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The Formation of Mitsubishi
Mitsubishi Motors is one part of the much larger Mitsubishi Group (which also includes Nikon Cameras, among many other companies). The conglomerate has existed in one form or another since 1870. It has invested in several operations and fields throughout its history, which has allowed an expansion into the automotive industry.
The story begins with Yataro Iwasaki, who sought to industrialize and develop Japan under the Meiji Restoration. Iwasaki, who was native to the Tosa province, joined the Tosa clan as a clerk and later as a trader in the trading office. Here he gained knowledge of the importing and exporting industry, trading for items such as ships, and exporting items such as paper and camphor oil. When the Restoration occurred in 1868, the clans were forbidden to control companies. Naturally, Iwasaki inherited the Tsukumo Trading Company at the Osaka Shipyard in agreement of burdening the debt. They changed the name to Mitsubishi Shokai in 1873. The words "mitsu"-meaning three-and "hishi"-meaning water chestnut-combined the three-tiered diamond-shaped water chestnuts of the Iwasaki family crest with the three cyclical oak leaves of the Yamauchi family crests-who were also known as the Lords of the Tosa province-to create a propeller-like logo and form the "Three Diamond Company" name. Years later, in 1914, Mitsubishi registered its diamond-shaped logo that officially represents the company today.
Mitsubishi became the first Japanese company to ship overseas. It started when Iwasaki bought three steamships to ship mail to China. In time, Mitsubishi also established a business school, and entered the fields of copper mining, finance, and insurance. Several businesses like the Mitsubishi Iron Works and the Tsukumo Shokai (later known as Mistubishi Mining Company) were also formed. In 1884 Iwasaki also leased the Nagasaki Shipyard from the Japanese government, and later bought it, in 1887. This opened the door for shipbuilding. In 1917 this operation adopted the Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Company name, and paved the way for Mitsubishi Motors by building Mitsubishi's first passenger car, the Model A.
The Model A and WWII
The Model A was first built in 1917. Based on the Italian Fiat sedan, it came with a 2.8L 4-cylinder engine and was intended to be a luxury vehicle for business executives and government officials. Unfortunately, it proved to be very expensive to build and failed to compete with cheaper imports from Europe and the United States. Mitsubishi halted production in 1921 to focus on buses and other commercial vehicles. Only 22 models were made and none have survived to this day. It would be the last mass-produced car by Mitsubishi until after World War II.
On a side note, Mitsubishi did develop one other car in the period, but only as a prototype. During the Second Sino-Japanese War (which would later be subsumed into Second World War fighting), the Japanese government commissioned Mitsubishi to develop a sedan for military use. Mitsubishi built four working prototypes of a four-wheel drive sedan called the PX33. The PX33 was Japan's first four-wheel-drive car. Although it didn't catch on right away, four-wheel-drive technology would become a major part of Mitsubishi's success in the company's future.
In 1934, the Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Co., Ltd merged with the Mitsubishi Aircraft Co. and reformed itself as Mitsubishi Heavy-Industries, Ltd. (MHI). The restructured organization became Japan's largest private company. It specialized in manufacturing several "heavy-duty" machines and vehicles such as ships, airplanes, and railroad cars. During the Second World War, Mitsubishi Heavy-Industries focused its production on military manufacturing.
As many Japanese companies turned their back on the west during the war, Mitsubishi looked forward to peace. Koyata Iwasaki told Mitsubishi executives: "We count many British and Americans among our business partners. They are our friends who have undertaken projects together with us and who have shared interests with us. Should peace come again, they should again become our partners."
This is the exact strategy Mitsubishi took following the War. After the War, the Allies forced many large Japanese companies to be broken up. Subsequently, Mitsubishi Heavy-Industries was split into three independent companies, named East Japan Heavy-Industries, Central Japan Heavy-Industries, and West Japan Heavy-Industries, respectively. Two of these began partnerships with American companies. East Japan Heavy-Industries began manufacturing the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation's Henry J passenger car from knock-down kits in 1951. The Henry J had been built in the United States as an attempt to make a new car that was available for a used car price. Unfortunately, it wasn't that much cheaper than lower end Ford and Chevy models. Not finding much success, Kaiser-Frazer rebranded the Henry J as the Allstate and sold them through Sears in 1952. Mitsubishi's Henry J sales turned out to be the most long-lived, continuing until 1954. The same year East-Japan Heavy Industries started building Henry Js, Central Japan Heavy Industries started to manufacture Willys-Overland's Jeeps from knock-down kits. The Jeep would have much more success than the Henry J., as Mitsubishi would continue to manufacture Jeeps in Japan until 1998.
