Dreams and Sawzalls: How the Mitsubishi 3000GT Spyder was made

The Mitsubishi 3000GT Spyder was the first modern car to offer a power folding hardtop convertible roof. The option was a big deal in 1995, adding anywhere from $22,000, or the price of a new Acura Integra, to the cost of a fixed-head 3000GT. That seems astronomical (and it was), but it makes a bit more sense when you see the amount of work that it took to make these cars.

Prior to the 3000GT Spyder, the only car to offer a power hardtop convertible was the 1957 Ford Skyliner, but that system wasn’t that complex. It basically swallowed the whole roof, like a sideways L, into a cavernous rear-hinged trunk the size of a hot tub. To understand just how trick the Spyder’s roof was, check out this Motorweek review from September 1995.

This is what happened when you pushed a single switch on the center console:

  • 1. Both side windows roll down.
  • 2. The rear-hinged deck opens.
  • 3. The tonneau seal folds out from the underside of the deck.
  • 4. The top separates from the A-pillars and windshield support hoop.
  • 5. The rear quarter windows retract into the folding top.
  • 6. The top folds in half.
  • 7. The f0lded top retracts into the trunk.
  • 8. The deck closes.

Total time: 35 seconds. All of this was accomplished, says Motorweek, with four electric motors, four hydraulic actuators, and a 64-kilobite computer. That’s 0.000025 percent of the memory of an iPhone 11.

All 3000GT Spyders were built by American Sunroof Company, which was responsible for many a convertible conversion in the 80s and 90s. Everything from the Pontiac Firebird to the Porsche 944 droptop was built at its Long Beach, California shop. In 1995 Motorweek was given a tour of the facility by a Mitsubishi spokesperson with the absolutely brilliant name of Joe Jacuzzi (who may have had a cousin working for Isuzu).

The 3000GT Spyders started life at the factory alongside 3000GT coupes, but rolled off the assembly line with beefier springs and dampers to compensate for the weight. They never received a rear hatch or quarter windows, since those would have to be removed anyway. For the long journey across the Pacific, they were shipped with giant plastic covers to protect the interiors.

Once they arrived at ASC, the doors were removed, wrapped in giant protective bags, while the remaining panels were masked off. Techs with plasma cutters then used a steel template to cut off the rocker panels so they could slide a box frame reinforcement into each side and weld them in, adding 110 pounds to the chassis.

Next, all interior trim aft of the dash was removed to make way for the sawzalls slicing off the roof, B-, and C-pillars. Shear plates were then welded behind front and rear fenders, reinforcements tacked onto the windshield hoop and cowl, and a massive U-shaped support structure added between the rear strut towers. Everything was sprayed with a matte black rust-resistant coating not unlike a slightly finer Rhino-liner.

The top was manufactured by ASC out of lightweight steel and weighed 98 pounds. It was installed along with the aforementioned computer, motors, actuators, and a web of cables and hydraulic lines. With the interior replaced and affected body panels presumably paint-matched, ASC would test the cars for leaks and rigidity. The whole process took 12.5 hours.

In total, all the equipment and reinforcements increased the curb weight by 342 pounds. For a VR-4 Spyder, that meant a portly 4,123-pound curb weight, but Motorweek was still able to wring out a 0-60 time of just 5.4 seconds. A non-Spyder VR-4 was tested at a supercar-esque 4.8 seconds.

The cost of a fully-loaded VR-4 Spyder was $68,766, a number that seems positively insane in 1995. It’s even crazier when you consider that it’s the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $117,400 today. Can you imagine paying six figures for a Mitsubishi today?

Despite the stratospheric price tag, Motorweek reported in September 1995 that all 3000GT Spyders were sold through the end of 1996. Turns out, 1996 would be the final year of the Spyder, as the bursting of Japan’s bubble economy finally caught up to carmakers.

Given what we know of other ASC products we wonder if the 3000GT Spyders have held up over time. ASC-built Nissan 240SX convertibles usually began to reveal the shoddiness of their workmanship and materials after five or six years. That might not be the case for a flagship car costing twice as much, and we’d be happy to be proven wrong.

Even if it’s imperfect, the 3000GT Spyder is still a significant marker in automotive history. It was an almost irresponsibly ambitious project for Mitsubishi, but that’s exactly what makes it cool. What kind of machinations did it take to push a 4,000-pound, $65,000, AWD, 6-speed, 320-horsepower hardtop convertible past the beancounters? It’s the kind of spirit absent from mainstream carmakers these days, but even Mitsubishi once dared to dream.

