Mitsubishi’s evolution: Working for the Japanese brand in the UK

It’s 1986 and I’m in a light aeroplane that’s attempting a night landing in strong winds at Staverton airport in Gloucestershire. My fellow passengers are four colleagues: Peter Beaumont, managing director of Colt Car Company, which began importing Mitsubishi cars to the UK in 1974, and three of his directors.

We’ve flown back from Edinburgh, where we had earlier in the day hosted a regional meeting with Colt’s Scottish dealer group. As we line up to the runway, the little plane, one of a handful of company aircraft including an executive jet and a helicopter, feels like a cork in the ocean. With the exception of Beaumont, who remains ice cool, the directors are alternately groaning and cursing.

Eventually, the plane touches down and taxis to a stop. Everyone piles out. Quickly the tension evaporates, cigars are lit and relieved laughter breaks out. Not for the first time, I feel a bond with my Colt bosses that lasts even as I fire up my humble Lancer saloon while they roar off in their considerably flashier Galant and Starion Turbos.

Recollections like this are why I’m mourning Mitsubishi’s recent announcement that it will gradually pull out of the UK. I was at Colt for only four years in the mid-1980s – two of them supplying dealers with their cars and two selling cars to the public from the company’s Cirencester showroom – but while there had some of the best and most challenging times of my working life.

I had moved with my parents to the quiet Gloucestershire town of Cirencester in 1971 and so was there when Colt arrived in 1974. Japanese reliability underpinned by a long warranty, high levels of equipment and innovative technology characterised its models, which began appearing in the town in large numbers, driven by company employees who looked so much more exciting and sophisticated than us grass-chewing yokels.

The fledgling company’s marketing was also eye-catching. I recall a church fête at which Colt presented what it called a ‘car versus horse’ display that involved driver and rider performing a synchronised routine with the aid of head-mics. It was a bit corny, but the company turned up the heat a short while later when it signed top aerobatic pilot Vic Norman. I saw him many times, most memorably during a sales meeting at Siddington House, Colt’s country retreat outside Cirencester, when he performed an astonishing display in his Zlín sports plane, during which he swooped so low that I swear he put a stripe down the lawn.

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Word is that while there was some inkling of tough news on the horizon, people expected something focused on cuts around the edges, not a cut full stop.

However, there are also reports that Colt’s senior management are already in talks with potential new partners and that the clarity received from Mitsubishi has helpfully accelerated what were tentative talks with alternative brands, most likely Chinese and looking to bring a cost-effective range of electric vehicles into the UK. While launching a new brand is always a gargantuan task, the timing is perfect in that respect: the EV revolution has potential to tear up the form book on brand loyalty and there’s a clear opening for anyone who can crack open the market for truly affordable EVs.

While some media speculation has pointed to Chinese brand Haval (a big-selling SUV maker owned by Great Wall, which previously tried to make inroads in the UK with pick-up trucks) being the front-runner, Autocar understands that this is wide of the mark. In fact, it’s likely that Haval is one of several companies weighing up the possibilities of working with an established UK importer and retail network.

Meanwhile, Colt has stock of 15,000 Mitsubishi cars and pick-up trucks to sell and the capability to keep importing from Japan vehicles that comply with European Union emissions standards well into 2022.

On a normal basis, that would be enough to keep dealerships busy for more than a year or, in a world suffering from Covid-19, perhaps two. Then there’s the prospect of ongoing and profitable maintenance work thereafter, including Mitsubishi’s legally binding 10-year commitment to continue to provide parts, warranty and service support to the owners of any car from the date that it goes out of production.