No, that’s not a typo, for this is not your usual COAL entry, this is indeed a KOAL: Kill Of A Lifetime. Proceed at your peril, you’ve been forewarned.
A note: In order to guarantee the rights of defense of all involved, the actual vehicle -a different Japanese popular offering- involved in the upcoming gruesome events, will remain unmentioned. Instead, Mitsubishi’s 2nd gen Mirage, Colt/Champ in the US, will take its place, a chance for this popular 80’s compact to appear once again in CC, missing somewhat in recent years (getting thin on the ground I suppose).
It was 1989, early evening, in the residential street we had moved to recently. After months of search, Mother had managed to find us the middle-class comforts she wished for, moving us to a new residential area in town. The new neighborhood fit the typical conventions of its class, being middle-class families that drove straight from work, directly into the driveway, rarely showing their faces outside. Not nearly as colorful as the barrio, for sure.
Ours was a dead-end street, so not many outsiders came by, something that fit Mother’s requisites. Still, we had been there for a couple of months, so, who were our neighbors? To our right, in a light blue house, a couple in their 40s, both rather plump, no kids, with a fondness for Australian parakeets that woke me up early in the morning. To the left, the divorcee and her elderly mother, a nosy lady who kept a check on my arrival times from school. Any anomaly on this routine on my part, and she would judiciously report to Mother the suspicious delay. Further down the block, the two-story house where a local bank manager lived. Whatever unhappiness he harbored, I’ll never know for sure. Every other weekend, the neighborhood would find it impossible to rest for the night, as he played full blast into the early morning hours 60’s rock music, while bellowing in full off-key drunk fashion. “How could a bank manager behave in such a way?” Mother would ask, incapable of associating an upscale professional with poor manners and rude behavior.
That evening, unusually, me and little brother were seated on the front porch, waiting for the day’s heat to dissipate. I was relishing the idea of having a porch, I suppose, something that I found truly luxurious. The street was quiet, all neighbors already in their homes, a young couple sitting on the entrance stairs of a house being the exception. Streetlights were already on. Somehow, the silhouette of the forested surrounding hills was visible against the sky. It was probably a moonlit night, difficult to be sure of with the thin cover of clouds in the sky.
The front door opened; it was mom, stepping out and joining us. She probably tried some small talk, something she had never been too good at. I won’t recall exactly what she said, I was being the surly high-schooler at that particular moment, lost in my thoughts… Where was my mind? Ah, yes, surly-ly worried about some-girl trouble. Specifically, the lacking-any-girl trouble.
Not having much to do –or not wanting to cook yet- Mom stayed out for a couple of minutes. Suddenly…
- What’s that? –she said, worry in her voice.
She walked out of the porch into the street, as fast as she could. She stopped, hunched over, and looked at the pavement with caution. She then walked back home, hurriedly.
- There’s a spider in the street! A huge one!
In my head, my surly-self had a quick reply: “Of course there’s a spider! We’re surrounded by a freaking jungle!” Better not to answer in those terms though. She had that look on her face, she was determined to do something!
As mentioned, we had just moved to a newly built residential area, the newest in town. The word enclave almost fitted. Built at the ‘end’ of town, with only one street connecting us to the outside. Hills surrounded the houses in an almost 360-degree manner. A small river ran the course behind the houses further down. Had it been the Middle Ages, we could have gated ourselves for protection.
Just a few weeks before, on a lazy weekend, my brother and I decided to take a walk around the surrounding forest. With fully grown trees, the walk on the hills was easy, with grasses and shrubs being minimal. It was like taking a hike in a national park. Wildlife on the island was the ‘fairly safe’ kind; bugs and birds being the main signs of nature beyond humans (no known dangerous mammals inhabit the island). After an hour or so of walking aimlessly and goofing around, we went back home. The hills surrounded the whole compound, we knew it would take a while to explore all of it. So… yes, there were spiders, I’m sure, Mom!
- It’s big! We gotta kill it!
And with that, Mom had given her command. And with ‘we’ she meant brother and I. Did we want to kill a poor lost large spider in the middle of the road?
- Come’on, we gotta kill it! –she insisted, expecting some kind of reaction from us.
- Why? – I asked, stupidly, as if I could somehow change her mind.
- It could walk into the house while we sleep! That’s why!