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12 Responses to Dreams and Sawzalls: How the Mitsubishi 3000GT Spyder was made

  1. Crown says:

    Hmmm. Mercedes steal the idea for their ’03 and up SL500 and 600?

  2. Speedie says:

    Not to be nitpicky but the1989 Soarer Aerocabin was classified as a convertible and although it only did the roof and rear window glass was similar in concept. I would also like to throw out an honorable mention to the 92 Honda Civic Del Sol and its Transtop option, which in typical Honda fashion had a retraction system like no other.

  3. Leon Dixon says:

    A few points here.

    • A cover for a lowered top in North America is known in the automotive industry as a “boot” or “dust boot” but not a “tonneau.” A tonneau is a cover for a passenger car interior or a truck bed. Many people–especially today–have insisted on calling a boot a “tonneau.” And yes, much of the rest of the world calls what the North American industry terms a “trunk” as a “boot.” A boot in North America, however, is not a “tonneau.”

    • ASC made numerous convertible conversions, also including (with Creative Industries of Detroit) the Oldsmobile Cutlass (in Georgia), Toyota Celica (in California) and others. I personally toured the SoCal operation more than once. I knew Mike Alexandern for many years (of the former Alexander Brothers customizers) who oversaw the Mitsubishi project. Mike brought along the first pilot prototype Mitsubishi Spyder when we went to dinner one night in California right after the project was underway. I got a chance to ride in the car (it was red) before they were on the street and at dealers. Mike was V.P. of ASC at the time.

    • I also knew the late Heinz Precter (the head of ASC) and went to dinner with him. ASC would have also handled Mazda’s ill-fated MX-6 convertible, which almost went to production. We made one hand-built feasibility car, fully operational. This convertible also had what was known as a “one-touch system” (lowered windows and top in one cycle from one button) like the Mitsubishi Spyder. It featured other advanced features such as self-healing backlight rear window, outward folding top stack and more. I was one of the key people involved in this project and development and I managed to save much of the paperwork, art and photos from the effort. But the project was cancelled at the last minute by someone at the American sales organ (MMA). While originally not shown to the public, the sole feasibility car was later made to appear (by folks who didn’t work on the project) as if it was a “concept car”–which it never was. No idea where the beautiful MX-6 feasibility convertible is today, but I named it “Mystere” after Ford’s dream car of the 1950s.

    • The Mitsubishi Spyder was certainly not “the first modern car to offer a power folding hard top roof.” That title (for regular production cars) would go to the 1957 Ford, not 1959. The ’59 was actually the last of the Ford “retractable roof” series of cars, not the first. And frankly there were others like the limited-production Gaylord of the 1950s and the Chrysler Thunderbolt concept car of the 1940s.

    • The description of Ford “swallowing the whole roof” is certainly misleading since the forward section of the Ford retractable roof folded and tucked under. All retractables “swallowed the whole roof” but with the exception of the Gaylord, not in one rigid piece.

    • The characterization of the Ford retractable trunk as “cavernous” and “size of a hot tub” is also misleading and an obvious sign that whoever wrote this was not around when the Ford was made. Making these kinds of statements completely out of context may seem humorous somehow for today’s present generation. However, saying such things skews the reality of the way things were viewed and understood when these cars were new. It is an unfair characterization to make this car seem like the brunt of a joke. The Ford’s trunk was actually considered SMALL at the time. And people said so repeatedly. Statements of size belong in the context of the times. A Bugatti Royale is considered one of the greatest automobiles built, but by today’s standards it would be a gigantic automobile and handling would be in another realm.

    • Finally, as is pointed out here, the Mitsubishi Spyder was well above the category of a 240 SX or a Celica so naturally a lot more engineering went into the Mitsubishi. Furthermore, one must keep in mind that whacked hard roof conversions could never compare to a convertible engineered from the ground up to BE a convertible. So in all fairness to ASC and to the price-point market they were serving with 240 SX, Celica and the like, the cars they turned out were not for automotive engineers and critics, but for the general public. By definition there had to be compromises. Again, it all depends on what price a customer wants to pay vs. what the beancounters and management will approve. Having gone through this excruciating process first-hand, I can assure you that any of these cars getting made at all is nearly miraculous. The Mitsubishi Spyder was a gem, despite whatever criticisms one could make.

    • nlpnt says:

      ” The characterization of the Ford retractable trunk as “cavernous” and “size of a hot tub”..”

