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Out of Africa
Mitsubishi breaks out their classic rally machine in Detroit.

T his year we celebrate a century of auto shows held in the backyard of the Big 2.5. Once the personal showcase of domestic automakers, nowadays the venue's influence on the world stage brings a smorgasbord of significant concepts and unveilings hailing anywhere from Stuttgart to Shanghai.

Now too, the media days at NAIAS possess all the subtlety and dignified atmosphere of a circus on fire. As journalists and photographers are herded like Swiss sheep from one elaborately produced press conference to another, the manufacturers throw big-budget spectacles that can include ensemble music acts, celebrity cameos, stuntmen, or all of the above. Ever seen DaimlerChrysler's mustachioed Dr. Z play a bongo? We have, sadly. All the while, the automakers enforce strict embargoes on vehicle images and specs until each one's scheduled pageants, concealing their goods behind curtains, under draped sheets or in secret compartments backstage.

That's how Mitsubishi kept us guessing. We had heard rumors that the new 2008 Lancer would be shown, but the silhouette hidden beneath the white shroud at their stage for two days looked too small to be the next all-wheel-drive rally monster. Would Mitsubishi surprise everyone with a completely new car that somehow eluded various media leaks and rabid spy paparazzi?

When the lights dimmed and Chairman of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Takashi Nishioka took the mic, the cover was whisked off to reveal none other than the 1974 Lancer 1600GSR rally car. Nishioka introduced the '08 Lancers - in both base and uber-mutant Prototype X form - as the spiritual descendants of the underdog machine that kickstarted Mitsubishi's dominance of screaming off-road peels through forest and desert alike. That the announcement came within a day of the 2007 Dakar Rally's launch was icing on the mud cake.

In the late 1960s, Mitsubishi wanted to prove its mettle in the wide world of motorsport. Unlike its domestic rivals such as Toyota and Nissan however, the triple red diamonds eschewed crowded road and circuit competition and focused instead on frame-pounding rallies. They had already campaigned Colts and Galants starting in 1967 and although victories were sporadic, the experience allowed the company to develop a winning formula when the 1973 Lancer debuted in Japan.

A sub-compact sedan, the Lancer looked positively plain-Jane compared to the bewinged demons that would succeed it. The base 1200 came with a 73-hp SOHC four and a four-speed manual to haul its just over 1800 pound mass. A mid-level 1400GL fared slightly better with a 90-hp engine. The top-spec 1600GSR that provided the foundation for the rally racer, however, had 110 horses strapped to a fifth gear, making the car still drivable in modern traffic.

And as it does with modern Evos, Mitsubishi kept the Lancer's race-going and production versions true to one another, unlike, say, a NASCAR Ford Fusion. Differing from the 1600GSR primarily in its modified single overhead cam and freer-flowing headers, the aluminum-topped mill produced an impressive 165hp. Aside from that, a rudimentary roll cage and 13-inch rims shod with off-road tires, the little dirt devil was bone thugs-n-harmony stock. Which, if you think about it, makes it all the more mind-boggling that it downright owned the world's most grueling rallies of the mid-70s.

Straight out of the box in '73, Mitsubishi entered the Lancer in the eighth running of Southern Cross and captured a sweep of the top four places with driver Andrew Cowan at numero uno. But, the Australian rally wasn't part of the official WRC calendar and Mitsu knew that if it wanted to grab the world's attention it would need a win at an FIA-sanctioned event.

Thus, the car on display in Detroit was entered into the East African Safari Rally of 1974. A tortuous, 6000-kilometer five-day trek through the unpaved terrain of Kenya known as the "car-breaker," drivers had to contend with not only flash floods and dust storms, but also the occasional wayward wildebeest. At the hands of Joginder "The Flying Sikh" Singh and David Doig, the Lancer charged straight into a first place finish.

Throughout the mid-70s, various A73 Lancers driven by Singh, Cowan and Kenjiro Shinozuka persisted in racking up numerous first place finishes at Southern Cross, Safari and other historic rallies like Ivory Coast and 1000 Lakes, often taking multiple podium positions and beating out far more powerful Porsche 911s and Lancia Stratos HFs. The Lancer's durability and mastery of the Safari catapulted the car into hallowed circles in Africa where it was bestowed with the nickname "King of Cars." Perhaps the proudest moment came when in 1976, Singh piloted the King to a championship finish while two other Lancers swept the remaining podium positions.

For most Americans at Detroit, this is probably the first they've seen this legend. Here, rallying takes a back seat to everything but F1 and soccer and the Lancer never sold in the US except for the 1977 Dodge Colt and 1976 Lancer Celeste fastback, which read "Plymouth Arrow" on the trunk instead. Inexplicably, the vaunted Lancer moniker didn't even appear in the US until demand from Gran Turismo-playing tuners opened the floodgates in 2002. It quickly ascended to the top performance-car ranks and the 2008 Lancer appears more than capable of carrying on that legacy. In fact, Mitsubishi Motors North America's R&D head Sekiguchi Nobuki mentioned to us that he went to work for the company decades ago precisely because of his admiration for the A73.

Other notable cars at NAIAS included the Accord Coupe concept that foreshadows the look of the 8th generation Honda staple which first appeared in 1976 and remains one of the longest continuously selling Japanese nameplates in the US. Toyota disclosed their 400-hp FT-HS hybrid sports car, which many are calling the next Supra, suggesting a rebirth of the storied name that debuted as part of the Celica lineup in 1979. We aren't so sure about this claim but whatever it is, it's ushering in a new direction in design with its crisp, origami-esque edges and Minority Report styling. Still, though head designer Erwin Lui assured us this was not an intentional homage, the retractable roof's lengthwise channel harkens back to a similar shape in the 1967 2000GT.

In any event, it's great to see manufacturers embracing their heritage. Even Mitsubishi, whose late 1981 arrival as a brand - discounting the earlier cars sold as Dodges and Plymouths - is now drawing on its past. We won't hold our breaths for a 1917 Mitsubishi Model A to show up stateside any time soon, but since the 1936 PX-33 prototype, the first Japanese car to sport all-wheel-drive, did display last year in Paris for the introduction of the new Pajero, so you never know. end

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