Competition with genius Giorgetto Giugiaro


Shinichi Mitsuhashi

―― Study abroad in the U.S.

The Colt Sport was planned as a sports version of the Colt 1000 series, but after the design was approved, the project was suddenly called off. In my fifth year with the company, I was in a state of despondency after my first job as a chief designer ended in vain, when the then head of the design section, Awaji, said to me, ” Go study at an American design college.” In the fall of 1966, later known as Japan’s “first year of the My Car,” I was pushed to leave on a Pan Am airliner from Haneda Tokyo. The Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles was known for its intense learning environment, with all-night assignments the norm, and I had to work hard because my English was not up to par. It was a valuable experience for me to be in the home of the automobile society.

―― Determination to develop new car

As I was preparing to return to Japan after less than a year of study abroad, I received a telex. It instructed me to stop by the head office in Marunouchi Tokyo and meet with Executive Director Kubo. As I was about to give a detailed report on the results of my study abroad program when he suddenly interrupted me and said, ” We are going to start a new passenger car project. I want it to be a stylish car by any means. I want you to give it your all starting tomorrow.” He said that he plans to have an up-and-coming Italian designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro, propose a design for this project and compete with our in-house designers. Kubo’s words conveyed his determination to succeed in the development of a new car to compete with the Toyopet Corona and the Nissan Bluebird.

In fact, I had been ready for this before. I had been chasing the image of Colt’s successor during my training at Art Center College. While learning the technique of quick sketching with gouache (opaque watercolor) from Instructor David Solon, who is famous for his strictness, I was drawing several ideas. Despite being in the U.S., I was not comfortable with the flashy style of American cars, and most of my ideas were more or less influenced by European cars. However, European cars have their own brand identity. Where should Mitsubishi look for a way forward? Especially as a latecomer, Mitsubishi must do something different from Toyota and Nissan. I pondered it day after day.

Future image of Colt (young horse) drawn at Art Center

―― First meeting with Giugiaro

Meeting at Ital Styling S.p.A.In the midst of all this, I visited Ital Styling S.p.A. (later Ital Design S.p.A.) in Turin alone. The purpose of my visit was to discuss the technical conditions of the design and the production schedule. Giugiaro was at the cutting edge of car design at the time, and I was in awe of the sophisticated designs that he kept coming up with. Giugiaro was a tall, handsome man whose gestures became louder and more powerful as we got into the details of our meeting. I sensed his unwavering confidence in his job. This time, however, I was going to compete with him, and a strong sense of rivalry rose up from the bottom of my heart. I left the office with a shiver, saying to myself, “How the hell can I lose? “


―― Birth of Wedge Shape

Back in the studio after a long absence, our group began brainstorming. It was my policy to start with the verbalization of the concept, rather than immediately going into sketches (forms). I thought that Mitsubishi had high-performance engines and aircraft technology from the war and that there was no way not to take advantage of these. We should differentiate ourselves from our competitors with a sporty touch. I drew up a side-view sketch in gouache at once. The mainstream of sedans at that time was a boxy shape with static beauty, but in this sketch, I emphasized dynamic beauty. The beltline rises from the low front end and hops up sharply at the front end of the rear pillar. Looking back on it later, it was the birth of the wedge shape. 


We struggled through trial and error to express a two-dimensional sketch into a three-dimensional model, but our nerves were on edge with only one month left until the model was due for completion. The young staff members, especially Yoshimasa Mitsuya, in charge of the model, and Masami Sano, in charge of the line drawings, were full of enthusiasm and said they were not afraid of being outmatched. Overtime hours increased, and we had to work on weekends and holidays. We would work late into the night in the studio, shaping and scraping clay, and when we were exhausted, we would sleep in a corner of the studio.

―― Two models face off

In January 1968, the day of the decision finally arrived. The two models were placed side by side for a design review. Giugiaro’s design had an edgy, stable style, while ours was inspired by driving performance, so the style has a sense of motion. I compared the two models in a relatively calm manner and wondered “… does it look too small, so it might be a disadvantage? ” At the meeting, executives from each division lined up with Executive Director Kubo in the center and expressed their opinions on which model they preferred. Almost all of them agreed with each other as if they were following the same opinion. In short, our model did a good job, but it was still immature, while the Italian model is indeed the work of Giugiaro and is well done, and we should use it as the basis for the final design.

As the meeting progressed, I felt very miserable. I shrank back and watched Kubo’s profile timidly. Surprisingly and unexpectedly, Kubo’s words were the opposite of everyone’s opinions, as if he was a contrary person. He said “The Italian model is certainly well done, but our designers’ model has quite a potential. If we can incorporate the good points of the Italian model into this model, it will be a good style. ” We surely won, and our design was selected. When I looked at my colleagues, they had changed from their stern looks and were amazed. Perhaps it was not so much a look of victory or defeat, but rather a look of joy at having accomplished something.

