We all know Mitsubishi for its bold SUVs and tough workhorse bakkies. We know they also made cars – sedans – years ago. Maybe your dad had a Colt Gallant when you were small. But when did Mitsubishi start making cars? The ‘80s? The ‘70s? You need to go back a while. No further than that. Way back to 1917.
The Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Company, surprisingly enough, built the Model A, a seven-seater with a cast-iron engine and opulent interior hand-built by horse-carriage builders. The Model A was way expensive and only 22 were ever built.
In the early ‘30s, the Mitsubishi Shipbuilding and Aircraft companies merged to form Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, at the time the biggest private company in Japan. In addition to building aircraft, ships, railroad cars and machinery, it produced the PX33 prototype for the military, the first Japanese passenger car with permanent 4-wheel drive. Only four vehicles were made and none survived, but a Pajero-based replica finished the 1989 Paris – Dakar rally.
Fast forward to 1946 and the first Mitsubishi bakkie was launched. Not so much Triton as Tuk-tuk, the Mizushima was a three-wheeler with a tiny half-ton load bed. It had a 750cc four-stroke single-cylinder engine, a sort of covered cockpit and fold-open windows. It was immensely popular with 900 000 produced by 1962.
The famous Willys Jeep was introduced in 1951, first as an assembled import and later built in Japan. Production continued until 1998, 30 years after the original Willys Jeep stopped production.
The first Colt was introduced in 1962 and was a performance world-beater in the under 600cc class. The Colt 600 is credited for putting Mitsubishi cars on the map. The first Minicab Truck was launched in 1966, with the 360cc engine under the cab as trends then dictated.
The Mitsubishi Lancer was launched in 1973 as a nice sedan, but in August that year the 1600GSR twin carb was unleashed and the Lancer pocket rocket was born.
Unable to export its Jeeps because of licence agreements, Mitsubishi Pajero was created as a concept in 1979 and unleashed in 1982. It was an immediate success, winning the Unmodified 4WD Production Class of the Paris-Dakar Rally in 1983 at its first attempt, and getting the overall victory in 1985. It won this title 12 times thereafter.
It was not all muscle and grunt, however. Various iterations of the Minica compact van remained popular, with the 1993 Toppo model featuring two doors on the passenger side and one on the driver’s side.
Thereafter Mitsubishi steadily evolved its existing models, adding new ones like the 2005 Outlander and the Triton 4-wheel drive bakkie in 2006. You are probably aware of Mitsubishi’s current line-up. Sometimes the car is about the here and now, the power, the gearbox and the features. Other times it is nice to look back in time, at how a car like the Colt evolved. To realise that each of those cars over the decades was a brand new, cutting edge, must-have set of wheels in its day.
Mitsubishi’s journey from the 1917 seven-seater to the modern cars we know today is available as a fascinating timeline from 1917 to 2008, with pictures and delightful descriptions. Please have a look at the Mitsubishi timeline here.