When England rejected our beloved Mitsubishi Sigma

Mitsubishi once tried to export its popular Sigma mid-size sedan and wagon to the United Kingdom. It didn’t end well.

Our story last week on the WB Statesman destined for Dear Old Blighty got us thinking. What other Aussie-built cars winged their to the UK to try and make an impact in Mother Country?

Thanks to a 1975 voluntary trade agreement between the UK and Japan, an agreement that was intended to protect the British motor industry, Japanese imports were restricted to around 11 per cent of total market share.

That the trend indicated the flood of Nissans, Hondas, Toyotas and Mitsubishis would soon reach 20 per cent market share was the flame that lit the fire under Britain’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). But, not everyone, it seemed, played fairly.

And so, in 1982, Colt, at the time the UK arm of Mitsubishi, hatched a plan to flout the 11 per cent import quota on Japanese cars. Realising there was no such restrictions on Australian built cars, Mitsubishi formed the ‘Lonsdale Plan’. Enter the Mitsubishi Sigma, built in Adelaide at the Japanese manufacturer’s Tonsley Park plant.

Mitsubishi reckoned it could shift around 5000 of our favourite mid-size Mitsi in the UK every year so rushed through a plan to export them from Australia to the UK to be sold in Colt dealerships as the Lonsdale, so named for the industrial suburb in Adelaide where the Sigma’s engines were built.

Marketing the Lonsdale presented an interesting challenge for Mitsubishi which already sold the Japanese-built Colt Galant (would a Sigma by any other name still smell as sweet?).

Three engine choices – 1.6-, 2.0- and 2.6-litres – across sedan and station wagon body styles made their way to the UK with suspension tweaks (softer spring rates) more suited to British roads.

The top-of-the-range 2.6-litre shod Lonsdale asked for £7499, cheaper than the equivalent Colt Galant available in the UK at the time. The entry-level 1.6-litre was priced at £5699.

Lonsdale’s advertising material at the time trumpeted “such luxuries as tinted windows, halogen headlamps, internally adjustable door mirrors, reclining seats and even thoughtful extras like storage trays under the seats” all under the banner headline “The Lonsdale. As wizard here as it in Oz”.

Contemporary road tests praised the Lonsdale’s interior as “attractive and comfortable” and its “torquey and willing engine”. They were less complimentary about the Lonsdale’s recirculating ball design steering which one review described as “possibly the car’s worst point from the British point of view… if there is one thing worse than low-geared recirculating ball steering, it is adding fell-less power assistance”. Ouch.

Despite being cheaper than the equivalent Colt Galant, the Lonsdale didn’t capture the British car-buying public’s imagination and in 1984, less than two years after launching, the Lonsdale brand was retired (as was the Colt brand) with all remaining stock rebadged as Mitsubishi Galants.

In Australia, the popular Sigma was phased out, replaced by the Mitsubishi Magna, beginning in 1985 (sedan) and ending with the last Sigma wagon rolling off the Tonsley Park production line in 1987.

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