It’s 1986 and I’m in a light aeroplane that’s attempting a night landing in strong winds at Staverton airport in Gloucestershire. My fellow passengers are four colleagues: Peter Beaumont, managing director of Colt Car Company, which began importing Mitsubishi cars to the UK in 1974, and three of his directors.
We’ve flown back from Edinburgh, where we had earlier in the day hosted a regional meeting with Colt’s Scottish dealer group. As we line up to the runway, the little plane, one of a handful of company aircraft including an executive jet and a helicopter, feels like a cork in the ocean. With the exception of Beaumont, who remains ice cool, the directors are alternately groaning and cursing.
Eventually, the plane touches down and taxis to a stop. Everyone piles out. Quickly the tension evaporates, cigars are lit and relieved laughter breaks out. Not for the first time, I feel a bond with my Colt bosses that lasts even as I fire up my humble Lancer saloon while they roar off in their considerably flashier Galant and Starion Turbos.
Recollections like this are why I’m mourning Mitsubishi’s recent announcement that it will gradually pull out of the UK. I was at Colt for only four years in the mid-1980s – two of them supplying dealers with their cars and two selling cars to the public from the company’s Cirencester showroom – but while there had some of the best and most challenging times of my working life.
I had moved with my parents to the quiet Gloucestershire town of Cirencester in 1971 and so was there when Colt arrived in 1974. Japanese reliability underpinned by a long warranty, high levels of equipment and innovative technology characterised its models, which began appearing in the town in large numbers, driven by company employees who looked so much more exciting and sophisticated than us grass-chewing yokels.
The fledgling company’s marketing was also eye-catching. I recall a church fête at which Colt presented what it called a ‘car versus horse’ display that involved driver and rider performing a synchronised routine with the aid of head-mics. It was a bit corny, but the company turned up the heat a short while later when it signed top aerobatic pilot Vic Norman. I saw him many times, most memorably during a sales meeting at Siddington House, Colt’s country retreat outside Cirencester, when he performed an astonishing display in his Zlín sports plane, during which he swooped so low that I swear he put a stripe down the lawn.
Other promotional partnerships included the Bristol Powerboat Championship, also known as the ‘widowmaker’, owing to the high number of fatalities, and the Badminton Horse Trials (standout moment: bacon butties and champagne in Colt’s huge Winnebago motorhome).
Despite government-imposed import quotas on Japanese cars, Colt always punched above its weight. However, sometimes the pressure could prove too much. One day, my regional manager (together we looked after the south-east and west of England) pulled over in a lay-by, opened his car’s boot and threw all of his company papers into a ditch while declaring that he was quitting.