Even heavy industry must have its more elegant moments.
When Mitsubishi first ordained their flagship they chose a name deemed most apt for their creation. The dictionary offers a definition of confident, dignified and refined: welcome to the stylish, yet formal environs of the Debonair.
Japan in the early 1960’s began riding the crest of an economic wave and Mitsubishi were keen on getting ahead in the larger car stakes. Feasibility studies concerning the contemporary Fiat 1800 ultimately led to them ploughing their own furrow. Should your optics mark this as an early Lincoln Continental facsimile, you might be forgiven. German born, former-GM designer, Hans Bretzner openly admitted to using Elwood Engel’s 1961 design as inspiration, subtly imbuing Japanese characteristics such as squared-off solidity, along with amounts of wheel arch entasis for that refined air.
The car wowed the 1963 Tokyo motor show but the expectant public would be denied access for some time – the Debonair being initially offered only to high ranking Mitsubishi executives – with fingers in pies from banking to ship building. Politicians along with other dignitaries came to admire the attributes of the Debonair, which evolved somewhat glacially over its thirty five-year production run.
Prior to this, the Three Diamond’s largest car was the Colt 1100, but by May 1965, the Debonair (A30) was powered by an in-line six (KE64) two litre petrol engine generating around 104bhp shoving this 1,330Kg compact to 96mph. Fittingly, this car’s monocoque body with double wishbone suspension usurped rivals in handling, speed and comfort; the Power Specification package consisting of powered seats, windows and steering.
The Debonair’s first major change occurred under the bonnet, the installation of the Saturn 6 engine. Entitled 6G34, still rated at two litres, but output now reached 130bhp with a 112mph top speed. An ornate badge denoting the celestial engine brought about a model name change to A31. Minor redesigns (I to IV) were to trim parts but 1973 witnessed this well turned gentleman’s first face lift. The truncated hockey stick rear lights became eight square shaped lozenges along with changes to the front indicators, moving up the wings and made smaller. The front quarter light was deleted but the model name remained unchanged.
By 1976, Debonairs were Borg-Warner automatic only and in June, larger displacement courtesy of the 8-valve 4G54, 2,555cc unit producing 137 bhp with improved economy became A32s. The 1978 emission rules brought about engine modifications along with chassis code A33 whereas 1979’s Debonairs were replete with ABS, velour seating and rear passenger radio controls.
Twenty three years(1) from the Debonair’s debut, Mitsubishi decided upon a complete overhaul for 1986; a new bodyshell, a change to front wheel drive, the first V6 Cyclone engines alongside an association with the US Chrysler Corporation. Whilst the second generation loosely resembled the New Yorker, no parts were shared between the two.
Image and sales of the original had trickled along – just 205 made in 1985 whereas the new S10 managed a healthy 6,230 units for 1987. Over this generation’s six year build, six engines were offered and enhanced over time. The 1998cc two litre 6G71 was upped from 105 to 150 bhp, supercharged. The 6G72 of 2972cc displacement began life as a single overhead cam producing 150bhp. The later DOHC managing 210bhp, nullified to a speed limited 180Km/h.
The ride had been improved by fitting MacPherson struts up front with a three link torsion axle aft. Transmission remained automatic. If the original Debonair was an hymn to Sixties suave, this new take, whilst again obviously American influenced, tarried somewhat by not participating in Eighties excess – ever the gentlemen.
The front wheel arch now encompassed a blistered radius whereas the rear was semi-covered by those long flanks, residually squared off. Chrome embellishments were chosen for gravitas over anything gaudy. One feels predisposed to offer the noun, cool, here. One roguish venture rested on the bonnet – the company’s logo surrounded by a circle, remarkably echoing another brand’s gun-sight, ornament.
The saloon kept that temperature low, even with (four coats of) lustrous black. This late model also featured tilt steering for easy in and egress and the first Japanese car to have hands free telephony. The Royal limousine with two extra feet of extension raised the temperature too far by comparison but your author is no fan of the extra-luxo-barges of any type. Money doesn’t always buy taste.
Wholly against type, Mitsubishi brought in German tuning gurus AMG (before Mercedes took over) to appoint some ill-served style to proceedings. The engine bay unusually lay untouched – two configurations could be had – standard with body kit or a 150mm wheelbase extension with body kit making both quite the ‘80s fashionistas. Mitsubishi also commissioned British luxury outlet Aquascutum to tart up the interior. The Debonair’s fling with ostentation was thankfully short lived.
Times change. Mitsubishi introduced for 1990 the Diamanté, a more modern sporting saloon, in every aspect the antithesis of the now somewhat dated Debonair. A decision to incorporate a whole host of electronic equipment into the new for ‘92 S20 version included upgraded engines and smoother lines.
The list of standard equipment trumped the S-Class: four wheel steering with ABS, electronically controlled suspension, GPS (with tiny screen), rear parking camera, self closing doors, five speed, traction controlled automatic transmission and LIDAR distance detection – shared with the firms GTO (and also Hyundai’s Grandeur).
In as much the force of technology was strong, the cachet of the previous two models had now been lost. The S20 Debonair’s interior withholding its paragon of comfort with shell shaped front seats. To the rear, the operation of the cigar lighter woke the air purifier allowing the shipping magnate to puff away sans-odours. Neat trick. The Debonair was put out to pasture in 1999, followed up by the new Proudia, itself a step below the new Dignity limousine. Both fell short on the sales front, soon discontinued.
Gadgets and gizmos make not the gentlemen. Of course, add a watch, an in-keeping tie and shoes to match the outfit, should one wish. Make the car nice in the first place, to look at and ride in. Elegance needs precious little frippery.
(1) An old Japanese nickname for the car was coelacanth, pronounced silican – connected with a thought long dead fish that came back to life.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVib6TAtOg8 A twenty minute video showing excellent footage of the car
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAK4h3WJgo8 A ninety second video showing clay modelling