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  • Writer's pictureTim Jackson

Mitsubishi makes unique mark on auto sector

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

Mitsubishi has a rich and intriguing history as an automaker, with its origins tracing back to its parent company, Mitsubishi Group. In this chapter, we delve into the history of Mitsubishi as an automaker, its entry into the United States markets and its sales trend over the years.

Mitsubishi Group, also known as the Mitsubishi Conglomerate, is a Japanese multinational conglomerate that has its roots in the shipping business. Founded in 1870 by Yataro Iwasaki, the Mitsubishi Group expanded its operations into various industries, including mining, banking and eventually into manufacturing cars. In 1917, Mitsubishi Motors Corporation was established as a division of the Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Company, with the aim of producing cars.

Before getting cars rolling, Mitsubishi was heavily involved in engineering aviation and aeronautics. The Mitsubishi A6M Zero, often referred to simply as the "Zero," was a legendary Japanese fighter plane that played a significant role in World War II. Its creation is a fascinating story that showcases the Japanese pursuit of technological superiority in aviation during the early 20th century.

In the late 1930s, as tensions rose between Japan and other world powers, the Japanese Imperial Navy recognized the need for a new carrier-based fighter aircraft that could outperform existing models. The navy issued a requirement for a highly maneuverable, long-range, and lightweight fighter plane that could maintain air superiority over the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean.

The development of the Zero was led by Jiro Horikoshi, an aeronautical engineer at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. He was tasked with designing an aircraft that met the navy's demanding specifications. Horikoshi and his team worked tirelessly to create a plane that was not only fast and agile but also had an extended operational range.

One of the key innovations in the Zero's design was its use of lightweight materials. The aircraft's frame was constructed from aluminum and other lightweight alloys, allowing it to have a remarkable power-to-weight ratio. Additionally, the Zero incorporated an advanced aerodynamic design with a low drag coefficient, giving it exceptional speed and maneuverability.

To ensure the Zero's long-range capabilities, the design team focused on optimizing its fuel efficiency. They implemented features like a streamlined fuselage and efficient wing design, enabling the aircraft to cover longer distances without refueling.

By 1939, the first prototype of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero took to the skies for its maiden flight. The aircraft demonstrated exceptional performance, exceeding the expectations of the Japanese Navy. The Zero's top speed, climbing ability, and maneuverability were superior to most of the fighter planes in service at the time.

The Zero quickly gained a reputation for its dominance in aerial combat, especially during the early stages of World War II. It was known for its incredible agility and range, allowing Japanese pilots to engage enemies at a distance and escape unfavorable situations. The Zero's performance in the Pacific Theater, particularly during the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent battles, solidified its status as one of the most iconic fighter planes of its era.

The Mitsubishi A6M Zero played a significant role in several famous World War II battles in the Pacific Theater. Some of the most notable battles where the Zero was involved include: Attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941): The Zero was one of the primary aircraft used by the Japanese in their surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The Zero's agility and speed helped it achieve air superiority during the attack, allowing Japanese forces to devastate the American naval and air assets.

Battle of Coral Sea (May 4-8, 1942): The Zero played a key role in this naval battle between Japanese and Allied forces. It engaged in dogfights with Allied aircraft and was instrumental in sinking the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, while the USS Yorktown was damaged.

The Mitsubishi A6M Zero remains a symbol of Japanese aviation engineering and the early successes of the Japanese military in World War II. The aircraft's creation is a testament to the ingenuity and dedication of Jiro Horikoshi and his team at Mitsubishi, who designed a fighter plane that left an indelible mark on history.

Mitsubishi's first venture into the automotive industry was the production of the Model A, a seven-seat sedan. The Model A was introduced in 1917, making Mitsubishi one of the oldest carmakers in Japan. Due to the economic downturn during World War I and subsequent financial difficulties Mitsubishi temporarily halted its car production.

It wasn't until the 1960s that Mitsubishi made a significant impact as an automaker. The company focused on developing compact cars that were fuel-efficient and affordable, catering to the needs of the post-war economy. Mitsubishi's first breakthrough came with the launch of the Mitsubishi 500, a compact car that quickly gained popularity in Japan. This success laid the foundation for Mitsubishi's expansion into international markets, including the United States.

As to its entry to US market, in the early 1970s, Mitsubishi and Chrysler Corporation embarked on a joint venture that would change the automotive landscape at the time. This collaboration resulted in the production of iconic vehicles such as the Dodge Colt and Plymouth Champ, which later evolved into the Dodge D50, Plymouth Arrow mini pickups, and ultimately, the Mitsubishi Mighty Max.

The joint venture was a strategic move by both companies to leverage each other's strengths and gain a foothold in the competitive American automotive market. At the time, Mitsubishi was a well-established Japanese automaker known for its engineering prowess and fuel-efficient vehicles. On the other hand, Chrysler had a strong presence in the American market and a wide distribution network.

The first fruits of this partnership were the Dodge Colt and Plymouth Champ, which were introduced in 1971. These compact cars were based on Mitsubishi's Galant model and quickly gained popularity for their affordability, reliability and fuel efficiency. The Colt and Champ were available in various body styles, including sedans, coupes and wagons, catering to a wide range of customer preferences.

