Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: Mitsubishi Press & AutoIndustriya.com | posted March 22, 2012 14:04
The Mitsubishi Lancer through the years
The early 70’s is best described as the extension of 1969. The beehive hairstyle was still popular and polyester double knit was about to make a splash, along with day-glo fashion fabrics that go with Psychedelia. Tight fit suits and pointy shoes were de rigueur. Trends were the posters of the Broadway musical “Hair” and even more posters of the silhouette of Che Guevara. Mao’s little red book was anathema in conservative societies. While this was all going on, Mitsubishi's R&D were working on a revolutionary car that was to take the automotive world by storm.
Car ads in print and on TV were 60s prim and proper. Think "Mad Men" or to be authentic, old black and white TV shows of "I dream of Jeannie". Neatly dressed families, the male head of family wore starched white shirts with slim ties, polished shoes - the trainer or rubber shoe was not proper attire in those days. Hair was slicked down. Houses portrayed were bright airy, usually a mix of ranch style and big A-frame windows and full of modern conveniences as badges of progress - big remote control TV, Hi-fi Stereo, Tape reel and phonographs, washing machines, multi stove ovens, double door fridges, air conditioners.
Cash On Demand
Car financing was not a consumer good yet. People bought cars on cash though dealers found the time to have the salesman deliver the car to the customer’s doorstep. Brochures were few and invitations for a road test were not readily offered.
Cars usually had 3 or 4-speed manual transmission with the gear lever on the steering column. Save for large American cars, power steering was an option. Steering wheels were large diameter to provide driver leverage and they were thin rimmed with dished chrome horn rings. Power windows and locks were a luxury. Air conditioning was an aftermarket option, along with AM radios. Seat material were in wet look vinyl and floors were covered with plastic or rubber mats. Tint was standard only on imported American cars. Most cars had no day night interior mirror. The right hand side view mirror was usually an option. Instrumentation was a basic speedometer, temperature gauge and fuel gauge. Headlight high beam was usually engaged by stepping on a button on the floor. Wipers were powered by the engine vacuum but electric motors were starting to replace them. Car interiors had a lot of painted metal. Headrests and seat belts were luxury options. Tires were small and narrow bias ply with standard white side walls. Raised white letters caught on as a short lived fad. Wheels had bright metal wheel covers or hub cabs.
Space, the only frontier
Since cars were barren and since aerodynamics was still only for space travel, cars were upright and seemed very spacious in the photographs. The ads usually show all 5 family members fitting in a small sedan or in the case of bigger sedans, 3 in front and 3 in the back. Space was a big come on in the ads. 0-100km/h acceleration and km/liter consumption data were not important. And so was horsepower rating and torque.
The dominant car brand was Toyota. Owing to the Progressive Car Manufacturing Program, there were not that many cars to choose from. Toyota was assembled by Delta Motors Corporation - they sold mostly Corollas, Coronas and Crowns. Isuzu was put together by General Motors, at that time represented by Northern Motors. General Motors was selling an Isuzu based pick up branded as the Chevrolet LUV. The Isuzu Gemini was already on sale too along with imported CBU Holden Kingswood Premier and Chevrolet Impala. Ford was producing the Escort and Cortina under Ford Philippines and was importing a few Ford LTDs. Mitsubishi’s Dodge Colt was introduced under the Chrysler Philippines, later to become Canlubang Automotive Resources. Chrysler at that time was also selling the Dodge Coronet 440. Volkswagen, which was selling a mix of Brazilian made Beetles and German made Super Beetles and Kombis was made by DMG.
R4s and Cedrics
Besides these major mainstream brands, there was Universal Motors that assembled Mercedes Benz 200 diesel and 200 gasoline and was introducing the Datsun 200C from Nissan. Renault was selling the R-16 TS and the little R4 and R10.
Bye bye, missed American size
Philippine society was just dealing with the fact that their car of the present will no longer be their big and heavy American mastodons, but these small and light cars from Japan. Since the Philippine government was encouraging buying local, they raised taxes on cars that are not made in the Philippines.
Japan craves respect
With this backdrop, the Toyota Corona was king. It has value for money and it already had, since 1965, a reputation for thrift – easy since the regular cars on the road were big six cylinder American heavies - and bullet proof reliability, cheap parts and an extensive dealer network. It was a breeze to market as the ads of the era didn't deviate much from the clean, wholesome, white goods look of car advertising that the other American majors were doing, save for the witty ads of Volkswagen which somehow were not deployed in the local market.
Rallye vs. white goods
So it was quite a splash when the Colt Lancer, the follow on model to the Dodge Colt was launched on TV. Instead of a spic and span urban environment, the Lancer ads showed dirty, mud-caked Lancers with huge lights and mudguards, flying off dusty and rocky hills in Africa and the Mediterranean. Noisy and violent tail out footages of Lancers in aggressive Rallye stances were the stock in trade. The point was, if the Lancer is good enough in tough conditions, it would hold up to the ordinary family motoring. The sporty image of the Lancer was also to tap the latent machismo that lives within any red blooded male. This was going to be its USP over the white goods Corolla. Rally tough, rallye bred.
