Isuzu Motors is a Japanese automotive arsenal famous for its innovative engineering and manufacturing with the highest quality standards. It is one of Japan’s leading buses and trucks (commercial vehicles) manufacturers, specialising in off-road vehicles and diesel engines. Isuzu is not just another diesel engine manufacturer; it is THE diesel engine maker par excellence!
Isuzu’s business focuses on commercial vehicles and everything related to it. In fact, Isuzu Motors has studied, perfected, and promoted diesel engines to the masses. The company was founded in 1916, making it one of the oldest existing Japanese car manufacturers. The company currently manufactures tons of diesel engines for a wide variety of transport, marine and other industrial applications.
The Japanese carmaker has been the mind behind many of the most famous commercial vehicles in the world. Among the many notable aspects of Isuzu is its belief in the power of working together, and that’s why it has many divisions and joint ventures with other carmakers and manufacturers worldwide.
However, it wasn’t always just trucks and engines; in fact, there was the passenger cars era. These passenger cars were a favourite of many people and were a line-up of masterpieces that really polished up their basic performance. In this article, we take a close look at some of the milestones in the history of Isuzu Motors.
Isuzu: The Beginning!
The story of Japanese Isuzu Motor can be traced back to 1916 when the industrial group, including Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding, Tokyo Gas, Electric Industrial Co. and Engineering Co., was formed and began producing cars. Three years later, in 1919, Japan‘s first truck was built as a result of the collaboration between the two companies.
In accordance with the traditional scheme for many Japanese companies at the time, it was decided to buy a licence to manufacture the products of a European manufacturer, in this case, the British company Wolseley Motors Limited. In 1922, Isuzu produced the first passenger car, the Wolseley A-9.
In 1933, Ishikawajima merged with DAT Automobile Manufacturing (the predecessor of Datsun) under the common name Automobile Industries. The company produced several cars at the time under the name “Sumiya”, then “Chiyoda”, and in 1934 under the name of Isuzu, which would later be the official name.
At the outset, the company focused on the production of ship engines and aircraft components. In 1936, the company worked on the engines DA6 & DA7. These were the first air-cooled diesel engines in Japan, and it was a turning point for the company at the time.
During the 1930s, Isuzu expanded into the automotive sector and began producing light trucks and buses. In 1949, the company changed its name to Isuzu Motors Limited, taking its name from the Isuzu River located near the city of Isehara, Japan, where the head office was located.
The Post-WWII: Rebuilding!
Isuzu played a central role in the post-World War II reconstruction of the war-torn Japan. It began to focus on the construction of diesel engines for ships and medium and light trucks. In 1950, Isuzu came out with a cutting-edge improved combustion chamber and water-cooling technology.
Three years later, in 1953, the company entered into a partnership with the British Roots Group to undertake knock-down production of the Hillman brand’s midsize four-door sedan, the Minx VI and marketed it as the Isuzu Hillman Minx.
This followed a law introduced in 1952, which allowed foreign manufacturers to sell in Japan only through agreements with local manufacturers. With the production of the Hillman Minx, the company established its passenger car manufacturing technology and later produced many famous cars.
Today, the company’s range of commercial and industrial vehicles is sold in more than 100 countries around the world, and it also produces engines for other automobile manufacturers. In addition, Isuzu also researches and develops electric vehicles as well as other environmentally friendly technologies.
Isuzu’s Memorable Car Models
Prior to its orientation towards the production of buses, light trucks and heavy trucks, as well as SUVs and pick-up trucks, Isuzu developed its own series of collaborations for sedans, station wagons and coupes in the late 1960s. The first in-house development was the Isuzu Bellel car, which was introduced to the market in 1961. This was Isuzu’s first memorable and completely original passenger car.
As the successor to the Hillman Minx, a 1.5-litre version was also available, but the 2-litre straight-4 was the flagship of the Isuzu line-up, and Isuzu’s speciality, diesel, was also available. To be precise, for this car, a petrol engine was developed based on the 2L straight-4 diesel engine, with the same 83 mm x 92 mm bore and stroke.
In 1963, the next car, called the Bellett, came out, and in this car, the engines were a pushrod 1.5 L straight four and a diesel 1.8 L straight four, with a new 1.6 L engine added six months later and a 1.3 L engine a year later. The body was slightly smaller than the Hillman Minx in all three sizes, and the car was also finished about 100 kg lighter, so performance was adequate.
