Think vintage cars and it conjures images of the Ford Model T, the first affordable mass produced automobile.

But the Japanese have been building cars just as long as the rest of the world and one of Mitsubishi’s old timers, the Model A, has just been admitted to the hall of fame.

The Mitsubishi Model A dates back to 1917 and was the first Japanese series production passenger car, built and sold with a view to mass production.

it was a four-door seven-seat sedan with a town car body style powered by a front-mounted 26kW 2.8-litre four cylinder engine that drove the rear wheels.

The car was capable of speeds up to 100km/h.

The first prototypes, based on the Fiat Tipo 3 were produced in the summer of 1917 and the car was complete and ready to go by November, 1918.

A total of 22 cars had been manufactured by 1921.

Model A was the work of Koyata Iwasaki, Mitsubishi’s fourth president and nephew of founder Yataro Iwasaki, who predicted the vast potential of motorised vehicles and the role they would play in the economic development of Japan.

It was envisioned as a luxury vehicle for government officials and top executives and as such had to be reliable, comfortable and a showcase of Japanese craftsmanship.

There were few specialised automotive tools or machinery in those days, and the first Mitsubishi Model A was built by hand using hammers and chisels.

The wooden body was lacquered, and the interior used luxury British woollen cloth.

With no design drawings to work to, and with little knowledge of gasoline engines, car bodies or interiors, or any experience in production processes, Mitsubishi engineers overcame many difficulties and demonstrated that the domestic mass production of automobiles was possible.

The Model A was designed at the Kobe Shipyard of Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Company, which is known today as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI).

Mitsubishi Motors Corporation split from MHI in 1970.

But, because the Model A was expensive to produce, it could not compete with cheaper American and European competition, and Mitsubishi stopped production after four years. 

The car was built entirely by hand, with the interior rear compartment furnished with lacquered white cypress.

The car has been selected by the Japan Automotive Hall of Fame (JAHFA) as an Historic Car and one that has stamped a mark of excellence in Japanese automobile history.

JAHFA is a non-profit organisation, whose mission is to praise the achievements of people who contributed to building and development of today’s Japanese automotive industry as well as those who promoted the industry’s science and culture.

A replica of the Mitsubishi Model A, recreated using documents from the time, is exhibited at the Mitsubishi Auto Gallery in Okazaki City, Aichi Prefecture.

The replica . . . which is not identical and has a smaller engine.
The original . . . produced between 1918 and 1921.

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Mitsubishi's moment of fame


Chris Riley has been a journalist for 40 years. He has spent half of his career as a writer, editor and production editor in newspapers, the rest of the time driving and writing about cars both in print and online. His love affair with cars began as a teenager with the purchase of an old VW Beetle, followed by another Beetle and a string of other cars on which he has wasted too much time and money. A self-confessed geek, he’s not afraid to ask the hard questions - at the risk of sounding silly.
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