One could forgive a first-gen. Dodge Lancer (Colt) for suffering from some form of identity crisis. According to Wikipedia, at least ten monikers were used to sell the model all over the world. And when as a child I saw this generation of the Lancer sold as a Dodge, I knew that something was askew. No Dodge I knew would ever look like a Lancer. But lacking car magazines at 5 years old, and with Mitsubishi being an erratic player, it took me years to sort it all out.
Not that selling a model with different names is that unusual. Particularly when it comes to Mitsubishi, which followed the opposite of Toyota’s trajectory. The latter, carefully built model names with world recognition. Corolla, Yaris, Camry; all model names we’re familiar with. Meanwhile, in the case of Mitsubishi, Lancer is probably its better-known nameplate. Not thanks to Mitsubishi, who seems to have pushed the nameplate only after car-folk became aware of the Lancer EVO through video games and the web (at least, that’s my theory).
So what we have here is an early 1973-76 Mitsubishi Lancer A70, sold in Central America as the Dodge Lancer. A model that in its native Japan was a replacement of sorts for its defunct Colt 1200.
Now, let’s not confuse the Colt 1200 with the Colts sold in the US. Mitsu’s original Colt was one of the company’s first passenger vehicles sold in Japan (1965 Colt above). After a run from 1960-70, the compact’s nameplate was dropped when the larger Colt Galant arrived in 1969. The Galant, was the Colt that arrived stateside in 1971.
Then, for some reason, no immediate replacement for the original Colt arrived until the Lancer appeared in 1973. The odd lapsus was likely the result of Mitsubishi’s operations being consolidated throughout the ’60s.
As for the Lancer itself, Mitsubishi’s engineers were as good as any in Japan. The model was a well-put-together, well-engineered, well-assembled, and long-lasting product. It used the classic rear-wheel drive layout, with a rather standard chassis; McPhersons up front, and leaf-sprung live axle in the back. Two engine families were found under the hood; in the early days either a 1.2L Neptune 4G or a 1.4 the Saturn 4G. As the years accrued, further displacements appeared, covering a range from 1.1L to 2.0L.
The Lancer’s hottest version was the 160o GSR, powered by Mitsu’s 1.6 4G mill. It provided 108bhp and made for a lively performance. Steering was light and responsive, and the front disc brakes provided non-fade stopping. Handling, when pushed, was as good as any small rear-wheel drive Japanese car. Meaning, it could be fun for whoever was pushing the car hard.
The whole setup may sound mundane, but the Lancer has quite a reputation as a rally machine. In Japanese sites, the model is credited for starting Mitsu’s “Golden Rally Era,” winning the Safari Rally of 1974 and claiming all three top positions in 1976.
For the car’s category, the interior was generally well-appointed. If a tad generic. About which…
Mitsubishi’s engineers may have been as good as any. But their management and marketing was a different matter, along with their stylists. Looks wise, the Lancer was an inoffensive and anodyne model. Quite the generic Japanese-looking car. I remember seeing these on El Salvador’s roads as a child and wondering, somewhat annoyed: Who exactly builds that?
And well, Mitsu never quite created much of a styling language. It wasn’t easy to associate these with the later Mirages, Eclipses and whatever else that eventually made up the company’s output.
In late 1977, a slightly updated version of the Lancer arrived in the States as the Dodge Colt. Not to be confused with the better-known Dodge Colt/Plymouth Champ, AKA Mitsubishi Mirage, also sold stateside starting in 1978.
And don’t worry too much if you can’t quite follow it all. Tracking Colts is a hard thing to do.
No one has been able to explain why Mitsubishi and Chrysler waited so long to sell the no-longer fresh Lancer in the US. As far as I’ve seen, the ‘Lancer’ Colt doesn’t even appear in Dodge brochures of the period. Such an obscure placing probably didn’t please Mitsubishi. Or not. It’s impossible to tell.
But in retrospect, Mitsubishi’s and Chrysler’s marriage of convenience appears to have been rather inconvenient throughout most of its history.
If we recap, Mitsubishi was quite glad with itself when it partnered with Chrysler in 1971. The trouble was, there were unspoken interests in that alliance from the get-go.
Alliances work best when the involved players grasp the pecking order in the relationship, or have some form of respect for each other. None of which seems to have lasted long or existed at all in the case of Mitsu and Chrysler.
Mitsu saw the partnership as a way to leapfrog Toyota and Datsun. Skip the hard work, access Chrysler’s dealer network, and use it as a springboard to take over the world. Sort of like the new recruit in the gang, just waiting to take over the whole operation.
Meanwhile, what Chrysler wanted was… Actually, I can’t fathom what it wanted. Other than trying to be a worldwide player like GM and Ford.
But well, it got a purveyor of reliable compacts just when it needed it. And also, did Chrysler ever back away from getting involved with brands to mismanage?
Talking about mismanaged brands, while Dodge got the Lancer, Plymouth got the Lancer Celeste. For once, Plymouth came out on top. The model was a coupé hatchback version of the Lancer, and rather sharp-looking. It sold as the Plymouth Arrow and introduced US drivers to balance shafts. Proof that Mitsu’s engineers were nothing to scoff at.
Back to our find. These Lancers were not necessarily common in Central America, but not rare either. They certainly got quite a few customers back in the ’70s. Mitsubishi clearly got a few nickels from the locals. What they didn’t get was any recognition. It took years before anyone over here knew what a Mitsubishi was.
The grille nostrils are the kind of fuzzy detailing common to Japanese cars of this period. Luckily, there aren’t many such flourishes to ruin the car overall. Of course, the rest is rather plain and somewhat generic.
But wait, what’s that badge on the hood of this Lancer?
What’s this Colt badge doing over here? Is this a Lancer or a Colt? How hard are those Colt genes to shake off?
I had been looking for one of these Lancers for a long time, hoping to find the right one to post here at CC. I didn’t want a clean pristine example (there aren’t any), but I also didn’t want the monstrosities most of these have become.
Instead, I wished to encounter one that at least resembled what it once was. With a good amount of wear too. A Curbside Classic, in other words.
So, I finally found it on this gray one, and now I feel that my mission is done.
I have been talking about how generic these were and how muddled its branding was. But regardless of these cars being Dodge-Chrysler-Plymouth-Lancer-Valiant-Colt-Arrows (And there’s more!), the truth is that I remember the model clearly from my childhood. So forgettable, it wasn’t at all.