Next year, the Mitsubishi L300 celebrates its 30th birthday. Or its 34th. Or is that 38th? Confusing? That's understandable, as the L300's journey to market in the Philippines is indeed a long and convoluted one.
Back before AUVs--or Asian Utility Vehicles--were a thing, there was the Mitsubishi Cimarron. In the midst of the ‘70s-era “Progressive Car Manufacturing Program,” which saw the introduction of the Ford Fiera, the Toyota Tamaraw, and the DMG-VW Trakbayan, the Cimarron was woefully out of date, since it was based on '60s chassis and technology. Mitsubishi's answer came belatedly, in 1983, with the L300. This was a van based on the 1979 “Delica,” or “Delivery Cargo” van. Here was a forward-control van, not unlike the Cimarron, which boasted superior flexibility and space to its front-engined competitors.
Forward-control here meant the hot engine sat under the driver. Corresponding jokes about 'fried eggs' sound silly, but after sitting in one for a few hours, your nether regions did tend to feel a little toasty and somewhat numb from the vibration. There wasn't so much vibration if you had the eight-valve gasoline engine, but the engine everyone wanted was the now-legendary 4D56 diesel.
Thus equipped, the L300 came to market just as competitors like Volkswagen, Ford and Toyota were closing up shop due to the economic turmoil caused by the Aquino assassination and the IMF default. The ‘80s was a generally terrible decade for the car market, but the L300 weathered this storm. Post-EDSA, in 1987, a cab chassis variant with the now-famous FB option was introduced.
The L300 FB, though little more than a truck cab with a box bolted to the payload bed, would serve to get the country back on its feet, ferrying retail goods, commuters and generations of students down our local pockmarked streets. It survived coup d' etats, blackouts, and the Asian economic crisis of 1997. In that year, Mitsubishi finally introduced the L300's successor, the Exceed, years after it was phased out in Japan.
The Exceed was soon followed by its own successor, the next-generation Space Gear—the car that spawned Hyundai's popular Starex. But the original L300 would not be retired. Yes, at one point in time, three generations of Delica/L300 were sold side-by-side on the Philippine market. Eventually, Mitsubishi dropped the two newer ones in favor of the more car-like Grandis, which it then phased out at the turn of the decade. And yet, even now, you can still buy the original L300. So what's the secret to its staying power?
Not the power, surely. While the 4D56 is dependable, you would never call the 71hp mill powerful. And the ancient five-speed manual transmission’s crawl-worthy first gear leaves you only four useful gears for highway use. Not the handling, either. With its truck-like seating position and steering, you almost always felt like a bus driver.
There is no cutting-edge technology in here, nor the go-anywhere ability that imported Japanese 4WD Delicas boasted. Yet the L300 has gone everywhere a four-wheeled conveyance possibly can in the Philippines, and then some.
The L300 simply is. It’s mechanical simplicity and ubiquity. Translation: It's everywhere, making it a car that mechanics from Aparri to Jolo can work on. And that same simplicity makes it both flood and idiot-proof. Almost every commercial driver in the Philippines has cut his teeth on an L300, and almost every commuter has ridden in one at one point or another. As it approaches its 30th–or 38th–birthday, let's raise a glass to a car that has served through both the darkest and brightest days of post-war Philippines. It's an integral part of the Philippine landscape, as constant as the sun and rain.