The Return of Mitsubishi Heavy-Industries
In the 1960s, Mitsubishi reintegrated and finally began to build cars of its own design again. The first of these was the Mitsubishi 500, introduced in 1960 by the newly renamed Shin Mitsubishi Heavy-Industries (previously Central Japan Heavy-Industries). The 500 was powered by an air-cooled 493 cubic centimeter engine, but was able to reach about 60 miles per hour due to its very light body. An updated version of the car, the 500 Super DeLuxe was entered in the Macau Grand Prix. Super DeLuxes took all of the top four spots in the "Under 600cc" class. This would begin a series of motorsport successes in this period.
In 1962, Mitsubishi introduced the Colt 600. That car took the top three places in the "Under 600cc class" at the Macau Grand Prix that year. A larger version of the Colt was introduced in 1964. The Colt 1000 was bigger than the previous Colts and also had a front-mounted rather than a rear mounted engine. These changes did not stop it from following in its predecessors' footsteps. The Colt 1000 gave Mitsubishi another podium sweep, this time in the "750-1000cc" class at the Japanese Grand Prix. Despite these startling successes, Mitsubishi dropped out of touring car racing in 1966. The Colt did so much to win notoriety for Mitsubishi that it continued to use and reuse the name throughout the ensuing decades.
In 1964 the three Heavy-Industries compamies reformed themselves as Mitsubishi Heavy-Industries. Three years later, MHI established a Motor Vehicle Division that was designed to build upon Mitsubishi's recent success with automobiles. While Mitsubishi's sedans were finding success on the track, vans and trucks were selling to normal families. Mitsubishi introduced the Mitsubishi 360 vans and trucks to take advantage of tax-incentives on light, small-engined vehicles. After the war, many Japanese people could afford motorcycles but not full size cars. To stimulate car purchases, the government made a reduced tax on "kei cars," (kei meaning light), which were established as those models with engines under 360cc. In response, Mitsubishi developed the 360 platform as a base for panel vans and pickup trucks. The 360 would eventually develop into the Minica kei car which has been produced in eight generations up to 2011.
In 1969, Mistubishi launched one of its most important models, the Colt Galant. Although initially designed to carry on from the earlier Colt models, it instead spun off into one of Mitsubishi's most successful product lines, the Galant. Since 1969, more than five million Galants have been sold. The Galant featured an aerodynamic "Dynawedge" design and was sold in a new chain of dealerships called "Galant Shops." The Colt Galant was followed the next year by the Galant GTO, named in honor of the Ferrari 250 GTO and the Pontiac GTO. The Galant GTO was designed by Hirokai Kamisago who had studied design in Los Angeles. He gave the Galant GTO a distinctly American look, with a long hood and quad headlights inspired by muscle cars like the Ford Mustang and Pontiac Firebird.
Mitsubishi Motors is Established
This tribute to American styling coincided with a decisive move into the American market. Mitsubishi made two big business moves in 1970. First, Mitsubishi Heavy-Industries established its Motor Division as a separate company known as Mitsubishi Motors. Mitsubishi Motors, then, entered into a partnership with Chrysler to sell its cars in the United States. Now, rather than importing American cars to Japan, the company was exporting Japanese cars to America.
Galants were sold by Chrysler under the Dodge Colt name, an obvious tribute to Mitsubishi's earlier Colt models. Chrysler continued to sell Colts through the 1970s and ‘80s, and even into the early ‘90s. Confusingly, though, over these decades, it was a number of different Mitsubishi models that were rebadged as the Dodge Colt, from the Galant, to the Lancer, to the Mirage.
The Lancer was released in 1973, designed to fill a size-gap between the small Minica and the larger Galant sedan. The Lancer was meant to be a sporting model. Hoping to put the car through a serious test of endurance, Mitsubishi entered the Lancer in the East African Safari Rally. In an echo of the Colt's success in Grand Prix racing, the Lancer swept first second and third place. The Lancer would see another Safari Rally win and four Southern Cross Rally wins in the 1970s. This began a long period of rally racing dominance for Mitsubishi. A great deal of that success would come behind the wheel of a Lancer. In 1979, Mitsubishi introduced a new version of the Lancer that would continue until 1987. After that, the Lancer would be a variation on the Mirage. 1979 was also the first year where Mitsubishi's total production exceeded one million cars.
