Mitsubishi’s motoring origins dates back to 1917, when the Mitsubishi Model A – Japan’s first series-production car – was launched. The Model A was a completely hand-built seven-seater, but proved expensive compared to its European and American mass-produced rivals; only 22 were made.
In 1934, Mitsubishi merged their Shipbuilding and Aircraft arms to become Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) and concentrate solely on aircraft, ships and cars. Over the next two decades, the company stamped their authority as an innovator, developing Japan’s first diesel engine, the first Japanese-built passenger car with four-wheel drive and its first diesel powered truck.
Following the recovery of the Second World War, Japan’s economy was gearing up heading into the 1960s. In 1962, Mitsubishi released a four-seater micro-compact called the 500, featuring a two-stroke air-cooled 359cc engine. With the idea of family motoring rising in popularity and wages on the rise in Japan, it proved to be the correct recipe.
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 4×4 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, turbo diesel engines and front double wishbone suspension with torsion bar springs established the Shogun as highly radical to 4x4s that went before it. Now in its fourth generation, the Shogun went on to become a global bestseller.
The 1980s saw Mitsubishi really get into their performance stride. Now with a ferocious appetite for producing quick cars, the firm unleashed the turbocharged, rear-wheel drive Starion coupe 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 5.2 secs and onto 157mph.
This decade saw Mitsubishi flex their 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 1,200kg, 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 Makinen 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 Makinen Edition is still regarded as the “one to have”.
In 2002, Mitsubishi Motorsports Europe (MME) was established in order to co-ordinate sales specifically for the European market. The model revitalisation started with the Colt in 2004 and subsequently the Grandis, L200 pick-up – the biggest selling Mitsubishi vehicle in recent years – and Colt CZC Cabriolet joining the range in 2006. The introduction of the all-new Outlander and revised Shogun followed in 2007.
2009 saw the unveiling of the i-MiEV (Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle), which proved an important statement from Mitsubishi to the global car industry as the first mass-produced, zero emission, full electric vehicle. Powered by a 63bhp electric motor and with a top speed of 80mph, the i-MiEV had a range of 80-100 miles. More than 22,000 i-MiEV units have been sold worldwide.
With the arrival of this year’s Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV – the first plug-in electric hybrid crossover from the Japanese car maker – and a return to profit in Europe forecasted for next year, the future looks promising for Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.