Inhouse proposal

Ital styling proposal  Source: S. Mitsuhashi, INHOUSE DESIGNER (SAN-EI CORP.,1999)

Executive Director Kubo checking model

―― Turning joy into power

We young members, energized by the Kubo decision, worked harder than ever before. Looking back, we can assume that Kubo intended to empower our in-house designers by having us compete with outside designers. Philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss said, “The new productivity of today is nothing less than qualitative value and the joy of accomplishing. Modern productivity is found in respect for human nature.” In the midst of today’s somewhat mechanical and cold management structures, I am reminded of the power of trust, friendship, and service, which transcend human hierarchical relationships, and which are irreplaceable.

Sketch drawn with Executive Director Kubo as driver

After the basic design was decided, we persisted in improving the details. For example, we studied a lot of ideas for the front grille, and in the end, we chose a design with vertical bars proposed by Hideaki Yoshizawa, a young designer in his third year with the company. This unique “face” characterizes the Colt Galant, and by extending the vertical bar pattern to the tail lamps, a sense of unity was achieved.

Colt Galant Clay modeling

Design refinement work for completion

Wooden models of various front grille proposals

―― Mitsubishi’s first hit product

The Colt Galant launched in December 1969 became Mitsubishi’s first hit, thanks in part to the catchphrase “Dyna-Wedge Line,” a technical term for “wedge” that the designers proposed, which was crowned with the word “dynamic”. Although automotive magazines sarcastically reported that “for the first time, Mitsubishi made a commercial product instead of a manufactured product,” it was clear that the company had broken away from its heavy industries nature, and the automotive division was gaining momentum to become independent. Looking back, it is also clear that a latecomer to the company, a group of a few people who had started as a “design unit” under the equipment engineering section ten years before (“a group of unique talents” that was derided as a “crazy tribe”), began to take on the role of a leading group in driving the company forward.



July 2021


Interior design responding to changing times 


Haruo Okamoto

―― Rapid Changes in automobile society

In the 1960s, Japan enjoyed a rapid economic growth unprecedented in the world, and cars went from status symbols to personal items. The year 1966 was called the first year of the “My Car” era. With the opening of the Meishin Expressway in 1965, high-speed driving and long drives became possible, and companies began to offer a five-day workweek, increasing leisure time and triggering a leisure boom. In addition, the Ministry of Transportation announced exhaust emission regulations and automobile safety standards, and the standards and the concepts for cars were rapidly changing.

In the summer of 1967, Mitsuhashi, who had just returned from his studies in the U.S., was assigned by Managing Director Kubo of the Automotive Business Division to begin work on the design of the Colt successor as soon as possible. I remember that Kubo’s direction was that he was quite looking forward to our new ideas, that we could design without necessarily being bound to the internal plan that had already been started.

―― First seating buck fabrication

At first, a full-size layout drawing was made on the wall to study the various dimensions of the interior. However, after examining the interior to a certain level, it was agreed that the space could only be understood in three dimensions, and it was decided to fabricate a three-dimensional model. This was also the opinion of Mitsuhashi, who had studied at the Art Center College of Design. It was what they call a seating buck in the U.S. 

This was the first time we, the Design section in Nagoya works, had worked on seating buck. The model was made of wood for quick modification and was constructed in a birdcage style with plywood body sections built around a basic floor and a toeboard, with which we studied the interior space.

Colt Galant  seating  buck

Layout study on drawing

Important points to study are: how low can the vehicle height be lowered in relation to the seating position and head clearance; how much forward downward visibility can be secured in relation to the eye point and front deck; how will the door glass be changed from conventional flat glass to curved glass in terms of shoulder space; and how low can the belt line be lowered? I think that the first domestic car with curved glass doors was the Colt 800, which was introduced in 1965. The curved glass in the door allows the entire cross-section of the door to protrude more than that of flat glass. The glass can be more easily accommodated in the door, which allows the beltline to be lowered and the window to be enlarged vertically. This has led to a dramatic modernization of car design since the late 1960s.

As a result of the curved glass study, it was possible to expand the shoulder space and move the front seats outward, which in turn made it possible to place a wider center console between the front seats. Other areas studied in this model included checking the shock absorption of the instrument panel, and the placement and operability of switches, handles, and knobs. (Regarding the curved glass, the Colt 800 was developed at the Mizushima Works, which was different from our Nagoya Works, even though they were both affiliated with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, so we needed to make our own assessment.)


