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“Your truck is perfect!” I was halfway across my driveway, keys in hand, but stopped and looked up to see my neighbor sitting in her Jeep. “The color, the size, the lift. I love it! So what in the world is it?” I said, “It’s a 1989 Mitsubishi Mountain Max.” She raised an eyebrow, “Funny. I’ve never even heard of those.”

What is a Mitsubishi Mountain Max?

From 1982 through 1996, U.S. truck owners seeking a Japanese-engineered compact could buy the cheekily-named Mitsubishi Mighty Max. Among other drivetrain options, buyers could opt for part-time 4WD. Mitsubishi badged at least some of these 4WD variants as the “Mountain Max.”

A tan Mitsubishi pickup truck with a camper parked in front of a ring of abandoned cabins at a Wyoming ghost town.
1989 Mitsubishi Mighty Mountain Max | Henry Cesari via MotorBiscuit

In truth, you could get a rebadged version of the same truck (the Dodge D50) in the U.S. as early as 1979. You could buy a compact Dodge D50 (later the Ram 50) version of the Mighty Max until 1996. It actually was available at the same time as the midsize Dodge Dakota.

At first, the Mitsubishi compact truck had a 2.0-liter gasoline I4 that made 93 horsepower and was paired with a five-speed manual transmission. This engine’s output increased over the years, and was later joined by a V6 and even an automatic transmission. During the 1983, 1984, and 1985 model years, both Dodge and Mitsubishi offered a turbocharged diesel I4 engine in the truck.

What does a tax on chicken have to do with U.S. trucks?

Legend has it that when Europe leveled a tariff on chicken (a major U.S. export), it riled up President Johnson so much that it sparked a trade war. One way he struck back was a 25% tariff on vehicles such as light-duty trucks. The tariff exists to this day and is still nicknamed the “Chicken Tax.”

A tan Mitsubishi "Mountain Max" 4WD trim of the compact "Mighty Max" pickup truck
1989 Mitsubishi Mighty Mountain Max | Henry Cesari via MotorBiscuit

Twenty-five percent is a steep price for shipping a foreign vehicle to the U.S. This means an American buyer would have to pay $50k for a $40k Tacoma. Said another way, Toyota would have to offer a Tacoma at $40k that could compete with a $50k Ford Ranger.

But by the 1970s fuel crunch, many American buyers sought more efficient trucks than the Detroit Three knew how to build. So one way everyone circumvented the “Chicken Tax” was shipping partial trucks to the U.S. and having a local partner assemble them. This resulted in the Chevrolet LUV/ Isuzu truck and the Ford Courier/Mazda B-Series (all introduced in 1972). In 1979, Dodge/Plymouth joined the fray with the D50/Arrow, which was actually a Mitsubishi pickup.

My 1989 Mitsubishi Mighty Mountain Max

It was a plan so crazy that it just might work: My brother and I decided to take a year off college, put a camper on a 4WD truck, and drive across the country while exploring National Parks and wide-open BLM land. The only problem? We didn’t have a truck.

We poured over classified ads and Craigslist every morning. Then one day, we spotted an ad placed by a dairy farmer: “Old Mitsubishi truck for sale. $750 OBO.”

The truck was a regular cab with a six-foot bed. It had an I4, five-speed transmission, and 4WD. Its faded safari tan paint was decorated with black decals proclaiming: “Mountain Max LE.” It only needed a headlight and an air filter before it was ready to drive home.

We spent two weeks going over the truck mechanically and building a little camper in a bed cap. Then we set out. The truck performed admirably. After our trip, I ended up driving it for the next five years until the Vermont winters finally rusted the frame. I found that with its raised factory suspension height, it could just fit 33-inch off-road tires. The truck–nicknamed Max–earned countless compliments from off-road enthusiasts and fans of old Japanese trucks such as Toyotas.

I never did figure out why it was badged as a “Mountain Max.” Not every 4WD Mitsubishi had the same badges. But it was originally sold in Boulder, Colorado, with a high-altitude carb. So perhaps my 1989 Mitsubishi was a special edition.

Next, meet the “Alaskan”–a pickup truck engineered in Japan, built in Argentina, and sold in Colombia by a French company, or see the Mitsubishi Mighty Max for yourself in the video below: