Shades of future past: a pair of Mitsubishi GTOs
With Mitsubishi products focused currently on practical rather than performance offerings, enthusiasts must celebrate the marque’s high points by looking to past offerings. We detail the GTO, the first sports coupe offered by the now Nissan-owned manufacturer
The demise of the Lancer Evolution X signalled the end of a decorated period in automotive history. For the brand with the three diamonds shining on the grille, the ‘Evo’s’ swansong signed off the marque’s involvement with the production of enthusiast-focused vehicles. If we’re honest, it ended with the IX, and the X merely signalled the demise. In its wake, the end of the Evo left more than a few puzzled expressions on the faces of the brand’s devotees.
It’s with the Evolution series of Lancer sedans that Mitsubishi fortified its sporting intent. The Evolution genome can trace its roots to the Galant VR4 of the late 1980s, the catalyst for a four-wheel drive, DOHC intercooled turbo rallying career that spanned almost 20 years.
With the Evo’s success, it’s easy to forget Mitsubishi’s other forays into sporting vehicles. In the 1980s, turbocharging was a feature of damn near every vehicle in the range. Even pedestrian models like the Mirage and Sigma were given a boosted performance injection. On the flipside, so too dedicated sports variants like the Starion, a capable 2+2 GT car powered by turbocharged four-cylinder engines.
But winding the clock right back to the very early 1970s, Mitsubishi entered the sports coupe market with a model that continues to retain a cult following. The story of the Colt Galant GTO begins with the A50 chassis Colt Galant, Mitsubishi’s mid-sized sedan of the late 1960s.
The Galant proved a sales success. Crisp, “dyna-wedge” styling cues born of supposed aerodynamic efficiency endowed the little sedan with fresh, clean looks, and it was lapped up by the Japanese buying public. A range of four-cylinder powerplants between 1.3- and 1.7-litres slotted neatly between the struts and offered reasonable performance. For Kiwis, the Colt Galant was our first real taste of Mitsubishi; Todd Motors began local assembly of the Colt 16L coupe in 1973.
On the back of the domestic market success, Mitsubishi debuted the Galant GTX-1 at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1969. With lines penned by Hiroaki Kamisago, the GTO exhibited an American influence which came to dominate the Japanese motor industry of the time. Notably the flowing waistline with a sharp kick over the rear quarter, the truncated tail and the tapered, pillarless side opening echoed American muscle. Given Kamisago-san’s design education in the United States, it’s little wonder the GTO mimicked the styling exemplified by the “pony car” craze across the Pacific.
In 1970 the GTO became available to the public, right on time to challenge fellow Japanese manufacturer Toyota, with the freshly minted A20 series Celica, Nissan, with their proven Bluebird SSS coupe, and Mazda with the rotary-motivated Capella coupe. It was the beginning of a golden age for Japanese motoring.
Three versions of the 1600cc GTO were initially available, from the single carb M1 variant right up to the MR version, packing a 125bhp twin-cam four with a brace of Mikuni-Solex sidedrafts hanging off the side. While the Mitsubishi competition arm (Colt Speed) harboured an intention for the GTO to compete among the RX3s, Celicas and Skylines on the JCCA touring circuit, this never happened. The GTO did find a brief home on gravel, with Japanese Alpine Rally success perhaps offering a glimpse into a rallying future for the company.
While the GTO never saw the export proliferation of many of its compatriot vehicles, New Zealand received the greatest number of the lithe coupes outside of Japan. In 1972 the first completely built up (CBU) units were running on Kiwi roads with the 1.6-litre “Saturn” engine, before quickly being superseded by the GTO 2000.
The 2.0-litre 4G52 “Astron” engine offered a handy 110bhp to the local buyer, running for a couple of years before the late 1975 cars received the updated Astron 80 variant, employing Mitsubishi’s famed balance shafts. Spec levels on Kiwi shores saw you buying either a GS, or the sportier GSR. It was sportier in name and trim only however. The car featured a deep front air dam, sports-trimmed interior, wheel arch flares and of course badging that ensured the casual onlooker knew you’d made an extra splurge at the dealership.
Then, in 1975 the GTO vanished from our showrooms, replaced by the unfairly maligned Celeste coupe, a car the classic jury is still deliberating over.
For West Auckland-based research engineer, David Lee, the Colt Galant GTO became the object of automotive immersion. With two of the classic coupes in his possession, each differing in their approach, the infatuation was ignited back in 1988.