In 1968, it was the turn of the 117 Coupe designed by the celebrated designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. The 117 Coupe was the original Isuzu speciality car, a popular car that consistently sold 1,000 units per month for 13 years from 1968 to 1981 without a model change.
The 117 Coupe had a beautiful coupe style, a high-quality interior with wood panelling, Japan’s first electronically controlled engine and a top speed of 200 km/h. Some regard the 117 Coupe as the first sports car in the world to have a diesel engine.
More Great Cars!
In the 1970s, the company began its international phase. In 1971, it landed on the US market, entering into an agreement with General Motors. Together, they put the Gemini model into production. Based on the third generation of the Opel Kadett C, the Gemini came in two models: a four-door saloon and a two-door coupé.
The Gemini, introduced in 1974, was Isuzu’s flagship model, replacing the Bellet, the production of which ended at the end of 1973. The engine was an Isuzu original, initially a 1.6-litre straight-4 OHC G180 unit. On the other hand, the body was based on the Opel Kadett. The Gemini went through five generations but after the second and third generations.
In 1981, also as a result of the collaboration with GM, another vehicle in collaboration with the designer from Turin, Giugiaro, the Piazza, was presented, followed a little later by a 4WD vehicle called the Rodeo. By 1981, Isuzu trucks had become popular in the American market, and from that year onwards, the Isuzu trucks sold more than Chevrolet or Buick as before.
In 1992, it introduced Japan’s first luxury sport utility vehicle (SUV), the Isuzu Trooper, which combined off-road performance with comfort and luxury features. In the following years, Isuzu continued to develop successful commercial and off-road vehicles. In 1997, the second generation of the Isuzu Trooper was produced, until the arrival of its successor called the Isuzu Ascender.
In addition to building this large SUV until 2008, the Japanese also built between 2001 and 2004 the Isuzu Axio as well as, from 1989 until 2004, the Isuzu Amigo or the Isuzu Rodeo as basic models in the programme. In many European markets, these compact SUVs were introduced as two- and four-door models under the name Opel Frontera. It is
Isuzu’s Commercial Vehicles
Commercial Isuzu trucks are also divided into two subgroups: buses and trucks. Coming up next, we highlight some of the gems that Isuzu has produced over the years.
Isuzu trucks have been very popular worldwide for many years. This is due to their reliability, versatility, economy and quite competitive price. The Isuzu trucks have a great variety, especially speaking about payload and gross weight (from 3 to 33 tonnes). The model range is divided into three series:
ELF Light-duty Trucks (N Series)
The N Series, aka Elf, are lightweight trucks built on the famous Elf chassis and are compact and manoeuvrable vehicles. These trucks can carry loads up to 9 tonnes, and there are different variations of these cars with different purposes: refrigerators, vans, etc.
FORWARD Medium-duty Trucks (F Series)
Forward Medium-duty trucks have a load capacity of up to 16 tonnes. They are usually used for urban and intercity transportation: crane trucks, trucks for transportation of bulk materials, concrete mixers, etc. As the name suggests, the trucks are built on forward chassis.
GIGA Heavy-duty Trucks & Tractors (C/FX Series)
The GIGA Heavy-duty trucks and tractors for large loads and heavy working conditions. These trucks have Giga chassis and are powerful and durable trucks, with GVW from 33 to 48 tonnes. They are produced mainly with a 6×4 wheel arrangement and can be equipped with various specialised superstructures. They are also available as tractors with 4×2 or 6×4 wheel configurations.
Isuzu produces a range of multi-passenger buses equipped exclusively with diesel engines of its own production. Most of the buses are equipped with frame-bearing frame bodies, non-inflated rear longitudinal engines with unusually large displacement, manual transmissions, all drum brakes and spring suspensions.
ERGA Route Bus
The ERGA Route Buses is a comprehensive range of “small” public transit buses for urban, local and long-distance operations. Their numerous versions have a length of 9.0-11.3 metres, a GVW of 10.8-14.6 tonnes and a total seating capacity of 58-80 passengers (25-64 seats). They use both the same 8.2-litre 225 hp diesel engine and a V8 engine (24312 cm3, 450-480 hp). All gearboxes are manual six-speed.
