If asked to conjure the most opulent Japanese cars ever built, the first that come to mind is probably the Toyota Century. A Nissan President may come in a close second, or maybe even a Gloria Turbo Brougham VIP Super Selection Ⅱ, but rarely do we think of Mitsubishi Motors’ offering, the Debonair. It’s time to rectify that.
In the early 1960s, during the planning stages of the Debonair, Mitsubishi toyed with the idea of a licensed production version of the Fiat 1800, but ultimately decided to do their own design. The directives were to make a car with luxurious foreign influences while improving drivability for the Japanese market and maintaining dimensions and displacement in accordance with Japan’s Road Transport Vehicle Act’s 2000cc class.
Right off the bat, we should address the fact that the Mitsubishi Debonair appears to take several styling cues from the 1961-65 Lincoln Continental. This is because the car was penned by ex-General Motors designer Hans Bretzner, and he noted that the Debonair was influenced by the Continental, so its looks are no accident. Bretzner envisioned the shape as a design for the Japanese market.
In Japanese design, bold angular lines are a sign of strength, so the upright, creased fenders lent themselves well to this style. They also helped the Debonair look larger and grander, pushing to the very limits of the dimensions of the 2000cc class.
That choice paid off at its reveal at the 1963 Tokyo Motor Show, where it was the star of the Mitsubishi Motors booth. It was announced that it would go “on sale” in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which, as we noted in our entry on the RT40 Corona, was a pivotal moment for Japan. All eyes around the world would be on Japan for the first time since the War, and it was their time to show how far they’d come.
As it happens, “on sale” was not exactly the correct phrasing, because Debonairs were initially slated to be sold exclusively as company cars for executives of the vast Mitsubishi business empire, which ranged in everything from shipping to mining.
Initially, the Debonair was significantly ahead of what its competitors could offer. Keep in mind that it beat the Century and President to market, and class competitors were decidedly more pedestrian cars like the Toyota Crown, Nissan Cedric, and Prince Gloria. The Debonair’s base model was comparable to the top grades of those models. Plus, it featured a monocoque body, double-wishbone front suspension, and served as a true halo car for Mitsubishi unlike anything the company had released.
As great as the initial 1964 cars were, the following May saw the Debonair advance into the stratosphere with the “Power Specification” package which added electric front seats, power windows, and power steering, along with an automatic transmission. Then, in 1970, the overhead-valve inline-6 was binned for a SOHC “Saturn 6”, bringing output up from 105 horsepower to 130. The bump allowed the Debonair to rocket past the Toyota Crown and the Nissan President in performance, with a 0-60 time nearly three seconds faster than its domestic competition.
1973 saw the Debonair’s first clearly noticeable external changes, with the replacement of L-shaped tail lights to eight individual lights. It also lost the front quarter glass, in lieu of a full-length roll down window and updated blinkers.
The glory years of the Debonair spanned from 1964 to 1976, when the Debonair wasn’t inhibited by the massive jumps in emissions and fuel economy regulations. In 1976, both the manual transmission and inline-6 engine were discontinued as a way for Mitsubishi to save money during the oil crisis.
Sadly, the inline-6 engine would never appear again in the Debonair, but the Silent Shaft four-cylinder had only a 10-horsepower deficit. Meanwhile back in the States, the 1977 Continental would only make 166 horsepower out of 6.6-liter V8. The Mitsubishi made up for the power loss by becoming easeir to live with, gaining power mirrors and radial tires.
Don’t mistake this as the slide into obsolescence that modern Mitsubishi products are prone to. The Debonair oozed class until the very end. Even after the Malaise Era, the Debonair still continued to improve. The 1979 update added ABS, a rear seat-mounted radio tuner, and velour interior. The car still had its draw; when a Debonair was seen in town, you knew it was someone important.
The majority of Debonair owners were executives, with a few politicians and yakuza thrown in. As a result, the majority were finished in black. For these people, the Debonair was a sign of prestige, tradition, and power, like a Japanese Rolls-Royce except more exclusive.
In its later years, it also became a popular wedding car, and many were modified to have an open rear left roof. However, cars like the Toyota Crown evolved with each generation while the Debonair stayed the same. As time wore on, its once avant garde styling seemed out of place. The Century and President aged better and had more cachet. It wasn’t until 1986 that the Debonair evolved completely away from the original 1963 design, making it the second-longest unchanged model after the first-gen Toyota Century.
Today the Debonair is nearly unheard of in America but in Japan, they also have a following in the Kustom community. Its resemblance to the Lincoln Continental has made it a shoe-in for builds that mimic the American kustom styles of the 50s and 60s.
In fact, most of the Debonairs seen in Japan have been at Mooneyes-type shows. Its big slab-sided body and heaps of chrome lend better to American-style modifications than they do most traditional Japanese styles. A set of whitewalls and half spats go far on a Debonair if you want the kustom look. Of course, a suit and chauffeur always looks classier.
In Japan the pre-1973 cars with L-shaped tail lights and quarter glass on the front doors pull a premium over the later model cars and are considered to be more desirable. Even at their most expensive, a very good example of a Debonair is only about ¥1,600,000, ($14,500 USD). At nearly half the price of the equivalent Toyota Crown, it’s a bargain if one can be acquired.