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The Japanese Invasion That Saved Chrysler

Posted in Cool Stuff, Import Rides, Lists by Kurt Ernst | April 27th, 2011 | 7 Responses |

Image: Hugo90

Let’s be honest here: the 1970s and 1980s weren’t exactly the pinnacle of American automotive design and craftsmanship. The Big Three American automakers still retained the same arrogant attitude that they’d sported in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and their common belief was that the American public would always buy what Detroit produced. The original gas crisis of 1973 had a huge impact on Big Three sales, and suddenly those cheap, disposable cars from upstart companies like Honda, Toyota and Datsun began to look appealing. Who wanted a two-ton, V-8 powered Chevy Impala when you couldn’t find gas for it? Worse, who wanted to pay the exorbitant prices (around $0.60 per gallon, if I remember correctly) that gasoline retailers demanded?

Ford and Chevy were both in a better position than Chrysler, since they had in-house small cars. Ford’s Pinto was launched as a 1971 model, and sold reasonably well. Chevy’s Vega also came out in 1971, and had the advantage of looking like a 3/4 scale Camaro. Chrysler / Plymouth and Dodge, on the other hand, had the Plymouth Cricket, a rebadged Hillman Avenger sold from 1971 until 1973. Sold is a generous term, since the car never fared well in the U.S., and I can only recall seeing one example in the wild. Dodge also imported a car in 1971, from a little-know (in the U.S., anyway) Japanese automaker named Mitsubishi. That car, a Mitsubishi Galant rebadged as the Dodge Colt, began a trend that would extend into the 1990s, and in many ways kept Chrysler above water until they revolutionized the industry with the launch of the minivan in 1984.

Below are five cars that were built by Mitsubishi but sold under the Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge umbrella. You may have owned one (I did), you may have lusted after one or you may have written them off entirely. They’re fairly uncommon today, but at one time their likes could be seen in every town in America. How many do you remember?

Dodge Colt

Image: Dincher

It may be hard to believe, but seven generations of this car were sold in the United States. The original models were based on the Mitsubishi Galant, while later examples were downsized and based on the Mitsubishi Mirage or Colt. In one form or another, this car was sold in the U.S from 1971 through 1994.

Plymouth Champ

I’ll admit to cheating here, since the Plymouth Champ (and later the Plymouth Colt) were really the same car as the Dodge Colt. Both were based on the MItsubishi Mirage, but the Plymouth offerings were decidedly less sporty than their Dodge stablemates. Originally offered only as a three-door hatch (in 1979), by 1982 the range had expanded to include a five door hatch as well. Plymouth Champ models were sold from 1979 to 1982, but the car carried on with a Colt badge until 1994.

Plymouth Arrow

Image: Hugo90

In Japan, buyers knew this sporty two door hatchback as the Lancer Celeste; in the U.S., it was called the Plymouth Arrow. The Arrow wasn’t exactly fast (my ’76 Arrow had a 1.6 liter engine good for about 75 horsepower), and the leaf spring solid axle rear didn’t give it world-class handling, but at least it looked cool and was front engine, rear drive. Sold from 1976 through 1980, Plymouth did introduce a more powerful “Fire Arrow” variant, and Plymouth even offered a compact pickup truck version for a few years.

Dodge Challenger / Plymouth Sapporo

Image: aldenjewell

Up-contenting is nothing new in the auto industry, and the Dodge Challenger / Plymouth Sapporo provided a more luxurious alternative to the outgoing Plymouth Arrow. Offered in the U.S. from 1978 until 1983, neither version sold particularly well despite receiving good reviews. Ironically, this variant (called the Galant Lambda in Japan) was responsible for bringing ergonomics and mechanicals up to world class standards, and variants were successfully raced worldwide. The platform would ultimately be used to develop the Mitsubishi Starion / Dodge Conquest.

Dodge Conquest

Image: Peter A Bergeron

By the time Dodge introduced their Conquest sport coupe in 1982, Mitsubishi had developed enough of an identity (thanks to Chrysler) to stand on their own in the U.S. market. Because of this, the Dodge Conquest was sold directly against Mitsubishi’s Starion, with only a few content and styling changes to differentiate the two vehicles. It’s easy to argue that the Conquest is the first lustworthy Mitsubishi product offered in the United States, and the car still retains a following some twenty one years after production ended. Although the car never produced more than 197 horsepower in stock, U.S. trim, it helped paved the way for future performance cars from Mitsubishi, including the Galant VR-4, the Eclipse and even the Lancer Evolution. The Starion enjoyed worldwide success in motor racing, including both road course and rally series.

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7 Responses

  1. 68SportFury says:

    I’ve actually driven most of these (being a lot man at a CPD dealer in ’81-’82 helped). I missed out on the turbo Colt that hit in ’83 (“Don’t step on the gas…unless you really mean it!”), but drove quite few of the Champ/Colt twins in ’82. Even with the twin-stick shifted to “Power,” they were pretty slow, but then they weren’t meant to be performance cars. Sticks were definitely peppier than automatics, though.
    The Arrow pickup, when equipped with the 2.6L engine and a five-speed, was a lot of fun to drive. The Challenger/Sapporo twins were very nicely put together and great little performers for the time. Five-speed was the way to go, though. The shifter was nice and precise and looked a ton better than the black-rod-with-a-ball-on-top found on Chrysler’s domestic offerings. The automatics were better than the automatic Colts, but there was still a noticeable difference in performance. The interiors were quite nice, too.
    A friend bought a Conquest TSi in ’86 and let me drive it once. It was a rocket. 176 horsepower doesn’t sound like much in 2011, but 25 years ago, from a 4-cylinder, it was really impressive.

  2. 68SportFury says:

    D’oh! “…quite A few,” not “quite few.” They moved a LOT of those Colt/Champ twins.

    • Kurt Ernst says:

      The amazing thing was how much better the cars got with each successive generation. The Korean automakers are doing the exact same thing today.

  3. Ben says:

    I’m a proud owner of a Dodge Challenger–the one featured here anyway. A very reliable car. Ahead of its time and can still keep up with modern cars today–sometimes even better.
    I love driving muscle cars but my little sapporo/challenger will always be my daily driver.

  4. neil demunnick says:

    I leased the mate of the sapporo,however i have forgotten the name of it
    dodge dealers in canada sold this car, the engine was a 2600 cc mitsubishi i do not recall if it had an automatic transmission or a standard, It was one of my favorites Neil

  5. Tony Mendez says:

    In 1980 Dodge built with mitsubishi a limited edition Celeste Premium. It came with a 2.6 liter 5speed borg wagner tranny with 4.22 rear end with four wheel disk brake system made it stop on a dime. This car was awesome and very fast. I had one brand new and it was a lot of fun to drive in stock trim. I worked this car for many years and finally sold it in 1997, bad mistake. I would like to get imfo on this car because this was the true japamerican muscle car. When I sold it, it was making 280 hp to the wheels with no turbo or nitro. Great Fun on the street and track

  6. Tony Mendez says:

    I was the proud owner of a dodge celeste premium and bought it brand new in 1980. At that time I lived in Puerto Rico and was a limited production car. It came with a two tone paint in blue and in brown. It had a 2.6 liter engine with 115hp. It felt like at least 180 or more in my opinion was under rated. The car was really fast and had four wheel disk brakes and a five speed tranny. The rear end sported 422 gears and heavy duty suspension. This car kept up and beat many and more expensive sports cars of the day. This being said this was in stock trim after a few mods like ported heads,40 over pistons,3.25 camshaft,worked crankshaft
    ported manifold,a holley 500, Jacobs electrical system, bronce clutch, I would beat anything in the streets as I did and even on the drag stripe. Its funny because when I needed parts for it got them in my local mopar auto part store. Over the years I have had other cars like mustangs Pontiacs,Chevys and turbo charged imports but I always remember my Celeste. It had personality it looked mean and it was really FAST, so fast that over 17 years a lot of people only got to see its rear end. At this point I am looking to find one and hook it up as before because ven today it will kick ass.