Curbside Classic: 1974-78 Mitsubishi Colt T120/Delica – A Missing Chapter?

Is this a missing chapter on CC’s Colt Chronicles? Or just a PR marketing gimmick where the Colt brand was slapped to all of Mitsubishi’s imports? Having no personal stakes on the matter, let’s go over the evidence and you be the judge.

This little van definitely adds to our chronicles in Japanese utilitarian transport. Basic and sturdy from conception, for years these somewhat rudimentary vehicles were the mainstay of mobility in many undeveloped nations. While Japan’s makes made slow inroads into Western markets, their riches started in Asian, African and Latin markets with offerings such as these.

In its native market, the Colt van went by Delica, a result of Delivery + Car = Delica. Now, cute thinking aside, I’ve to admit it seems a rather fitting name, as the tiny van’s footprint seems rather carlike.

In Japan’s postwar years, Mitsubishi gained steady hold in the commercial transport market, providing a small array of utilitarian vehicles to that nation’s recovering economy. This tradition came partly due to early contracts assembling Jeeps and Henry Js. By 1960, commercial connotations aside, the maker took on Japan’s national car project (an effort by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry) by creating the Mitsubishi 500, a tiny sedan that sold in modest numbers.

Wait a minute, did I say Mitsubishi? I meant to say, Mitsubishis, as the Japanese conglomerate was split up during the occupation years. The resulting Mitsubishis took to automotive endeavors separately, and by 1964, reconvened again into one entity as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, prepping to take on Nissan and Toyota. Not long after, the 500 gave rise to the Colt 1100 in ’65 (good luck finding one outside of Japan), just in time for Japan’s emerging personal car market.

Our Delivery-Car enters the picture here. Using the Colt’s OHV 1100cc engine, the little van was conceived as a multipurpose cab-over truck, launched in 1968 after a short 15 month gestation. Making use of rather conventional engineering, the vehicle aimed to serviceability and sturdy reliability; placing the body over a reinforced steel frame, the cab-over format providing good room within its tiny dimensions, and the three row upfront seating being a rather novel concept in the local market. Load capacity was 600kg, which gave it a 20% advantage over competing offerings (rivals had a 500kg load).

With these attributes the Delica became one of Mitsubishi’s main models in the forthcoming years. Variations and improvements didn’t take long to materialize; a truck version came out in ’69 and a Coach (9 seat) not long after. In ’71, Mitsu’s 1378cc Neptune engine was offered, and in ’78 the 1597cc Saturn found in the Galant’s. Load capacity increased to 750kg. In ’72, taking some cues from VW’s Westfalia, an exotic Camping Van was launched with which to enjoy Mount Fuji’s surrounding grounds.

In ’74, the model’s original googly face got a makeover, adopting a more serious front, and is where our Colt T120 enters. Now, this was not the type of vehicle I paid much attention to in my childhood, since utilitarian vehicles are just thus. Lacking bragging rights in speed and/or exorbitant cost, my little-self discarded this vehicle’s existence out of mind. Only some dormant synapses vaguely recalled its shape when I came across it. I’d like to think this was not solely a kid dilemma, for these basic Japanese vehicles just got used up and tossed away in general.

Locally, these Colts served similar purposes to those in their native country; some performed small business deliveries, and others were little family haulers. Unlike Nissan’s Vanette or Toyota’s LiteAce, in our nation the Colt didn’t make it to public transport, thus sticking closer to its original intent.

No idea if that’s the case in South East Asia and Indonesia, where apparently the Colt was a sales success and a standard bearer for its segment. Even more so than Nissan’s Vanette, the Colt seems to have a strong following in Indonesia, with proud happy owners posting videos online. The whole thing may seem somewhat baffling to us spoiled westerners; then again, VW Beetle owners have a similar spirit and those are neither fast nor comfortable, so I better leave it there.

I had just dropped off a friend home when this Colt’s sight came into view, parked in front of a salvage and recycling shop. It didn’t take long for the shop’s workers to tell me the little van was on sale and allowed me to shoot with ease. As I explored the vehicle, it felt tinny and rather plain, a reminder of how far basic transport has changed (or ceased to exist altogether?). Not that the manufacture was crude, but it was certainly unassuming and straightforward. As the interior was in quite a disarray, the amount of pieces used for assembly was rather easy to make out just by eye. Some of the ‘engineering,’ meaning the location of nonessential mechanical bits, felt a bit improvised; much in the spirit of parts-bin engineering where stock pieces are regurgitated into new functions.

Dimensions were very narrow, and a reminder that people in Japan (and Central America) used to be shorter and lighter. Indonesians may be able to fit the factory-recommended 9 bodies and not mind, but those from Upper Sandusky might die of asphyxiation if such a thing was attempted. And if you wonder, the motorcycle helmet was not original equipment, though it may come in handy.

The Delica’s second generation came out in ’79, a few years before North America’s minivan craze. Unlike Nissan, Mitsubishi managed to control its worst impulses and waited until their revised van’s 3rd generation before attempting luck in the US. The non-creatively renamed Van/Wagon didn’t set any sales charts on fire, but apparently Mitsu was ok with whatever nickels it was collecting from the effort.

So, is this a true Colt? It has the heart of a Colt, and in Indonesia it’s known as nothing but. True Colt? No Colt? It may not be an obligatory entry on the Colt Chronicles, but it does make a nice addendum. Not all Colts are raised the same, and some, though distant relatives, share quite a bit of genealogy.

More on Japanese vans:

Curbside Classic: Mitsubishi Express – The White Boxy Cochroach

A Gallery of Curside Toyota Vans: The (Former) Official Van of Eugene

Curbside Classic: Nissan Cherry Vanette C120

Curbside Classic: 1987 Nissan Van – How Did This Turkey Escape the Crusher?