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The story of Mitsubishi Motor actually begins with a 19th century samurai. Iwasaki Yataro, the founder of the company that would eventually begat Mitsubushi Motors was born in January of 1835 in Aki, part of the Tosa Province of Japan.
The great grandson of a man who’d sold his samurai status to settle debts, Iwasaki was born into a provincial farming family. At the age of nineteen he went to Tokyo (then called Edo) for secondary education, but was called home after his father was injured in a dispute with the guy who ran Aki. Seeking remedy using the local judiciary, the magistrate refused to hear the case (for obvious reasons). Incensed, Iwasaki accused him of being on the take and was promptly shipped off to prison for seven months.
When he got out, Iwasaki went back to Tokyo. The experience in Aki led him to get involved with political activists bent on reforming Japanese society. One of Iwasaki’s mentors, Yoshida Toyo—himself a samurai—helped Iwasaki to see the best way to effect change was to become successful in business—specifcally industry and foreign trade. Yoshida helped him get a job in the Tosa organization in which Yoshida also held a significant position.
Proving himself an asset to the organization, Iwasaki progressed steadily, ultimately becoming the manager of the organization’s business interests in Nagasaki—trading camphor oil and paper to buy ships, weapons, and ammunition. Along the way, he repurchased his family’s samurai status. In 1868, Emperor Meiji began a reformation (known as the Meiji Restoration) that would ultimately transform Japan from a feudal, pre-industrial country into a world power. One of the changes of the Restoration was the dibanding of Shogunates, of which the Tosa organization was one.
Iwasaki was perfectly positioned to benefit from these changes. He leased the rights to the Tosa business interests in the Tsukumo Trading Company, and renamed the company Mitsubishi in 1873. The word Mitsubishi comes from the combination of two other words; “mitsu”, which means” three”, and “hishi”, which is a water chestnut. Water chestnuts are often used to symbolize diamonds in Japanese—thus Mitsubishi = three diamonds.
Iwasaki almost immediately started doing business with the Japanese government under Emperor Meiji. He got contracts to transport Japnese soldiers and materiel. After one military expedition ended, the government gave Iwasaki the ships it used to win the campaign. In effect, Iwaski became the transportation arm of the Japanese military. With the money he made from these endeavors, Iwasaki diversified Mitsubishi’s interests into mining, ship repair, finance, and ship building. He grew his company organically, always investing in entities capable of supporting other interests within the existing structure.
In 1917, one of those companies, the Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Company, Ltd. produced Japan’s first series production automobile — the Mitsubishi Model A. Hand-built, it seated seven and was based on a Fiat design. Over the course of the next four years, 22 examples of it were built before it went out of production in 1921.
Mitsubishi Shipbuilding eventually merged with the Mitsubishi Aircraft Company, which had been started in 1920. Together, the two entities were renamed Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and promptly became the largest privately-owned company in Japan. Still heavily involved in supplying the military, Mitsubishi produced another car in 1937, this time a prototype for the Japaneese Army. The Mitsubishi PX33 was the first Japanese car to feature full-time four-wheel drive, a feature that would figure prominently in Mitsubishi’s high performance Lancer Evolution models over a half-century later.
Durimg the Second World War, Mitsubishi executed aircraft production for the Japanese Navy. In fact, the planes Japan used at Pearl Harbor were built by Mitsubishi. After the war, the company got back into building vehicles, although cars were still quite a ways “down the road”. Mitsubishi Fuso buses, Mizushima three-wheeled cargo transports, and the Silver Pigeon scooter were among the products the company developed.
One of the consequences of the outcome of the war was the forced dismantling of large business interests in Japan in 1950. As a result, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was split into four companies; West Japan Heavy-Industries (WJHI), Central Japan Heavy-Industries (CJHI), and East Japan Heavy-Industries (EJHI). CJHI did a deal with Kaiser-Willys to produce Jeeps under license—which Mitsubishi continued to do until 1998. By 1960, CJHI had been renamed Shin Mitsubishi Heavy-Industries and produced the company’s first mass-market sedan, the Mitsubishi 500. In 1963, it also produced the Colt 1000, the first Mitsubishi Colt and the forerunner of the first Mitsubishi product that would come to the United States.
WJHI, renamed Mitsubishi Shipbuilding & Engineering; and EJHI, renamed Mitsubishi Nihon Heavy-Industries, had gotten into automotive production too. The three companies were reunited in 1964, marking the rebirth of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The Mitsubishi Galant was produced by this organization in 1969. Eventually, it was decided the automotive section should be split off as a subsidiary, and Mitsubishi Motors Corporation was born April 22, 1970. Tumio Kubo was installed as its first president.
One of Kubo-san’s growth strategies was to partner with established companies in other countries to create new markets for his products. This led to Chrysler buying a 15 percent stake in Mitsubishi in 1971, to import Mitsubishi cars to the United States to be sold under the Chrysler brand name. The first model to come over under this agreement was the Mitsubishi Galant, which was marketed here as the Dodge Colt.
Stresses in the partnership ultimately led Mitsubishi to market products in the U.S. under its own name as well. Mitsubishi Motors North America was founded in 1981 to do so. This introduced models like the Mirage, Starion, Lancer, Eclipse, and 3000GT to these shores. Good cars all, but today, when you say the word “Mitsubishi”, driving enthusiasts everywhere immediately think Lancer Evolution.
OK, well they actually think “Evo” but it’s the same thing.
Previously a Japanese home market special, the eighth generation of the car came to the States in 2003 to satisfy a rabid demand. Two generations later, the adulation for the turbocharged wonder car continues unabated. The current (June 2013) American lineup of Mitsubishi automobiles also includes Outlander, Mirage, Galant, and the electric Mitsubishi i-MiEV.