1971 Dodge Colt image: BAT.com
(first posted 2/17/2014) Over the course of this week or so, we’re going to chronicle the rather complex story of the Dodge Colt. The name “Colt” is much more than just a series of Mitsubishis branded as Dodges; it’s essentially a brand of its own, somewhat comparable to the GEO brand, and more. Not only were a wide variety of Mitsubishis sold under the Colt brand, but there were also Plymouth Colts, in Europe there were Colt dealerships, and Mitsubishi’s UK distributor was called Colt Cars Co. And Mitsubishi used the name on its own cars, starting with its very first, and now again, with its Colt subcompact.
For our CC Dodge Colt series, we’re going to feature various cars sold as Colts in the US, one per day, but we’ll try to include all of their aliases too. But if we happen to miss something, don’t be surprised; Colts are horses of many colors.
The Colt arrived at US Dodge dealers in 1971, as a result of Chrysler’s pioneering investment in Misubishi Motors. The Mitsubishi history entry at Wikipedia suggests that Tomio Kubo, MMC’s President, initiated the alliance with Chrysler, which led to a 15% ownership stake (later 20%). This was years before Ford or GM invested in Japanese automakers, and in 1971, the Japanese invasion was still in its relatively early years. Was Chrysler prescient, or just desperate?
Chrysler was in a pickle for 1971, as it had been known for some years that GM and Ford would be launching their VW-killers that year (Chevy Vega, Ford Pinto), and they had nothing comparable with which to compete. The subcompact market was hot, and Toyota and Datsun were already climbing the charts; the Corolla jumped to the #2 import sales spot by 1969, in only its second year.
Chrysler decided to hedge their bets, and import two sub-compacts for the epic battle, and two rather similar ones in size and price. In addition to the Colt, Plymouth dealers were bestowed with the Cricket, a Hillman Avenger by any other name, and of course built by Chrysler’s own UK division (Rootes).
And just to complicate things further, Chrysler was already selling the excellent FWD Simca 1204 (Simca 1100) in the US, by far the most advanced small car available just about anywhere, and the runner-up in C/D’s 1971 small car comparison. In the early seventies, Chrysler had serious ambitions in becoming a major global player, which all collapsed with their near-death in 1979. So although it may have seemed curious that Chrysler would jump into bed with Mitsubishi at a time when it had two major European divisions, it turned out to be a smart move.
By 1971, the dollar was in serious decline against the European currencies, making imports expensive. And both the Rootes and Simca cars were not really up to the demands of typical American driving standards: high annual mileage and minimal maintenance.
The Plymouth Cricket quickly turned into a disaster. The Avenger was a typical old-school RWD compact, and Hillmans had enjoyed a reputation for perhaps better than average durability in its home country. But for whatever reasons, the Cricket utterly croaked in the US, and almost instantly. I will offer a prize to anyone who can shoot a genuine CC Cricket, as I haven’t seen one in many decades.
And just to confuse matters, the Dodge (Mitsubishi) Colt was sold as the Plymouth Cricket in Canada, after the Avenger was dropped there in 1973. After a couple of years, it too became a Dodge Colt.
Admittedly, I haven’t found a gen1 Colt to shoot either, but I saw them around not that long ago, especially in California. Undoubtedly, they were as salt-soluble as many early Japanese cars, but their mechanical integrity was never impugned, especially compared to the fragile Cricket.
The 1597cc SOHC four was the first in a line of Saturn-family fours from Mitsubishi, and featured a cross-flow head for better than average breathing. Initially it was rated at 100 (gross) hp, later revised to 83 (net) hp (US versions). The GSR version (not available in the US), had twin carbs and a 110 hp rating (not sure by which standard).
By way of comparison, the Cricket’s 1498cc push rod four made all of 70 (gross) hp in 1971, and then was rated at 55 (net) hp for ’72 and ’73. In other words, 30% less power for the exact same price; just one reason the Cricket got stepped on by the Colt.
The Mitsubishi Saturn four was very amenable to performance mods, and Colts soon found themselves in the hands of rally drivers: The Evo’s predecessor.
Sadly, Dodge (or Mitsubishi) chose not to import the hardtop coupe of the Galant family, modestly named Colt Galant GTO. It was well endowed just about every muscle car cliche possible, and even had a very Pontiac-esque split grille. Undoubtedly, if they had brought it over, the name would have had to change. The GTO was available with the Saturn 1600 engine in three levels of tune; with the 125 hp MR at the top. After 1972, the GTO was powered by the larger 2000cc Astron engines. The GTO was only built in RHD versions, and not exported in any significant numbers. It was succeeded by the rather tamer Lambda/Sapporo, which was sold as both a Dodge (Challenger) and as the Plymouth Sapporo in the US. (CC here).
The Colt’s interior was typical for the times, and would be hard to distinguish from a comparable Toyota or Datsun.
Based on a Google image search, the number of gen1 Colts still out there is modest. In addition to the pristine green one featured at BAT, there’s a fair number at CarDomain; some half dozen or so for each of the three years. Coupes seem to be totally predominant, as its hardtop styling was attractive, and still is.
Most seem to have been rescued and fixed up by Mitsubishi enthusiasts. Undoubtedly, upgrading with later Mitsu engines and drive train components is fairly easy, give how long their RWD platforms were built.
The first Dodge Colt solved a crucial problem for Chrysler on the short term. Eventually, Chrysler’s own Omni-Horizon twins would largely negate the need for the Colt, but the name soldiered on for quite a bit longer. And the Dodge connection helped established a beachhead for Mitsubishi, which it later parleyed into its own brand of cars in the US. Of course, that’s turned into a rough road in more recent years, but during the seventies, Mitsubishi was a rising star, thanks to its Pentastar connection.