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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.