The Lancers made a virtue of lightness. They also installed big valve single overhead cam engines, a definite technological step forward compared to Toyota's reliable but aging overhead valve layouts. The Lancer's 1.4-liter engine was 100cc bigger than the Corolla's 1.3 displacement. Unfortunately, this virtue of lightness was undermined as Zincrometal and cathodic paint dip processes were not yet invented. So aftermarket undercoating and rustproofing was needed to keep the rust colander holes at bay, which can happen in a span of 3 years. The only consolation was that it happened to all cars, except the big and heavy American ones.
The "L" shape
While the Corolla was starting to break away from the staid 3-box look by giving the tail a bit of a downward bend, the Lancer raised and slanted the rear window to allow a big boxy trunk, framed by the iconic "L"-shaped tail lights. This design touch gave the appearance of more muscular butt bulk and more trunk space. It also made the car look stubby, as the Lancer front was tapered in an attempt to improve aerodynamics.
Car shapes at that time were still dictated by the "Coca-Cola" bottle flanks popularized since 1969. Japanese designers were still into putting in a lot of design detail, a throwback to rocket ship detailing that Japan derived from the chrome laden American monsters of the early 60s.
Lancer owners learned to enjoy the free breathing engines and light weight of the car, allowing the ordinary driver to derive a little more fun than the average Toyota. And this is how the Lancer distinguished itself from the market leader of that time.
The next ten years
In the next ten years, Toyota was to overwhelm the market by being everything to everyman. Thus, they embarked on a motorsports program that tried to exploit a "sporty image” halo effect on its regular hum drum offerings. Even the larger Corona was to have 2-door models and sporty models to defeat the sporty appeal of both the Colt Lancer and the bigger Galant. By now car design was moving away from curves and into straight edged "origami" sharp creases and boxy silhouettes. Toyota introduced the sleek 2-door Corolla "Liftback" but against this, Mitsubishi not only had the Celeste, that shared the platform of the 1st generation Lancer, it also showed the first box-type Lancer, called the EX. Now how can Mitsubishi maintain to project a sporty image if the Toyota had the lower and sleeker 2-door car? A look that is undoubtedly "sportier" than the Lancer's box.
Halo by pedigree
By exploiting the Rallye pedigree; be-winged and be spoiler tuned Lancers, later turbocharged were to enhance the "sporty” halo effect on the bread and butter Lancer models. And the Corolla vs Lancer battle carried on until the nation hit the financial crises of 1983 and 1984. The "GSR" name plate and succeeding imported "EX Turbos" were to become iconic suffixes to the broad band of Lancer admirers.
The collapse of Delta Motors stung Toyota fans with the half-born introduction of the first front wheel drive Corolla. Mitsubishi's front wheel drive attempts were concentrated on the razor sharp Italian styled 8-speed Mirage while keeping the Philippine made Lancer the same box type model it has been. With Toyota's exit, the Lancer was now going to do battle with a new brand - Nissan with its front wheel drive Stanza, Sentra and Pulsar. And Nissan was also going with guns blazing into the national motorsports rallye arena. By that time, the remaining rear wheel drive entrants to motorsports were old generation Toyota Starlets, Corollas, Coronas and Isuzu Geminis. The only genuinely new rear wheel drive mainstream car, ready for motorsports, was the box type Lancer.
The 16 valve revolution
Toyota returned to the local scene in 1988 ushering in the 16-valve revolution. For once, Toyota Motors led the performance car revolution with its fast and spacious 16 valve Corollas. Nissan answered the challenge with their own 16-valve revolution. Meantime, Mitsubishi soldiered on with the box type Lancer, skipping the Lancer Fiore/Mirage intermediate generations of front wheel drive platforms. Mitsubishi launched its first locally available front wheel drive Lancer in 1989, this being 4th generation with the roller rocker arm cam bearings for its 12-valve head. Mitsubishi continued with motor sports, but relied heavily on the Galant VR 4 for its four wheel drive to maintain WRC dominance. By then the local car market was no longer a 2-way fight as a new brand came into the arena: Honda.
The VTEC revolution
Despite increasing competition, the Lancer loyalists flame was to be kept alive for three generations - the fifth-generation that spurred the Evolution series; the sixth generation or locally known as "Pizza”, which produced the Evolution IV,V and VI; and the Cedia-based seventh generation. Much as the Lancer became another mainstream model with all the right stuff - 16 valve, CVT transmission, power everything, etc. - it was to become just one of the many highly competent compacts that one can choose from owing to the death of the PCMP and the entry of more brands into the market. The entry of the Honda Civic and its VTEC variable valve lift was a game changer and today, we have the 9th Generation Lancer GT-A, known as the Galant Fortis or Lancer EX [again] in other markets, with MIVEC variable valve lift as Mitsubishi's entry into a crowded field of excellent rallye bred cars.