No, we’ve not seen everything on CC yet. There are still some stories to tell, in a Deadly Sins vein, about colossal missteps by ancient conglomerates who should have known better. It’s just a matter of finding the cars on the street, which can get tricky. Have no fear, T87 is here, got extremely lucky recently and found not one, but two first-generation Proudias to illustrate a classic tale of hubris and industrial disaster.
It’s easy to forget about Mitsubishi. I do it all the time. It seems that the three-diamond brand’s automotive branch, known under its MMC acronym, has been circling the drain since forever – and indeed it has. Mitsubishi Motor Corporation (MMC) was founded in 1970, bringing together the various bits of Mitsubishi that made cars, trucks and Jeeps under one roof, though it kept many links, both formal and informal, to the mothership conglomerate. The company went public in 1988 and almost took over Honda in the early ‘90s, but then the skies darkened.
Part of MMC’s success since the ‘70s was their strength in overseas markets, particularly in Southeast Asia and North America. In 1997, even as domestic sales were sluggish, the bottom fell out of Southeast Asia. The economies of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand ground to a halt, with ripple effects being felt throughout the Asia-Pacific region. In Japan, Nissan and Mitsubishi were hit hardest and both scrambled to find solutions. Initially faced with similar predicaments, the two companies opted for similar strategies, but ended up with diametrically opposed outcomes.
Nissan ended up tying the knot with Renault in 1999. They sold off their truck branch and gradually cut off a lot of dead wood to save the tree. Mitsubishi broadly followed the same strategy that Nissan did, but their results were markedly poorer, perhaps because they never could settle on a partner. MMC had JVs and various alliances with PSA, Chrysler, Daimler, Volvo, Hyundai, Suzuki and Proton, but also kept going back to various appendages their tentacular home conglomerate for financial assistance. There were other important events at play, though – including a number of dud products.
So let’s talk a little bit about the actual car we’re examining today. Mitsubishi had a toehold in the executive car end of the JDM since they launched the 2-litre Debonair in 1963. That model lasted a couple decades – having traded its initial 6-cyl. for a 2.6 litre 4-cyl. in 1976 – and was followed ten years later by the second generation (S10), which introduced a 3-litre V6 engine and FWD. The third Debonair (S20) replaced it in 1992 and the V6 grew to 3.5 litres, but sales just went from sluggish to lackluster.
So perhaps hoping to give their sagging executive chariot a shot in the arm, Mitsubishi decided to ditch the Debonair nameplate and not bother with the size limits that Debonairs adhered to and shoot for an even higher class of car with the Proudia. The name was a typical Japanese mangling of English, blending the word “proud” with “diamond” – all quite moot, as the car was strictly for the JDM anyway, where few could understand such a weird portmanteau.
Mitsubishi put out a comprehensive press release in December 1999, just as the last Debonairs were leaving the dealerships, announcing the Proudia’s birth. The new flagship would hit the streets in February 2000 and Mitsubishi were outwardly confident that the Japanese market could absorb 300 of these sleds per month.
They weren’t just big – they were also very exclusive. With the FWD Debonairs, there was a certain level of cross-pollination with other Mitsubishi products, such as the Galant, the Sigma and the GTO. For the Proudia, Mitsubishi spared no expense and developed a completely new platform, its own suspension (MacPherson struts for the driving wheels in front and a multilink IRS, with optional electronically-controlled dampers) and Mitsubishi’s first (and so far only) V8 engine, a 4498cc DOHC unit producing 280hp.
The 4.5 litre V8 was reserved for a small minority of customers, of course. Most Proudia buyers were more than content with the 3.5 litre V6 already seen on the later Debonairs. Both engines were mated to a 5-speed automatic. Price-wise, the Proudia (depending on the grade – A, B or C – was somewhere in the ¥4.5-6.5 million range, competing directly with the Celsior and the Crown Majesta for the Toyota side of things and with the Cima and the SWB President for Nissan.
The Majesta vibe is quite strong in the Proudia’s rear end. The front, on the other hand, has more of a store brand Mercedes-Benz whiff about it. The improvement over the previous generation Debonair was palpable, though the overall impression is one of heaviness, rather than solidity or class.
Objectively, the interior of the Proudia is just as luxurious and spacious as its competitors. The black car I found was a B-grade car, according to the interior spec. The A-grade ones did not have a GPS screen and a bit less wood, while the V8-powered C-grade cars have wood trim on the steering wheel.
The business end is at the rear in this kind of car, though. Plenty of space, especially if the front passenger seat is pushed all the way like that. It seems that the Proudia really aimed even higher than the Celsior or the Cima. Especially when painted black and optioned with the old-style fender mirrors, the Proudia looks set to rival the most exclusive JDM cars. All it needed was a bit more legroom.