Attracted by the aesthetic and the relative performance on offer, David tracked down a red 1973 GS model. By his own admission, the car had endured a tough life, showing signs of general neglect. Like any Japanese car of the era it was tainted by rust. And the Astron engine had previously been cooked, with a warped head causing some strife.
Nevertheless, David’s first GTO (and, incidentally, his first-ever car) provided 11 years of dependable service, and over 100,000 daily driven miles. The car was never modified for performance. David explains it was simply maintained and kept on the road. “I replaced the doors… the guards and fixed as much rust as possible, then repainted it. The engine was eventually replaced by an Astron 80 with the balance shafts, which in retrospect was detrimental to performance.”
The GTO bug bit. With a PhD under his belt and free of student debt David got a little more serious with his GTO habit, scouring the classifieds for a new challenge. Finding specimens that were more iron-oxide than steel became the norm, until a tip-off from a GTO owners club member lead him to the blue 1975 Colt GTO GS 2000 he still owns to this day.
The bog-standard condition of the GTO exhibits a perfectly weathered visual with the light patina only a well maintained original car can pull off. Though bought 12 years ago, the condition remains the same, with a replacement exhaust the lone deviation from stock. Under the bonnet is a 2.0-litre Astron 4G52 engine, best described as having a focus on torque rather than outright power. In the cabin, it’s nothing but black and it shows off the seventies-Japanese trait of embossing just about every vinyl surface with a pattern or bespoke logo.
While the stock GTO offers an ideal seventies Japan motoring experience, the urge to tinker kicked in when David bought a home with a bigger garage. This prompted the purchase of a project GTO, now resplendent in the ocean light blue hue taken from a Suzuki Swift catalogue.
The agenda was a twin-cam 4G63 conversion, something David had wanted to transplant into a GTO ever since the engine’s introduction in the E39A Galant of 1988. In fact, the contemporary advertising for the Galant featured an old GTO with the implication the newer car had achieved similar standing. Only two years after nabbing the ’75 GS, David soon tracked down an engine-less 1976 example. The goal? “Go harder, stop faster, corner flatter and keep it reliable and straightforward to work on.”
Bolting the later model engine into the GTO was a task David describes as “80 per cent easy.” The original Astron 80 2-litre was also a member of the “4G” engine family, meaning the originally front-wheel drive 4G63 bolted in with a minimum of fuss to the original crossmember using engine mounts from a Starion. The ancillaries proved a tougher task. To clear the firewall, comprehensive modification to the water flow through the head was required, with the exit now at the front. Additionally, the cam and crank angle sensors had to be relocated to the front of the engine using a combo of Kiggly racing and OEM Mitsubishi RVR parts.
David reckons the power delivery is smoother, and revvier than ever. With compression of 10.5:1, deleted balance shafts, Kelford 264-degree cams timed with AEM pulleys, and a Link G4 ECU, the engine produces 140bhp at the wheels with a fat torque curve peaking at 3500rpm. It’s ideal for retaining a retro feel with the bonus of modern driveability. Outwardly the GTO even sounds a little bit 70’s.
Suspension is much improved. Custom adjustable coilovers front and rear upgrade the leaf springs to keep the GTO on the road. BMW E30 3 Series brakes up front pull up the car better than ever, but it’s the exterior that is the most striking.
David purchased the GTO in a non-factory colour, allowing the freedom to choose. Following a bare metal strip down, the Suzuki blue was applied and you’d be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t from the period. A home-fabricated front air dam inspired by the top-spec GSR along with GSR wheel arch flares adorn the bodywork, the latter an addition forced by a pair of replacement GSR-spec front guards. Beneath the arches, a set of retro-cool Work Equip 03 wheels measuring a 15x7 and 15x7.5-inch front to rear are a nod to the Japanese “Kyusha” way of life. Little details include early-model GTO C-pillar vents that tie in with the classic rear louvre, and the GTO MR version-inspired side stripe.
Of late, David explains quite a few GTOs are starting to reappear from garages and sheds across the country, keeping the enthusiasts’ dream alive. Also, he credits the dissipation of the “Jap Crap” stigma finally allowing Japanese cars of the past to be appreciated as classics by the wider community.
As for Mitsubishi and their scope for enthusiast vehicles, David answered one parting question. “It’s sad how far Mitsubishi has fallen, and from an enthusiast’s viewpoint it looks terminal. There’s always hope, even if it’s small and Mitsubishi has pulled rabbits from the hat in the past.” With the Nissan-Renault alliance ownership still in its early days who knows what the future holds. But for a legion of past three-diamond faithful a return to prominence on the performance stage would be more than welcome.