Revised seating buck

―― Introduction of safety standards and new features

Meanwhile, the product planning and the engineering departments were planning to add new features and improve operating procedures for a new generation of vehicles, including incorporating the automobile safety standards mentioned above.

A particular safety concern was headrests. At this time, rear-end collisions because of the rapidly increasing number of cars were frequent, and people wearing corsets around their necks due to whiplash caused by such collisions could often be seen on the streets, making safety measures a major social issue. At the same time, seat belts became mandatory. Also, instrument panels with shock-absorbing structures, shock-absorbing steering wheels, change horn pad without horn ring, and recessed door inner handles, all of which are commonplace today, were planned at this time. In addition, improvements to ease of driving, such as non-reflective gauges and multi-use levers, were also planned. The elimination of triangular windows was also a trend of the times, and the Nissan Bluebird was the pioneer among Japanese sedans in adopting them. The spread of car air-conditioning was a major factor, but instead of a cleaner appearance, ventilation vents were required on the instrument panel.

Interior design involves a lot of drawing works. Paperweight called “whale”, lead sharpener, drafting brush, triangular scale, etc.

―― Evolution of interior design

The goal of interior design was to provide a comfortable space in a variety of situations, including low-speed, high-speed and long-distance driving. Furthermore, new functionality and safety features were to be combined in an aesthetically pleasant design. Galant’s instrument panel design was based on the image of protecting the passengers, with instruments built into the base of the panel. In addition to having air vents on both sides of the instrument panel, additional air vents are placed in the center of the instrument panel if an optional cooler is installed. This layout was more comfortable and logical than the common cooler of the time, which had some outlets on the cooler unit itself hanging from the passenger-side instrument panel. Except for some low-grade models, the large center console, which is continuous with the instrument panel, has allowed the overall shape of the instrument panel to evolve from the thin, horizontal shape that had been the norm to a sturdy, T-shaped, sporty, modern shape. In addition, since full-scale export of passenger cars was to begin through Chrysler, the additional meter cluster and the glove box were made to adapt to left-hand-drive models.


Instrument panel model in early stage


The indication of ventilation operation caused by the elimination of the triangular window was completely new to us, and many people involved expressed the opinion that it would be difficult to understand if it were displayed in text form. Therefore, it was decided to use a pictogram, as was common in some European vehicles. In addition, it was also decided to use pictograms for the multi-use levers to make them easier to see in a small area, and Ando, a young assistant designer, coordinated the design. At this time, other companies began to use pictograms for controls, which were later standardized by JIS. With the help of Matsui, who was in charge of equipment engineering, we were able to design an instrument panel that is easy to read and operate.

In the design of the seats, instead of emphasizing the thickness of the seat cushions as is common, unnecessary portions of the cushions were removed to make the seats appear thinner, to minimize the cramped feeling of the cabin caused by the addition of the headrests.

Seat model made of Styrofoam (left) and prototype seats (right)

―― Sports version for rallying

At the time, Mitsubishi was gaining a foothold in international rallying with the 1967 Colt 1000F. A sports version of the Colt Galant was also designed to be used in rallies. After studying various ideas with related departments such as layout planning and engineering, a triple gauge with tachometer, bucket seats with white stripes on black background, a wood-grained three-spoke steering wheel and shift knob were adopted for the interior, and the exterior featured bullet-shaped mirrors, dark paint on the wheel caps and rear panel, etc. In addition to the high performance of the engine and suspension, these features helped to create Galant’s image as a sports sedan.コルトギャランスポーツ
―― Body colors

Although I was not in charge of body colors, the Galant has doubled the number of body colors compared to the previous generation Colt 1500 to eight, allowing for a wide range of choices. Among them, Rocky White, which was available in many models, and Vesuvius Red, which was available exclusively for the Sport version, left a strong impression on me. Rocky White was a cooler shade than the warmer whites that had been the norm up to that point, and it gave a sense of novelty. The bright Vesuvius Red fit the image of sporty models, and I remember that both were very popular. However, it was later discovered that Vesuvius Red had weathering problems, and paint manufacturers later focused their efforts on exposure tests in Florida and elsewhere.

―― Prompt minor change

After its launch, the Galant was very well received and I was satisfied that I had done a good job, but soon after, the sales department demanded a more luxurious design for the instrument panel because it was too modest. I wanted to keep it as it was, considering all the trouble I had gone through with the design, but I was forced to change it because it was the voice of the users. In those days, in the fierce competition with competitors, it was quite common for minor changes to be made quickly. As I think about it now, it was an era of rushing ahead by any means.

December 2021