Not one to be outdone by the likes of the Toyota Century and Nissan President, Mitsubishi stretched the Proudia V8 by 28cm and created the Dignity, Japan’s only factory-made limousine at the time, yours for a cool ¥10 million. The Imperial House has been using one to ferry the Crown Prince for the past 20 years, so I guess the investment was worth it.
I’m not sure why the two cars I found have different hood ornaments, but it seems the more common of the two is this one, which looks suspiciously similar to the Nissan President’s. Well, if you’re going to steal, you might as well steal for the second best.
So much hubris was bound to end in a sea of tears. Mere weeks after the Proudia hit the streets, Mitsubishi inked a deal with DaimlerChrysler: Stuttgart was buying 34% of MMC stock, taking control of the company. But in July, a massive scandal involving Mitsubishi covering up major product defects in their cars and trucks became public. Confidence in Mitsubishi plummeted, as did MMC’s stock price and domestic sales.
The scandal involved a dual management structure for customer complaints and recalls – dating back to the ‘70s. There was one set of forged paperwork available for outside scrutiny, but there was also a parallel documentation system detailing the true extent of safety issues and design flaws flagged by users, which involved a number of publicly-operated truck and bus models, as well as personal cars.
In June 2000, an anonymous whistleblower told the Ministry of Transport where to look – there was a large cache of candid documents hidden in the changing room lockers at MMC headquarters. The scandal snowballed throughout the summer and resulted in the CEO’s resignation and recalls galore, including some Debonairs.
The recalls only started in the summer of 2000. There were a lot of things left to be discovered, and the MoT inspectors took their sweet time distilling the news, as there were a lot of documents to peruse. The scandal refused to go away and Mitsubishi’s sales fell off a cliff – especially their non-kei offerings. Panic set in and MMC announced a major “Turnaround” plan in February 2001 involving plant closures and massive layoffs, both of which were unprecedented for MMC.
Simultaneously, the Proudia and Dignity were quietly taken to a back alley and mercifully shot in the back of the head. Production and sales stopped in March 2001. The numbers were downright shameful: in 15 months of production, just under 1300 Proudias had been made, not counting 59 of the precious V8-only limousines.
It wasn’t quite as dire as it looked, though. As per the FWD Debonairs of yore, the Mitsubishi flagship doubled up as the ultimate Hyundai as well. The Korean version, which also included the limo as shown above, was called Equus, though a few were exported as the Hyundai Centennial.
This parallel universe Proudia shows what could have happened had the car met with reasonable success: the Equus had a mild refresh in 2003, getting bigger taillights and a toothy grille. The Mitsubishi V6, available in 3.0 and 3.5 litre versions, was replaced by a Hyundai-designed unit (the 3.3 and 3.8 litre Lambda V6) in 2005, but the V8 stayed on, though Hyundai did modify the fuel injection system to make it more usable in Korea. The Equus lived until 2009, when Hyundai unveiled an entirely new (and home-grown) second generation. The new Equus ushered Hyundai’s new 5-litre V8, also a home-grown effort. This means that the Mitsubishi 4.5 litre V8 only lived for ten years – and mostly in Korean cars, as very few Proudias were equipped with it.
DaimlerChrysler walked away from their alliance with Mitsubishi in 2004, by which point recalls had affected over 500,000 cars, trucks and buses. There were a few deaths and injuries related to these hushed up design flaws in the early 2000s, leading to the former MMC top brass being tried and convicted for criminal negligence. Actually, Daimler kept Fuso and merged it with their truck branch, but the car side of the business had become positively toxic. The new Colt, launched in late 2002, was a bomb on the JDM and Mitsubishi’s US sales also started to sag by this point.
All in all, the wasted effort than produced the Proudia was but a drop in the ocean of red ink that submerged MMC. The bleeding was halted thanks to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi Corporation and the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi coming to MMC’s aid, but even they had to give up eventually, having spent half a trillion yen propping their ailing and scandal-ridden car-making cousin after the Germans had left. The last straw was the 2016 fuel consumption scandal – a.k.a. Dieselgate version japonaise, in which Mitsubishi played a lead role. MMC had no option but accept being taken over by Nissan, which is where things stand at present.
Even prior to the takeover, Nissan and Mitsubishi worked on a number of projects since the divorce with Daimler, including a new Proudia / Dignity model, introduced in 2012. This time, the big Mitsu cost nothing in development money, as it was just a badge-engineered Nissan Fuga / Infiniti Q70. This second Proudia, now RWD and strictly V6-powered, did not set the market ablaze either and the last ones were sold in early 2017.
