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Mitsubishi Celebrating 40 Years in North America


The first production car in Japan: the 1917 Mitsubishi Model A.

Mitsubishi has been in the U.S. for four decades.

The Japanese automaker plans to mark the occasion in variety of ways, most notably with special Anniversary Editions of its top-selling Outlander, which will combine special features and badging, and offer a “special” value price, the company noted.

Company officials say they are looking forward to the next 40 years “and beyond.” TheDetroitBureau.com took a closer look at the trials and tribulations of the Japanese brand that’s led it to where it is today.

The company has much to celebrate as part of Nissan’s worldwide alliance. It boasts a firmer financial footing, and sales continue to grow from their low point in 2009.

Yet the company’s history is older than you’d expected, even in America. Add it’s been anything but smooth driving in the past four decades.

A company’s roots in 19th century Japan

Mitsubishi’s roots predate the automobile. The company was started by Yataro Iwasaki in 1870, who established a shipping company named Tsukumo Shokai with three aging steamships.

The 1936 Mitsubishi PX33 was the company’s first vehicle with four-wheel drive.

Renamed Mitsubishi Shokai in 1873, the company landed a government that lead to Mitsubishi’s rapid expansion; by 1877, it had 61 ships, or 73% of the gross tonnage of Japan’s steamship fleet. The company would continue to expand in the late 19th century to include mining, shipbuilding and banking.  

And it was the shipbuilding arm that proved the most consequential for car enthusiasts. In 1917, Mitsubishi Shipbuilding built Japan’s first production automobile, the Mitsubishi Model A, a seven-passenger limousine with an enclosed rear seat and open driver’s compartment.

Based on the Fiat Tipo 3, it’s too expensive and dropped in 1921 after 22 are built. Fifteen years later, in 1936, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries completes four prototypes of the PX 33, a four-wheel-drive Phaeton built at the company’s Kobe shipyard for the Japanese Army. The vehicle is never produced, but clearly shows the capabilities of the Japanese Industrial behemoth. 

A postwar vehicle manufacturer emerges

From 1953 through 1998, Mitsubishi built Jeeps under license for the Japanese market.

After the war, the company begins producing motorized scooters in 1946, which leads to its first postwar trucks in 1953, building the Willys CJ-3 under license from Willys. Mitsubishi builds Jeeps for the Japanese market through 1998, adding its own variations, including a turbocharged diesel engine, far before the option appeared in America.

Mitsubishi’s first true mass-produced car is the 1960 Mitsubishi 500, featuring unibody construction and a rear-engine/rear-wheel drive powertrain. Two years later, it would win the Class A victory in the 1962 Macau Grand Prix — a notable achievement.

An improved version of the 500, the Mitsubishi Colt 600, arrives that same year, the first Mitsubishi to wear the Colt name. The car would grow, as did Mitsubishi’s product line and number of racing victories. By 1970, the automotive division is separated from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, becoming Mitsubishi Motor Corp., or MMC. 

By 1973, Mitsubishis were being sold exclusively in the U.S. by Chrysler Corp.

A new division and a new marriage

But there’s a problem; MMC wasn’t making money. It never had. It needed another automaker to show them how. Enter Chrysler Corp. with ambitions of becoming an international car company.

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The automaker goes on a buying spree, acquiring a 15% stake in MMC, plus it bought Britain’s Rootes Grup and France’s Simca. But the Rootes vehicles lack quality, while the Simcas lack an automatic transmission. In the end, they are replaced by Mitsubishi products, sold as the Dodge Colt and Plymouth Champ, among others.

But by the late 1970s, Chrysler is foundering financially, thanks partially to its International acquisitions. Concerned Chrysler might go out of business, Mitsubishi negotiates setting up their own American dealer network, which comes online by 1981. 

A turning point for MMC

This is the starting point for Mitsubishi Motors North America (MMNA), one where Chrysler dealers no longer have exclusive rights to sell Mitsubishis in North America. Mitsubishi begins importing the Tredia sedan, Cordia coupe and Starion sports car, and sets up its own captive finance arm.

Yet the company continues to build models for Chrysler, even as Chairman Lee Iacocca’s anti-Japan rhetoric becomes an increasing embarrassment for the company. Regardless, Mitsubishi’s growth in the U.S. market is significant, leading Chrysler to form Diamond Star Motors in 1989, a joint manufacturing venture with Mitsubishi in Illinois.  

A 1986 Mitsubishi Starion, part of the company’s three-car line up. (Photo credit: RM Sotherbys)

MMC continues to fire on all cylinders. Its Galant VR-4 is the first vehicle to use an active electronically controlled suspension, winning Car of the Year award in Japan in 1987, and Motor Trend Magazine’s Import Car of the Year two years later.

That same year, Mitsubishi introduces the 3000GT sports car with performance-oriented all-wheel drive and active aerodynamics. But the joint venture with Chrysler disintegrates, with Mitsubishi buying Chrysler’s half-interest for $100 million in 1991.

“Iacocca hasn’t exactly been extending an olive branch across the Pacific,” explained Richard Recchia, executive vice president of Mitsubishi Motors Sales of America, in the Los Angeles Times.

Meanwhile MMC’s performance credibility continues to grow. In 1998, the Montero takes the top four spots in the Dakar Rally as well as an FIA World Class Cup Cross-Country Rally win. And its Lancer Evolution proves victorious in the WRC.

A growth streak comes to an end in the U.S.

The 1991 Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4 was also sold as the Dodge Stealth. (Photo credit: RM Sotherbys)

But it all sours in 1998 as the Japanese economy tanks, and MMNA can’t take up the slack. Its sales organization had been using low-quality loans to lure young buyers to gain market share. Then came revelations in 2000 that the company had been intentionally covering up defects as far back as 1977.

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MMC’s relationship with Chrysler, now DaimlerChrysler, reached an end; its controlling stake in the company is sold in 2005, and Mitsubishi becomes an entirely Japanese-owned company for the first time since 1971. 

But the company’s success continues to slip away. Having sold 345,915 vehicles in 2002, Mitsubishi sales plummet to 53,988 vehicles in 2009. It’s Mitsubishi’s nadir in the U.S. market.

Mitsubishi’s new North American headquarters in Franklin, Tennessee.

But a turning point arrives in 2016, when it’s discovered that Mitsubishi has been faking fuel economy data of their Kei micro-cars, which represents nearly 40% of Japanese car sales.

Smelling blood, Nissan swoops in to buy a controlling 34% stake in MMC for $2.2 billion in the attempt to become the world’s largest automaker. But the arrest of Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn by the Japanese government in 2018 stops these plans, although it doesn’t end to the alliance. 

In 2019, MMNA moves to Franklin, Tennessee, home of Nissan North America. 

In September 2021, reports arise that Mitsubishi Motors plans to stop developing its own car platforms for Japan, and will switch to Nissan platforms around 2026. In the U.S., such reports have little effect, with a line-up that’s once again growing, and includes the Outlander, which shares its mechanicals with the Nissan Rogue, as well as the Outlander Sport, Eclipse Cross and Mirage.

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