C.W. Nicol - A Mitsubishi Delica Mascot
2003s ‘Lost in Translation’ shows us a moment in the life of once famous movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) in a modern Tokyo as he shoots a Whiskey commercial. At first glance, it’s an odd setting. A distinctly American actor speaking broken Japanese to sell Japanese whiskey to Japanese consumers. But peeling the veneer back just a bit shows how realistic this is. Where Michael J. Fox promotes the Honda Integra , or where Leonardo DiCaprio talks about the benefits of the Suzuki Wagon RR. So in 1986 when Mitsubishi launched the third iteration of their Delica, and the 2nd iteration of the Star Wagon, finding someone to be their mascot was critical. The same year, in Nagano Prefecture, the C. W. Nicol Afan Woodland was established.
Clive William Nicol (also known as C·W·ニコル), was a British ex-pat who since the 1960s had lived much of his life in Japan. As an outspoken environmentalist, he gave talks on deforestation and the restoration of the natural Japanese woodlands. Writing books and articles on bio diversity of trees in Japan, and their lack of natural growth due to overcrowding. This, during a time when Japanese citizens were stepping out in to the forest for the first time. RV life (In Japan an RV would be more equivalent to an American SUV. Not the rolling motel on wheels loved by boomers) was a new hobby for many, and it was a presumably easy connection for Mitsubishi to make putting C.W. Nicol at the forefront of their new vehicle launch.
Like so much of Delica ephemera, I was aware of who CW was in the context of the Delica. Here’s a white guy who seemingly stepped out of an Indiana Jones film that takes place in the 1980s, but was completely caught off guard as to who he was in the real world. But with a single addition to my personal Delica collection, everything started to unfold.
I bought this book knowing nothing about it. At auction, various pamphlet and dealer materials for the Delica Star Wagon pop up regularly. Most are common, occasionally you’ll see rarer models like the Chamonix represented, or the wonderful Accessory Guide Mitsubishi put out for a number of years. But this was new, it was the first time I’d seen anything with more than a couple of pages. And once it was in hand, I was blown away by the content.
This was not just a promotional piece for the new Delica, this is an incredible how-to guide for anyone new to camping in 1986 Japan. Handmade drawings adorn each page ranging from pretty accurate representations of plants/wildlife, to downright comical depictions of how things may go wrong while you’re in the wilderness, all done by Yusuke Otake. And while it’s hard to say if C.W. Nicol actually authored this book, or just had his name and likeness used as a spokesperson, the importance of it is clear and written with his values in mind.
Because it was during this same period, that C.W. Nicol was becoming disillusioned with Japanese society.
"Labeling them "Maigo no Japan-jin" (Lost Japanese) for being unable to find their direction, Nicol went so far as to state that, had he just arrived in Japan recently, he would never have sought Japanese citizenship. "
While it's impossible now to say what his motivation was in accepting the role of brand ambassador for a car launch, it's reasonable to see where the paths in his life were crossing at this time. This wasn't just an opportunity to be paid, but a chance to preach to this new era of people exploring the woods.
You see C.W. Nicol in so many other areas of Delica advertising from this time. He even appeared in a 1986 variant of the accessories guide (the 4th variant I’ve seen for the Star Wagon) being titled ‘Nicol’s Selection’. Where he not only discusses the parts you can add on to your shiny new van, but also exposes some of the ideals one should carry with them when they venture out in to the woods. This was not just another place for him to stand next to the car, but a chance to include his name and message in a way that was unexpected.
While after about 1988 he stops appearing in Delica advertising (he does make one passing mention of the van in 2011), his career would keep going and only pick up and continue without interruption until he passed away on April 3rd of this year. In 2013 he would give a TEDx talk about working with Woodlands, having then taken up the moniker of ‘Old Nic’. A name that he would also work under as part of his regular articles for The Japan Times. With his last article being published just days before his death. An article where he was very aware that he would not be around much longer, having been diagnosed with lung cancer some 4 years earlier. With a clear call to action as the last words he would put to paper:
“Even so, the first line of the verse that both opens and closes Rudyard Kipling’s long 1889 poem “The Ballad of East and West” is frequently quoted despite being, to my mind, misused and misunderstood in light of what follows:
“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”
Now, in 2020, we surely need strong men and, even better, strong women. But lord help us if U.S. President Donald Trump or North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are the best we can muster.”
At first glance when looking at Delica advertising, I saw only a foreigner advertising a vehicle that was exclusive to Japan until 2011. With a little context of how Japanese advertising works, I saw a reason for him to be there as not just a foreigner, but a recognized one. And with understanding who C.W. Nicol was I saw not only why he was there, but why it was important for him to be there.
His evangelizing of respecting the wilderness was a critical component of shepherding a new era of people in to an outdoor lifestyle that had never been there before. Exposing them to what we’d consider in America as “Leave no Trace”. He would provide clear instructions for what to do with trash, what you should bring when camping, and what not to leave behind.
This responsibility being passed along from a vehicle manufacturer who knows what their cars will be used for is completely absent in marketing materials today. Where is Jeep chiming in to tell owners how easily a Trasharoo can be installed on their spare tire? Ford offers a refrigerator as an option for their Bronco, but makes no claims about how it can reduce waste by packing fresh food instead of freeze-dried. Instead, all we’re given beauty shots of 4x4s going places that are clearly off-trail. Like recognizing the importance of safety when buying a gun, it's time for those literally holding the keys to recognize the importance of responsibility to the natural world.
Until that happens, throw the C.W. Nicol band in to your Spotify play list. Like we did for the 4x4ward Trail Mix.
C.W. Nicol died at his home on April 3rd 2020. You can read about the Afan organization that continues his work at https://afan.or.jp/