The most extensive Gala series includes the most comfortable tourist and intercity buses with elevated saloons for 42-57 seats. Their overall length is 8.1-12.0 m, GVW is 9.5-16.1 tonnes. The simplest buses, Gala Mio, with a length of 8-9 m for 37-41 passengers, are mainly used for local transportation and are equipped with the already mentioned 8.2 and 15.2-litre engines with an output of 225-280 hp and 6-speed gearboxes.
Larger tourist and intercity buses, Gala I and Gala IV Hi-Decker or Super Hi-Decker, have a length of 9 and 12 m and overall height of 3250 and 3275 mm, respectively and are equipped with a 15.2-litre V8 engine with 285 hp or the new V10 diesel engine (19001 cm3, 380 hp).
The most comfortable and the most powerful in Japan, the 2-axle tourist buses Gala II Super Grace Hi-Decker and Gala III GHD Hi-Decker with a length of 12 m, have a GVW of 16 tonnes, wheelbase 6150 mm, overall height of 3610 mm and interior height of 2065 mm.
They differ in the set of additional equipment but are equipped with one V12 (22801 cm3, 450 hp) non-inflated diesel engine, 6-speed gearbox and air suspension of all wheels. Their maximum speed reaches 120 km/h.
Journey Series (light buses)
Isuzu’s programme is led by the seven-m-long Journey series light buses, which are unified with the N-series trucks. With a GVW of just 4.7 tonnes, the Journey E, the simplest all-purpose version, which can carry 19 passengers and a small load, is the most advanced in the range.
It features a turbocharged front-mounted six-cylinder engine (4169cc, 160bhp), 4-speed automatic transmission, power steering and rear air suspension. Its touring 26-seater counterpart, Journey QGR, with a weight of 7.8 tonnes, is equipped with a 225 hp 8.2-litre turbocharged 8.2-litre engine and a manual 6-speed gearbox.
The largest representative of this series, the universal bus Journey LRK, produced since 1984, is equipped with the same diesel engine of 210 hp, has a length of 8-9 m, GVW of 8.7-9.0 tonnes and seats 47-58 passengers.
Isuzu went through an impressive number of partnerships and collaborations with other big entities in the automobile business besides the initial General Motors agreement. Looking for an opportunity to complement its product line with a more affordable vehicle, The company made an agreement with Subaru in 1966 to co-produce the Subaru 1000.
Subsequently, cooperation with Subaru was terminated, and the company entered into a new alliance, this time with Mitsubishi. This happened in 1968, and a year later, when the alliance with Mitsubishi did not work out, so the brand struck up a contractual deal with Nissan, but again, not for long. Eventually, a long-term partnership did take place when a contract was signed with General Motors in 1971.
In 1999, General Motors finally took control of the company by raising its stake to 49%, putting a GM executive at the helm. In 2002, following a recapitalisation plan, Isuzu started to buy back shares, mainly from General Motors. Isuzu reduced GM’s 49% equity to 12%. From 2004 onwards, the number of Isuzu dealerships in the US started a rapid decline.
It is also worth noting that in 2002, Isuzu joined hands with Hino Heavy Industries, one of the Toyota Group companies, to create a joint venture for producing buses/coaches.
Four years later, in 2006, GM’s equity investment in Isuzu was dissolved, with GM selling its shares to Mitsubishi Corporation, Itochu and Mizuho Corporate Bank. Later that year, Mitsubishi became Isuzu’s biggest shareholder. Also in 2006, Toyota came into the picture after striking up a deal with Isuzu for a collaboration to work on diesel engines.
Another major agreement for Isus was with the carmaker Mazda in 2016, as the two companies teamed up to work on Mazda’s trucks outside of North America. The next major deal came in 2019 when Isuzu signed a memorandum of understanding with Volvo aiming to receive UD Trucks (a Japanese trucks manufacturing company) from Volvo. Two years later, it was announced that Isuzu took over UD Trucks for a $2.3 billion deal.
In 2021, Isuzu, Hino, and Toyota announced the establishment of a new joint venture between them titled “Commercial Japan Partnership Technologies Corporation”. The main purpose of this new venture would be to work on fuel cells and electric light trucks.
For more than 100 years, Isuzu cars have been at the forefront of automotive manufacturing. The company has existed since the dawn of the Japanese automobile industry and is a long-established company that has also spawned other car manufacturers such as Nissan. With its modern range of cars and continued research and development of electric vehicles and other eco-friendly technologies, Isuzu will remain at the forefront of automotive innovation for many years to come.