This year, Mitsubishi Motors Corporation celebrates 40 years of presence in Europe
Mitsubishi’s motoring origins dates back to 1917, when the Mitsubishi Model A – Japan’s first series-production car – was launched.
However it wasn’t until February 1970, under the guidance of successful aircraft engineer Tomio Kubo, that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Co (MHI) targeted the European export market by forging an alliance with Chrysler – who bought a 15 per cent share. This allowed MHI to spin off its already existing motor division to create Mitsubishi Motors Corporation (MMC).
In 1974, the Mitsubishi Lancer debuted to the European market. Badged as the 'Colt Lancer' – due to MMC’s relationship with UK distributor Colt Car Company Limited – the saloon was available in 12 variants, from entry-level 1.2-litre form to the halo 1600 GSR model – the latter spearheading Mitsubishi’s inaugural assault in rallying and motorsport. Multiple wins on the gruelling Safari Rally in the 1970s – including on its first attempt in 1974 - earned the 1600 GSR the nickname 'King of Cars' in Africa.
Come 1982, the Shogun 4x4 was launched. Named Pajero and Montero in other parts of the world, the Shogun set new standards for a Japanese four-wheel drive SUV: power steering, seat suspension, turbodiesel engines and front double wishbone suspension with torsion bar springs established the Shogun as highly radical compared to 4x4s that went before it. Now in its fourth generation, the Shogun has become a global bestseller.
The 1980s saw Mitsubishi really get into its performance stride. Now with a ferocious appetite for producing quick cars, the firm unleashed the turbocharged, rear-wheel-drive Starion coupé from 1982 to 1989. Engines differed between markets, with Europe gaining the 2.0-litre 4G63 motor (148bhp) and 2.6-litre 4G54 (170bhp) unit in GSR-VR guise. The Starion featured mechanicals that would later be integrated into future performance icons, such as the Lancer Evolution models.
In 1987 the sixth-generation Mitsubishi Galant was launched, adopting taller, more rounded styling over its predecessor. The Galant was offered in VR-4 trim for the first time and production seized in 1993 to make way for the bulkier seventh-generation Galant.
The successor to the Starion came in the form of the Mitsubishi 3000 GT in 1990. The first generation model showcased many of Mitsubishi’s contemporary technologies at the time, including four-wheel steering, active aerodynamics and electronically controlled suspension. With a 3.0-litre twin turbo 24-valve V6 under the bonnet, kicking out 296bhp, the GT3000 was capable of 0-60mph in 5.2sec and going onto 157mph.
This decade saw Mitsubishi flex its technical muscle. In 1990 the company introduced the world’s first traction control system and in 1991 multi-mode ABS. While commercial production of the Libero electric car followed in 1994.
With the increasing success of the Group A rally era during the early 1990s, Mitsubishi pulled the wraps off the Lancer Evolution in 1992. Powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged DOHC engine developing 244bhp and weighing less than 1200kg, the first Evo had Escort RS Cosworth owners shaking in their shoes.
By the end of the century, a blisteringly quick Finnish guy called Tommi Mäkinen had utterly dominated the World Rally Championship, winning four consecutive titles in various Group A specification Lancer Evos. Despite progressing to its latest road-going Evolution X guise, the limited-run Evolution 6.5 Tommi Mäkinen Edition is still regarded as the “one to have”.