By on December 22, 2009

a champ of a colt

Maybe we should change the title to Two Dead Brands At A Time Week. Topping yesterday’s triple knock-out  of Rover and Sterling is going to be a challeng(er). But we’re in contention here with this twin name, twin stick, twin cars, twin wipers, twin brands Colt/Champ. Plymouth has undeniably gone to the Dead Brand underworld. And the Colt name became a brand in its own right, covering a huge variety of Mitsubishi-built vehicles from tiny hatches like this to the mini-van Colt Vista Wagon. The fact that Colts were sold by both Dodge and Plymouth seals the deal. Of course, it wasn’t always that simple, as in the case of the Champ. It had its name changed midway through its run to Colt, hence the two versions here. And Mitsubishi is skating on dangerously thin ice itself these days. But beyond the mortality of its name, the real claim to fame of this car is its legendary twin-stick transmission.

colt by plymouthLike most affairs of money or heart, the Mitsubishi-Chrysler hook-up had its highs and lows. Given its starting date in 1971, it was precedent-setting, as a number of similar tie-ups between Ford and GM with various Japanese partners soon followed its pattern. Remarkably, Chrysler must have actually seen  the writing on the wall in the sixties: that it didn’t have the resources to develop a truly competitive small car. Ford and GM still had the hubris to think they could (Pinto & Vega). So Chrysler went shopping in Japan, and bought a 15% share in Mitsubishi.

It’s not like Chrysler wasn’t building small cars at the time, at its European subsidiaries Rootes and Simca. Exactly what drove Chrysler to not take their European cars seriously, like the very advanced Simca 1204, is hard to say. Maybe they saw the Japanese cars for what they were: out-of-the-box-ready to take on the difficult US conditions unlike their fragile Simcas and Hillmans. Chrysler did import both the Simca and the Hillman (as the ill-fated Plymouth Cricket), but once its relationship with Mitsubishi was sealed, it never looked back. Well, until its own Omni/Horizon.

champ & colt by plymouth

The Colt story gets very complicated, especially in light of our neighbors to the north. Chrysler has always messed with our heads by flipping around names and badges in Canada, but it gets totally insane with the Mitsubishis. I’m not going to work it all out for all you Canucks here; just go to this article at, it’s got the whole mess untangled there. Lets just say they reversed the US naming-craziness, and called Dodges “Champs” and Plymouths “Colts”. That is, some of the time. Hey, why not; you got keep the Department of Names busy, like their counterparts at GM. As a result of their diligence and hard work, our featured car was called by both names in the US. What were they thinking?

the real champIn the US, the Colt name had been reserved for Dodge since the introduction of the Mitsubishis in 1971. In 1976, Plymouth finally got its own Mitsu, the distinctive fastback Arrow (I so need to find one). That was replaced in 1979 by the car we have here, called Champ for its first three or four years years (depending on the source), and then switched to “Colt by Plymouth” for its final year or so. It seems that in about 1983, Chrysler decided to call most/all of its Mitsu products by the Colt name, turning into a Geo/Scion-like sub brand.

Let’s leave all the name nonsense behind and check out these cute little hatches. I thought they were very well done for the times; clean, crisp lines everywhere, and visibility one can only dream about today. Mitsubishi had left the garish seventies behind definitively with the Colt/Champ. It’s a testament to the virtues of space utilization compared to the narrow, tight RWD cars the Japanese had been sending, like the Colt’s predecessor.

Like most of the breed, it could be fun to flog in tight quarters or curves, especially with the 1.6 liter engine, which had more ponies (80) than almost any other little hatch at the time. It was definitely one of the nimbler sub-Rabbit/Golf sized cars, especially compared to what Detroit was offering (Chevette). In terms of  its competition, it was one of the better designed mini-hatches after the Ford Fiesta, at least until the new Mazda 323 came along in 1981. Well, the gen2 Civic fits in somewhere there too. It was the golden age of the super-minis in the US. And of course, there was that flipping twin-Stick transmission.