      Which it was – as long as the top was up! You basically got what could’ve been a decent-sized pickup bed (seriously, Ford could’ve made a crewcab Ranchero from it by welding the top in place, omitting the hydraulics and trunk lid, and cutting in a tailgate). There was a metal bin in the middle, sort of an old-timey washtub with about 8 cubic feet of space in it. That was where your luggage had to go if you wanted to put the top down, and then you had to raise it again to get to the stuff.

      • Leon Dixon says:

        Wow. No fooling you, huh? Exaggerations and witty criticisms and put-downs are the present fashion–especially on the internet these days. And especially on this site. But as someone who actually OWNED a 1957 Ford retractable (are you forgetting it was not even mentioned in the piece here?), I can assure you the trunk on my 1957 Ford retractable was no match for the “good-sized pickup bed” on my Dodge Ram. That’s rubbish–especially when one has to backpedal and toss in the part about whether the top is up or down.

        And yesssss, I know all about the metal tub that was the REAL space where your luggage could go. So by your own admission it was small, so why the snidely, snarky put-downs? Usable space is USABLE space. Why not throw in all that wasted space under the hood for the engine too? Surely they could have squeezed that down far enough to satisfy a 2021 internet inhabitant, no? What could they have put under the hood if it weren’t for an engine taking up all that valuable space?

        By the way, the Ford retractable top was more electric than it was “hydraulic”… but a smart guy with all the facts would already know such things…right? FACTS… things that used to count for something good and have meaning and truth.

        Like it was 1957 to 1959 when the Ford retractable was made–not 2021 (and STILL 1959 was NOT the first year–no matter who says so). Most people around today on the internet weren’t even in their first diapers by 1957. Obviously, being the first and being that far back in time, someone in 2021 can stand and take pot-shots at it and give a list of all the reasons why the Ford retractable was such an awful thing. And of course, do the trendy unkind thing of making something old the brunt of ill humor.

        One reason I don’t comment on this site and barely ever look at it is evidenced here. If one makes a legitimate point, there is always someone with a troll remark to emit bad smells and snarky statements that resolve nothing and contribute nothing. Everybody’s got a navel. The last time I was on here (years ago), some einstein troll wanted to argue that there was no such thing as a (Mazda) Amati W-12… which I rode in the REAL vehicle. I was on the development team, but what could I possibly know?

        Less trolling and more sincere un-snarky conversation MIGHT result in valuable communication for this site and the snarkers. Information was a thing the internet was supposed to be about–once upon a time. Somebody might even learn something other than trolling and ugliness. Thank you for your witty retort. I assure you, I won’t bother to look at this one again.

    • Ben Hsu says:

      You are right that the Ford began production in 1957 and that’s been corrected. I stand by the statement that the 3000GT was the first modern car to have the folding hardtop feature. A 40-year gap seems like it would be enough to separate old from new. Yes, the Ford was built before I was born, so it’s all relative. I’m sure there’s someone younger out there laughing at me for thinking a 3000GT is modern.

      • Marc Beardmore says:

        I agree with you that the 3000GT was the first of many “modern” folding hardtops, including models from Mercedes, BMW, Pontiac and others and 40 years between is a long time.

        And I never owned a Ford retractable, but looking at pictures shows that only about 12″ of the front of the roof folds, leaving the whole rest of the large roof intact. Also, the trunk on the retractable looks about twice the size of a normal 1957 Ford trunk, which in itself was cavernous compared to modern car trunks. Part of the novelty of the 3000 GT and other modern folding hardtops is that they are able to fold the top and take up much less space than the Ford design.

        But unfortunately, Mr. Dixon probably won’t read any of these following comments.

  4. mel says:

    Awesome car! I want one.

  5. Mark F Newton-John says:

    Dude, don’t make fun of the name Jacuzzi. It was another Jacuzzi who developed the famous line of hot tubs who beat his name, the countless copies that made it a generic name, like Coke and Kleenex.
    Shane to compare him to that Subaru shuckster.

  6. F31Roger says:

    I love verts. Maybe because I’m hitting old man and dad status… I definitely enjoy these more.

    ASC also made the M30 convertibles in 91-92. Everytime I see a vert in the junkyard, I grab the rear quarter glass (that goes down with the top) because they are not made anymore.

    cool ASC info, turn the seats over

  7. Retro Mike says:

    “total time: 35 seconds. All of this was accomplished, says Motorweek, with four electric motors, four hydraulic actuators, and a 64-kilobite computer. That’s 0.000025 percent of the memory of an iPhone 11.”

    So that’s where all the Commodore 64’s went after the 80’s were over!

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