The Mirage, which followed the Lancer, was released in 1978 as a hatchback. A sedan version, on which the Lancer submodel was based, was introduced in 1982. From 1978-1984, the Mirage featured an unusual eight-speed transmission. The gearbox had been mounted beneath the engine, which required the installation of another gear (unless Mitsubishi wanted to make a car with four reverse speeds and one forward). With this extra shaft, Mitsubishi could add a second two-speed gear box. The car could be set to either a lower-geared power mode or a higher-geared economy mode through the use of a second shift lever. Thankfully it was not necessary to transfer through all eight gears, which would have necessitated that the driver had three hands: two for shifting and one for the steering wheel. Many drivers switched to economy mode for the highway or used the economy lever to squeeze out an effective fifth gear by switching from four-power to four-economy. The Mirage was sold as the Colt in the US from 1978 to 1994.
Mitsubishi continued its rallying success in the 1980s with a new model, this time a SUV. The model was officially called the Pajero (named after a type of Leopard), but was sold as the Montero in the US and the Shogun in the United Kingdom. The Montero was introduced in 1982. Mitsubishi entered the Montero in the famously grueling Dakar Rally the following year. It took first place in the unmodified production class. In 1985, it won the overall title. In the late 1980s, Chrysler sold rebadged Monteros as Dodge Raiders.
In 1985, Mitsubishi entered into a joint venture with Chrysler to build automobiles in the US, and two years later, Mitsubishi entered a deal to import Mercedes-Benz cars to Japan. Mercedes and Chrysler would become partners (along with Mitsubishi) under the DaimlerChrysler name in 1998. The joint venture was known as Diamond Star Motors (DSM) and began manufacturing cars in Normal, Illinois. The first DSM model was a sport compact called the Mitsubishi Eclipse, sold alongside the Plymouth Laser and Eagle Talon. The Eclipse was on Car and Driver Magazine's "Ten Best" list every year from 1989 to 1992. The 1990s also saw the release of a sports car sold as the Mitsubishi GTO in Japan and Dodge Stealth in the US.
More importantly, the Lancer returned to rally racing in the 1990s. In 1992, the same year that Monteros swept the top three spots in the Paris to Cape Town Rally, Mitsubishi introduce the turbocharged, all-wheel-drive Lancer Evolution, commonly referred to as the Evo. That same year, the Evo debuted in World Rally Championship (WRC) racing. Unlike Mitsubishi's earlier racing successes, the Evo did not immediately start dominating the competition. However, from 1996-1999, Finnish driver Tommi Makinen won the WRC Driver's championship behind the wheel of an Evo. At the time, Makinen took the record for most consecutive WRC driver's championships. In 1999, Makinen was honored with the release of a special Tommi Makinen Edition Evo. In 1998, the Evo won Mitsubishi the WRC Constructor's Championship. That same year, the Montero swept the top four spots in the Dakar Rally and won the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) World Class Cup Cross-Country Rally. It was, by all measures a banner year for Mitsubishi.
The Millennial Mitsubishi
Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, Mitsubishi focused on translating its racing success into sales success. Although the Evo was only available in Japan at first, Mitsubishi realized many were being sold through non -official channels in Europe and the US. The company quickly moved to fill that gap by offering the Evo officially in those markets. In 1996, Mitsubishi developed the Challenger, an SUV smaller than the Montero to meet growing US demand for smaller SUVs. It was sold in the US as the Montero Sport in order to cash in on the popularity of the Montero. Somewhat confusingly, the Galant had, at one point, been sold as the Dodge Challenger. In 2001, Mitsubishi released the even smaller Outlander crossover, which it sold in some South American countries as the Montero Outlander. When the most recent generation of the Montero was released in 2006, Mitsubishi displayed it alongside a PX33, its (and the Evo's) four-wheel drive predecessor at the Paris Motor Show.
Today, Mistubishi has pushed away from its all-performance cars for more modern innovations, offering the all-electric i-Miev, the crossover Outlander, and the truck-based Triton. There is still a hint of its sporting past present in thecurrent model Lancer. Throughout its history, Mitsubishi has partnered with a number of other automakers in the US and Europe. In this way, Mitsubishi expanded its influence to become a major international automotive company. This has not inhibited Mitsubishi from making its own developments and innovations. These innovations have led Mitsubishi not just to a sales success but to many successes in the rugged world of rally racing.
Indeed, Mitsubishi's commitment to new technologies certainly helped it find success, but far more important was the open attitude to international markets fostered by Koyata Iwasaki in the company's early post-war days. It was through this kind of forward-thinking that these Japanese cars were able to find their way into American hearts and garages.