Colt Cars – Looking Back on Mitsubishi’s UK Life

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By Darren Rungasamy

In July 2020, an announcement was made that Mitsubishi was pulling out of Europe effectively ‘freezing the introduction of new models to the European market’. Observers in the industry were not entirely shocked by the decision, as operating losses had been mounting up in Europe for several years. The official word was that the company were to focus on the more profitable South-East Asian market. We’ll use this opportunity to have a look at the companies British achievements, their effective marketing, the wide variety of cars and a suggestion why this may have happened.

A Tough New Breed of Car

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The brand made its first official appearance at the 1974 Earls Court Motorshow, after a brief and somewhat unsuccessful attempt by a private franchise to sell the 1100F model in the UK in the late ’60s. This completely new venture was headed by Michael Orr, having previously worked for Alfa Romeo and BMW, he was asked to take on the importation of Mitsubishi cars following a fact-finding mission in Japan. He soon lined up a talented team to bring the brand into the UK, some of which consisted of former colleagues. The success of the Japanese car in the UK, particularly that of Nissan was clearly the impetus to establish a base for the Mitsubishi in the UK. An agreement to sell the cars under the Colt brand in the UK was sealed following a majority share ownership by the UK based consortium, with Mitsubishi owning the remaining 49% share capital.

Establishing the Colt Name

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The range of cars offered was in keeping with the trends and engineering of the era, with styling characteristics similar to other Japanese cars of the period. The difference was that Mitsubishi cars were notable for their ‘silent shaft’ engines, which enabled reduced vibration and noise. The first cars to be announced for the UK market were the Escort sized Lancer and the Cortina baiting Galant. At the time the multi-national Mitsubishi Heavy Industries who owned the Mitsubishi Motors entity had established global connections with the American giant Chrysler, which meant that Mitsubishi cars were rebranded and sold as Chryslers in both Australia and the States. With no such agreement in place in Europe, the European arm of Chrysler only housed the British Rootes Group, the Spanish Barreiros and the French Simca concerns. It posed the interesting possibility that had Chrysler insisted that Hillman or Simca been asked to sell Mitsubishi cars in their showrooms, the story of the Colt Car Company could have had a completely different outcome.

Setting up of the Infrastructure

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Using the picturesque town of Cirencester, Gloucestershire as the Colt Car Company’s base, four rooms in a fairly unassuming converted mansion off the high street was used as the companies first headquarters. A dealer network, parts centre and deep water dock with car storage were established in time for the 1974 Motorshow, where the cars attracted a sizeable interest. All of the cars on display on the stand were subsequently registered after the show and used as demonstration cars. By the end of 1975, Colt had sold 2980 units and established 140 dealers with 60 employees. This rate of growth placed the Colt Car company as Europes fastest growing company and necessitated a headquarters relocation to bigger premises.

Gaining Momentum

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The success of the cars was due to basic market appeal, they were well built and engineered and were pitched slightly above their Japanese contemporaries. Like many imports of the period, higher insurance costs and parts may have been key decisions for customers to stick with their Fords and Vauxhalls, but it was Colt’s clever use of marketing that gave the brand a reach that was unrivalled in the UK. The brand’s first successful foray into promoting the brand was to sponsor major sporting events, starting off with high-level events such as the 1978 Grand National, where the Colt flags, cars and promotional material were literally plastered everywhere during the TV coverage. Further campaigns, along with celebrity endorsements helped to create the brand as a household name. With the introduction of several new models, including the rakish Sapporo and family-orientated Sigma, the brand saw a huge leap in sales in the same year. Unfortunately, imports were limited to around 10,000 cars a year, due to the government-imposed so-called ‘Gentleman’s agreement’ which limited how many cars could be sold on the British market.

Promotion of the Brand

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Following the successful campaign promoting the brand via horse racing, the company started diversifying into several high profile endeavours. The brand literally took to the air, initially using hot air balloons, but also ventured into the private aircraft industry, primarily to transport the company executives in Colt branded aircraft. This acted as a carrot to dangle in front of potential talent, as well as establish the brand as a quality product. By 1978 Colt had formed a private charter company at Staverton (now Gloucester) Airport which included a fleet of Helicopters and small jets. Not just content with taking to the air, Colt also invested time in Catamarans and racing vessels, resulting in several high profile victories in prestigious events.

