Thursday, May 16, 2013

Thinking About Cars: Colt Vista

Notice the title?  Usually when I name a car, I give both the manufacturer and the model.  Not this time.

Strictly speaking, it's a Mitsubishi product.  That is really all it ever was, the Colt and Colt Vista were both Mitsubishi products.  But Mitsubishi has been closely associated with Chrysler for a long time, and when Mitsu was trying to make inroads in the American motoring market back in the late 70s and early 80s, they clambered into bed with Chrysler and provided some "captive imports" that Chrylser could then sell under their own name.  Due to its very close association with Chrysler in the US market, I'm not going to be all that specific about who made it - we all know the truth.  More on that in a minute.

The earliest Colts were tiny little things, generally sold in other markets under the nameplate of Mitsubishi Mirage, but also as Dodge and/or Plymouth Colts.  Some of these earliest models could be had with a so-called "Super Shift" transmission, a wonky piece of work that had four speeds, but could also be shifted into two ranges.  This was done because of how the transmission lay in relation to the power output of the engine, which necessitated the addition of an idler shaft and a pair of gears to keep the transmission turning the right direction.  For approximately the same cost as making a five-speed tranny, Mitsubishi provided an eight speed transmission - plus two speeds in reverse.  Weird stuff.

For those who liked the overall look of the Colt but needed just a fuzz more space, there was the Colt Vista, AKA the Colt Vista Wagon.
 It replicated a lot of the styling cues of the compact Colt but writ them larger on the Mitsubishi Chariot platform.  The result was a sort of tall wagon - a lot like a minivan - but with four conventional side-swinging doors, three rows of seating and halfway decent fuel economy.

The above-pictured van is almost exactly like one my uncle drove on a long cross-country trip with his kids and my aunt and my grandparents and they were all still friends when it was over.  So it must get the job done pretty well.  I only drove it one time and liked it in the very limited experience I had with it - a matter of only a couple of miles.  It felt roomy on the inside without being bulky on the outside, which is really kind of the holy grail when it comes to making small cars people will want to buy.  You can see in this mostly side view that there's not a lot of space given over to the engine - just a little bit of nose up front.  The rest is room for people and cargo.

The mid-80s Vista could be had with AWD.  I'm not sure why.  You can see that taking this thing on anything softer than firm sand would leave you wishing for more ground clearance in a pretty big hurry.  Then again, my uncle lives in Minnesota, where having all four wheels pulling would be awfully helpful once the snow flies, and ground clearance needn't be much of an issue in that kind of situation. I don't think his was AWD though.  Jerry's always been a pretty competent driver in snow - in Minnesota you're either that or a mass transit passenger.

Point of trivia: everything I know about driving in snow I learned from my dad.  Everything I learned about driving on ice I learned from my mom.  Dad will cheerfully set out into the flying blizzard with few concerns...once he's loaded up the trunk with a couple of shovels, a bucket or three of fireplace ashes, some rope, and gloves.  "Okay!" he'd say, "let's go see if we can get stuck."  We rarely did, and digging out was never a problem since we already had tools and traction aids ready to go.  And this was tearing around on fresh snow, looking for drifts to plow through full tilt sideways.  Dad got a big charge out of driving in snow, and never did it in anything more snow-worthy than a battered old SAAB.

Mom's ice driving lesson: "Take it easy."  Good advice.  I saw cars flying sideways - none of them piloted by my dad - that were trying to go straight.  It took a while, but Mom got us home with no difficulties.  The most important lesson was that as soon as the tires were moving at a different speed than the car's motion, you had to let up on whatever you were doing so they could reestablish the connection.  Without the connection, you're out of control.

Back to the Vista.  When the block-of-cheese styling of the 80s model became a little too stodgy, Mitsubishi shifted to something a little curvier.  By this time it was also being sold under Mitsubishi's own brand as the Expo and the Expo LRV.
Expo LRV

To date, I have never seen an Expo LRV in the wild.  I suspect a couple may have been shipped to the States for photography purposes, then smuggled back out again.  I'm something of a car nut and would notice one if it were there to be seen.

There weren't that many of the later Colt Vistas sold, either.  I almost never see any, except now that I have one, that makes two in my neighborhood.  The other one lives on the other side of the block from me, and that may comprise 50% of all 90s Colt Vistas in a 50-mile radius.

The Colt Vista model wasn't offered in the long wheelbase model under the Dodge or Plymouth brands.  It had three doors: two up front, a slider on the passenger side and, of course, the liftgate.  
You can see it's a little stubbier

In August of 2012, my grandmother called to say she'd had enough of driving and to come take her car away with us, if we had a kid who didn't mind driving a grandma car.  Upon arriving and seeing the car, we discovered that in the 20 years she'd owned it, Grammy had only put a grand total of about 80,000 miles on the car - about 4,000 miles per year.  The body looks brand new.  The interior is flawless, possibly the cleanest 20-year-old car interior you could imagine.  It bore no evidence of having ever been used.

20 years don't pass without something happening.  Early this March it would appear the engine "dropped a valve."  Now, I'm not sure exactly what that means but it obviously doesn't sound good.  Generally things aren't supposed to be dropped, and things that do get dropped aren't usually the kinds of things you want dropped, at least not in relation to yourself: bombs, dimes, balls.


You remember me saying I wouldn't get specific about who made it?  I won't, but others will.  When it made its unpleasant sound and started blowing smoke, I called the local Mitsubishi dealer's shop manager and asked if I could bring it in.  "No way," he said.  "That's a Chrysler product, we don't work on them."  That made me wonder if I should have just called it an Expo and let him be surprised at the Plymouth badges.  Look around under the car and all the stickers have English and Japanese characters, it's a Mitsubishi from end to end.  "You'll have to take it to a Dodge dealer, it has Chrysler-specific parts on it."  When I got done forking over some take-a-look-at-it money to Dodge, the shop manager there said, "Well, that's baloney.  There just aren't that many mechanics familiar with these things anymore, he didn't want to have to mess with it."

"Are your guys familiar with it?"

"Naw.  Last guy I had who worked on these retired last year.  We're just going by the books now."

So the next step in the journey with the surprisingly spacious little car - lower the back seats to a nearly-flat floor and it will seriously challenge your rationale for owning a pickup truck - is to pull the valve head and see what's up.  It's been a long time since I had anything to do with a valve head being off an engine, and that engine was a 20-year-old (at the time) Opel GT.

Hmm.  20 years old.  Maybe it's me?  Anyway.  Time to break out the wrenches.  Even if it means I have to find a whole new engine (which I doubt), it's still cheaper than trying to find a whole new car. And good luck finding one as quirky as this one, anyway.  It answers questions few people were asking, and good thing it does, too.  I like it.

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