Well, never mind the thousand or so additional large spiders in the surrounding hills. Was said spider really a cunning one, biding its time, waiting for us to fall asleep and strike in swift fashion? Not likely. I felt for the poor thing, who had made a huge error in judgment by coming into our dead-end road. Worst, coming across Mother, who rarely showed herself on the street. Talk about poor timing…
I stared blankly, still resisting to attend to her wishes… maybe our reluctance would dissuade her? What if she didn’t give it up? Was I supposed to freak out and act in manly defense of our now-threatened home? No siree, not me! I had businesses to attend to. Businesses in my head that is… trying to figure out what Phil Collins song better suited my lack-of-girl troubles (hey, it was the 80s!). So, I stared to the street, blankly, hoping the whole notion would pass.
She then took to Brother, who normally humored her in a more immediate fashion. Still, it was obvious he wasn’t about to take on the mission. Not getting any results, she took to the street again, resolutely. She approached the spider again (who, stupidly, didn’t flee when it had a chance), with steps slowing down as she got close. She stopped and stared. Then, came back to us, nervous and simpering.
- It’s too big… I just can’t kill it. None of you will do it?
We kept in our passive mode, mainly hoping to get back inside and turn on the TV by that point.
We couldn’t leave her out there though. Then the idea came to her head.
- Wait, I’ll ask that fella over there…
And with that, she walked down hurriedly, towards the young couple a few houses down. Once there, she gestured to the slim-but-athletic-looking college guy. Brother and I could see the exchange; her agitated gestures, signaling the menace on the road, and finally, the guy standing up, following her in worried mode.
Back in El Salvador, throughout our youth, I remembered Dad, who had killed a number of nasty bugs in our house. These are the tropics, I thought, there are all kinds of creatures lurking around… below, above, and underneath! At home, Dad had killed a couple of tarantulas and a large scorpion hidden in our bedsheets. A couple of rats too. Nasty stuff.
From the porch, the Puerto Rican spider didn’t look nearly as menacing as those tarantulas of my childhood. It looked like something that could be dealt with, maybe even by me. But I wasn’t gonna get into it. As for Dad, he would have minced it to pieces… or more likely, would’ve told Mom not to worry about it, after all, “It’s not a freaking tarantula!”
Mother came up the sidewalk, followed by the man of the hour, Mr. Gallant-lover, while his girlfriend stayed on their house’s sidewalk, probably wondering why her gallant-mustachioed man had to humor an older lady’s outbursts. Brother and I could see the whole scene clearly. As mom approached the spider, pointing from some distance, and gallant-lover walking slowly, in a hunched manner.
He walked closer. Objective seen, he… jumped back! Freaked out, much in the manner a mouse-scared-elephant did in Looney Tunes cartoons.
- Ea rayos! (words in the line of Holy cow!) – He said, breaking loudly the quiet of the evening.
- But… can you step on it? Kill it? –pleaded mother.
- No! No… these things… they can jump and bite you! – he replied, agitated.
Not all was lost however, gallant-lover wasn’t keen on leaving an older lady and her two reluctant teen boys on their own.
- No… no, –he continued, paused to think, before continuing- I know… I’m gonna get… I’m gonna get the car!!!
Enter here (drumroll please) Mitsubishi’s Colt/Mirage 2nd gen, in hatchback form. The 80’s Japanese compact car phenomenon was in full swing, memories of oil shortages still lingering. A popular offering in Puerto Rico, almost as common as a Tercel, or a Sentra. Introduced in Japan in ’83, and until ’85 in US territories, the car was a careful evolution of the 1st gen, which incidentally, had been Mitsubishi’s first foray into FWD.
Still possessing an FWD transverse layout, improving minutely its engineering, the company got more daring, bringing more variants and technology options. As with most Japanese vehicles of the time, driving dynamics were decent, very dependable, and obviously, economical. The interior enjoyed fairly good ergonomics, good grade materials, and some ‘futuristic’ looking switchgear, more or less the norm in Japanese offerings at the time. Sales for ’86 were good, somewhere around 108K units, when mixing the numbers of the multiple names under which it was sold (Colt, Champ, Mirage).
Sold in the US through Chrysler’s affiliates Plymouth/Dodge, and also under Mitsubishi’s recently set up dealer network, the car had slightly more daring styling than Nissan’s or Toyota’s. In advertising, some ads exalted ‘The egg inspired one of the most ingenious automobile designs ever’. Fragile ‘Eggs’ are an odd bit of inspiration, and I wonder if the advertising agency was just making stuff on the fly. I see more echoes of Citroen on its lines, with the angular severity popular of the times. We’re talking about the Japanese though, so who knows? The ‘egg as inspiration’ could be true, a kind of Ying/Yang idea, of force through fragility. Also, in adverts, the common refrain repeated by Plymouth/Dodge: “Colt, all the Japanese you need to know”. A Freudian slip if there ever was one.
