Fast notch “Mini tank”
Shinichi Yamamura, President, Cobo Design Co.,Ltd.
―― Targeting popular sports model market
In the late 1960s, when the design of the 1st gen. Galant ( hereafter Galant) sedan, hardtop and GTO were about to be completed, the design project for the Galant Coupe FTO ( hereafter FTO) was started in a hurry. At that time, the Design studios were located on the south side of the first floor of the research building in the Oe Test Course at the Nagoya Works of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. This was the last design project at Oe, and after this, in 1970, we moved to the new design facility in Okazaki.
At the time, the popular car market in Japan was expanding rapidly along with the country’s high economic growth, thanks to the Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sunny, and other models. Although Mitsubishi was able to respond to the market with the Galant, the Colt 1000F, a popular car, had poor sales, and the company was not yet ready to develop its successor, the Lancer. Therefore, in order to enter the popular car market as quickly as possible before the Lancer was released, Mitsubishi decided to develop the FTO as a time-lag countermeasure car for the popular sports model market, which included the Corolla Sprinter and the Sunny Coupe.
At the time, another major issue was how to design a model with product appeal that would complement the sales capabilities of Mitsubishi dealers. In a questionnaire survey of dealers back then, many of the answers to the question, “What are your expectations for the development of a new model?” Many of the responses were, “I want you to make a car that I can sell from my office, just by making a phone call.” It was true that the small number of salespeople at the time was a considerable handicap compared to Toyota and Nissan dealerships. Therefore, since sporty cars were the object of longing for young people at that time, one possibility was thought to be a sports model with a distinctive appeal at an affordable price.
―― Shortened Galant “Mini tank”
The need to quickly enter the mass-market segment led to a surprisingly tight development schedule for the FTO. Although based on the Galant, the overall length and wheelbase were shortened to the level of a popular car, and the hood and doors were shared with the Galant hardtop. The engines were 1400㏄ and 1600㏄. However, Kensaku Kobayashi and I proposed that an upper-class model with a 2000cc engine might be added to the lineup. However, it was rejected due to opposition from the product planning department. The car, which was nicknamed the “Mini tank” within the company, was styled as a fastback coupe, hence the “coupe” was later added to the car’s name. Although the roof was low, the interior was wide enough for a popular car and could accommodate five passengers. It could be described as a coupe-style compact car with a wide tread, similar to the Toyota Yaris GR of today.
―― Work without sleep or rest
The design project consisted of hot members: Kensaku Kobayashi, Toshihiro Ito, Harada and myself as designers, Mitsuya and Shiiba as modelers, Tomatsu, who was said to be the god of line drawings, and Hasegawa, a newlywed father. Because of the extremely tight schedule, we spent many sleepless nights at the end of the design development. I have fond memories of late nights when modeler ” Chef” Mitsuya would make us instant ramen for our midnight meal in a bumpy washbowl, and four or five of us would take turns sitting around and eating it.
―― Characteristic fast notch
The most difficult part of the design was that the overall length was 315 mm shorter than the Galant, so the rear window would stand up when securing head clearance for the rear seats, and the trunk lid opening would be small in the fastback style. When we proposed a rear gate type, it was opposed due to insufficient strength of the hinge area and sealing problems, by the engineers. Finally, we came up with the unique “fast notch” style, in which the center portion (rear window) is a notchback and the sides (rear pillars) are fastback style.
We promptly requested the Nagoya Aircraft Research Lab’s wind tunnel testing group to conduct measurements, and after thorough wind tunnel testing and analysis, the results were quite good, especially excellent crosswind stability, very little air turbulence in the rear, and low drag. I will never forget how pleased we all were with the excellent results, which were very compatible with the characteristics of rear-drive cars, such as road-holding capability. Yamashita, a section chief of the production engineering department, who is known for his sharp tongue, looked at this somewhat unusual fast-notch style rear pillar and said, “Again, you guys have made a difficult task for us with the design.” However, this problem was solved without any trouble thanks to the creative efforts of Goto and Ohtake, a young staff member of the production engineering department, who devised the press die.
The design around the rear of the car was a simple horizontal tail lamp to emphasize the wide image, and the width of the FTO garnish in the center of the lamp was kept within 400mm between the lamps, which was required by the Vehicle Regulations at the time. The front grille area was difficult to design because of the many shared body parts, but we worked hard with Toumatsu and Hasegawa to bring it all together. The completed design was received much better than expected, and the design was unusually approved in a single design review, so we moved on to the interior and exterior parts design and production design follow-up work.
―― Cancelled left-hand drive model
The design around the instrument panel was initially designed to be compatible with the left-hand drive version, with the instrument panel surface and reinforcement symmetrically shaped for export to North America, but the left-hand drive model was eventually canceled, which was unfortunate. The steering wheel was designed with the entire surface covered with a soft material, which was unique at the time. This unique and sporty design with a hexagonal motif and stitching was designed by a young designer Nobutaka Imada, as I recall.
―― Encounter at magazine interview
After its launch in November 1971, the car was well received and sold well, and we all celebrated that it had fulfilled its role as a time-lag countermeasure car well. Soon after, a magazine came to us for an interview. I declined, saying, “We at Mitsubishi design as a team,” but Nimura, the section chief, insisted that I attend.
I was interviewed for a special issue of Heibon Punch magazine, just published at the time, featuring ” Young Designers and Sports Car Design” and covering the Toyota Celica and The Mitsubishi Galant Coupe FTO. I was a member of Mitsubishi’s mountaineering club at the time and spent every New Year climbing winter mountains. I remember that the writer was so pleased with my talk, “Adventure and Design”, that he wrote, ” A Mitsubishi designer who takes on new challenges”. Since then, I had been in contact with Masao Fujita, who designed the Toyota Celica, and since we were the same age and from the same hometown in Osaka, we were good rivals and friends even after I left Mitsubishi until he passed away.
―― Memorable place that remains unchanged to this day
Shortly after this FTO project was completed, the design group moved from Oe to Okazaki. This was the last design studio at the Oe plant, beginning with the small studio under the clock tower on the 4th floor of the main building when I joined the company and ending with some studios in the test course, which were very memorable. Until recently, I have visited the main building with the clock tower in Oe for meetings with MHI for the МRJ (later the Space Jet) and other projects, and the appearance of the main building, almost unchanged from the time when the initiation ceremony took place, makes me nostalgic and emotional about the time I spent in Oe.