Scan the entry list of any classic rallies these days and you’ll find an abundance of different makes and models.
It’s a safe bet that the list will be dominated by Datsun 1600s, Stanzas, 200Bs, Silvias and the like, Escorts of the 2-litre and BDA/BDG configuration, Toyotas, Galants, the odd Cortina, Torana, 260Z – and the list goes on.
When you consider that all these makes and models were around in the “good old days” of the Southern Cross Rally, it’s surprising that today’s list is unlikely to include one of the world’s most successful Japanese cars, a vehicle that is now rarely seen in club and major events.
That car is the A73 Mitsubishi Lancer, a car that was almost invincible in the days of the famous Southern Cross. Plenty of Datsun 1600s still exist, as do a new wave of Escorts, still competitive even 40 years on, but the Lancer seems to be non-existent.
Andrew Cowan's Lancer sits ready for the Southern Cross Rally in Port Macquarie in the 1970s.
When you take into account the fact that Lancers (and we’re not talking about the later 4WD turbocharged version) swept all before them in the ‘Cross between 1972 to 1977, plus other major events all over the world, you have to ask why.
Lightweight, compact, strong and ultra-competitive, the Lancer LA and LB models were introduced to the world in February 1973 as a successor to the also-rallied Colt Fastback and Galant that had been the company’s rallying mainstays until then.
At that stage Mitsubishi were keen to break into the Australian market and chose to promote the Lancer in Australia as a tough family car that would be on the average family motorist’s shopping list.
Andrew Cowan / Fred Gocentas, 1976 Southern Cross Rally.
At the time it offered almost everything that Australian motorists were looking for, and showroom sales before (and certainly after) major events like the ‘Cross, and also the East African Safari, shot through the roof.
Thanks to its engineering simplicity, the Lancer cut a swathe through the road-going family car market. While the earlier versions were powered by a 1400cc powerplant, the “rally-ised” 1600 GSR was the Japanese company’s secret weapon as far as performance was concerned.
Mitsubishi made certain that they obtained the maximum benefit from their Southern Cross Rally entries, signing up the canny Scot, Andrew Cowan, as its lead driver in 1972, with Australia’s leading navigator at the time, John Bryson, calling the shots.
So successful were the pair that not only did they win the event outright, but went on to take victory in 1973, ’74, ’75 and ’76, plus a fourth in 1977, all in 1600 GSR models.
Also featuring on the leaderboard in those years were Joginder Singh/Garry Connelly, Doug Chivas/Peter Meyer, Barry Ferguson/Wayne Gregson and Japan’s ever-consistent driver, Kenjiro Shinozuka, all of whom tasted victory during Mitsubishi’s whitewash of the major placings.
So popular had the hot little Mitsubishi Lancers become, of the 90 crews entered for the 1976 event, nearly 25 per cent of the entry list (20 cars) were Lancers. Even the might of overseas factory teams such as Ford, who entered several RS1800 BDA Escorts, and Nissan with their Datsun 710s, failed to blunt the Mitsubishi steamroller’s attempts at victory.
But the pace was moving on and it got decidedly more difficult for Mitsubishi to maintain that winning edge.
Of course Australia was not the only country to see Lancers continue their winning streak. Victories in the East African Safari, one of the roughest and toughest events in the world in 1975 and 1976, confirmed the competitiveness of the 1600 GSR, as well as its strength and durability.
Scottish driver Andrew Cowan was a star of Australia's Southern Cross Rally.
By the time Andrew Cowan had won the Southern Cross yet again in 1976, Lancers had clocked up seven major overall victories, proving that they were masters of their game.
But the question remains – why are there so few two-wheel drive Mitsubishi Lancers rallying today?
It’s not as though they would not be competitive against the hordes of Datsuns and the proliferation of Escorts, for it’s relatively easy to slot a 2-litre or 2.4-litre Sigma motor into their accommodating body shell. And there should be no shortage of parts and panels available.
You would think that auto dismantlers would also be a good source of two or four door shells, not to mention gearboxes and running gear. Compared to a good 2-litre Escort, there should be little difference in their relative performance and handling.
We’d like to be proved wrong when we say that the Lancer is no more than a forgotten breed. If you have a good photo of your LA or LB Lancer taken either today or in times past, we’d love to see it.
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