Mitsubishi on the occasion of its 100th birthday. Even if you don’t consider yourself on Team Diamond, the company’s lasting influence on the industry is worth noting. The brand might today be all about vanilla, mass-market vehicles, but we haven’t forgotten the big wings, fire-spitting anti-lag, and gravel-shredding antics of the likes of Tommi Mäkinen.

Mitsubishi Evo electric crossover concept
Mitsubishi Evo electric crossover concept Mitsubishi Motors

Mitsubishi’s origin story begins with its founder, Yataro Iwasaki. A shrewd businessman, he founded the company in 1870, primarily as a shipping company operating along Japanese trade routes. Iwasaki would soon branch out into diversified endeavors ranging from insurance to steel, banking, and real estate. Symbolized by a triple-diamond crest, the company would remain in the family for decades, with Iwasaki’s nephew, Koyata, taking the reins in 1916. The next year, Mitsubishi’s shipbuilding arm would take the company into its first passenger-car manufacturing venture.

Just 37 years old, Koyata had studied at Cambridge and was committed to a modern Japan more engaged with the international community. His brainchild was the Mitsubishi Model A, a four-door sedan similar to the Fiat Tipo 3. Equipped with a 2.8-liter, 35-horsepower engine, it was quite luxurious for the time, especially with its lacquered white cypress rear compartment. All hand-built, only 22 were produced over a period of four years.

Mitsubishi Model A
Mitsubishi Model A Mitsubishi Motors
Mitsubishi PX33 prototype sedan
Mitsubishi PX33 prototype sedan Lennart Coopmans

As a first salvo, the Model A was audacious, but it proved too much of a vanity project to be successful in the face of European and American competition. Mitsubishi instead concentrated on its Fuso commercial equipment, and with the arrival of WWII, the company shelved passenger cars in the face of wartime production. Among other things, Mitsubishi would produce the A6M Zero carrier-based aircraft, a feared combatant in a dogfight. It also built the PX33, a prototype sedan that would be Japan’s first full-time four-wheel-drive passenger vehicle.

After the war, Mitsubishi’s many subdivisions were further fragmented. It would not reorganize successfully until the 1960s, spending the interim period producing small three-wheeled cargo vehicles. It also built the Willys Jeep under license.

Mitsubishi then once again leapt into passenger cars, most recognizably with the first Colt sedan in 1962. The Galant sedan arrived in 1969, and by 1970 sales volumes were high enough that the automotive division attained its independence. Chrysler bought a 15-percent stake in Mitsubishi the following year, allowing Mitsubishi to break into the U.S. market with the Galant, rebadged as the Dodge Colt. These first thrifty cars would be just the start of a long partnership between the two companies.

1984 Mitsubishi Pajero
1984 Mitsubishi Pajero

For performance fans, the first interesting Mitsubishis showed up in 1973, marked by the introduction of the Lancer 1600GSR. First winning laurels at the grueling Southern Cross rally in Australia, the 1600GSR would go on to clinch victory on the world stage, beating out Datsun Zs and 510s at the 1973 Safari Rally in Kenya. It was just the start, as Mitsubishi would long be a vicious competitor on the rally circuit.

Mitsubishi’s first proper year in the U.S. was 1982 and included the introduction of the still-beloved, box-flared Starion coupe. Soon after, Mitsubishi enhanced its worldwide reputation for toughness when a Pajero (Montero in U.S .markets) won the 1985 Paris-Dakar challenge. Mitsubishi would win a 12 Dakar endurance races over the decades, more than any other manufacturer.

Mitsubishi’s partnership with Chrysler led to the formation of Diamond-Star Motors (DSM) in Normal, Ill. Founded in 1985, production began by 1989. Three near-identical 2+2 coupes led the charge: the Eagle Talon, the Plymouth Laser, and the Mitsubishi Eclipse.

Even now, the immensely tunable nature of turbocharged DSM products affords them legendary status. A starring role in The Fast and The Furious earned the Eclipse a place in the imagination of a new generation, and those who knew how to wrench could get big power out of the 4G63T engines. In factory tune alone, the combination of all-wheel-drive and turbocharged power was a potent cocktail, one that satiated young drivers years before Subaru thought to bring the WRX to the U.S. market.

1995 Mitsubishi Eclipse from The Fast and the Furious
1995 Mitsubishi Eclipse from The Fast and the Furious
Mitsubishi 3000GT
Mitsubishi 3000GT Mitsubishi Motors

Two giants were still to come. First was the Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4, rebadged as the Dodge Stealth R/T by Chrysler, and called the GTO in the Japanese market. During the height of Japan’s sports-car craze, the 3000GT offered a 320-hp twin-turbocharged V-6 and all-wheel drive. Tinkerers lured out much more power—noted tuner John Hennessey built a roughly 450-hp version in 1992 which set class speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The car also competed at Pikes Peak.

The final Mitsubishi monster, which had tantalized from afar for more than a decade, was the Lancer Evolution. An all-wheel-drive, turbocharged sedan, it offered performance similar to the WRX STI, albeit with much sharper handling. Most people felt like the Subaru was set up for gravel, while the Evo was meant for the street. Either way, racing versions of the Lancer Evo filled Mitsubishi’s WRC trophy case with a total of 34 wins.

These days, the company’s racing and performance legacy is a distant memory. Cars like the Eclipse, the 3000GT, and even the Evo are destined to become modern classics, though they’ll likely be underappreciated for some years to come. As for the future of Mitsubishi, the next evolution beckons. We may have to suffer Mirages and Outlander plug-ins, but some hold out hope for what’s on the horizon. Perhaps there’s room for an electric-powered assault on the Dakar.

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