Retro Road Test - 1974 Mitsubishi Lancer

Old cars - and I apologise in advance to classic car owners - are a bit rubbish.They're often slow, noisy, the gearbox is frequentlyrecalcitrant, the steering heavy and when you finally want to end your tortuous journey, the brakes don't work unless you have calf muscles like Hercules.

Yet we love them anyway, since they're full of character, stylish, nostalgic and above all, fun.So when you find one that actually drives like a modern car, to all intents and purposes, they approach perfection. And that's where the1974 Mitsubishi Lancer you see here comes in.

Mitsubishi Lancer rear angle

Admittedly, it isn't fast by modern standards. Under the bonnet, longitudinally mounted, is a 1.4-litre carburetted four-cylinder engine.

Modest in capacity, it nevertheless produces 92 horsepower, a not insignificant amount in its day and not bad now either. You can buy a 1.4 Vauxhall Adam with less than that, and frankly there's not a lot in it for refinement either. In fact, the Mitsubishi's engine hums away quite nicely, where the Adam's simply buzzes. The Lancer's four-potwas already idling when I climbed in, and aside from a little more vibration than you'd feel from an equivalent modern engine, it wasn't notably noisier.

Mitsubishi Lancer grille

The surprises continued as I acquainted myself with the cabin. The design is distinctly old-school, of course - all black plastics, vinyls and uber-cool hooded instruments. You sit close to the screen and the wheel is angled in front of you,unadjustable but well-placed nevertheless.

The seats are comfortable too, and the layout vastly better than the similarly-aged VW Beetle I once owned. If this is representative of all Japanese cars of the era, you can see why they put the wind up European manufacturers back in the 1970s. The Datsun 240Z I drove last year had similarly intelligent ergonomics.

Mitsubishi Lancer interior

More eyebrow raisers: The clutch is light and positive. As is the gearshift - expecting to hunt for first gear, I almost second-guessed by selection when it slotted straight in with oily precision. In that respect, it shamed the fifteen years newer SEAT Ibiza I drove a few hours later. Performance was certainly better, the four-pot emitting a sporty little rasp as the revs piled on.

Come to think of it, it also has better steering. Uncorrupted by drive to the front wheels, it's surprisingly light of touch. Part of that is down to the skinny little tyres, which also aid the ride with the sort of sensible profile modern cars have long since abandoned.

Mitsubishi Lancer radio

Light weight, narrow tyres and a rear-wheel drive layout imply a tail-happy driving experience, but in reality the Lancer is benign. Aggressive use of the throttle in turns just results in a spinning inside rear wheel, and plenty of body roll. At higher speeds, understeer is a more likely outcome. But modern cars do that too, don't they?

And - glory be - the brakes work. They don't quite stand the car on its nose, but nor are you left gripping the steering wheel in terror, stabbing at the pedal in vain hope of friction 'twixt pads and discs. Having driven other old vehicles, it's hard to put into words how reassuring that feeling is...

Mitsubishi Lancer tail light


Be under no illusions, the Lancer is not a modern car. There are no airbags (nor ABS, nor any real safety gear at all), you'd have to get used to something known as a choke, and while the old analog radio is delightful to look at and handle, we'd soon get bored of its fuzzy signal.

That's not to say you couldn't use it every day though. You absolutely could, if you found one as beautifully-preserved as Mitsubishi UK's heritage fleet example. Everything just sort of... well, works. If you set aside the extra noise and the relative lack of performance, every other control is as easy to use as that of a modern vehicle. The seats are comfortable and the boot is big enough for actual stuff.

Mitsubishi Lancer dashboard

Mitsubishi is enjoying its 40th year in the UK in 2014. It has an interesting range of vehicles right now, from the budget Mirage to the high-tech Outlander Plug-In Hybrid. But none of those give you quite the feeling of driving the car they introduced here four decades ago...

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