Recently, in Abandoned History, we heard about the Colt, a self-imported Dodge/Plymouth/Eagle/AMC/Renault that was sold thanks to swapping badges on some Mitsubishi compact cars. During that series’ tenure, one of our readers had a great idea: a separate Abandoned History discussion about the self-imported trucks and SUVs in the Dodge portfolio. The time has come!
As we discussed earlier, the partnership between Chrysler and Mitsubishi began in 1971 when Chrysler purchased a stake in the Japanese conglomerate. Mitsubishi would use Chrysler as a sales outlet for some of its models in North America, a place where it had no distribution at all. For its investment, Chrysler gained access to small fuel-efficient vehicles from Japan and did not have to spend dollars developing them. It was a win-win situation.
The first Colts arrived in North America in 1971, but no truck imports would follow for some time. The concept of a more efficient compact truck was not something the North American public was willing to accept without any persuasion, and it took quite some time. A short thesis on compact trucks is in order.
Datsun was the first to offer its compact truck in the US, beginning imports in 1959 with the Datsun 1000. Datsun owned the compact truck market for a few years and was the sole offering until Toyota joined in 1964 with the Stout. Mazda was the third to launch a B1600 in 1972.
By this time, domestic manufacturers noticed that Japanese imports were selling well enough to warrant some competition, and in mid-1972 Chevy began selling the Isuzu P’up, branded LUV. That same year, Ford rebadged a Mazda B and offered the Courier. Both domestic offerings came just before the 1973 oil crisis, when sales of smaller vehicles (especially Japanese ones) skyrocketed given their efficiency.
Chrysler was left empty-handed. By the mid-1970s, Dodge’s range of trucks consisted of the full-size D-series, the Ramcharger SUV (also offered briefly as the Plymouth Trailduster), and the Tradesman van series.
Part of the lack of compact trucks was due to their choice of a Japanese partner: Mitsubishi didn’t make a compact truck at all. The company’s largest commercial vehicle was the Delica, which has been offered since 1969. But Delica didn’t translate into a pickup version; the only truck the company sold was a Kei class. It was called Minicab and was based on the Minica sedan. During the 1970s and early 1980s, Mitsubishi continued to expand and supplement its product range, becoming the global giant it is today.
The first compact truck Mitsubishi ever made was the Forte. It entered production for the Japanese market in 1978 and went on sale for the 1979 model year. As was standard operating procedure for Mitsubishi, the Forte went by many different names depending on the market. It was known in many places as the L200, and that name in particular proved to be a lasting name.
Other variations on the market name included Mighty Max and various adjectives added to the L200, such as Express and Power X. Most examples were built in Japan at Mitsubishi’s Nagoya plant, but there was additional production in Thailand and the Philippines. Mitsubishi trucks quickly established themselves as reliable, affordable utility vehicles in many parts of the world.
All examples had two doors, as it was not yet the age of the double cab truck. Various engines were used around the world, but all had four cylinders. They ranged from a 1.6 liter base to two different 2.0 liter mills. The largest petrol engine was the 2.6, a 4G54 that found its way into many Mitsubishi and Chrysler products in the late 1980s. There were also two diesels, of 2.3- and 2.5-litre beliefs. The smaller one had a turbo. A sign of the times, all transmissions were manual and had four or five gears.
Three different wheelbases were offered, starting at 109.4 inches for short wheelbase and two-wheel drive. With all-wheel drive, that wheelbase grew to 110 inches. The longest wheelbase was two-wheel drive only and measured 119.5 inches. Overall length was approximately 184.6 inches, with a width of 65 inches and between 61 and 65 inches overall height, depending on the number of driving wheels. Four-wheel drive was not initially available, but was added internationally to Mitsubishi-branded models in 1981.
For comparison, a full-size D-series truck used different wheelbases of 115, 131, 133, 135, 149 and even 165 inches, with an overall length between 188 and 240 inches. Overall width was 79.8″, two feet wider than the Mitsubishi. There were many specs and bed lengths on the full-size Dodge at the time, and it’s hard to find specific lengths. But the size difference was huge.
Chrysler was quick to ship some trucks to North America, and with an easy badge exchange, the new Dodge D-50 was ready for 1979. The new truck also graced Plymouth dealers as the Arrow, not to be confused with the Fire Arrow. hatchback (Mitsubishi Lancer). Bearing in mind that there were no Mitsubishi dealerships in North America at the time, the only way to get one of the trucks was at your friendly Dodge dealership.
Initial styling included single headlights, a key to telling the age of a first-generation D-50. In other parts of the world, single or twin headlamps were available at the choice of the buyer, in addition to twin round headlamps. In Australia, the D-50 was sold as Chrysler and had round headlights instead.
All D-50s and Arrows were two-wheel drive through the ’81 model year. Initial trims included the base D-50 with a 2.0-litre engine and a 4-speed manual transmission and the D-50 Sport with the 2.6-litre engine and a 5-speed manual transmission. Both engines feature Mitsubishi’s new Silent Shaft balancing technology. The Sport was the one that had, as it included niceties like a full gauge package, tape stripes, white letter bands and even an FM band for the radio.
Exterior additions were few at introduction, and the major ones were a roll bar, grille guard, and a sunroof dubbed “Sky Lite”. The D-50 and Arrow could be equipped with air conditioning, extra tape stripes, black mirrors, power steering, a rear bumper and extra sports trim. Interestingly, unlike the Mitsubishi versions available in the rest of the world, an automatic transmission was available on the D-50. It would have been the same three-speed TorqueFlite offered in the Colt.
Like the other domestic brands and their compact import trucks, Dodge found success with the D-50 and Arrow. Changes for the D-50 occurred gradually, the first of which was a post-1980 renaming – to Ram 50. The Plymouth Arrow name was not changed, although it was certainly a slower seller than its Ram cousin; North American customers were not used to going to Plymouth for trucks.
Indeed, sales of the Arrow were such that it never made it to the first-generation refresh: Arrow was canceled after the 1982 model year, leaving the Ram 50 to suck up remaining customers. That same year, the four-wheel drive system available on the L200 since 1981 arrived in North America. The drive system warranted special badging, such as Power Ram 50. The name Power Ram was the name Dodge used historically to denote four-wheel drive.
In 1983, the Ram 50 was updated, most easily visible through the set of four rectangular headlights. When Mitsubishi established its dealer network in the United States that year, it began selling its truck with its standard badging. For the US market only, the truck was called Mighty Max. One wonders how many people would have bought the truck as a Dodge, but chose their Mitsubishi dealership as soon as the option was available. They should like the look of the single headlight since Mitsubishis kept the old look while the Dodge had to upgrade to the quadruple lights.
Also for 1983, Ram 50 buyers saw a new engine appear as an optional extra: a turbocharged 2.3-liter 4D55 diesel engine. That same year, the same turbodiesel was also an option on the new Ford Ranger. It was not used in other North American vehicles. Initial horsepower on the turbo diesel was 80, but that increased to 86 horses in 1984 with a new wastegate. The engine arrived towards the end of the first-generation Ram 50 run and was only available through 1985.
The first-generation Ram 50 had its last year in 1986, with a new one arriving for 1987. The Ram 50 established itself as a valid compact truck choice for its first generation, but trucks from the 1970s looked more pretty dated. the next decade. In part II, we cover Aries 50, part two.