It offered a choice of final drive ratios, and changed the effective top gear (fourth) ratio between 1.11 to 0.86 to 1. Why Mitsubishi thought this might be better than a simple five-speed with overdrive fifth gear is long lost in the collective memory. It did mean that all the gears were either lower or higher; hence the “economy” and “power” ratios. Or you could split them like a truck driver and play with all eight. That involved a few redundant overlapping ratios, but hey, in the days before texting, it was a way to keep the mind and hands busy. You know the old saying about idle hands…

A Popular Mechanics survey of owners found that the “economy” gear ratio only saved .10 mpg, on average. I bet those owners forgot what ratio they were in. An overdrive ration on the highway is usually good for an easy 5% to 10% improvement. Oh well. But then the respondents also said that they got better mileage with the 1.6 than with the 1.4.  And they liked the performance. The twin-stick was a clever selling feature regardless, especially for the ADD afflicted. Either way, the Colt was a Champ when it came to economical driving: PM’s respondents averaged 30 mpg in the city and 37 on the highway. But shifting the little buzz-bomb into “power” certainly felt faster!

deadly twin-stickEngines: your choice of 1.4 (70 hp) or 1.6 (80 hp) MCA-Jet fours, with a third-valve system similar to Honda’s CVCC. Eighty horses with a 2,000 lb weight made for pretty zippy acceleration for the time. And in its final year, 1984, a turbo version GTS was on offer. Haven’t seen one of those in ages.

These Mitsubishi products were well built and have a fairly bullet-proof rep, although they’ve pretty much disappeared from the scene. These two examples are the only ones I’ve run across hereabouts, and it took me nine months to find them. Parts for cars above a certain age become harder to find, and folks just give up on them.

The Mitsubishi Mirage, which these cars are rebadges of, donated a lot of mechanical components to the first generation Hyundai Excel. Hyundai needed the expertise to convert their old RWD Pony to FWD, and Mitsu had long supplied technology to the seemingly harmless  little Korean upstart. Many parts, right down to exhaust headers, can be swapped between Excels and the Champ/Colts. My, look how little Hyundai has grown! And big Mitsubishi has shrunk! The game of car manufacturing is delightfully unpredictable.

We’ll take up the uglier sides of the Mitsu-Chrysler affair another time, as well as some of the other more obscure fruits of their intercourse. Ironic how the twins that brought us the twin-stick are both on life support themselves now. Now off to find an Arrow!

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34 Comments on “Curbside Classic Dead Brands Week: 1983 Plymouth Colt & 1980 Plymouth Champ...”

  • avatar

    my favorite “fruit” was the Arrow.  I’ve owned two (78 GT in Fire Orange and a 78 GS), and my best friend had three (including the “mighty” 2.6 Fire Arrow).  Oh, the things that I did in that car…:)  I still run across an Arrow for sale here and there, but haven’t come across a clean 2.6 Fire Arrow for sale in forever…

    Ironically, my mom and dad bought a used Mitsubishi Lancer (nee Plymouth Colt) four-door in Germany (this was in the early 90s) and that little car was actually pretty solid.  So, not all in Mitsubishi-Chrylser land was bad…

  • avatar

    Someone earier this week made a comment about Eugene weather, and the difficulty of trying to find a Curbside Classic with a blue sky or dry pavement.  Now that I’ve been paying attention, damn if the past several CCs haven’t featured gray sky, wet pavement, or both.  Is it ever sunny there?

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      It is almost constantly sunny from June through October. And it was just a few minutes ago. We have a Mediterranean climate: sunny summer, moist/gray winters. Actually, I rather prefer shooting cars in the overcast, because the glare and reflections make it challenging in the sun.

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    Had an el-cheapo ’84 Colt for a commuter car.  It was realiable and never got under 40 mpg, and consistantly chased 50 mpg on the highway.  It was slow, but reliable.  Actually, I’d buy one again.

  • avatar

    Triple crown: 2 Colt E Sticks and a 63 Rambler with E stick.Plymouth dead. AMC/ Rambler, deader.

  • avatar

    I learned to drive in my father’s blue 1.4L Plymouth Champ.  He bought it during the ’70s oil crisis when people had to wait hours in long lines to get gas.  I was enamored by the very neat, professional looking, high-tech dashboard when he took it home, and spent hours in it playing with the buttons — its interior was head and shoulders above the domestics at the time.  The dealer had claimed it was an American car, and we didn’t realize it was an import until one time while I was in the front passenger seat stretching my legs while my dad was driving the car mysteriously accelerated by itself.  After a couple of times, we discovered that when stretching, my foot was hitting a rod running from the LHD gas pedal to a pivot & cable passing through the firewall on the right side, making me realize the car must have been designed as RHD and converted to LHD.  The “printed in Japan” on the back of the user manual in the glove box confirmed my hunch.

