GARAGE LIFE: A visit with Isuzu Sports Eagle

15_Isuzu-117-Bellett-sedan

We first met Koji Okane, owner of Isuzu Sports Eagle, in 2009 at the inaugural Nos2Days show. A gracious guy, he invited us to his shop but our time in Japan was too short. We could think of no one better than today’s Guest Writer, Bart “IsuzuGeek” Wilkus, to make the trek instead and report his findings. Enjoy. —Ben

Isuzu Sports Eagle is a specialty shop dedicated to restoring and selling vintage Isuzu cars, and I would imagine it is probably the only place in the world like it. With Isuzu Motors itself largely out of the passenger vehicle market, the Isuzu marque is quickly vanishing into obscurity. But that has not stopped shop owner Koji Okane from doing what he loves. 

While his focus is mainly on old Belletts and 117 Coupes, you will see Piazzas, Geminis and a few other vintage classics around. Isuzu Sports Eagle is located a short walk from Hamura Station, near Fujimidaira, about an hour or so from Tokyo proper. So, after a little mix up on the train, and with the promise of rain looming in the grey sky, we finally made it to Hamura Station and started walking.

01_Hamura-Station

This is Hamura Station. As you can see, we arrived bright and early at 11:30am. Admittedly, I am a rabid Isuzu fan (I own four), so this was a very special trip for me. And it should be noted, that seeing an Isuzu passenger vehicle on the road in Japan is about as hard as it is easy to spot an Isuzu work truck of some kind.

Simply put, you will see Isuzu Elfs, Forwards, and Gigas all day long, but rarely will you see an Isuzu car or SUV on the road nowadays. I spotted only two Isuzu passenger vehicles on the road during my whole three weeks in Japan — a second-generation SWB Isuzu Trooper and a second-gen Isuzu Gemini sedan, parked in a alley.

02_Isuzu-Elf-crane

An Isuzu Elf with some dekotora trim rumbles by as we wait to cross the road a short distance from our destination. We didn’t have to walk far before my first glimpse of Isuzu car heaven appeared around the corner, in an area with several other used car lots scattered about.

13_Isuzu-Sports-Eagle

Here’s a view of Isuzu mecca and its lot of cars waiting for new homes. I’m not sure how the term “Eagle” fits, nor do I understand the significance of the ring of wheat in the sign, but it somehow works. The lot was crammed with Isuzus, and I began snapping away.

03_Isuzu-117

Why does creamy rhyme with dreamy? This 117 Coupe is why. It has been said that Giorgetto Giugiaro designed the 117 to resemble the sultry curves of the female figure. I think he was quite successful in doing so. The body lines are so natural and subtle as they draw your eyes from front to back. No part of this automobile is unpleasant to look at. The same cannot be said for most modern cars being designed today.

04_Isuzu-117

I’ve always preferred the earlier 117s with the dual round lights. However after seeing both types in person, deciding which I like better became quite difficult. While the round lights give the car a sportier look that makes me think of early 1970s muscle, the rectangular lights of the later models give the car a more regal and stately feel.

05_Isuzu-Piazza-Impulse-burned

In the same area under a flapping tarp, sat a fire ravaged Piazza. Like the Impulse in the US, any Piazza is a rare Piazza, and any parts that can be saved must. The car appeared to be a total loss, but there must have been a few bits worth hanging on to. The headlights and bumper seem to have survived the blaze, though the rest of the car was a sad, melted mess. This must be an early Piazza due to the large rectangular headlights. Later Piazzas had dual, staggered rectangular lamps instead.

06_Isuzu-Piazza

This made me feel much better after seeing the torched Piazza. It was the first of several cars I wanted to ship home. While I am not 100% positive, I believe this to be a special edition Isuzu Piazza Nero in all black with gold accents. The “Nero Edition” was also released in white. And while I am not 100% sure, I think the “Nero Edition” may have been the final year special edition Piazzas released in 1990. Further research is needed on the subject.

