Curbside Classic: 1981 Mitsubishi Jeep J36 – Six Doors And Three Wipers Ago…

Some vehicles lead bizarre parallel lives across the world, a fact often documented and discussed on this website. The Mexican VW Beetles, for instance, ended up being quite different from the ones made in Wolfsburg. The Argentinian or Nigerian Peugeot 504s were also rather distinctive, compared to their French-made counterparts. Not to mention the Australian (and Argentinian) Ford Falcons, or almost any Fiat you can think of. But you know all these already. So here’s one we’ve not really seen on CC yet: the Japanese Jeep 4-door wagon.

Think “early ‘80s Jeep wagon” and you’ll doubtless conjure up the venerable Wagoneer, then in the process of finishing its second decade in production. Something of a living fossil, in automotive terms. But in the Land of the Rising Sun, they were still a generation behind, using a design that came straight from the mid-‘40s, as opposed to the early ‘60s.

It all began, according to most sources, in 1950. The Korean War was getting going and the US pumped millions into Japan to manufacture all kinds of hardware – from camera lenses to barbed wire – for the escalating conflict. The manufacture of military and civilian Jeeps was allocated to a branch of Mitsubishi called Nakanihon Heavy Industries (the conglomerate had been broken up, but would coalesce again in the late ‘60s or so – too complicated to go into here).

The first Japanese-built Jeeps, made from late 1952 using Willys-sourced CKD kits, were LHD models pretty much indistinguishable from the US-made CJ-3As of the time. But soon, Mitsubishi were able to make a RHD military and civilian version, based on the CJ-3B. Then the story becomes really complex, because Mitsubishi made Jeeps in three wheelbase lengths, using at least five body types, through three generations and powered by both petrol and Diesel engines.

So there are a lot of variants, each with its own alphanumeric. I won’t even try to list them all; I’ll limit this post to the LWB wagons. The first iteration was the J11 two-door wagon (above), which arrived in 1956. Nothing very unique about the body – it was identical to the all-steel wagon Willys made since 1946, save for the front end. As far as I know though, Mitsubishi Jeep wagons were never proposed in 2WD configuration.

I’m not sure why the two-door wagon was changed to the four-door in late 1961, using the same 264cm wheelbase. Maybe Mitsubishi thought that the two-door body type was the reason why they weren’t selling all that many Jeep wagons. It should be referred to as a six-door anyway, given there are two at the very rear as well. Willys made a few four-door wagons as well in the late ’50s / early ’60s, but they were apparently special-order only and are very rare today. And from what I’ve seen, the pressings are different — Mitsubishi’s version is home-grown.

The new type was named J30, or J30D for Diesel versions. Power came from the 76hp (gross) 2.2 litre F-head JH4 (i.e. “Japanese Hurricane 4-cyl.” – a purely Willys design) or a Mitsubishi KE31 Diesel, also displacing 2.2 litres, but providing 15hp less. Both versions were mated to a 3-speed Warner gearbox. Mitsubishi had been putting their Diesels in their Jeeps since 1955, and by the ‘60s it was that one that was really selling – some say 99% of Jeep wagons came out as oil-burners, so I’m guessing our feature car is one as well.

Mitsubishi Jeep range, late ’70s


In 1970, the whole Jeep range got a bit of a refresh. All models got revamped front turn signals, as well as new alphanumerics to signify that things had changed somewhat underneath, too: the Diesel engine was of the new 4DR5 type, now 2.7 litres large and 100hp (gross) strong. The Diesel wagon became J36 and its petrol counterpart the J34. New petrol engines meant the model change its name again to J38 in 1974 (2.3 litre OHV) and, oddly enough, J37 in 1980 (2.6 litre OHC), but the mainstay Diesel J36 remained unchanged throughout the ‘70s and beyond.

There were other minor changes, but I’m not too sure when they took place. The gearbox became a Mitsubishi 4-speed circa 1973 and there were probably other oily bits that became locally-sourced, but literature on these Jeeps is scarce. The one easily identifiable evolution that took place late in the wagon’s life was the addition of a third windshield wiper, which happened around 1980.

Our valiant survivor of the day looks like it has been well-preserved even on the inside, though those door cards do seem like a recent (and questionable) addition. The dash design remained virtually identical throughout the wagon’s 20-plus model years, aside from the steering wheel, which was unfortunately updated in the mid-’70s. Other than that (and the suspicious radio set – far too recreational in such a workaholic vehicle), very little can differentiate an early ‘60s J30D from an early ‘80s J36.

The obvious oddity, for connoisseurs of the Willys version, is that column shifter – another Mitsubishi Jeep specificity. It’s more column-adjacent, really. Primitive in the extreme, but that adds to its rugged charm. Remarkable that this was still like this on a vehicle produced in the ‘80s.

The same goes for these chromed door lock covers – one on each front door, plus one for the rear barn ones. Such quaint detailing really has no business being on an early ‘80s Jeep, yet here we are.

Aside from the Mitsubishi logo embossed on the front end, there are no model name scripts of any kind on this wagon. The one thing that’s written is the word “Jeep” – twice on the hood, once over the left taillight and on all four hubcaps. Just in case there was any doubt.

As imperfect as Internet resources regarding these are, they all agree on one thing: Mitsubishi discontinued the wagons in January 1983. That was not the end of the whole Jeep range, though: the SWB versions (the J50 series, in Mitsubishi parlance) carried on being made until 1998, their design having changed very little since the Willys CJ-3B of 1953.

I’ve glimpsed two other J30 series wagons in Tokyo thus far, but this is the first time I’ve been able to really study one up close. And although I have seen three, they are not common cars at all. Soft-top SWB Jeeps are still extremely popular and have a dedicated following here, but I’m not sure these wagons were awarded the same love, though this one obviously has.

In total, Mitsubishi built around 200,000 Jeeps from 1953 to 1998, but LWB wagons only account, according to some sources, for about 5% of that total. And these did not lead a pampered life, nor were they particularly rust-resistant, so there aren’t too many left.

I should think a vintage-looking RHD Diesel four six-door Jeep wagon, with a bizarro column shift, triple wipers and back-up lights, would take pride of place in any fantasy garage. It’s such a wonderful combination of weird and familiar, just irresistible.

It’s interesting that it was born pretty much around at the same time as the Wagoneer (well, just a few months before it, but who’s counting?). I suppose the need for those extra doors was keenly felt on both sides of the Pacific, but the end products were as different as two Jeep wagons can be.