    The dual stick and the colored indicators on the dash were incredibly cool and high tech, but useless – in “power” mode the engine ran noisily fast.  In “economy” mode, the car was a tad underpowered taking off from a standstill, but not too bad.  The power-economy mode change was effected by engine vacuum moving a lever attached to the transmission.  The interior had many nice touches, like shelving under the dashboard on the passenger side to store stuff, a built-in auto-latching hood strut, etc.  The car was incredibly reliable, and needed nothing other than a new clutch cable during the 10+ years and 150k+ miles my father put on it.

    The only negative about the Champ was safety.  I once saw one that had been rear-ended by a drunk while parked in the street.  The rear bumper was literally pushed as far as the driver’s seatback.

    Ironically, my first car was a used ’87 Hyundai Excel.  The engine sounded familiar, and when I lifted the hood, I was surprised to see it had the same engine and transmission as my father’s Plymouth Champ!  Instead of a dual-stick, the Excel had a fifth gear, activated by the same vacuum-controlled mechanism as the Champ’s Power/Economy mode.

  • avatar

    This was a good car. It was very well designed. When it was first produced, there was little on the road like it. Unlike the Fiesta, this car had a spiffy aerodynamic shape to it, with rectangular headlamps. The A, B and C pillars were shaped nicely and were nearly invisible. There was a lot of room in it for four adults.

    This was a good car to highlight. It demonstrates that doing the job right, is only part of the challenge facing automakers with any intention of surviving the market.

  • avatar

    A friend of mine in high school owned a ragged ’83 Colt; orange with the black “racing” stripes. Being on the basketball team, he was 6’5″ and to drive the little PoS, he removed the driver’s seat and sat in the back. He said it was the best fitting car he could afford and drove the God-fearing piss out of it delivering pizza.

  • avatar

    Unlike the 3 Pinto/Bobcats that I owned (or Rabbits), the Colt/Champ twins were hard to hate.  They were good-looking, reliable, and affordable cars.
    Although, from the front 3/4 angle, that Colt looks frighteningly like an AMC Pacer.

    • 0 avatar

      I have always thought this looked like a rationally styled Pacer. Have you seen pictures of some of AMC’s show cars and proposals of the late 70s? They looked like dead ringers for the Colt/Champ.

      These are pretty little cars, clean and simple.
      Thanks, PN for giving them their day in the [Eugene] sun.

  • avatar

    Off topic somewhat, but I miss the little Dodge (Mitsubishi) D50 Mighty Max pickups.  The 4×4 w/ the diesel was my personal favorite.  It would probably sell well today.

    • 0 avatar

      That reminds me of the pickup truck radio commercials Chrysler had back in the day.  They had a guy doing a monologue in Japanese, after which an English speaker said “Dodge Ram.  It’s all the Japanese you need to know.”  It was their way of targeting consumers who’d normally buy an import brand.  I found it hilariously ironic.

    • 0 avatar

      i had an 87 Dodge Ram50 i bought from my stepfather. It was a short bed 2wd with manual steering and the 2.0L engine.  It had 170K miles on it when i got it and 309K when i donated it.  The only thing wrong with it was the exhaust pipe had broken just after the manifold.  Damn i miss that little truck.

  • avatar

    My dead Mitsu/Plymouth was an 82 Plymouth Sapporo.  I loved the true pilarless coupe styling.  The relativly low reving 2.6 balance-shaft 4cyl had a whopping 100 hp and plenty of low end torque.  For it’s day the Sapporo was powerful and sporty, a blast to drive.

  • avatar

    The Colt was sold as a Plymouth in Canada? This explains the car I saw the other day — a 1987 Colt, no marque identification, and a little “imported by Mitsubishi for Plymouth” badge on the deck. Now I understand.
    I suspect the main reason Chrysler went with Mitsubishi, rather than its own European subsidiaries, was cost. And perhaps exchange rates — the exchange rate of the dollar to various European currencies fluctuated a lot in the 70s and 80s, whereas I think the yen was relatively stable until the mid-eighties. I doubt it was anything more complicated than that.
    The Twin-Stick concept is something AMC did on overdrive-equipped cars back in the early sixties. You could get it on pretty much any Rambler of that period, although I’ve mostly seen them on Rambler Americans. The Colt’s big improvement on the concepts were a gearbox with four speeds, rather than three, and a synchro low, which the old Ramblers didn’t have. I don’t think you could use overdrive on low gear, either, making the AMC Twin Sticks essentially five speeds, not eight.

  • avatar

    In 1990 I had a girlfriend with what was probably a mid-80s Colt. It did not have the dual stick. Despite lack of any power, it was a very nimble, nice car to drive, and as Paul says, visibility you can only dream about today.

  • avatar

    You could see out? Tell me what that was like. Yes, please find an Arrow with a 2.6…quite the tire smoker for it’s day, and successful in rallying if memory serves me correctly.  There is one arrow around here, but it has a 360 in it so it’s not representative of the breed.

    I don’t recall ever seeing a Champ, but those Colts ran forever.  I saw them around for eons…long after they were no longer selling them.  Oh, Mitsu, what you might have been.  (Instead, the Mitsu dealer near me just became a Kia dealer.  When you consider they still have two new 2008 Eclipses in stock, it’s not hard to see why.)

  • avatar

    I had one when I lived in Texas. Bought it new. There were lots of deserted roads where I could put it to the floor and cruise along at top speed. At a certain speed point, the door frames would get sucked-out a little from the air pressure and you’d get a lot of wind noise.  Had that car a lot of years and put a lot of miles on it.

  • avatar

    An 83 Plymouth Colt was the first new car my wife ever bought.  She got the 4 door with the twin stick and dealer-installed air conditioning.  When she bought her 88 Accord, her brother bought the Colt as a second car.  About 1991, I was starting to get tired of driving without a/c, and the choice was to either put an aftermarket air unit in my really nice 66 Fury III or get another car.  I bought the Colt from my brother in law.
    I remember it as a fun car to drive.  Not tremendously overpowered, but it was responsive and nimble.  I loved the twin stick.  I got into the habit of starting in Power range, going thru the 4 gears, then shifting to Economy for the OD.  Then, at the next traffic light, one lever to 1st, other lever to P and start over.
    Mine was quite trouble free through its too-short life.  I can speak to its crash-worthiness.  Some guy in a Tempo pulled right out in front of me one day.  Colt was totalled, but I got out without a scratch.  When it was totalled, it was only about 7 or 8 yrs old, and had maybe 63K on it.
    I would own one again.  To me, it was everything a small economical car ought to be.

  • avatar

    25 or so years ago I raced a worked out Colt Turbo with my 68 Buick Gran Sport. I had a 350 and a 300 turbohydramatic (2 speed) and he had a (so he said) worked on turbo setup. He took me out of the hole pretty good. It took about 1/8 mile for me to catch him,  and I went by him so fast I thought he was going to spin around! It took 2 exits to slow down on the Major Deegan Expressway in NYC . (I did not have power brakes) We spoke for a few minutes afterwards and he was telling me of his conquests. (I do think he was full of it) He kept saying I had to have a 455 to beat him that badly. He actually insisted I open my hood and prove all I had was a 350.
    That day I found some respect for that car the way it took off out of the hole.

  • avatar
    Sammy Hagar


    I know the western side of Oregon is only slightly less “gun unfriendly” than the western side of Washington, but do you ever worry about people confusing your journalistic pursuits with car prowling?


    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Generally not. I’ve had a couple of folks come out and see, but I just wave my camera and tell them what a coll car they have. Only once ever did a very grumpy old guy tell me to get away.

  • avatar

    Wow, thanks for the nostalgia trip.  Dad’s 1980 Plymouth Champ was pretty much my first car, and I drove the piss out of it.  I learned how to do handbrake turns in this car.  I loved making excuses to back up long distances and shift from reverse-lo to reverse-hi just because I could!  It was reliable enough but I broke 2 timing belts out on the road (non-interference engine).  Also broke a valve rocker shaft – darn thing just came unscrewed from the head!  By 165k miles it was burning oil in spite of using synthetic all its life.  (But then I’ve never seen a Mitsu engine that didn’t burn oil)  I totaled it by getting smashed from behind by a van.  Still managed to drive it away after a little body work with the tire iron, but that was all for it.