07_Isuzu-117_Sports-Eagle

Sitting back in a lonely corner, this badly rusting brown 117 waits to be parted out. Or perhaps a full restoration and a second life is in store. Despite the unfortunate choice of color that instantly dates this car back to the decade from whence it came, one must still admire the car’s fine rear end.

08_Isuzu-Gemini_HandlingByLotus

Here sits a late 80s Gemini, known as the I-Mark in the States, with a face only a mother could love. No matter how hard I try, I simply cannot find a single bit of this car’s design appealing. I suppose if I focus, those peculiar front corner lights do stand out.

The Lotus tuned suspension was definitely an attractive feature of this car, but why spend your money on one of these when you could have a gorgeous Piazza/Impulse? If I was forced into one of these cars, I would much rather have the two door hatchback model. I suppose its awkward design would eventually grow on me.

09_Isuzu-117

When I saw this car, I felt my credit card warming so quickly I thought it might burn my leg. I quickly reminded myself that no matter what, importing cars is best left to the folks out there that can carelessly afford it. Maybe someday, in my 50s or 60s, I will bring a 117 just like this one Stateside.

To me, it is the perfect car for a classy older chap to enjoy his golden years driving. This car just screams, “I might be old, but I will give you a whoopin’ if you sass me!” Yes, I must own one of these black beauties someday. I think it would make a perfect, gothic, black coffin in which to round out a life long love for Isuzus.

10_Isuzu-117_FairladyZ

Hey, what’s that Nissan doing there? They look like a perfect couple, don’t they? Apparently, Isuzus are not the only Japanese classics delt with at Isuzu Sports Eagle.  While lavender is definitely not my first choice of color for any car, let alone a 117, it somehow works, especially next to that deep blue “Devil Z“.

11_Isuzu-Bellett-GTR

Belletts really were meant to be two-toned, and this red-and-black car proves it hard. The rally style driving lights up front just add to the appeal, giving the car that sporty JDM look we know and love. Throwing those vintage bronze Watanabes into the mix only adds to the deliciousness of this car. A perfect example.

12_Isuzu-117-Cromadora-Wheels

Speaking of wheels, nothing brings out style like a nice pair of aftermarket rims, and these vintage Italian Cromodoras are a perfect fit on this pale blue 117. Its all about class with the 117, period.

14_Isuzu-Piazza

Here’s a very early Piazza. Notice the two wide flip-up head lights. American Impulses had four rectangular lights up front and lacked the bumper lights as well. If I had to guess, I would date this car to 1984/85, and it was in very fine condition, all things considered.

17_Isuzu-Bellett-GT

While I was walking around with my wife, taking photos of the cars, a freshly restored orange Bellett rolled up. It was then that I made my introduction to the guys hanging out around the car, one of which turned out to be Okane-san, the shop keeper. He showed me the Bellett, and opened everything up for my camera.

18_Isuzu-Bellett-GT_interior

From the little I gathered from Okane-san, this car was a recent restoration for a customer. Just look at that pristine, original interior. I desperately wanted to hop and take it for a spin, but I think that would have been overstepping my boundaries just a little.

19_Isuzu-Bellett-GT_engine

There’s nothing quite like popping the hood open on a fresh build like this to see a spotless bay with one of Japan’s earliest twin-cam engines. Okane-san then beckoned for us to come into his office, where he graciously served us some coffee.

21_Isuzu_Okane-Koji

Okane-san’s own daidai (orange) Bellett was featured in a back issue of Nostalgic Hero. He was very proud to show off his car, and rightfully so! Mind you, my Japanese was not much better than his English, but we muddled through an interesting conversation about Isuzus somehow.

He showed off more photos of his Bellett, and to my surprise, he gifted me with some Isuzu-Sports stickers and a nice 2013 calendar of his beautiful car in action. We exchanged meishi and my wife and I headed back to Tokyo. A spectacular day! After returning home, I sent Okane-san a short email interview which I will share with you here.

20_Isuzu-Bellett-1600-GTR

BW: Hello Okane-san! Thank you for letting me visit Isuzu Sports, and thank you for the nice gifts. I am wondering if you could answer a few questions.

KO: Hi. Thank you so much for coming to Isuzu Sports. I am so glad to know of Isuzu mania in America.

BW: Tell us a little about yourself and your interest in Isuzu cars.

KO: My interest in Isuzu cars began when I was a little, about eight years old. At the time I went to see the Tokyo Motor Show and saw the Bellett GT. The strong image of it still remains in my head. I got my motorcycle license at 16 and I rode a Yamaha. In high school, when I was 18, I got my vehicle license and drove a Nissan Sunny and immediately after that I switched my car to a Bellett 1600 GT. I am 52 now, so I have been riding in the Bellett for 34 years.

Unlike Toyota or Nissan, Isuzu invested a lot of money in making its cars. There’s the soul, like a Japanese craftsman, in Isuzu cars. The cars are very small but they pack a punch. Isuzu did not cut costs, which could be excessive. And that is the good thing about Isuzu. I like a lot of Isuzu cars and I sold 4WD Bighorns (Troopers), Wizards (Rodeos) and lift and lower kits. Now I’m focused on Bellett GTs and 117 Coupes.

8559_Isuzu-117-rear

BW: How long have you had your Isuzu Sports shop?

KO: Isuzu Sports has been in business for 20 years. It has been relocated a couple times, from the city of Hanemura to the city of Kyouyama and then to the city of Hanemura again. The reasons for the relocations were slow business and low profits. The other business ventures I had were successful at that time so I was not seriously getting involved in the shop business. However, the relocation helped with cost cutting, and so the business survived.

The value of used cars had been going down so I changed the selling practice form just “sell it” to “fix it and sell it.” If a customer wants to purchase the car at a lower price, I would sell it in original condition without modification.

16_Isuzu-Bellett

BW: Tell us about your Isuzu Bellett and its history.

KO: Bellett 4 door sedans were marketed in 1968, with both a 1300 gasoline engine and 1800 diesel type. In 1964, the 1600 GT was marketed. In 1969, Bellett GTR was added (I saw this model when I was a kid!) and in 1971, it was scaled up to 1800cc. The Bellet was the GT car with a heart like a craftsman. Driving the car makes you feel excitement and desire. I recommend it to any guy who works hard.

BW: What is your process for restoring rare Isuzu cars?

KO: The classic Isuzu GT, Bellett, and 117 Coupe are quite fragile. I check the engine and body before making decisions, and it is important. When I actually try to restore the car, I take the car fully apart.

8556_Isuzu-117-lion-emblem

BW: Why do you think Isuzu is now a defunct passenger automaker?

KO: Compared to other carmakers, Isuzu has no problems with craftsmanship. The Bighorn was a cross county car which was a lot better than a Land Rover. However, it was weakly promoted by Isuzu Sales due to the lack of both product innovations and employee education. Now Isuzu is completely a truck manufacturer.

P.S. – I drive a Bellett GT-LHD, a Bellett GTR, a Toyota Land Cruiser and a US-spec Axiom. My shop sells Isuzu GTs but it is not just a shop selling cars. We provide customers who purchased an Isuzu GT quality time with the car, excitement and satisfaction. A car that has been restored at the shop will shine as if it is a new car. Life returns to the car. The owners of the cars might be gone but GTs will survive.

If the condition of the car is good, it will be treasured in the future. I see a future in Isuzu GTs. Thank you.

Bart Wilkus is founder of IsuzuGeek.org. Special thanks to Kimiko Harder for translation assistance. 

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26 Responses to GARAGE LIFE: A visit with Isuzu Sports Eagle

  1. Kuroneko said:

    Wow, great story and that opening photograph looks sooo creamy. I’ll take the orange GT please! Nice stuff… Neko.

  2. E-AT_me said:

    when i saw that green i-mark, i almost screamed “I want it!”… i’m at work.. but i want it.. soo bad..

