Classic: The Origins of the Mitsubishi Lancer
By Ben Hsu
December 15, 2014
Though the writing had been on the walls for some time, the announcement earlier this year that the current iteration of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution would be the last was still a bitter pill to swallow. When it finally peels off into that great rally stage in the sky next year, it will leave behind it a giant dirt roostertail of broken hearts and racing heritage behind it, a legacy that began as early as 1973.
For much of its life the turbocharged, earth-chewing, all-wheel-drive monster was forbidden fruit for American fans, who developed a fondness by watching it dominate in time-delayed WRC coverage or playing it in Gran Turismo. When the Lancer Evolution VIII finally did arrive in 2003, it kicked off a rally fighter boom with the help of the Subaru, who just happened to bring its own turbocharged, earth-chewing, all-wheel-drive monster stateside at the same time.
However, unbeknownst to most Americans, Mitsubishi introduced the Lancer nameplate in February 1973 as a compact slotting under the Galant. Thirty years before all the turbines and center differentials made landfall here, the Lancer was a simple, rear-wheel-drive platform, offered as a sedan or coupe. Compared to offerings like the Datsun 510 or Toyota Corolla, it was rather oddly styled, with googly eyes and an abruptly terminating rear deck. Several inline-four engines were offered, but the top-spec Lancer was the 1600 GSR, a trim level still used on modern day Lancer Evos.
We yanks did, in fact, have a brief dalliance with the original Lancer, but under a different name. Chyrsler imported and rebadged it as a Dodge Colt in the mid-1970s before the Triple Diamonds had an official US presence.
Almost immediately, Mitsubishi took it racing. Japan's appetite for motorsports was in full swing, but Nissan, Toyota and Mazda touring cars had already lay claim to the circuits. Mitsubishi decided to make its mark off road, and had achieved a few class wins and minor successes starting in 1967.
All the lessons learned were poured into the Lancer, which Mitsubishi brought to the eighth running of the Southern Cross Rally. The remote Australian contest was a perfect testbed — internationally known and in close proximity to Japan. The result of the Lancer's motorsports debut? A four-car sweep of first through fourth. Emboldened, Mitsubishi set its sights on grander arenas.
The East African Safari Rally was, in 1974, widely considered the world's most grueling. Known as the "car breaker," it cut a deep swath through the unpaved wilds of Kenya. Racers faced flash floods, dust storms, and big game leaping through their intended path of travel, in addition to whatever rugged terrain already on the menu.
More importantly, the Safari Rally was on the WRC calendar and the centerpiece event of the series. Success at an event of its caliber would provide a valuable boost to the Mitsubishi Motors brand, which the mothership at home had plans to launch internationally.
To bolster their chances, Mitsubishi enlisted local hero Joginder Singh, a Kenyan driver of Indian descent. Nicknamed the Flying Sikh due to his penchant for launching cars airborne at every opportunity, he was often seen behind the wheel wearing the traditional headdress of the Sikh, a turban, rather than a helmet.
With co-driver David Doig, Singh embarked on the trek, living up to his nickname in the fullest. And when he wasn't soaring maniacally over the undulating African topography, he was storming through watering holes in a spray of drink, fording rivers and pacing a tower (apparently, that's the collective noun) of galloping giraffes over 3,700 miles of raw land.
Amazingly, the Lancer itself was not much different from the bone stock version you could buy from your local Dodge dealer. While the standard 1600 GSR was powered by a twin Mikuni-Solex carbed SOHC 1.6L from Mitsubishi's "Saturn" family and made about 108hp, the rally car added a lumpier cam and less restrictive headers to squeeze the horse count to 165. There was no modification to the suspension at all, and the only other differences were a basic roll cage, driving lights, and some off-road tires.
Mitsubishi says that it was the Lancer's weight, just 1,800 pounds, not sheer power, that was the ace up its sleeve. Through consistent driving Singh and Doig proved further that the Lancer was, above all, durable to boot, and after five days of relentless ground pounding the pair charged across the finish line in first place. The straightforward, dorky looking Lancer had even beat out the Porsche 911 2.6 of WRC legend Björn Waldegård.
Singh credited much of his victory to the Lancer's handling and simplicity of design. In a post-race statement, he said that it "will surely become a lifelong friend." That turned out to be pretty prescient, as Singh returned in 1976 to fly the Lancer to victory once again. That year, two additional Mitsubishis swept the podium with a 1-2-3 finish. By then, the Lancer's prowess on the Safari Rally had earned the car itself a nickname among Kenyan locals: The King of Cars.
Mitsubishi didn't stop there. Throughout the 70s, Mitsubishi continued to make forays onto the world rally scene. Lancers driven by Singh, Australia's Andrew Cowan and Japan's Kenjiro Shinozuka racked up a slew of wins in prestigious events from Southern Cross to the Ivory Coast.
The exploits of the original Lancer are known quite well in Japan and elsewhere rally racing is followed but, understandably, Dodge never capitalized on the accolades to sell Colts. The first generation Lancer ended production in 1979 and subsequent generations were kept abroad until the late 80s when a neutered, front-wheel-drive version was sold in the US as the Mirage.
For most of the 80s the Lancer took a back seat as Mitsubishi put its motorsports budget behind the Starion, but the Lancer's early successes did have a lasting effect on the company's racing efforts. Rally became the focus, leading Mitsubishi to win an unprecedented 12 victories in the Paris-Dakar Rally, including a record seven-year streak.
By 1988, Mitsubishi had decided to return to WRC with the Galant VR-4, which became quite successful in its own right. As competition heated up, however, Mitsubishi pushed back by stuffing the same turbocharged, all-wheel-drive running gear of the Galant VR-4 into a smaller, lighter platform and the Lancer Evolution was born. A string of WRC championships followed, bringing us to the car most Americans are familiar with today.
Next summer, Mitsubishi will release 2,000 Special Action Models. A horsepower bump, suspension tweaks and some other bits, likely cosmetic, that are still being finalized, will give it a proper sendoff. It will, alas, be the last evolution of the Lancer Evolution. As Executive Vice President of Mitsubishi North America Don Swearingen said during a recent press conference, "its time has come and gone." It's the end of an era, but 42 years of dirt conquering battles isn't a bad run.