Is Mitsubishi making a comeback? | Axon’s Automotive Anorak

14th October 2022
Gary Axon

Indecision. It currently seems to be the order of the day. One minute the UK’s new Government is planning to drop duty on the top rate tax threshold, the next moment, it’s not. Then it’s going to extend the electric vehicle grant by six months, despite initial plans to do the contrary. Meanwhile, the founder of Tesla cars – a.k.a. the world’s wealthiest man – announces that he is going to buy Twitter, then he says he’s not, and now he’s decided that he is going ahead again. All this indecision is not only confusing, but also not very helpful in making progress in what is currently a very tough and challenging post-pandemic world.


To add to the confusion, the automotive sector is still having to battle with its short-term plans for internal combustion engine (ICE) development and alternative fuels, as ICE stands to be outlawed by 2035 in mainland Europe (and sooner, by 2030 in the case of the UK). For its part in this ‘will they, won’t they’ speculation in the automotive world, Mitsubishi seems to be adding to the confusion of the moment by deciding that it will return its brand to the European market. This is after electing to withdraw from it just two years ago.

A latecomer to the export party compared to most of its Japanese compatriots, Mitsubishi took its time to venture out into global overseas markets, despite it being one of the first Japanese companies to build a passenger car – the smart Model A of 1917 – based loosely around a contemporary Fiat. Mitsubishi built the Model A in small numbers until 1921, when it abandoned passenger car production altogether to concentrate on trucks, buses and shipping.


Mitsubishi later returned to passenger car production in 1959, introducing the first of a long and very confusing series of models named Colt (a small two-stroke rear-engined 500cc saloon). Eventually in the early 1960s Mitsubishi introduced a larger Colt 1100F model (vaguely resembling a Ford Cortina Mark I, but with a sloping fastback) and tested the water with this model in a handful of overseas markets. It was often presented in disguise, using the shield of another vehicle manufacturer, such as Chrysler in  Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (where Mitsubishis were later locally assembled).

The marque’s first venture into Europe came in the early 1970s via the neutral Benelux countries, with Chrysler in the USA also selling Mitsubishi products as ‘captive imports’ via its sizeable Dodge and Plymouth dealer networks. It took until 1974 for Mitsubishi to make its first appearance on our shores in the UK, with the help of the entrepreneurial Michael Orr, the charismatic founder of the Cirencester-based Colt Car Company. Colt was used as the actual brand name, because Mitsubishi was considered at the time to sound too Japanese and difficult to pronounce, thus potentially putting off the more traditional clients the initial Colt models were aimed at.


Colt launched to great fanfare at the 1974 Earls Court Motor Show with a simple range of just two no-nonsense models, the Escort-rivalling Lancer and Cortina-sized Galant. They were soon followed by sportier coupe models such as the Mustang-inspired GTO GS-R, the slightly effeminate Celeste and Sapporo, before successfully branching out into expanding SUV sectors in the early 1980s with the Shogun (its domestic Japanese Pajero name translating as something rather rude in Spanish). This tough off-roader really put Mitsubishi on the map in the UK and Europe. To coincide with the Shogun’s launch, the Colt Car Company finally changed its name for British buyers to Mitsubishi. The marque also established its own dedicated Mitsubishi-branded sales network in North America too, selling alongside its rebranded Dodge and Plymouth rivals (despite being the same cars). The larger-than-life Michaal Orr (with his high-profile fleet of Colt Cars-branded helicopters and private aircraft) stepped away from the importer he founded a decade earlier around this time too.

As Mitsubishi’s UK presence grew, it occasionally would introduce a genuinely capable product, such as the original and clever late-70s Colt multi-geared hatch and the pioneering 1984 Space Wagon – one of the first MPVs on the market. Mitsubishi proved to be consistently inconsistent with its export strategy, however, successfully entering a new segment of the market and then failing to follow it up with a suitable replacement. To try and get around the Japanese ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ import restrictions of the 1980s, in 1982 Mitsubishi cunningly introduced the Lonsdale brand, a rebranded Australian-built ‘YD41’ Sigma saloon and estate at a bargain price. But this initiative failed to capture the imagination of British buyers, and Lonsdale was dead by 1984.


For every great Mitsubishi moment, such as the oddly-named Station and 3000GTO coupes, not forgetting the epic Lancer EVO homologation specials, Mitsubishi also introduced quite a few instantly forgettable non-event models, such as the dreary Tredia saloon, Cordia coupe and Grandis people carrier (I bet you’re struggling to remember any of these). When it withdrew from the UK and Continental Europe just a couple of years ago, as I highlighted here on GRR with a celebration of the seven best Mitsubishi models officially sold here in Britain, it was thought that the brand had gone from our shores for good.

Now, however, after an absence of less than two years, Mitsubishi is making a sharp U-turn comeback, in mainland Europe at least (albeit in such a small way that it will probably be of little consequence). I’ve just got back from a few days away in France and the Benelux, where brand new Mitsubishis are being sold again, but this time through Renault dealers (Mitsubishi forming a minority partner role in the troubled Renault-Nissan alliance – with Nissan currently seeking a get out/smaller stake in the relationship. Our continental cousins can now choose to buy a new Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross or the latest L200 pick-up (once that sector’s market leader here in the UK), with the promise of a pair of brand-new models due in 2023: the new ASX, (a fairly-obvious badge engineered version of the small hybrid crossover Renault Captur), plus a new entry Mirage/Space Star hatchback, as a subtly rebadged Renault Clio.


With the demise of Mitsubishi in Britain 2020, the Cirencester Company’s business activities (e.g. looking after the existing parc of customer vehicles, parts, servicing, etc.) is now being handled by the large International Motors Group (IMG). IMG grew out of the ex-Jensen Cars in West Bromwich, evolving into Jensen Special Parts (JSP), which initially commissioned the unusually versatile and boxy but good Mini-based Hustler programme by William Towns. That was later turned down, leaving Towns to offer it himself in self-build kit car form.

Instead, IMG quickly became the official British importers of Subaru (a position it has held since the late-1970s), the UK’s original Hyundai distributor (which IMG must wish it still retained today, given the modern popularity of the South Korean brand), plus briefly Maserati, Daihatsu (another recent Japanese escapee from the UK/European markets) and Great Wall from China.

Quite if or when Mitsubishi will return to the British market, time will tell, but if this does happen, the brand’s product offering here looks likely to be more restricted than in the past, with a range Renault-derived models.

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