Words by Paul Hollingworth.
Early on a Saturday morning in August 1982, a newly divorced mother with her two young children entered the lot of the Kevin Dennis Mitsubishi dealership on Ballarat Road, Sunshine, to look for their new car. They all piled out of their old blue Datsun 120B with the white vinyl roof, and the brown vinyl seats that would burn the little ones’ legs on hot summer’s days, to excitedly look at the bright and shiny new cars from an exciting new car brand that no one had ever heard of before.
This is not the story of the single mum, a blue Datsun or a dealership making the fateful decision to start selling new Holdens, but rather about my first car – a 1982 Mitsubishi Sigma station wagon.
My first car was given to me by my mother, the aforementioned single mum, when I passed my driving test at seventeen-and-a-half years. At the time, the car was still only seven years old, but she had grown bored with it. The tastes of the early-1980s was vastly different to those of the late-1980s. I was the only teenager in Queensland with a bloody station wagon that wasn’t a Holden or a Ford (can’t be factchecked, so don’t try).
In October 1980, Mitsubishi Motors Australia was established when several Mitsubishi keiretsu bought out Chrysler’s shares of their joint operation in Australia. Prior to this, Chrysler Australia was building the Chrysler Sigma at Tonsley Park in South Australia. These cars were essentially the same as the Mitsubishi Galant being sold in Japan at the time. Mitsubishi began selling the Sigma in Australia under its own brand in 1981. The car my mother bought was a new 1982 Sigma, three-speed automatic, station wagon, with metallic brown paint. She wanted the metallic green, but she didn’t like the interior colours that came with it. At the time, metallic paint was new, exciting, modern and an added extra to the standard price, so of course mum needed to have it. The car was also the first automatic the family had ever owned, and first with an AM/FM radio with a cassette deck! We really did think it was the bees-knees, and mum even added the optional roof-rack for greater versatility (the roof-rack was never actually used, but it did look nice).
Shortly after buying the car my mother remarried. Her new husband had two daughters, roughly the same age as my sister and me, and the Sigma was used to take us all on holidays and trips to the country. As the only boy I was often placed in the back with the luggage – not too comfortable, but well away from all the girl-germs, I was happy.
Placing children in the back of a station wagon was very common in the 1970s, but by the 1980s was starting be seen less-favourably. Prior to the 1980s most windows in a station wagon’s tailgate could be opened. This was not the case with our Sigma, so it was often hot and smelly back there.
In 1987 the family moved from Melbourne to Townsville and my mother drove the whole way in the Sigma with me as the passenger – my step-father and sister had flown up earlier for some reason I no longer remember. The car took the trip comfortably and easily with no troubles at all, although having nor air-conditioning, no cruise control, and only cassette tapes made it harder than the trip would be today. We made it in two-and-a-half days.
In the middle of 1989, the car became mine. I was in my senior year of high school, and due to the differences in school’s starting ages between Queensland and Victoria, I was one of the oldest in my class, and one of the first to receive my drivers’ licence. As you can imagine, this made me the designated driver and instantly popular. I would often have six or eight or more of my classmates in the car at once, and at the senior formal I even had four dangling from the roof-rack! I have no idea how we all survived.
After my senior year I drove the car to Melbourne and back to see my dad and to stay in a caravan in the front yard of his house in St Albans for a few weeks. Incidentally, this is where I lost my virginity, and experienced my only “close encounter” with a female – an experience that still haunts me today, it really wasn’t very nice. Once back in Townsville and in the grip of Paul Keating’s recession “we had to have”, I found there to be no jobs for school-leavers in Townsville, and I was too stupid for university, so I decided to move back to Melbourne.
I packed my few belongings in the Sigma and headed off. This was the only time the car experienced a problem. One hundred kilometres from Mackay and my car stops running, right in the middle of the Bruce Highway. Luckily, on a slight decline, I was able to roll to the shoulder and safely pull the car over. In the days before mobile phones, being stranded on the highway in the tropics was not a recommended activity. I was finally saved when a passing motorist told the Mackay tow truck man that I was out there – thank goodness for my mum’s RACQ membership. I was stuck in Mackay for 6 days (it was a long weekend). I don’t know what Mackay is like these days, but back then it could reasonably be described as a sleepy old sh*thole, and I spent my time in the motel watching the one available TV channel. It turned out the problem was the alternator, and a replacement part was sent up from Brisbane.
The end of the car was not far off though. In 1991 I was making a right-turn off Ballarat Road in Footscray, it was Grand Final day, so I guess it was in September, when a speeding Commodore slammed into my passenger side at full-speed. The Sigma was a write-off, and to make matters worse, the Commodore was an unmarked police car with an off-duty copper driving. In short, the copper charged me with failing to give way, and the Magistrate fined me $250.
My next car was a 1974 Toyota Celica, but that can be a story for another time.