What’s Japan’s oldest automaker? Like most questions, the answer isn’t necessarily a simple one, but there’s one thing that we can guarantee. It’s not Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, or any of the marques you might expect. One candidate, however, is Isuzu, founded in 1916, making it 100 years old this year.
Like most nations, Japan on the brink of industrial revolution had many tinkerers in sheds trying to produce the horseless carriage. What is officially regarded as the first Japanese car was a one-off 1902 contraption built by Shintaro Yoshida. The first production car was the 1907 Takuri, though only 10 units were known to have been built and none have survived. 1907 also saw the founding of Daihatsu, but until 1930 its business was primarily small engines for generators and other industrial applications.
Two modern companies that lay claim being the oldest automaker in Japan are Mitsubishi and Isuzu. Both sprang from the massive shipyards of large industrial concerns. Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Corporation began working on its Model A in 1917, but what became Isuzu was founded in 1916, when the Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding & Engineering Company joined forces with Tokyo Gas and Electric.
The shipbuilding giants were responding to incentives offered by the government’s Military Vehicle Support Act, passed as a result of conflicts like the Russo-Japanese War and the first World War, to spur development of large trucks. In March 1918, the first “Isuzu” truck was born. The Isuzu name wouldn’t be coined for many years though, so it was called simply called the TGE A-Type, after the initials of one of its parent companies.
Japan was developing at a rapid clip, and so was the market for passenger cars. These weren’t necessarily meant for private ownership, since only the well-heeled would be able to afford them, but as taxis and town cars. Foreign companies like Ford and GM had set up local factories, pouring low-cost cars into Japan. At the time, Japan’s mass-production infrastructure was still decades away, so what’s a shipbuilder to do?
A deal was inked with British automaker Wolseley to produce passenger cars under license, and in December 1922 a Wolseley A9, rolled off the line. Isuzu calls this the first mass produced passenger car made in Japan, but we’d say despite its lower production numbers Mitsubishi had them beat. In any case, the timing was fortuitous, because the Great Kanto Earthquake struck the following year, leveling Tokyo and creating a huge demand for cars and trucks to help in the recovery process. The Japanese government stepped in again, providing incentives to encourage development.
Economically and infrastructure-wise, it was still difficult for privately owned cars to become widely adopted in Japan, and Isuzu left the passenger car market behind to create more profitable trucks. In 1927, Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding & Engineering began building trucks and buses of its own design, localized for the Japanese market. Often, these would be named after famous rivers, like the 1929 Sumida, which takes its moniker from the main waterway that winds for 27 kilometers through Tokyo.
One in particular, created in 1933 in direct response to the government’s Ministry of Trade and Industry standards, was christened “Isuzu,” after the Isuzu River of Mie Prefecture. Immortalized in song throughout Japanese history, the tributary flows directly through the Ise Grand Shrine, one of the country’s most renowned holy sites. Isuzu itself literally means “fifty bells,” named for the 50 chimes an emperor’s daughter set up in the region 2000 years ago.
Here’s where the family tree gets a little convoluted. Around the launch of the Sumida, the carmaking arm of Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding & Engineering split off into an independent company. The same year the Isuzu vehicle was launched, that company, Ishikawa Automotive Works, merged with part of a divided DAT Automobile Manufacturing (another faction of which would go on to create the Datsun marque and become the company known today as Nissan).
Called simply Automobile Industries, the focus of this new endeavor was the diesel engine. A research committee was formed, and by 1936 the company had produced its first diesels, unusual air-cooled units that were ahead of its time. Called the DA4 and DA6 depending on the number of cylinders, they proved to be huge hits in both commercial and military applications and became the foundation for all modern Isuzu diesels.
For the next several years, the company churned out large trucks and buses, with passenger cars largely forgotten. The lead-up to and outbreak of World War II caused much turmoil in Japanese industry, and after a few more mergers the company was renamed the Diesel Motor Industry Company and became the sole producer of diesel vehicles as decreed by the Japanese government.
During the war in 1942, this firm was split yet again to specialize in different types of military vehicles. The smaller faction was charged with producing track-laying trucks for the army, and eventually became what is today Hino Motors, owned by Toyota and Isuzu’s largest competitor.
In the war’s waning days, both companies’ Tokyo factories became the targets of Allied bombings, throwing production into disarray. It wasn’t until 1946, after the end of the war, that normal manufacturing resumed with a new diesel truck called the TX80 and the BX-Series “bonnet” buses based on them.
Its success in reconstruction efforts allowed the company to rebuild, and in 1949 it was officially renamed Isuzu Motors. Soon, however, it found itself building trucks for war efforts again, but this time it was the American military seeking a manufacturing base near the front lines of the Korean War.
By 1950, Isuzu was the largest automaker in Japan. High demand for its diesel trucks fueled growth and became its primary focus until the armistice agreement was signed in July 1953. By then, interest in private ownership of passenger cars had again come to the fore, and this time it was for real. Isuzu repeated a move from its early history and sought out a partnership with the UK’s Rootes Group to assemble knock-down kits of the Hillman Minx.
Meanwhile, commercial truck development continued, with the launch of the best-selling Isuzu Elf in 1959. The cab-over light-duty truck became hugely popular, and later generations would spread to every populated continent on Earth. In North America, it’s more commonly known as the Isuzu N-Series or its rebadged name, the Chevrolet and GMC W-Series.
In 1961, Isuzu launched its first passenger car designed 100 percent in-house. The Bellel slotted above the Minx, positioned to compete against the Toyota Crown, Nissan Cedric, and Prince Gloria. The name was a literal interpretation of Isuzu’s origins, the word “bell” plus the Roman numeral for 50, “L”.
Unfortunately, passenger cars were not Isuzu’s strong suit, and the Bellel was plagued with problems. Some, like poor paint and panel fitment or noise from diesel engines, would have probably been fine for a work truck but were unacceptable for a high-end sedan. Most ended up being sold as taxis and company cars.
Isuzu’s next foray into passenger cars proved much more successful. The debut of the Bellett in 1963 created an instant icon. The sleek compact was a departure from the old-fashioned looks of the Bellel and still-in-production Minx. Boasting advanced technologies like a four-wheel independent suspension (double-wishbone fronts, a diagonal swing-axle rear), a choice of 4-speed manual or 3-speed automatic, and rack and pinion steering, it was far ahead of its time. In GT trim, it was available with front disc brakes, and a top-spec GT Type R even offered a twin-overhead cam engine.
The high end GT Type R was among the sportiest cars available in Japan at the time, but Isuzu also offered more pedestrian solid-axle versions, sedans, wagons (very rare today), and a ute version called the Wasp.
Building on the success of the Bellett, Isuzu launched its second icon in 1968, the 117 Coupe. Based on the design by Giorgetto Giugiaro of Carrozzeria Ghia, it was initially hand-built to the tune of 30 to 50 units a month. The 117 was also notable for becoming the first Japanese car to use electronic fuel injection in 1970.
Still, despite the hits Isuzu couldn’t keep pace with Toyota or Nissan. In the 60s, Isuzu ceded the largest Japanese automaker title due largely to the expansion of the nation’s booming passenger car market. Isuzu simply didn’t have the infrastructure or dealer network to support the massive demand for passenger cars, as 90 percent of its business was still large trucks and buses.
The company found itself under tremendous pressure by the Japanese government to merge with another automaker. It was an effort by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry to reduce the number of various automakers and consolidate their production facilities.
Nissan and Prince merged during this period, but Isuzu had less success. In 1966, Isuzu entered a brief partnership with Fuji Heavy Industries and, supposedly, the 1967 Isuzu brochure even included an image of the Subaru 1000. However, the alliance was disbanded in 1968 when Isuzu approached Mitsubishi Motors to join. But, as history shows, Mitsubishi ended up partnering with Chrysler to gain a foothold in the US.
To get the sales numbers that Toyota and Nissan was achieving, Isuzu had to expand to foreign markets and thus teamed up with General Motors in July 1971. The union gave Isuzu access to a worldwide distribution network and economies of scale, on top of which it helped GM engineer the Gemini. Sold around the world badged as either an Opel, Buick, Holden, Vauxhall or Chevy, it was Isuzu’s first global car.
In 1972, Isuzu combined its truck and car know-how into the Faster, a compact pickup based on its Florian sedan. The tie-up with GM allowed Isuzu to sell it around the world, and it became known in the US as the Chevy LUV. Meanwhile, Mazda had linked with Ford and Mitsubishi continued its alliance with Chrysler, while Toyota and Nissan were flourishing on their own in the US.
Facing growing competition in 1981, GM shocked Isuzu by declaring that it was no longer the American giant’s preferred Japanese partner. CEO Roger Smith then demanded Isuzu president Toshio Okamoto help The General buy a stake in fast-growing Honda. Okamoto reportedly never asked, knowing that fiercely self-reliant Honda would deny the offer.
Perhaps feeling spurned, Isuzu began its own sales in the US in 1981 with the second-generation Faster, renamed the Isuzu P’up. Isuzu had established a US base of operations as early as June 1975, but the P’up would be its first Isuzu-branded offering in America. GM ended up striking a deal with Toyota for a joint-venture and bought a 5 percent stake in Suzuki, which led to the NUMMI plant in California and the Geo brand.
Isuzu would become a less important player in the GM roster, but the 80s were arguably Isuzu’s most successful decade, car-wise, with models like the Giugiaro-penned Impulse, Trooper, front-drive Gemini, and Amigo.
Versions of some models were simultaneously sold through GM’s short-lived Geo brand, but products flowed the other way too. The Holden Statesman from GM’s Australian division was marketed in Japan from 1973-76 as the Isuzu Statesman De Ville, of which only 246 units were sold. Isuzu even rebadged for the Japan market a version of GM’s 80s J-Car called the Aska (platform twins included such luminaries as the Chevy Cavalier, Cadillac Cimarron and Pontiac Sunbird).
While Isuzu was great a building trucks, it still never quite nailed down the whole passenger car thing. Even its SUVs always seemed to do better than its cars. The Aska was eventually replaced with a version of a rebadged first-gen Subaru Legacy. Revisiting their 1960s dalliance, the partnership also resulted in a joint-venture factory in Lafayette, Indiana in 1987.
Isuzu ended up affiliating with Honda as well, selling the fifth-gen Accord as the replacement for the Legacy Aska, the SJ Integra as the Vertex, and the Odyssey as the Oasis. In return, Honda got to sell a Rodeo-based Passport and Trooper-based Acura SLX during the height of America’s SUV boom.
From 1997-2001, for a brief, shining moment, Isuzu bestowed the world with one of the most unique SUVs ever created. The VehiCROSS was a futuristic desert marauder that was perfect for dune-jumping in the post-apocalpyse, but its limited practicality relegated to little more than a cult classic. Sadly, the VehiCROSS proved to be Isuzu’s swan song.
In 2002, Isuzu finally abandoned the passenger car business altogether. It floundered for a while with several ill-fated SUVs like the Axiom and various rebadged GM products until January 31, 2009 when it left the US passenger car market entirely.
It was a sad conclusion to a company that had given the world so many notable cars, but perhaps fitting. Isuzu’s strength had always been in trucks, with SUVs perhaps the most car-ward on the vehicle spectrum it could really venture toward with any success. Fully able to concentrate on its strengths, Isuzu is today thriving in over 100 countries based solely on commercial trucks and the occasional pickup. So while the company may not have given us a rich portfolio of cars, it’s ended up where it began and doing what it does best. Happy 100th birthday, Isuzu.
Images courtesy of Isuzu.