Curbside Classic: 1983 Mitsubishi Starion – Or Is It Stallion? Did I Finally Solve The Mystery Of Its Name?

(first posted 11/29/2011)

Stallion CC, Take Two: I just deleted the first three paragraphs of what I had written. Starting on a new CC is always a bit of a journey into the unknown, but this one had a serious surprise for me, about half-way through. I was pretty much sticking to the facts and a few reminiscences, and planned to either totally avoid, or at the most barely touch upon the urban legend about the origin of the Starion’s odd name. Especially so, since I’d rejected its premise so vigorously in the past. And then I stumbled into an obscure but highly revealing piece of evidence that may solve it once and for all. You be the judge.

The website bills itself as “the definitive internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors and misinformation”. The specific claim about the Starion is this:

Mitsubishi mistakenly named a model of car “Starion” instead of “Stallion” due to Japanese mispronunciation difficulties.

That assumption is that it was a classic (and extreme) example of “Engrish”, the almost universal pronunciation of the English “l” as “r” by Japanese, since there is no “l” in the Japanese tongue. And that Mitsubishi intended to name their new-for-1983 sporty-coupe the Stallion, since this car was going to be among the first of Mitsubishi’s cars exported to the US under its own name (Mitsubishis were all branded Plymouth or Dodge up to that point). And that Stallion would be a fine name with which to compete with America’s pony cars, like the Mustang. And one more argument was thrown in, that Mitsubishi had used another equine name – Colt – on its popular line of sub-compact cars.

I didn’t buy it. Here’s my list of debating points that I used against it:

Mitsubishi was a very large corporation that did business in many countries by that time. Chrysler owned 15% of Mitsubishi since 1971, so there were obviously many ties established with the US, and large quantities of documents, translations, etc. Mitsubishi was not some little hick cottage industry builder. And sophisticated Japanese had some degree of self-awareness about these kinds of issues, and had many translators on staff.

Mitsubishi also had a tradition of both odd names as well as celestial ones. In addition to the Starion, Mitsubishi’s first foray into the US market was with the Cordia and Tredia. And Mitsubishi’s engine families all had celestial-related names: Sirius, Astron, Orion, and Saturn. Mitsubishi brushed aside the whole question by saying Starion was a contraction of Star and Orion. Not a brilliant defense, especially since the Starion specifically didn’t use the Orion engine, but…

The final argument is that someone obviously would have noticed this “mistake” early on, before the necessary badges and other printed materials went into production, and had it fixed. They would have had advance information for their new American dealer network, right? Or?

Now for the other side:

Mitsubishi made another naming mistake, with their SUV Pajero. That unfortunate name means “masturbator/wanker” or a sexually deficient male in parts of South America, especially Argentina. Which presumably explains why it was changed to Montero for the US. Or was that the reason?

In their defense, Pajero was used initially for a Japanese prototype ten years before it went into production, and the word does have a formal Spanish meaning (carrier of straw). It’s not that uncommon for international companies to stumble upon a local slang or dialect issue with names. And they usually just get over it. It wasn’t on the scale of a botched Stallion.

Anyway, I got into a spirited debate about it with Jonny Lieberman back in the old TTAC days, and he claimed to have heard this story from an ex-Toyota (?) engineer:

Not as simple as that — the story I heard is that the print shop (i.e third party) doing all the marketing materials got it wrong — heard “Starion” and that it was cheaper to change the badges and owners manuals than reprint all of the marketing materials.

Well, I didn’t buy it, and responded with this:

Jonny, Large automobile companies don’t work that way; they don’t send an order to the print shop for all the tooling for numerous badges, etc. etc., pick it up, and, ergo, a new name is born! This story has all the hallmarks of an urban myth (ignorance of actual processes). When Mitsubishi started importing directly to the US in 1982, they had three models: the Tredia, the Cordia, and the Starion. You think Starion is any goofier than the rest??

That was back in 2008, in the comments on a piece about “What Is Your Favorite Urban Myth” And here it is almost four years later, and I’m confronting the same issue again. Well, I was going to just skip it, and talk about the car, and half way into it I decided to visit Google and see if I could find any old Starion ads to put in this piece, as is my custom.

What I found was a link to this Starion tv ad on YouTube. I almost didn’t bother, but from the image frozen on it, I could tell it was an old Japanese ad, and I have a serious soft spot for them, having worked at a Japanese language tv station in LA. The announcer says Sta–ion! several times. I understand it’s a Japanese announcer, but what does it sound like he’s saying to you?

And as it neared the end, a brief image came up, for barely a second or so, and it almost didn’t register. But then it hit me! And I played it again, and finally got it paused at the right moment, at exactly 23 seconds in. And in case you it passed you by too quickly, I grabbed a screen shot of it, below.

The profile of a stallion! The smoking gun! I’ve never seen a logo or any material of the Starion with this image of a stallion head. So how’s Mitsubishi going to explain that, given their excuse that the Starion was named after a star? And how is it that this appeared in a tv ad, but nowhere else to my knowledge?

The Starion premiered in 1982 in Japan, but I don’t know the exact month. It arrived in the US as a 1983 model, the first year for Mitsubishis here. TV ads are often shot early, with pre-production cars. It’s very possible that this was the intended logo for the Stallion Starion, before someone clued them in. The horse head disappeared, but lives on, in the miracle of YouTube.

My case rests.

Snopes’s ruling was: Undetermined You can read their whole assessment here. But I’ve covered most of it already. And they didn’t know about this video. Nobody’s ever mentioned it before.

Now it’s your turn, members of the jury. I’ll accept your judgement, if you can all agree.