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classic cars: mitsubishi model a

The 1917 Model A.

Mitsubishi Motor Sales of Canada recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, still the new kid on the automotive block in Canada. But the brand it represents was one of Japan's automotive pioneers and rolled past two milestones in 1917 and 1960.

Mitsubishi's automotive history began when a crew of shipwrights-turned-car makers built the Mitsubishi Model A in 1917, a luxury vehicle combining imported Italian mechanical flare and traditional Japanese craftsmanship. Its second defining moment wouldn't arrive until four decades later, with the introduction of the Mitsubishi 500, the feisty little car that launched the company's modern era in 1960.

What would evolve into the multi-tentacled Mitsubishi "Zaibatsu" or conglomerate was created as a shipping company in 1870 (with a little help from a Scotsman), shortly after Japan began to emerge from self-imposed isolation, and rapidly began to diversify, including making a move into shipbuilding.

It was Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Co. that was responsible for its first foray into auto-making, which its president, a nephew of Mitsubishi's founder, determined was going to be the next big thing in Japan.

The Model A was aimed at luxury buyers and based on the Fiat technology. It had a conventional-for-the-time chassis, with solid axles front and rear, and was powered by a 2.8-litre, four-cylinder, 35-hp engine. Formal, upright, four-door, seven-passenger sedan bodywork was fitted and finished in hand-polished lacquer. Only 22 were made – enough to allow it to claim to be Japan's first series production car – before enthusiasm faded in the face of imported competition, ending corporate interest in wheels rather than keels for a decade.

The shipbuilder's next effort would prove more successful; a bus manufacturing business was launched in the early 1930s under the Fuso brand. Now majority-owned by Daimler AG, it is one of the world's biggest bus and truck builders.

It also produced, under a 1934 government contract, four prototypes of a large sedan for military use. Although it never went into production, the PX33 was the first Japanese sedan to be fitted with an all-wheel-drive system, a feature Mitsubishi would later incorporate in its winning rally racers.

But with that one brief mid-1930s exception, it wouldn't build passenger cars again until the early 1950s, when it assembled Kaiser Henry Js and Willys Jeeps from knocked-down kits. It also turned out buses and trucks, scooters and three-wheeled cargo haulers during this period.

It took almost 40 years after the Model A's demise before Mitsubishi's next in-house-designed, mass-produced car was introduced in 1960 – and launched its modern era. It wouldn't be until 1970 that Mitsubishi Motors itself would be created. Prior to that, vehicles were produced by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries' automotive division. The original Mitsubishi conglomerate had been disassembled after the Second World War, during which it had built the legendary A6M Zero fighter plane.

The microcar movement that followed the war – and put Europeans back on the roads – was also seen as a personal transportation solution in Japan, where it developed into what is known as the "Kei" or light car class. Mitsubishi began Kei car development in 1957, and the 1960 Mitsubishi 500 was introduced at the 1959 Tokyo Motor Show.

It was a two-door, four-seater whose monocoque structure stretched 3,140 mm between its bumpers, or 535 mm shorter than the company's current i-MiEV electric car. It weighed 490 kg, had independent suspension on all four corners and was powered by a rear-mounted, 21-hp, air-cooled, twin-cylinder, 493-cc engine, with three-speed manual gearbox. With the tiny twin buzzing busily, it could hit 100 km/h.

The 500 proved a sales success, and was followed by the 500 Super Deluxe, with a 25-hp, 594-cc engine – and then, in 1962, by the Colt 600, the first car to carry that familiar Mitsubishi nameplate.

The pumped-up Super Deluxe launched Mitsubishi's entry into the realm of motorsport in dramatic fashion, with Kazuo Togawa taking first in the 750 class of the 1962 Macau Grand Prix, followed by three other Mitsus.

Racing on Sunday and selling on Monday proved just as successful a marketing approach in Japan as elsewhere, and Mitsubishi turned up at the 1963 Malaysian Grand Prix armed with Colts – which "humbled the Fiats from Italy" in the under-600-cc class – and went on to record an 11th-place finish in the inaugural Japanese Grand Prix that year, with Togawa once again at the wheel.

Since then, it has developed a reputation among enthusiasts for building some of the world's most ferocious rally cars and their street derivatives. Mitsubishi won the Canadian Rally Championship late last year with the team of Antoine L'Estage and co-diver Nathalie Richard in a Lancer EVO IV, their fifth championship.

Today, 96 years after building its first vehicle, Mitsubishi is still big in small cars in Japan, but is one of the smaller players internationally with sales of about a million units annually.

Its North American experience – dating back to the 1970s when its products were sold under Chrysler nameplates here and in the United States – hasn't always been an easy one. And with sales diving 27 per cent in the U.S. last year (although just 4.1 per cent here, at just 20,000) concern has mounted it might, like Suzuki, abandon the U.S. market, leaving Canada a question mark.

Recent U.S. press reports, however, quote company execs as saying Mitsubishi remains committed to the North American market, and plans to support it with a strong new mainstream ad campaign. A new Outlander crossover and subcompact will help in showrooms, and it recently retooled its U.S. factory to produce the Outlander, which is a positive sign. But future product plans aren't being discussed publicly.

Since its arrival in Canada in 2002, Mitsubishi had experienced steady growth up to last year's decline, and expanded its dealership network to 83 which, between them, have sold more than 160,000 vehicles.

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