Currently reading: Mitsubishi's evolution: Working for the Japanese brand in the UK
As it announces plans to gradually withdraw from the UK, a former employee remembers life at Mitsubishi-importer Colt
John Evans
News
7 mins read
22 August 2020

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.

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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.

On another occasion, I was harangued at a regional dealer meeting in a Heathrow hotel by an intimidating London dealer who accused me of favouring a rival with extra Colt automatics. This model was unique in its sector and very popular in the capital. In fact, it was my manager (the one who chucked his career under a hedge) who had fouled up, but I was ordered not to speak.

Not long after, the smooth-voiced, Argentinian boss of a new Colt dealership telephoned, asking me to scrape together some extra Colt Turbos for him (I can still hear his explosive, spittle-filled pronunciation of the ‘b’ in ‘Turbo’). I did my best, but it was a dangerous game to play.

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Just how dangerous became apparent when my boss returned from lunch one day and accused me, falsely, of dipping into their allocation of Shoguns for one of my dealers. In front of the sales team, we grappled with each other over the stock books in which new vehicles were logged and allocated. Still, that was nothing compared with the time a senior manager’s wife burst into the boardroom with a shotgun, accusing him of having an affair.

More chillingly, from time to time, a hush would descend as directors arrived in the sales office to coordinate the termination of a dealer. We would listen as the regional manager was instructed to break the news to the dealer principal, count his stock and direct transporter trucks to collect it.

Fortunately, there were happier times, too, such as the occasion we flew to Guernsey in the company jet for lunch and the parties at Siddington House, where I would play the piano. At one of them, the wife of the Colt chairman, who that evening had been given a new Rolls-Royce as a birthday present, quietly professed to preferring my W-reg Mini HL parked outside.

After two years, I moved from headquarters to selling at the Cirencester showroom. Here I experienced first-hand just how popular the Shogun 4x4, Spacewagon MPV and L300 panel van were. Even so, I was determined to prove that other models – such as the Sapporo sports saloon, with its trick suspension, and the hairy-chested Starion coupé – could sell too, although with mixed success; I was good with customers but terrible at closing deals.

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However, I was very pleased one day to take an order for the new Canter truck, the only vehicle in its class with a tilting cab. Pitching for the sale meant demonstrating this function in the industrial estates and business parks of Swindon while trying not to lose my fingers.

And then, one day, Colt and I decided to part company – something to do with my selling a Starion to a chap and having to seize it back from his driveway in the dead of night. I joined a Fiat dealer. It wasn’t the same. I recall gazing over the roof of a Panda and out the showroom window as a Colt exec zipped past in his Galant. What fun he was having, I thought. Unless he had just thrown his career into a ditch.

The greatest hits

Lancer Evolution: The World Rally Championship’s 1990s Group A era helped transform perceptions of Mitsubishi and Subaru. The rules allowed the companies to shoehorn four-wheel-drive technology into their plodding Lancer and Impreza saloons, and the homologation versions became cult classics. The Lancer Evo’s grey-import popularity eventually prompted Mitsubishi to offer it outside of Japan, but just as it struggled with the new World Rally Car rules in the 2000s, so the Evo’s popularity waned. It was axed after 10 generations in 2016.

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Shogun: The Lancer Evo may have made Mitsubishi cool, but the brand’s undoubted hero car remains the Shogun. The heavy-duty off-roader, launched in 1982, utilised Mitsubishi’s four-wheel-drive technology to great effect, making it a truly rugged rival to the Land Rover Defender and Toyota Land Cruiser. But the high development costs and limited market for 4x4s has stymied efforts to develop a fifth-generation model for when the current version goes out of production – after a mammoth 15-year run – next year.

Outlander PHEV: Some dismiss the Outlander PHEV’s success as purely down to tax breaks, sniffily suggesting you’ll find its charging cables unused in its boot. While that was clearly part of its appeal (it was the only plug-in hybrid to qualify for the £5000 government grant and had a BIK tax rate of just 5%), it’s also a strong, sturdy and hugely practical SUV. And Mitsubishi deserves credit for capitalising on such incentives: larger firms are only now catching up. But those grants are now gone and new PHEVs are flooding the market, so Outlander sales have fallen sharply.

What will happen to the Colt Car Company?

It’s a worrying time for the 210 employees of UK Mitsubishi importer the Colt Car Company and its 1700-or-so directly associated dealership staff, not to mention the myriad suppliers that feed into this 15,000-vehicle-sales-per-year operation.

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Word is that while there was some inkling of tough news on the horizon, people expected something focused on cuts around the edges, not a cut full stop.

However, there are also reports that Colt’s senior management are already in talks with potential new partners and that the clarity received from Mitsubishi has helpfully accelerated what were tentative talks with alternative brands, most likely Chinese and looking to bring a cost-effective range of electric vehicles into the UK. While launching a new brand is always a gargantuan task, the timing is perfect in that respect: the EV revolution has potential to tear up the form book on brand loyalty and there’s a clear opening for anyone who can crack open the market for truly affordable EVs.

While some media speculation has pointed to Chinese brand Haval (a big-selling SUV maker owned by Great Wall, which previously tried to make inroads in the UK with pick-up trucks) being the front-runner, Autocar understands that this is wide of the mark. In fact, it’s likely that Haval is one of several companies weighing up the possibilities of working with an established UK importer and retail network.

Meanwhile, Colt has stock of 15,000 Mitsubishi cars and pick-up trucks to sell and the capability to keep importing from Japan vehicles that comply with European Union emissions standards well into 2022.

On a normal basis, that would be enough to keep dealerships busy for more than a year or, in a world suffering from Covid-19, perhaps two. Then there’s the prospect of ongoing and profitable maintenance work thereafter, including Mitsubishi’s legally binding 10-year commitment to continue to provide parts, warranty and service support to the owners of any car from the date that it goes out of production.

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JohnRettie 27 August 2020

My recollections from early days of Colt Car Co

Reading this reminds me of my experiences with the Colt Car Co. during its earliest days. Like John I too had moved to Cirencester in 1970 with my parents. In 1974 I had just begun my career as a freelance photographer. A mutual friend introduced me to Michael Orr, the flamboyant and often controversial founder of the Colt Car Co. who had left BMW GB to start the company. Michael hired me to take the very first PR photographs in 1974 which were handed out to the media at the London Motor Show that year. After that I did several more shoots for them and I even pitched my services to their London ad agency. I was not surprised when they went with an established London-based photographer. By coincidence I bumped into the art director a few years later and he told me they liked my work but could not hire a less costly “country” photographer. My highlight assignment came in November 1975 when they entered a Lancer in the Lombard RAC Rally with Andrew Cowan and Hamish Cardno. I got to cover the start in York and the first two special stages using their helicopter - my fellow rally photographers were quite jealous. One time when I was traveling in California (where I now live) Michael Orr did a photo shoot himself and told me later that it was easy and only took one hour. I told him I did not realize the high value of my photography, since he used a helicopter (costing about £600 an hour) to save time. My response got me a slight pay raise and I learned not be intimidated by a tough boss - a valuable lesson as a 26-year-old!
meangreen 23 August 2020

I had a couple of Mitsubishi

I had a couple of Mitsubishi Colts in the 2000s. Good cars but there were quality issues with dealer service and cars.

I turned up to pick up my new car and it wasn't ready. The sales guy who was having a day off didn't seem to have organised it. They rushed around, got it ready but I don't think it had a full PDI, middle brake light had a dreadful tinny rattle. No way it could have been missed in the factory, transporter or PDI, they just couldn't be bothered. Had a rattle in the dashboard and it wasn't properly fitted.

My second Colt was the facelift model from a different dealer, same rattle in the dash and bits taken off to makde it cheaper to assemble. Luckily the dealer in Coventry (now sadly gone, they were good) knew the rattle it was a comon fault and how to fix it.  Car didn't like going into first gear all the time, never could get it fixed.

They didn't fit covers to the bottom of the engine bay, road salt corroded  many of  the electric bits that were exposed, so new alternator and starter after a few years.

Silly decisions cost them

Stockholm Calling 22 August 2020

Starion

Back in the 80s the Starion was always without exception referred to as 'hairy chested' by the motoring press. Good to see that tradition being maintained here!