  • avatar

    These were nifty little hatchbacks at the time, quite popular with my college student peers. The twin-stick was an amusing gimmick – “Put it in Power Reverse!”

  • avatar

    I’ve been photographing classic cars since ’92, mostly in DC and the Boston area. I’ve been threatened with a pie, but never a gun. No, seriously, people are a bit suspicious of me, but I quickly assure them that I’m a car nut, and all is well.

  • avatar
    H Man

    Friend of mine here in Eugene bought this gem from a towing yard for fifty bucks:
    Ran great til he backed it into a tree in my yard and I got revenge via fireworks.  Hell, it still ran after the fireworks.  It was the nails and pennys and rice we dumped into the engine that finally did it.

  • avatar

    Wow, memories or lack thereof. My parents had a (Dodge) Colt. Know I drove it occasionally, but I sure can’t remember anything else about it except that it seemed like a decent enough way to get around and maybe it’s color.

  • avatar

    Back in ’86 the family was buying a new car, and the choices were a Checy Nova (rebadged toyota Corolla) or a dodge colt.  My parents just couldn’t bring themselves to buy “Japanese.”
    Each dealer let us take a silver example home and we parked them side by side.  The whole compared each car, and in the end we decided on the Nova because it seemed more polished.  The colt seemed like a spunky car with more personality, and I kind of wish we had picked that one.  The Nova ended up being a very underpowered boring car that wasn’t particularly durable.  We did keep it til 120K, but it was pretty crappy by then.

  • avatar

    The Mitsubishi Colt was sold in Australia with a the 1.8L (I believe) – you could guarantee that any one of them you saw would be blowing blue smoke. The nameplate has recently returned actually.
    I always thought the P/E lever was just a lazy way of adding overdrive to an existing gearbox design. Isn’t it just a drop-gear outside the gearbox? Mitsubishi were certainly shot-down for it in Australia hence my comment. I friend had one at the time and I’m sure you had to come to a stop to change?????

  • avatar
    George in Georgia

    I had a ’80 Colt with the Twin Stick tranny, a fun little car.  I was able to score the alloy wheels from the GT edition; with fairly wide tires the little box handled well.  Mine was gold with failed clearcoat.  I considered repainting it in yellow or orange, but never did.  The original horn failed and I replaced it with one of the little Italian air horn sets.  Thus equipped it was a wonderful city car!  The Bimmer and  Benz drivers realized that I really didn’t care, and the air horn let me intimidate them at will.  I could squeeze into any parking place and I never worried about it being stolen. 
    I had to replace the water pump; what should have been a simple job became a nightmare.  It took THREE attempts to get the proper pump from the local parts store.  The first two offerings would have bolted on but the output sp0ut wouldn’t have “aimed” for the radiator.  My guess was that the engine was basically unchanged from the prior, RWD, model, and that the parts lists were muddled.  Other than that and the usual wear items it was basically trouble free.

  • avatar

    Lots of great memories from this editorial, we were really a Colt family for a while.
    My dad had 3:  a ’81 Champ 4 speed 1.4,  ’85 Colt and  ’86 Colt 4 speed hatchbacks.
    My sister had 3:  ’85 Colt and ’88 Colt 4 speed hatchbacks and a ’93 Colt 5 speed coupe.
    Personally I had 3:  a ’80 yellow Colt RS with the 1.6 and twin stick, and ’89 and ’92 hatchback E models with the 5 speed.
    That makes nine Colts in the family,  and very little trouble with any of them, any one else have that many?

  • avatar

    I had two of these — a tan stripper Plymouth Champ bought in 1980 for “only” $250 over sticker. It never got the EPA advertised mileage of 37-40 MPG! A year later I bought the 1981 two tone blue and gray Champ which had the same hardware as the high performance trimmed Dodge Colt version. I had the pleasure of “racing” the “hot rod” Colt version at a stop sign in Columbus, I won. Unfortunately I totaled the car when I failed to see a car which was stalled in the middle lane of the freeway. That swore me off of small cars for 2 years, and I bought a 1985 4 door version.

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