YOU’D HAVE to be crazy. Imagine willingly signing up for a 10,000km race that tosses you into some of the world’s most inhospitable conditions where you and your co-driver could be shot at, have to dodge livestock, translate a complex toilet roll-thick course book, negotiate in multiple dialects and overcome mechanical hurdles including inevitable tyre punctures in searing desert heat.
Sound good? Well here is the machine made for exactly this task…
The 1997 Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution was single-mindedly built to win the Dakar rally. While the Lancer Evolution was making a name for itself in the World Rally Championship (WRC), delivering the original Evo I in 1992 and, with the Subaru WRX, changing the performance road-car landscape forever, the other side of Mitsubishi’s Ralliart competition department was beefing up the Pajero to win the toughest race in the world: Dakar.
It all started when Mitsubishi found itself playing catch-up with its Pajero against its Japanese rivals, who’d been selling off-roaders for decades. Toyota, inspired by the original 1948 Land Rover, launched its now iconic Landcruiser globally in 1951, the same year Nissan introduced its alternative, the Patrol.
Mitsubishi had built its version of the Willys Jeep in Japan under licence from 1953, but the company didn’t have permission to export it, losing significant ground to Toyota and Nissan. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that Mitsubishi dipped a toe in the water with its own four-wheel drive, named the ‘Pajero’ concept. Shown at the 1973 Tokyo show, it looked like a halfhearted tarted up Jeep, but the 1979 Pajero II concept was a much more promising execution and not far off the design of the original NB Pajero production model that finally hit Japan’s showrooms in 1982.
The early ’80s timing was ripe here in Australia, too. With Mitsubishi Motors Australia Limited (MMAL) formed in 1980 and hungry for success, the new Pajero was aggressively pitched against the incumbent Landcruiser – on sale here since 1960 – and Patrol, which had only arrived in 1980. The Pajero, ‘The ultimate off-road machine’, arrived in Australia in 1983 facing stiff competition.
Globally, Mitsubishi HQ in Japan was looking for ways to claw back the 30-odd year advantage that Toyota and Nissan enjoyed. How could Pajero do it? The same way Lancer made its mark in the 1970s – by rallying and winning.
Mitsubishi certainly wasn’t afraid to back its new steed. In only its second year of production, a pair of lightly modified Pajeros were entered in the 1983 Paris-Dakar, winning the teams prize on debut with an impressive 11th place finish. When Scotsman Andrew Cowan – who’d taken Mitsubishi’s first rally win, the 1972 Southern Cross Rally – formed the brand’s new competition arm, Ralliart, in 1984, the bunfight was truly on.
A stunning third was achieved that year, with Pajero the first production vehicle home, before Mitsubishi’s new off-roader broke through to win in 1985, doing so in serious style – a one-two with Frenchman Patrick Zaniroil’s Pajero leading home Cowan. In their dust was a pair of FJ60 Landcruisers…
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