Now, Brother and I remained on the porch, watching in disbelief. Gallant-lover walking back, grabbing his car keys, and his girlfriend approaching him, now wondering what was happening. Meanwhile, Mom remained vigilant over the arachnid menace, the cunning creature still in a suspicious inactive mode.
Back at his house, gallant-lover quickly started his trusty Colt/Mirage (What if it had been an Austin Marina, can you imagine? How to kill a spider with a non-running vehicle?), rolling down the garage into the street (that compliant yet supple independent suspension), backing up (the 3-speed transmission, the bane of small cars of the era, yet, more than enough for the task at hand) and then pointing the car’s prow (that precise rack and pinion steering) towards mom, where she was pointing the way, directly into the spider’s path.
Stepping ever so lightly on the accelerator pedal (precision instruments!), the Mirage moved slowly and increasingly toward the spider. The futuristic dashboard switchgear didn’t come much into use, as no lights were used, instead, relying exclusively on street illumination. That said, the ergonomics of the vehicle must have been adequate, for the task at hand, especially at night, required gallant-lover to operate the switchgear intuitively.
A few feet away from the spider, Gallant-lover stopped the car, placed it in Park position, stepped out, and approached mom. He looked for the spider.
- There, just wanted to make sure it hadn’t moved! Wait!
It hadn’t. World’s stupidest –or most cunning- spider, hadn’t yet run for the hills… or nearest drain. It was hard to tell from the porch, but if it was moving, it surely was doing it in leisurely manner. Now mother and gallant-lover’s girlfriend were paying all their attention. Gallant-lover went back into the car, readjusting the Mirage’s orientation just a bit, and now, leaving the door opened (to look at the street directly, aiming for the spider) while slowly pressing the gas pedal (not a normal test in car manufacturing), he steered the car -heroically- ahead. The qualities of Mitsubishi’s advanced engineering accomplished in a precise manner the task, as the front wheels moved forward (traction benefits of FWD) and –SPLAT!- put the arachnid menace to a squashy end.
Gallant-lover stepped out, valiantly.
- Ha! We squashed it! Look at it! FLAT! COMPLETELY FLAT!
Mom was giddy. Gallant-lover’s girlfriend was… honestly, I can’t recall by this point. Maybe waiting for him to get back so they could smooch again? Gallant-lover stayed over the road a couple of minutes though, very pleased with himself. A true KOAL.
At the time, we forgot to commend the tool at hand, the efficient nature of our KOAL invitee, Mitsubishi’s 2nd gen Colt/Champ/Mirage, who since the 70’s had a foothold in international markets thanks to Chrysler’s association. Following a different path than Toyota or Nissan, Mitsubishi took on an unholy alliance with the smallest of the Big Three, giving it immediate access to worldwide markets, while messing its own brand. While sales got a quick boost thanks to established networks, the carmaker never managed to create an enduring template or image with buyers, an issue that would haunt them eventually.
The Mirage, a fairly brisk seller throughout the 70’s-80’s, was a guest appearance on the sales charts of those years. As always, engine choices and more daring body types being the norm in Japan, it still offered a number of options for US consumers, including a turbo variant (the one of which I suppose more survivors remain, the turbo faithful are a persevering lot). Following on turbo offerings, along with models like the Starion, Mitsubishi made a brief effort to present itself as the ‘technologically-laden’ Japanese offering.
By the late 80’s and early 90’s, their cars were wondrous techno juggernauts; impressive in their day, I suppose impossible to keep running nowadays. Mitsubishi struck gold, from time to time, with vehicles like the Eclipse, a car originally introduced as pursuing the ‘professional female clientele’, at least according to publications at the time. The company also succeeded in passenger packaging, foreseeing future trends. Meanwhile, Chrysler eventually parted ways, mired in their own troubles. To their chagrin, ‘Colt wasn’t all the Japanese you needed to know’, and US enthusiasts clamored for EVOs and such things, keeping Mitsubishi’s halo alive to this day, even in diminished format.
All heroic battles come to an end, even ours. After a few minutes, the adrenaline subsided, Mom thanked Gallant-hero, and came back into the house. She was smiling.
- Now, we can go into the house.
The menace was gone, its remains splattered on the asphalt. Mother could sleep soundly again. No PETA action was ever involved. All accomplices kept the events under the utmost secrecy… that is, until now.
More on the Mirage/Colt: