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A Century of Three-Diamond Cars

Mitsubishi celebrates 100 years

The automotive origins of Mitsubishi date back to 1917, when the company introduced the first series-production car of Japan. Sixteen years later it released a prototype car with full-time four-wheel drive – in essence the first SUV. Ferdi de Vos reviews the century of car-making of the three-diamond emblem.


The Model A will always be remembered as the first production car introduced in Japan by the Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Company a century ago. Entirely hand-built, the seven-seat sedan, powered by a 26 kW, 2.8-litre, 4-cylinder engine, was based on the Fiat Tipo 3. Envisioned as a luxury vehicle for high-ranking officials and top executives, it proved expensive and was discontinued in 1921 after only 22 had been built.

But, it was the Mitsubishi PX33 – developed from 1934 when Mitsubishi Shipbuilding merged with the Mitsubishi Aircraft Company to form Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) – which laid the foundation for the rich heritage of building advanced SUVs and 4×4s for the company.

Commissioned for military use by the Japanese government, the PX33 was developed as a prototype passenger car with full-time four-wheel drive. Conceptually, it was the first SUV ever, although the term was not even thought of then …

What made the XP33 even more special is the fact that it was one of the first vehicles, not only in Japan but worldwide, powered by a direct injection diesel engine.

Mitsubishi built four working prototypes, and a version using the 6.7-litre, 445 AD direct injection diesel power plant, producing 51 kW, was in development when the entire project was cancelled in 1937 – eighty years ago.

With WWII looming, the government decided to prioritise the manufacturing capabilities of Mitsubishi on commercial development of trucks and buses, and after the war ended, the company was in turmoil – eventually splitting into three separate enterprises.

 In 1951, one of the companies, Central Japan Heavy-Industries, concluded a contract with Willys (then owned by Kaiser) to assemble Jeep CJ-3Bs – a deal that lasted until 1998, thirty years after Willys themselves had replaced the model. By the early 1960s the Mitsubishi 500 was introduced, followed by the Minica **kei** car in 1962, and the Colt 1000, the first of its Colt line of family cars, a year later. The following year, the three enterprises were re-integrated as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and in 1970 Mitsubishi Motors Corporation (MMC) was formed.


Motorsport success

Success with models such as the Galant (1970), Pajero (the first prototype was unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1973, the Pajero II prototype following in 1978), and Lancer (1973) saw annual production soar from 500,000 vehicles in 1973 to 965,000 in 1978. Mitsubishi also decided to enter the motorsport arena, entering the Paris Dakar Rally in 1983 – fifty years after development of the four-wheel drive PX33 started. The Pajero was victorious after only three attempts; winning the 1985 Paris Dakar Rally.

Since then, Pajeros took an unprecedented seven consecutive victories and twelve overall Dakar wins – making Mitsubishi the most successful manufacturer in the history of this most challenging and dangerous motorsport event in the world. Interestingly, the PX33 – or replicas thereof based on Pajero underpinnings – participated in the Paris Dakar Rallies of 1989 and 1991, finishing in 30th and 21st positions respectively.

Mitsubishi also participated in world rallies with distinction – winning the East African Safari Rally with the Lancer 1600 GSR at the first attempt in 1974. During the 1980s, Mitsubishi participated in the World Rally Championship, first with the Lancer EX2000 Turbo and the Starion. The first outright Group A victories were scored with the Galant VR-4 in the late 1980s. Tommi Mäkinen won the drivers’ title for four consecutive years (1996 – 1999) with a Lancer Evolution, with Mitsubishi taking the manufacturers’ championship in 1998.


Mitsubishi in SA

Mitsubishi has a strong heritage in South Africa; one that goes back more than 40 years when derivatives of the small Colt 1100 range was first assembled here. However, production of Mitsubishi cars started in August 1972 when the Colt Galant arrived here badged as the Dodge Colt 1600 GS.

In late 1975, its successor, the YB series Colt 1600 GS, arrived and a year later, the name of this model was changed to Chrysler Colt, while the new GS II received a 2-litre engine. Only three months after this, Chrysler withdrew from the country and Mitsubishi production continued under the new Sigma Motor Corporation, with the third generation Galant sold here as the Colt Galant.

Interestingly, South Africa was the first to introduce the locally-developed automatic-only 2.6-liter Galant in the middle of 1979. Meanwhile, Sigma merged with the Ford South African operations to form Samcor, which marketed Ford, Mazda, and a few Mitsubishi commercial vehicles until the 1990s, when Ford took over the operation.

This led to Mitsubishi reaching an agreement with Mercedes-Benz South Africa (MBSA) in 1995 to market the L200 pickup locally. The second-generation L200 was then introduced to South Africa as the Colt. The third generation L200 (also badged Colt) followed, and a decade ago – in 2007 – the fourth generation, now called Triton, was introduced (and even built here for a short while).

With the demise of the DaimlerChrysler alliance in 2007, the marketing and production of Mitsubishi products by MBSA also ended, and Mitsubishi Motors SA eventually came under control of the Imperial Group. Internationally, Mitsubishi Motors now falls under Renault-Nissan after the Alliance became the majority shareholder in the company last year.


The Future

To celebrate its centenary, Mitsubishi Motors South Africa has already introduced a host of new and revamped models, with a collection of crossover derivatives still to come. The most important model, revealed recently, is the new fifth-generation Triton double cab models with the advanced 2.4 Di-DC MIVEC engine that delivers 133 kW at 3 500 rpm and 430 Nm of torque at 2 500 rpm.

The ASX compact crossover was also refreshed with the new Dynamic Shield design language and a new 2.0 MIVEC six-speed CVT derivative of the company, while the Outlander crossover SUV has also been facelifted, giving it a more premium, upmarket feel.

It is still powered by the trusty 2.4-litre 16-valve DOHC MIVEC petrol engine producing 123 kW and 222 Nm, and sports the all-new INVECS-III Continuous Variable Transmission (CVT) and the innovative Multi Select Four Wheel Drive system of Mitsubishi, with different 4WD modes.

Coming soon is the new and eagerly awaited Pajero Sport SUV. Based on the Triton platform, the new Sport is boldly styled with a no-holds-barred interpretation of the Dynamic Shield design of Mitsubishi in front, and long, vertical taillights in the rear.

According to Mitsubishi, the new SUV will have numerous improvements to the suspension and body mounts, and the new 2.4-litre engine (as used in the Triton) will be mated to the first eight-speed automatic gearbox. The new Sport will also be available with an improved version of the Super-Select 4WD-II four-wheel drive system, with low-range gearing.

While the Pajero Legend will continue unchanged for now, another new model to look forward to is the compact Eclipse Cross that debuted at the Geneva Motor Show earlier this year. This model, with a direct-injection 1.5-litre engine will fit in just under the ASX and Outlander, and is aimed at taking on the Toyota C-HR and Nissan Juke. It is expected to be launched locally sometime next year.