Hercules’ Celestial Steed

A new star over Japan. 

Image: the author

Founded by Yataro Iwasaki in 1870, what was then named Mitsubishi Shokai would eventually grow into one of the largest and most diverse companies in Asia. Shipbuilding was the company’s initial field of business but, as time went by, diversification took place into activities such as mining of coal and precious metals, insurance, banking, aircraft production, real estate and, of course, automobiles.

The name Mitsubishi is made up of two words: ‘Mitsu’ meaning three in Japanese, and ‘Hishi’ which is a species of water chestnut. When these two words are combined, the ‘h’ of hishi is pronounced in Japanese as a ‘b’, hence Mitsubishi. The logo of the company was chosen by Yataro Iwasaki himself and combined the triple crest of the coat of arms belonging to the Tosa clan, Iwasaki’s ruler and employer before the Meiji restoration(1), and the Iwasaki family sign, which was three stacked diamond shapes.

Having entered the car manufacturing realm in 1917 with the model A, heavily influenced by the FIAT Tipo 3, by the end of the 1970s Mitsubishi Motors was a well established car manufacturer with a strong motorsports record, especially in rallying. The company was also the first in Japan to employ turbocharging in road cars and produced its own turbochargers. Unsurprisingly, to ensure its first serious entry into the high(ish) performance sports coupé field delivered the kind of performance expected of such a car, Mitsubishi fitted a turbocharged engine to it.

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The Starion, introduced in 1982, was thus powered by the turbocharged 2-litre SOHC four-cylinder ‘4G63’ engine that had already entered service a few years before in the limited edition Lancer EX2000 Turbo. Because early Japanese TV commercials for the car prominently featured a horse accompanying  Mitsubishi’s new coupé, a misconception ensued that the Japanese marketing staff had failed to pronounce the word ‘stallion’ correctly, so the car ended up called the Starion as a consequence.

The reality, however, was quite different: Starion is derived from Arion, Hercules’ horse in Greek mythology after which a star was also named. The name Starion is thus a contraction of ‘star of Arion’. The fact that other Mitsubishis such as the Colt and Eclipse also used the genus equus as an inspiration gives further credence to the mythological explanation.

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The main competitors of the new Starion were the soon to be replaced Datsun/Nissan 280ZX, Mazda’s lithe RX-7, the recently unveiled Toyota Celica Supra and, from Europe, the equally new Porsche 944 and the well established Alfa Romeo GTV. Within this group there was a pleasing variety of engine choices available: four cylinders (naturally aspirated or turbocharged), six cylinders (inline or V configuration) and a rotary for those who preferred a left-field alternative. Initially, however, only the Mitsubishi and Datsun (optionally) had a turbocharged powerplant, although Mazda and Porsche would follow suit a few years later.

The Starion’s external appearance was said to be in some ways influenced by the Porsche 924, although it was a more angular eighties rendition typical of Japanese cars of the era. Its underpinnings were well proven MacPherson struts in front and independent rear suspension with anti-roll bars, ventilated disc brakes on all four wheels (with anti-lock brakes acting on the rear wheels only in the case of the EX top model) and, later on, a limited slip differential. Not counting pick-up trucks, the Starion would be the last RWD car produced by Mitsubishi.

The turbocharged 2-litre four-cylinder engine with its twin balance shafts, a single overhead camshaft and electronic fuel injection gained praise for its smooth running, but excessive turbo lag would invariably be mentioned in road test reports as a negative aspect of the Starion, despite its good performance figures: 0 to 62mph (100km/h) in 7.6 seconds and a maximum speed of 137mph (220km/h).

Other gripes mentioned were poor pedal placement and lack of steering feel, while on the other side of the ledger the brakes, handling, seating comfort(2) and general practicality received good marks.

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Despite offering – for the time – exciting performance and achieving a respectable record in motorsports in SCCA racing and rallying, only just shy of 50,000 Starions(3) would leave Mitsubishi’s Nagoya plant in Okazaki between 1982 and 1989. Apart from the Alfa Romeo GTV, its competitors outsold it by some margin: more than 63,000 Datsun 280ZX’s found owners in 1982 alone, and almost the same number of Toyota Supras were shifted in that same single year. For the Mazda RX-7, no breakdown per year could be found, but 474,565 sold between 1978 and 1985 paint a clear picture, as do the 173,238 substantially more expensive Porsche 944s produced between 1982 and 1991.

The Starion would receive several upgrades over its life, such as the addition of an intercooler and, in some markets, a larger 2.6-litre engine as well as – again in selected markets – a wide body variant with correspondingly wider front and rear track, but all this made little impact on sales. Consequently, encountering a Starion in the wild these days is a rare occurence, although its rarity has not resulted in especially high values. This also rings true for the publicity material such as the 1983 and 1985 brochures seen here showcasing the original Starion and the mildly facelifted one respectively.

The last photo is from the Chrysler Conquest TSi brochure, showing the later wide body car , known amongst Starion enthusiasts as the ‘fattie’ as opposed to the regular ‘flattie’. None of these brochures is very hard to find these days, nor will they command elevated prices.

