Before the Evolution, There Was the Lancer 1600 GSR

Story and Photography by Robert Bowen

Three words: “Mitsubishi” and “performance car.” What comes to mind? These days, most people would picture the mighty Lancer Evolution. But we wouldn’t stop there; the Evo isn’t the company’s first performer.

Here in the U.S., the Lancer Evolution was preceded by several generations of very quick turbo Eclipse models as well as the rare Galant VR-4. However, automotive memory is short. Those of us old enough to remember the uber-cool Starion and Cordia turbos might also recall a slightly different version of Mitsubishi’s performance history, one based on turbocharged platforms and cyber-cool styling.

While the Mitsubishi nameplate only arrived here in 1982—about the time that Japanese car sales reached critical mass in the U.S.—they had already been selling cars to American consumers for more than a decade as “captive imports” of Chrysler. The early-’70s Galant was actually rebadged as a Plymouth or Dodge Colt. In fact, though Mitsubishi has been selling cars under their own name in the U.S. for a scant 25 years now, they’re actually among the oldest Japanese car companies.

Performance is also nothing new to Mitsubishi, as the company has a long history of building small, quick road cars based on rally-proven models. The first true performance Mitsubishi was also their first car to see international rally success. 

The 1973-’75 A73 Lancer was a typical small Japanese car of the time. A conventional four-cylinder engine inspired by European design practices drove the rear wheels and was wrapped in a smart, contemporary “Coke-bottle” body available with either two or four doors. There were several Lancer trim levels and engine choices depending on the market; in Japan the car came in GS, SL, GSL and GSR guises with engines ranging from 1200 to 1600cc.

The same assets that made the car a success in Japan and the rest of Asia—that being the tough suspension, light chassis weight, decent power and precise assembly—also made it a natural for international rally racing. A factory-modified GSR led a sweep of the 1973 Southern Cross Rally in Australia, as well as the 1974 and 1976 Rally Safari in Southern Africa. This early success cemented the Lancer’s reputation as a durable car, and rally privateers from Australia to Zimbabwe flogged the early Lancer on many local courses.

The hottest version of this early Lancer was the 1600 GSR. The numeric part of its name came from the SOHC 1597cc engine that replaced the standard 1.2 or 1.4-liter mills. The car also received a five-speed transmission instead of the standard four-speed box.

The 4G32 “Saturn” engine even came from the factory sporting twin downdraft two-barrel Hitachi carbs and a factory 4-2-1 cast-iron exhaust header. The GSR package included an upgraded interior, too, featuring embossed vinyl seats, four-channel audio system and, of course, an 8-track tape player.

The exterior was equally flashy, with a vented, flat-black hood and trunk lid that hinted at the car’s rally-bred heritage. White stripes, extra chrome, fog lights and white number panels on the doors made the car look even tougher. A full complement of badges on the deck lid, hood and each side made sure that the Lancer 1600 GSR would never be mistaken for a lesser car. Like today’s Lancer Evolution, the 1600 GSR looked like it was ready to race right off the showroom floor—a trait shared by very few contemporary Japanese cars.

Mitsubishi slightly updated the Lancer for 1975, and the resulting new A75 Lancer was dubbed the “L-type” in some Asian markets because of the shape of the taillights. The hatchback version of the L-type was also the first Lancer to actually come to America where it was sold as the Plymouth Arrow and Dodge Colt.

This new generation Lancer enjoyed the same international reputation as the K-type car—at least until it was replaced by the angular Lancer EX in 1979. Unfortunately the EX did not enjoy the same race success as the earlier Lancers, and the Lancer nameplate had to wait until 1993 to rejoin international rally competition.

Quest for the Holy Grail

Chito Solomon is the owner of this very rare and well-preserved 1973 Lancer 1600 GSR. He learned the ways of the Lancer while growing up in the Philippines and always wanted his own L-type thanks to its reputation for performance and reliability. While his car collection grew to include other rare cars like a 1974 Toyota Crown Coupe and a Ford RS200 replica, they never displaced his longing for the old coke-bottle Lancers. That changed two summers ago. 

“I have a friend in Japan who was helping me look for the car I really wanted—an L-type Lancer,” Chito explains. “He told me about this earlier two-door. He said it was still owned by the original buyer, an elderly Japanese guy.”

The story got even better from there: “It had only managed to get 24,000 kilometers on it over the years. I got excited about it so I had him send me a lot of pics of everything I could think of—inside the car, under the hood, everything. According to the seller, all it needed was a valve cover gasket and some exhaust work.”

While it wasn’t exactly what he desired, the little GSR was in such impressive original condition that Chito knew he had to buy it. A little negotiation ensued, and once the original owner signed over the Japanese paperwork, the Lancer was loaded on a ship headed for Chito’s current home in Southern California. 

Chito found the car’s condition to be just as nice as described—the paint and original interior were almost perfect. Everything else about the car was totally stock, too, from the odd but cool baroque filigree patterns embossed in the seat material to the 8-track stereo. Under the hood, all of the 1600 GSR speed equipment was just as it came from the factory, including the dual carbs and header.

Only a tweaked rear bumper and some pitted chrome stood between the car and perfection. “The paint is very nice, but I did rechrome the bumpers,” Chito admits. “The rear one was a little bent, and I had it straightened and both [bumpers] replated. Now it looks much better.”

Chito swapped the factory wheels for Minilites but left everything else stock. He says the car’s 90-something horsepower doesn’t sound like much, but with only about 1900 pounds to lug around the Lancer is surprisingly quick. 

Honor, Honesty, Valor and Loyalty

While the car is in nearly pristine condition, that doesn’t stop Chito from enjoying it. He drives the Lancer to local shows and other events fairly often. He definitely appreciates how rare and original the car is, but he recognizes that it was designed to be driven more than displayed. Good thing that finding replacement parts has not been an issue so far.

“Luckily, engine parts are easy to find,” he reports. “The same engine and drivetrain came in the 1971 to 1976 Dodge Colt. As for finding body parts, let’s just say I hope I don’t get in any accidents!”

His favorite aspects of the Lancer are its rarity and history. “I bought it just to be different—you don’t see these around. I also want to show people that there were cars like this before—fast, small Japanese cars are nothing new. In a way, it’s the great-great-grandfather of the Lancer Evolution. It came out for the same reason: to win rally races.”

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Comments
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yupididit
yupididit UberDork
2/19/20 8:51 a.m.

I have a friend who has a few early Lancers, including the box lancer. I love them!

sir_mike
sir_mike New Reader
2/23/20 5:36 p.m.

Beautiful car and great story...lucky owner

Pete Gossett
Pete Gossett MegaDork
2/23/20 6:04 p.m.

My 77 is one car I wish I'd never sold. It seems to have disappeared though. 
 

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