We get behind the wheel of what is quite possibly the best-kept first-generation Mitsubishi L200 in the world to see just what tradie utes were like nearly 40 years ago.

One day a couple of years ago when I was at Mitsubishi’s Australian head office here in Adelaide picking up a press car as I’d done many times before and since, something lurking at the back of the workshop caught my eye.

Upon inquiring, I learned that it was a 1984 Mitsubishi L200 Express that had been wheeled out for the launch of the facelifted Triton – the modern equivalent of the L200, although that name is still used in some markets – and was sitting there unregistered.

After a couple of years of back and forth, however, I finally got the call that the little L200 had been reregistered – complete with custom TRITON1 number plates – and that I was booked in for a week with it for the first extended press loan it had even been on, meaning I could get properly acquainted with it rather than merely spending half a day or so with it like most classics I’m fortunate enough to review.

Cast your mind back just over 40 years, and this L200 was one of the models in Mitsubishi Motors Australia’s initial lineup when it launched in 1980, although it had previously been on offer since 1978 badged as a Chrysler. But while it’s clear that utes such as this have always been a cornerstone not just of Mitsubishi’s lineup but also of the broader Australian car market, they weren’t quite what they are today all the way back then.

While the modern Triton/L200 is equipped with a brace of active safety technology, features like Apple CarPlay and automatic dual-zone climate control, and even conveniences like heated and power-adjustable leather seats, this… isn’t.

Look past the striking and very period-correct brown vinyl upholstery that greets you as you peer inside its small single cab and you’ll quickly start to see that it’s a very basic affair inside. There’s a glovebox, but it doesn’t lock, and the big storage tray below it while very handy would probably destroy your passenger’s shins in an accident.

There’s no air conditioning, with only a simple heater and fan, although there are smokers’ windows you can use to direct cool, fresh air in directly at you to make up for it. There’s also only a blank spot on the dashboard where the clock would be had the original owner opted to have one fitted, and there’s no tachometer in the gauge cluster, either. It only has an AM radio as well, although it could be worse – Alan Jones could still be on the air.

Despite being such a small thing, it does actually have a three-person bench seat – with three-point outer seatbelts, although only a lap-sash belt for whoever’s sat in the middle – although there won’t be any chance of maintaining a safe social distance in this current day and age with three of you sat shoulder-to-shoulder in this tiny truck.

The ergonomic concerns don’t end there either, as one thing that quickly became clear to me was that the steering wheel is off-centre to the driver and is instead positioned further to the right, meaning not only are you sat slightly awkwardly, but your view of the temperature gauge is obstructed as well.

However, not all is bad. For one thing, I had plenty of room to stretch my legs out even at 6’2″, and the seat itself was nice and soft in that very ’80s way. Everything felt solidly put together and nice to the touch, too, with the extensive use of soft vinyl giving everything a surprisingly pleasant feel.

If there’s one thing that came as a big surprise, however, it’s what was under the bonnet of this little truck. Admittedly, it’s hardly anything remarkable at first glance – a simple 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with a two-barrel carburettor, backed by a five-speed manual gearbox that sends the power to the rear wheels alone.

Look a bit closer, however, and you’ll notice that on one of the build plates under the bonnet, it tells you this little four-pot’s engine code – 4G63. While to the average person, this will mean absolutely nothing, fans of the Lancer Evolution will no doubt be jumping up and down in their seats right now.

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, this is effectively where the origins of the motor that powered every single Evo trace back to – a small, carbureted, uncomplicated engine in a little pickup truck.

Now, beyond its displacement and engine designation, there’s little this 69kW minnow has in common with the rally-dominating 4G63s we all know and love, that’s not so say it’s a bad engine as it’s actually a very likeable little thing.

It might be a tad noisy when you get into the upper reaches of the rev range, but it always felt smooth and surprisingly torquey thanks to its short gearing. Put your foot down in fourth gear between 60-80km/h and you’ll understand exactly what I mean when I say that while progress isn’t exactly rapid, it does feel strong enough to pull a decent load in the back.

I must return to the topic of steering briefly, however, as there are more issues with it than just the steering wheel being skewed to the side. It’s an old-school recirculating ball steering system and it’s non-power assisted, too, and as such it feels incredibly heavy at low speeds, and overly light and inconsistent at higher speeds.

However, the questionable steering and lack of overall power are the only real signs of its age when it comes to how it drives, as in every other regard it feels just like driving any other ute. With a ladder frame chassis featuring independent coil spring suspension up front and a leaf-sprung live rear axle at the back, along with front disc brakes, it shares far more in common with the current crop of utes than you might think.

That five-speed gearbox is a sweet little thing to row gears on as well, and the clutch pedal is nicely weighted, too, so all-in-all, it’s not a half bad thing to drive, even with some signs of its age.

Ultimately, though, the real fun factor to driving this thing is just that – the fact that taking a seat behind the wheel feels like stepping into a time warp. Given how beautifully its been restored and cared for – it’s even known among Mitsubishi Motors Australia employees as ‘Betty White’, so that’s a sure sign they really do care for this little ute – it provided me with an experience you’ll be hard-pressed to come across anywhere else.

With vehicles like this having effectively been built to be worked to death, it’s quite incredible to come across what would have to be one of the very nicest examples of a first-generation L200 in existence and see just how tradies, farmers, and those in other blue-collar professions had it back in the day when it came to the ride they were in.

I guess the most surprising thing of all is that aside from the lack of air conditioning and touchscreen technology, it wasn’t actually all that much differently at all.

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Mitsubishi Motors Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel. All additional fuel costs were covered by the author.

Patrick Jackson
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