The Proudia is probably a decent enough car – the Hyundai version’s relative success proves it. But it was the wrong model at the wrong time for the wrong company and ended up being a catastrophic misfire. I mean, nixing the flagship model after one year and 1300 units sold must be a record-setting bomb for a major carmaker in the modern era. If (or rather when) Mitsubishi finally quit making cars, we could re-run this post and re-title it something like “Proudia: Mitsubishi’s Deadly Sin #1.”
Looks like a Lexus LS with a late 90’s Cadillac Deville front end.
Great post. I’m always amazed at the trajectory of MMC and Hyundai Motors – from a strong and successful Mitsubishi assisting and mentoring Hyundai in the 60/70/80s, to the polar opposite today.
If David Halberstam was still with us, it would make a great The Reckoning 2.0…
And I’d love to have a Gen 1 Debonair – like a five-eighths scale slabside Lincoln.
The history of the automobile business is summed up in one word: consolidation. Already in the 1960s, MITI, the very powerful Japanese trade ministry, was saying that the Japanese car industry needed to consolidate down to two companies, from the 14 or so.
Really, only Toyota and Honda have thrived over the long haul. Nissan foundered very badly and had to be rescued by Renault/Ghosn. And although Mitsubishi may have looked healthier in times past, my reading of their history was that they were always a bit iffy. The “mentoring to Hyundai” was more of a desperate move to sell their technology to whomever would be willing to buy it.
Toyota and Honda have thrived because of the usual reasons companies thrive: a decidedly stronger vision and resultant management.
The 1970s through the 1980s were simply boom times for the Japanese cr industry for a simple reason: they had an intrinsic lead in the technology of building cars efficiently that were more reliable and better built than the other global competitors. But by the 1990s, the rest of the global industry was catching up to that lead, and combined with the collapse of the Japanese bubble, things were never going to be the same again.
And things are only going to get more challenging again with the transition to EVs.
The only market Mitsubishi still does reasonably well in is in SE Asia, and that’s where they are going to concentrate their efforts. But long term, MITI’s 1960s assessment of there not being room for more than two Japanese car manufacturers capable of competing globally is going to come true. Sooner or later. There’s little or no room for marginal players.
At the time MITI made the assessment, Toyota and Nissan were the top dogs, and MITI tried to discourage Honda from entering the car business. Good thing Mr. Honda ignored these all-knowing bureaucrats.
The rear end gjves me strong 1st generation Volvo S80 vibes – both the taillights and the rear quarters.
Whilst the Debonair wasn’t exactly eponymous, even it couldn’t have looked in a kind and fatherly way upon this chunky, failed progeny and say “I’m proud of yer, Proudia.” What an unfortunate tale, and car.
It’s harder to forget about Mitsubishi in these parts, as the Pajeros, the Triton, the ASX and Outlander make them consistently the fourth biggest seller (albeit in a market of a bit over a million cars). Like all Mitsus of many years standing, they are very, very……adequate machines. They are highly recommendable to the many folk who are not interested in cars, and want Toyota-type reliability without the pricetag. In that role, they make an excellent, discounted, long-warrantied new vehicle purchase.
That long-standing role was not one suited to flagshippery and special bits if profit was the motive for Proudia (and maybe it wasn’t, as there’d be little in a 300 a month exclusively-tooled investment). If the role was also/exclusively the creation of a halo machine, well, they go on the saints in the church, not the sweepers, sorry.
I also must say, because I cannot resist, that amongst those Proudia sales, there’s not much Dignity.
Fascinating to hear of Mitsubishis sins at the turn of the century, as I did not know (or don’t remember). Again, from here, they were highly respectable company fully manufacturing cars in Adelaide, and usually third behind Holden and Ford in sales. Given the disintegrations and criminality in head office, no wonder there was no support here and closure as manufacturers by 2007. There’d been direct promises of export models and long-wheelbase versions of the 380 (Galant) that disappeared, leaving the not-great selling local totally unviable.
Fine post, Prof.
I presume the black one is still the preferred chaufmobile for Someone Of Importance given the scrunching of the front passenger seat, as it’s either that or a rear-seat pleb with giraffe legs.
Excellent post, thanks for sharing this history of Mitsu of which I had zero awareness.
Your last photo reminds me a bit of a late model Buick sedan. Here’s a ’17 Verano.
Wow, I *think* the Hyundai version looked familiar but I do not believe I knew of the Mitsu genesis of it. The whole thing’s a wild story overall and perhaps a bit of a harbinger of several more stories of Japanese business problems that revealed themselves since.