New Markets

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As an idea to circumvent the import cap, Colt started importing Australian assembled versions of the Galant in 1983. The Lonsdale was treated as another profit opportunity headed by a separate team but sold in Colt dealers. While on paper this made sense, it confused many customers. The cars themselves were decent, but they were based on previous generation RWD designs, which meant sales were slow in comparison to the new FWD hatchback family cars that were entering the market. As a result, the experiment was not successful and the Lonsdale name and branding was deleted from the UK sales material within a year. It was around this time that Mitsubishi Motors decided to retain the Mitsubishi brand for all of their products, which meant the demise of the Colt name as a brand, and Mitsubishi Motors eventually took complete ownership of the Colt Car Company. The Lonsdale relative failure was counterbalanced by the introduction of new sectors, which were to prove rather successful. As an early adopter of the MPV, the Space Wagon was a relatively novel idea but one that was well executed. Colt’s masterstroke came in the form of introducing their off-road vehicle to the UK. The Shogun was rolled out to the market in late 1983 and soon established itself as a major player in the leisure 4×4 market.

Competition

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Mitsubishi was keen to maintain the motor sporting competition advances following the original Lancers success on the rally stages in the ’70s. The replacement for the original Lancer was an unassuming but modern looking saloon, which was transformed by the application of a turbocharger. The car become the fastest production 2-litre car on the market and gave the brand and the Colt car company an extra oar to promote the brand. With this additional stream of confidence, dealers quickly set up schemes where potential owners could be captivated by the prospect of driving cars on several of the UK’s race circuits, allowing customers to test drive the new generation of Turbocharged cars in unregulated but controlled environments. At one point Mitsubishi offered a turbocharged option on every one of their passenger models sold in the UK.

Moving Upmarket

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As the brand progressed into the ’80s, the cars became increasingly sophisticated, with high powered Porsche baiting sports cars, as well as genuine alternatives for the executive market. A literal blizzard of new models was rolled in throughout the latter half of the decade, without sacrificing quality and creating models in most of the key sectors. In 1995, a partnership with Volvo to build a car in Holland was marked by the appearance of the family-oriented Charisma hatchback. In addition, research and development teams were established in Germany and the Ralliart division catered for the considerable success of competition cars. The downturn of economic Asian markets at the start of the ’90s severely affected Mitsubishi sales, with limited success in exports (particularly US markets) to bolster profits, the brand was forced to rely on profits outside of the automotive industry. This was followed by both Australian and European car production ending, followed by the closure of the North American plant.

Legacy

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A traditional strong presence for the Mitsubishi brand is the off-road market, with both the Shogun and L200 being consistent sellers throughout Europe. The brand still develops good ideas, such as the last generation Colt with the VVT engines, the fully electric i-MiEV and Outlander Plug-in Hybrid, which was the UK’s best selling Hybrid. But the European car sales market has become increasingly difficult to pitch to, mainly due to rising emission standards and the considerable fines for the failure to meet targets. As a result, it has put importers in a position where it simply makes no sense to sell cars in Europe anymore. Mitsubishi is a multinational company that produces everything from containers to air conditioners, so potential profits lay elsewhere and the company can’t get sentimental about losing a key car market.

The Mitsubishi name will no longer be listed on the new car lists in the UK. The brand intends to support the existing customers, with parts, aftercare and servicing remaining unaffected for the foreseeable future. However, with the news that the headquarters have been placed up for sale, along with the heritage cars being sold, the news does have a whiff of an end of an era. But the talent within ever-resourceful UK Colt Car Company could well bounce back under a different guise, maybe with a new brand under their wing. Additionally one can never rule out Mitsubishi making a return to Europe one day. Watch this space as they say.

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Images courtesy of the author and Mitsubishi Motors UK

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