The history of Mitsubishi Motors Company began in 1917 when Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Company, founded by Yatarō Iwasaki in 1870, built Japan's first series-production automobile. Twenty-two Mitsubishi Model A sedan was built by hand but was expensive compared to American and European mass-produced automobiles. The company continued to build vehicles after World War 2 under the name Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. It was not until 1970 with the success of the Galant, a compact sedan which later became a mid-size car, that the Mitsubishi Motors Company was formed under the leadership of Tomio Kubo, a successful aircraft engineer.
Kubo began to expand exports by forming alliances with already existing foreign companies. After making an alliance with Chrysler, the Gallant was rebadged as the Dodge Colt and sold in America. The Gallant was also sold in Australia as the Chrysler Sigma in 1977. This alliance also helped the Japanese company to rapidly expand into Europe, but Asia always remained the company’s main market. By 1984 the Japanese company was selling cars in the US under the Mitsubishi name. These vehicles included the subcompact Mirage, turbocharged Starion sports car and midsize Galant sedan. The Eclipse sport coupe and 3000GT also proved very popular. Despite the success with these vehicles, Mitsubishi never gained as much recognition on the American market like some other Asian brands.
In 1989 the new CEO, Hirokazu Nakamura, saw an opportunity which was missed by other Japanese automakers. Nakamura took gamble on SUVs, already very successful in the US market, which proved to be just as successful in Japan. Against all conventional wisdom the gambit paid off. Mitsubishi’s line of four-wheel drive vehicles increased the company’s market share in Japan by 11.6% in 1995. An economic crisis that began in 1991 almost proved the automaker’s undoing. Sales of SUVs began to slump due to economic uncertainty throughout 1997 and 1998. Other Japanese automakers used US market success to ride out the crisis. Unfortunately, Mitsubishi’s small US market share did not allow that option and the company suffered heavy losses. An attempted restructuring in 1998 proved ultimately unsuccessful in raising the fortunes of the struggling car maker.
An Asian economic downturn was not the only problems faced. In 2004 it was revealed that the company had knowingly covered up around 30 defects in its vehicles. Mitsubishi was forced to recall almost a million vehicles for free repairs. Operating losses in Europe forced the company to stop vehicle production in 2012, while continued problems in the American market have many wondering if it is only a matter of time until Mitsubishi pulls out of the US market as well.
In an attempt to reenergize the brand, Mitsubishi Motors has begun to invest in green technologies. The Mitsubishi i-MiEV, called just the “i” in the US market, began production in 2009 ahead of schedule. Five more electric vehicles are to follow. Perhaps these environmentally friendly cars will revitalize the stale brand and bolster its sagging fortunes.
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