As the collaboration continued, both companies recognized the growing demand for compact pickup trucks in the American market. In response, they introduced the Dodge D50 and Plymouth Arrow mini pickups in 1979. These vehicles were based on Mitsubishi's existing truck platforms but were modified to suit American tastes and preferences. The D50 and Arrow offered a combination of utility, versatility, and fuel efficiency, making them attractive options for both personal and commercial use.

The joint venture reached its pinnacle with the introduction of the Mitsubishi Mighty Max in 1982. This pickup truck was essentially a rebadged version of the Dodge D50 and Plymouth Arrow, but with Mitsubishi's branding. The Mighty Max carried forward the same attributes that made its predecessors successful, such as reliability, affordability and fuel efficiency. It gained a loyal following among truck enthusiasts and those seeking a dependable workhorse.

The Mitsubishi-Chrysler joint venture was a testament to the benefits of collaboration in the automotive industry. It allowed both companies to capitalize on their respective strengths and create a series of vehicles that resonated with American consumers. The partnership not only helped Mitsubishi establish a strong presence in the American market but also provided Chrysler with a lineup of fuel-efficient and reliable vehicles during a period of economic uncertainty.

However, like many joint ventures, the partnership between Mitsubishi and Chrysler Corporation eventually came to an end. As the automotive landscape evolved, both companies pursued independent paths, and their collaboration faded away. Nevertheless, the legacy of their joint venture lives on in the form of the Dodge Colt, Plymouth Champ, Dodge D50, Plymouth Arrow and Mitsubishi Mighty Max, which continue to hold their special place in automotive history.

Mitsubishi entered the US car markets more directly in 1982 with the introduction of the Mitsubishi Tredia and Cordia models. These compact cars were well-received, offering a combination of affordability, fuel efficiency and reliability. Though it was the launch of the Mitsubishi Eclipse in the late 1980s that truly put the company on the map in the US. The Eclipse, a sporty coupe, appealed to a younger demographic and gained its own near cult following.

Throughout the 1990s, Mitsubishi continued to expand its product line in the US, introducing models such as the Galant, Montero and Diamante. The company also made a name for itself in the performance car segment with the introduction of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, a high-performance sedan that became synonymous with rally racing. Mitsubishi's sales in the United States peaked in the early 2000s, with the popularity of its SUVs and performance cars driving its success.

Mitsubishi faced challenges in the late 2000s and early 2010s. The company was hit hard by the global financial crisis and struggled to keep up with changing consumer preferences. Mitsubishi's sales in the US declined, and the company had to reevaluate its strategy. In recent years, Mitsubishi has shifted its focus towards electric vehicles and SUVs, aiming to capitalize on the growing demand for environmentally friendly and spacious vehicles.

Despite the challenges, Mitsubishi has shown resilience and determination to regain its position in the United States markets. The company has introduced the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, a plug-in hybrid SUV, which has gained popularity among eco-conscious consumers. Additionally, Mitsubishi has partnered with Japanese automaker Nissan and European car company, Renault, another Japanese automaker, to share resources and technologies, which has helped improve its product lineup and expand its presence in the United States.

On a personal experience note, our daughter’s first car was a new Mitsubishi Eclipse, we bought in time for her to drive off to college. Our son’s first car was a new Mitsubishi Mirage, which was also acquired before his time heading off to his first year college. Both cars were solid and reliable vehicles. They performed well and were popular cars for the kids during their early driving years.

In recent years, there has been speculation as to whether Mitsubishi is long for the US market. The number of franchised dealerships carrying the Mitsubishi brand has been drastically reduced, along with the volume of Mitsubishi brand car sales in the US in general.

Mitsubishi Motors' impact on pop culture in the USA has been relatively limited compared to other automakers. While Mitsubishi has had some notable moments in the American market, it hasn't necessarily led any significant pop culture developments. However, here are a few notable instances where Mitsubishi vehicles have appeared in pop culture:

The Fast and the Furious franchise: Mitsubishi vehicles have featured prominently in the popular movie series, The Fast and the Furious. The iconic 1995 Mitsubishi Eclipse GS-T was driven by the character Brian O'Conner, played by Paul Walker, in the first film. This helped to popularize the Eclipse among car enthusiasts.

Initial D anime and manga: Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution models, particularly the Evolution III and Evolution VIII, are featured prominently in the popular Japanese anime and manga series called Initial D. The series helped to introduce the Lancer Evolution to a wider audience and gained a cult following among car enthusiasts.

Rally racing success: Mitsubishi has had success in rally racing, particularly with its Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution models. While not directly pop culture developments, these victories and the Lancer Evolution's reputation as a high-performance rally car have gained attention from car enthusiasts and helped to establish Mitsubishi's image in the USA.

It's worth noting that Mitsubishi's influence on pop culture in the USA has been relatively limited compared to other automakers like Ford, Chevrolet, or even its Japanese counterparts like Toyota or Honda.

Mitsubishi's history as an automaker is intertwined with its parent company, Mitsubishi Group. From its humble beginnings as a division of the Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Company, Mitsubishi Motors Corporation has grown into a global player in the automotive industry. Its entry into the United States markets in the 1980s marked a significant milestone, and the company experienced both successes and challenges over the years. Despite the ups and downs, Mitsubishi has continued to innovate and adapt to changing market conditions, ensuring its place as a prominent automaker in the United States.


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