I can’t say I dislike the Proudia though, it pretty much fits in with what the rest of the makers were doing (or attempting) in that time frame. For driving (or being driven) around in, it looks comfortable and competitive enough. Of course the intangibles matter too and when those become tangibles like the scandals, well, then…
It’s interesting to note that aside from GM, these were among the few FWD-cars to mount a V8 transversely.
Yup; a fairly small club. Lancia Thema, Taurus SHO gen2, and, ah…
..1995-2002 Lincoln Continental, Volvo S80, XC90. That’s all I can think of!
Northstar Cadillacs/Oldsmobile Aurora
The transverse inline-6 club is even smaller.
Some versions of the Austin Landcrab, some FWD Volvos, and a Daewoo-Suzuki are all I can think of.
Interesting that the 1st generation Debonair looks like a smaller early 60s Lincoln, while the top photo of the black car had me thinking late ’00s Mercury Grand Marquis.
And apparently, on my last trip to Japan in the late 80s the ” M ” cars that I saw and thought were MAZDA 626s or 929s were actually Mitsubishi products.
How unfortunate to go from being the purveyors of near luxury sedans to being the floggers of America’s cheapest sedan.
This is a new one for me. But it does explain the origins of the Equus, which I had never really thought about either.
I assumed this was going to be RWD, but given that it’s FWD, I suspect that the development costs weren’t all that vast. Not that it wasn’t a dud, obviously, but I guss it could have been worse.
“Hubris & Industrial Disaster, good morning; how may I direct your call?”
Easier now than it was 20-25 years ago with all the smoke-belching Mitsu 6G72 3-litre V6s in almost everything Chrysler built…or 25-30 years ago with the rocks-in-a-blender noises from those Mitsu 2.6-litre “Silent (ha) Shaft” fours still sorta running. Though still somewhat harder in Canada where the Mitsubishi Delica has a cult following.
Oh! I hadn’t made that “diamond” connection to the “-dia” part of the name. So okeh, Proud Diamond. What comes before the diamond in Tredia and Cordia? Hey, maybe they shoulda named one Claudia. Claudia could’ve dated Cedric from across town.
Yahbut, the silver car is dingus-equipped. That’s gotta count for somethin’!
…and also looks like someone has stolen the fountain pen from it.
Well, c’mon, show a little humility; stealing from the first-best would be putting on airs!
aWHOOga! What fun. I find this Guardian report, but it’s very sparse on details. There’s a little more detail in this Washington Post piece. And this Shippai Failure Knowledge Database page has some interesting comments on how and why one cluster of safety defect (Mitsu trucks throwing wheels and clutch failures causing fires and severing brake lines) was allowed to happen and continue, while a Japan Times report looks at that same cluster of failures from different angles. But I’m not havin’ any luck (how ’bout you?) finding anything like a full list of the defects and failures stuffed in lockers to pretend they didn’t exist. It surely does look like Japan’s regulatory system was poorly prepared and equipped to deal with anything like this; apparently the assumption was (maybe still is?) that Japan’s honour/shame culture would handle it adequately.
This, too, piques my curiosity; I wonder what changes might be made to a fuel injection system to make it more usable in Korea versus a Japan-spec EFI system.
“This, too, piques my curiosity; I wonder what changes might be made to a fuel injection system to make it more usable in Korea versus a Japan-spec EFI system.” It shuts off north of Parallel 38
“Hubris & Industrial Disaster, good morning; how may I direct your call?”
“Claudia could’ve dated Cedric from across town.”
You ARE having fun today, Daniel! 🙂
The world’s burning down, so I take opportunities for amusement where and when they arise.
Daniel, re: your last comment on fuel injection, as I understand it, the issue was that the Mitsu-made GDI (God-Damned Injection?) system was designed to run on Japanese premium fuel, but this did not agree with the Korean regular that most folks put in their tanks, hence lousy performance and angry CEO customers. Hyundai’s system was made to address this specifically.
For more info about the defects (though by no means a full list) and MMC’s double accounting / documentation system, I recommend the following:
Thanks for the link—I’ll get to readin’!
Gasoline Direct Injection, silly! Ironically enough, Hyundai would later become one of the most prominent purveyors of GDI technology (perhaps to their downfall in terms of reliability) and it’s all Mitsubishi to blame!
Unusual English product names are not unique to JDM cars. JDM beverages score too as the bottle of Pocari Sweat on the front seat shows. Like the car, you can find the same drink in the ROK. Unlike the car, there was no need to rename or otherwise modify the product for Korean tastes.
I remember seeing a Hyundai Equus in Beijing in 2001 and thinking what a sad design it was and the Koreans still had a thing or two to learn, never realizing it actually came from Japan.