In the third of a series, JNC is teaming up with our friends at Petrolicious to launch simultaneously a video and an article about historically significant Japanese cars. Today’s is special because the featured car belongs to JNC contributor and admin Matt De Mangos. Be sure to check out the excellent Petrolicious and their beautiful short films about vintage cars.
Marques like Nissan and Toyota get most of the attention thrown at Japanese classics these days, but let’s not forget about Mitsubishi. The automaker, known for turbocharged, rally-bred performance machines, has been building enthusiast-oriented sport coupes just as long as any of them, starting with the Colt Galant GTO.
Like its rivals, Mitsubishi was planning a world-class grand tourer as early as 1964 with the Colt Sport concept. Unlike its rivals though, and perhaps wisely, it never put the high-end GT into production. It probably would have lost money on every one, and as the world proved with the Toyota 2000GT, the climate simply wasn’t right for such car.
By 1969, after the success of the Colt Galant and an apparent golden age on the horizon, Mitsubishi execs gave the company’s first hardtop 2+2 variant, despite the high costs and low sales projections. They revived the idea of a flagship, debuting a stylish coupe at that year’s Tokyo Motor Show. Based on its Colt Galant sedan, the body was updated with contemporary styling trends. This time, the car would be built primarily for the Japanese market, which had really come into its own with an unquenchable thirst for lightweight performance cars.
A year later, the production Colt Galant GTO was unveiled at the 1970 show, further refining the form into an sinister little street fighter. Mitsubishi called it a “dyna-wedge” shape thanks to its crisp contours and a distinct lack of curves. A menacing reverse-angle nose and split grille inspired subsequent Galant designs well into the 2000s. Perhaps most noteworthy, though, was a unique upturned ducktail which prompted the marketing department to exuberantly refer to the GTO as the “Hip-Up Coupé!” in its advertising.
Among the Galant GTO’s motorist-friendly touches were what Mitsubishi called a “flight cockpit” dashboard, with a center console canted towards the driver with no fewer than eight instrument gauges. A sporty three-spoke steering wheel was standard, as was a 4-speed (later upgraded to 5-speed) manual transmission. Originally, designers wanted to match the interior trim to the body color, but it was deemed too costly.
The GTO was aimed squarely at a new segment of driver-oriented “specialty cars” like the Isuzu 117 Coupe, Nissan Silvia, and what would become its biggest competitor, the Toyota Celica. Toyota, in fact, even countered few years later with the Celica Liftback, featuring almost an exact replica of the GTO’s back half (or at least the Japanese motoring press seemed to think so at the time).
Mitsubishi began taking orders straight from the floor of the 1970 Tokyo Motor Show. It’s important to note, however, that its full name is Colt Galant GTO, with “Colt” being the make, not “Mitsubishi.” In fact, no Mitsubishi markings whatsoever appear anywhere on the car, except for a tiny triple-diamond logo on the VIN plate.
The Galant GTO’s initials, of course, stood for Gran Turismo Omologato. Like the Ferraris and Pontiacs of the same name, it was Italian for “Grand Touring Homologation,” meaning street-legal race cars built so their racing counterparts could qualify in leagues that forbid one-off purpose-built cars.
For the top-spec GTO, Mitsubishi introduced in December 1970 the MR, which stood for “Motorsports and Rally.” Under the hood was a 1.6-liter DOHC four fitted with a Solex twin-choke carb good for 125PS at 6800 rpm. Beneath a valve cover slathered in lustrous gold paint was Mitsubishi’s first mass-produced twin-cam head mounted to the company’s evergreen Saturn block. Only around 835 were built before the MR was discontinued in 1972, making them extremely rare.
Despite its name, though, the only record of an official factory racing effort at the 1972 Southern Cross Rally, in which two Galant GTOs were entered. So what happened?
A clue can be found in the Galant GTO R73-X concept that Mitsubishi unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show in the fall of 1972. Under its hood was a real race motor — the 280PS, 16-valve DOHC inline-four from the Colt F2000 open-wheel racer that took first at the 1971 Japan Grand Prix.
This was the same Tokyo Motor Show at which Nissan debuted the kenmeri Skyline GT-R in race guise and the number 73 incorporated in its livery. Extrapolating from common Japanese naming conventions of the era, it was almost certain that Mitsubishi intended the R73-X to hint at an experimental race car to compete in 1973. However, as students of history will note, the OPEC oil crisis happened instead, forcing Nissan and Mitsubishi to can their motorsports plans.
Before that happened, though, in January 1973, Mitsubishi introduced a new top-of-the-line Galant GTO GS-R, or “Grand Sports and Rally.” This is the model JNC‘s own Matt De Mangos owns and spent eight years restoring. In the process, Matt’s made some discoveries, like the fact that the 5-speed transmission is unnecessarily beefy, as if they expected to mate a more powerful engine to it. Rather than the R73-X’s prohibitively expensive mill, however, GS-R models came equipped with a 125PS single-cam 2.0-liter Astron four.
Matt’s car is a rare export model, which Mitsubishi sold in select right-hand-drive countries. As such, it has a few unique bits not found on Japanese-spec cars. For example, the flares and front valance are factory bits, but in Japan they were available only from the Coltspeed catalog, Mitsubishi’s equivalent of TRD or NISMO. What’s even more peculiar is the fact that the body panels have completely different stampings to accommodate the factory flares. It appears that Mitsubishi wanted to give the export models a little something extra.
Due to its proportions, the Galant GTO looks deceptively large. In fact, its wheelbase is about the same as that of a Datsun 510. Though it lacks the 510’s independent rear suspension, opting instead for a live axle with leaf springs, the overall feeling is similar due to its size and weight, just under 2,200 pounds. It’s a blast to drive in the twisties, its rally car aspirations baked in to the handling.
Despite the fact that Mitsubishi is a massive company with businesses in everything from banking to ships, Mitsubishi Motors itself is tiny compared to other Japanese automakers. Mitsubishi built about 96,000 Galant GTOs, compared to the approximately 1.1 million Celicas Toyota made. Today, an estimated 500 are left. A couple thousand were produced in Matt’s configuration — GS-R drivetrain with factory flares and aero — but today that number is only about a dozen, making them perhaps the rarest Galant GTOs of them all.