(1) The 1868 event that led to radical changes in Japan’s political, military and social structure and restored practical imperial rule to Japan under Emperor Meiji.

(2) The Starion’s seats were doubtless influenced by those of Renault as first seen in the facelifted 15 and 17 coupés, hence the small comparison inset in one of the accompanying photos of this article.

(3) This includes the American ‘Conquest’ variants were badged as either a Plymouth, Dodge or Chrysler.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

16 thoughts on “Hercules’ Celestial Steed”

  1. Good morning, Bruno. Ah, the Starion. There was a Mitsubishi dealer not that far from where my parents lived and at one time they had a Starion. This must have been around 1984 or so, I was about ten years old at the time. I got to sit in the car and I got the brochure too.

    There are only 46 Stations registered in the Netherlands. Seeing one back in the day was rare. I think I haven’t seen one in three decades or so.

  2. Thank you brrruno. I have a friend who had a Starion twenty years ago. He was very keen on club rallying and the car didn’t survive the last big crash, but he did tell me about Mitsubishi’s attempt at an AWD Turbo Group B Starion designed to compete with the Peugeot 205T16, Lancia Delta S4, MG Metro 6R4, and Audi Quattros. The Group B Starion arrived late, just as Group B was being closed down, so it never won anything. But the team’s work on it’s development gave them an advantage in developing the Lancer Evo series of rally/road cars which had enormous success, success which if it had been handled differently could arguably given the Mitsubishi marque a marketing position closer to BMW rather than Fiat. Three Starion Rallys survive.

  3. This was one of those odd kind of cars which appealed, but not enough to make one want to purchase one over at least one of its competitors. Always at best the runner up.

    1. That’s the Mitsubishi story really isn’t it, mediocre dross and the odd foray into the more exciting areas of the market that result in a car that’s the 4th or 5th best option.

      I had the misfortune of working at their UK ad agency for a while, who were well aware that the product they were tasked with selling was mediocre in the extreme. I’m pretty sure they have or are planning to pull out of the UK market altogether.

  4. Bruno: I have revised my views of all these Japanese cars. This one is now a design I understand. It´s very disciplined and with the passage of time the conceit is clearer. A lot of anti-Japanese car prejudiced landed on me when these were new. The interior of later ones is really well done, with Citroen-style buttons around the steering wheel. Take a look at the images in this Danish piece:

    1. Richard, I think there was a strong anti-Japanese car sentiment in the eighties. Probably based on prejudice and not much else.

    2. Not to mention the mildly racist assumption about the origins of the name ‘Starion’.

    3. Also: apart from being a little top heavy to my eyes, I find this an incredibly pleasing design (in photos at least, like Freerk I doubt I’ve ever seen one in real life recently, but unlike him I never got to sit in one when I was small). Growing up (and maybe a little too young to be influenced by the anti-japanese vibes), I found eighties’ and early nineties’ Japanese designs endlessly fascinating. Especially the detailing, which was often exquisite and sometimes a little left field even on otherwise humdrum designs.

      Car design seemed to be bent on making its shapes ever more abstract back then, which really spoke to me as in the case of the Mitsubishi Colt/Mirage:

      The same thing fascinated me in the Super 5:

    4. Thank you Richard. I can tell you you were not alone in having some unjustified prejudice against Japanese cars in those days; yes they did initially look to the USA and Europe for inspiration, but it did not take very long for very competent designs to emerge. The late seventies Mitsubishi Colt that Tom V shows is one of those: clean, concise, easy to read and nicely detailed.

  5. Hi Bruno. Very late to school today, but thank you for the reminder of a Japanese car I really rather liked back in the day. Lack of name recognition in Europe probably didn’t help its prospects, which reminds me that Mitsubishi cars were originally sold (in the 1970s) in the UK under the ‘Colt’ marque name because the marketing types thought that ‘Mitsubishi’, although perfectly phonetic, was too difficult a name for British potential buyers to assimilate!

    1. Daniel, another possible explanation for adopting the Colt name is that any name recognition for Mitsubishi in the UK was probably connected to the Mitsubishi Zero, the incredibly manoeuvrable and initially effective WW2 fighter plane. Not a connection you’d perhaps want with many WW2 veterans still around.

    2. That is (or was) indeed true, Andy, which might explain the ‘official’ explanation I quoted, which I recall reading in Autocar when they first tested a Colt model.

  6. I tested the Conquest Tsi in the 80s and there was a considerable amount of turbo-lag to be sure. The salesman had no clue what the was, pretty typical of dealers in the era, which made using the lag to scare the pants off him a treat. “Don’t wreck it before you buy it!” He yelled!

    1. As a driver I have never experienced the turbo lag in the Starion, but I was in it as a passenger several times in about 1986 as a fellow student in my automotive management studies regularly borrowed his mom’s Starion. We were around 20 at the time, boys will be boys, so you can imagine the turbocharged antics we would sometimes get into. Luckily never with harmful results. Incidentally, I found out he did not always borrow his mother’s car with her permission as one monday after classes she was waiting outside parked with his car (a Datsun Violet that had seen better days) and informed him in no uncertain terms to swap vehicles immediately!

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