  3. Andy said:

    Great article.
    It’s great to see it appears in here.

  4. dankan said:

    Great article, and I have to say, those Bellet four-doors must be some of the most delightfully styled of the era. The way it all flows together is wonderfully cohesive.

  5. The black CRX said:

    Great piece on a fun place! Bart, I encourage you to stare at more pics of the Gemini/I-Mark alongside its competition of the day. The styling is clean, well-proportioned and cohesive, taking the seamless wraparound theme that made the Piazza such a groundbreaking design and applying it to a simple, upright sedan. It’s not flashy, nor as sexy as the Piazza (and certainly not as gorgeous as a 117 Coupe), but for a low-cost basic late-’80s sedan, it’s quite handsome.

    • Ben said:

      True fact. Compare it to the NUMMI Nova/FWD Corolla and it looks upscale. It even has body-colored bumpers.

    • Bart said:

      Yeah, I hear ya, its just one of those things for me. I stare at Isuzus so much, and I cannot help but have my favorites and I am not one to “like it” just because it’s an Isuzu. I pretty much feel the same way about the Isuzu Rodeo, its a very, very generic design that I just have no taste for. But I understand what you are saying, and trust me, a nice hatch back 87 I-Mark would fit nicely in my garage, especially if I had to pick it over some other boring design…however, on the same token, I would much rather have a clean 81 I-mark 2dr coupe diesel. :)

    • yoda said:

      I always liked them, particularly the pre-facelift ones, ever since getting all the ’85 Chevy brochures as a kid. Too bad about the missing 5-door hatch, though.

  6. Tyler said:

    At first I thought that brown 117 was a clay model! I think that and the lavender car are wearing fine colors. Yes, the paint dates them but that’s exactly why we love old cars- they take us to a different time or place. Love it for what it is.

  7. degruch said:

    Ah, the ‘GTR factory’…how many GTR’s came from here?

  8. mister k said:

    did isuzu miss the jap styling pinnacle of ’73?
    seems like they went from ital to teutonic and skipped the homebrew

    • yoda said:

      By ’73 they were gearing up to replace the Bellett with the first-generation RWD Gemini which was very Teutonic indeed being a badge-engineered Opel Kadett.
      It did get a very ’70s Japan dash, though – the Kadett had a more Chevy Chevette-like dash.

  9. stusvend said:

    Great article. I learned a few things and if ever I am in that part of the world, I shall have to make a stop at Isuzu Sports Eagle. I, in particular, liked the interview portion, not necessarily something he said in particular but it’s just fun to geek out (or even isuzugeek out) with a like minded individual. Even if he does speak another language and is on the other side of the globe.

  10. Iwakuni91 said:

    While many of the 70’s era styled Japanese cars are seemingly American inspired, Isuzu’s seemed to have skipped over the New World. Always been an Impulse fan but that 117 and Bellett are simply fantastic. I am amazed at how purposeful the interior of the orange Bellett are. Check out the parking brake on the orange customer’s ride! Magnifico!

  11. Nigel said:

    Another great post about a shop in Japan.
    (Before I went Honda crazy I wanted an I-Mark).

  12. sabin Simard said:

    How many japanese cars are in reality italian cars built in Japan? How many of the most beautiful japanese cars of all times had been designed in Japan? In my humble opinion, nothing .The first and second generation of celica had been designed in USA ( for RA29 and RA40, i do not accept contestation ).What is better when you want to sell cars in the sixties,the seventies or the eighties? Why we are forced to believe bullshit of the carmakers,especialy the japaneses when you know about their mentality to keep all secret (see the Toyota recalls and the Fukushima desaster)? Why you create a multi million dollars design studio with pseudo superstars designers when you only have to go in Italy and talk to the masters of that period like Giorgetto Giugiaro,Sergio Pininfarina or Scaglietti or Ghia or Touring and rapidly solve the problem with success like Volkswagen,hyundai,suzuki etc.Giugiaro even designed motorcycle for Suzuki (RE5) and camera for Nikon (EM) !!!!!! Maybe one day,i will Learning that my favorites Toyota,datsun(nissan) and mazda RX4 ,my all time favorite japanese cars have all been designed in Italy because they were too pretty to have been penned in Japan,they don’t have mood to that.See frontal fascia of Pininfarina 1962 ferrari 400 superfast IV vs 2000GT,Pininfarina first skyline when they were Prince and BMW first bavaria were also Giugiaro and all these cars look timeless,they were beautiful. They’re always been work between USA design superstars and Italians (ex see Virgil Exner vs Luigi Segre and Sergio Sartorelli at Ghia).With the nostalgic craze of today ,we will discover very interesting secrets and now i have certitude than all japanese carmakers design their cars because see how they looks today!

    • Ben said:

      To say that Japan could not have designed with pretty cars is a bold claim, and before one makes a bold claim it may be wise to check up on one’s facts.

      For one, the first gen Celica RA29 was not designed in the USA. Toyota didn’t even have a studio here until 1973.

      And how is a 1962 Ferrari 400 Superfast IV fascia similar to the 2000GT’s?

      Some Japanese firms did hire foreign designers in the early 1960s, but by the end of the decade very few cars were designed outside Japan.

      Albrecht Goertz, is that you? :)

      • sabin Simard said:

        Hi Ben. I’m Sabin Simard and no I’m not the count Albrecht Goertz and like i told in my yesterday comment,i talk with all humility but i love classic cars of all nationality,i don’t have pretention (never have Genius) to have designed the BMW 507 but i only see what i see. You’re all right for 1973 design studio in the USA and that was for good because at that time cars was better to look good to sell,aside mustangs, camaros,trans ams and Datsun Z of the time.Here in Canada,liftback RA29 came in the spring of 1976,my father was Toyota dealer between 06-1972 to 12-1978 and got his first red GT liftback in may of 1976.In USA,they probably cames two months sooner.In Japan,this car was prototype at the end of 1974 (”This is Toyota” magazine 09-1974),and all this was after 1973. This car (the liftback) was designed in USA,that was probably the first Toyota to have been designed in USA,for american taste.Don’t worry,the Porsche 928 was a USA car too,many cars are not what you think about,maybe you will learn much more in the near future because of classic cars craze (everybody’s wants notoriety )Please,take a close look to the link below .Remember the Yamaha A550X project,the 240Z appear when the 2000GT disappear and never Toyota respond to the Z car until the eighties (1979 MA46 if you better like)??? And,by the way,try to find a good profil photo of early eighties Lotus Excel and put it side by side with MA61 Toyota celica supra and try to keep smiling. Have a nice day.

        http://li.ru/go?www.autoconcept-reviews.com/cars_reviews/ferrari/Ferrari-400-Superamerica-Berlinetta-Aerodynamic-1962-by-Pininfarina/wallpapers/ferrari-400-superamerica-1962-by-pininfarina-6.jpg

    • Bart said:

      Regardless of where or who designed the cars, you have to at least give credit to Japanese car makers like Isuzu, for recognizing the talent and bringing cars like the 117 and the Piazza to the consumer market. IMO, it’s a “team effort” if you will, on a global scale. You could not have one without the other, and to make black and white statements like you did, doesn’t really hold water. There’s no need to debate it, it is what it is, and it can be appreciated as such…

  13. Lumi said:

    What beautiful cars. It’s pretty sad about Isuzu — they were definitely unique marque!

  14. Lincoln Stax said:

    The Bellett is my dream car. I’m so jealous right now.

  15. LoRollinLS said:

    Did you or do you see many Isuzu P’ups 80s-mid 90s roaming around over there? I love Isuzus. I had a P’up as my first vehicle.

  16. Bart said:

    Naa, I did not see any Isuzu passenger vehicles on the road over there, except one Bighorn and I got lucky and walked through an alley where an 80s Gemini was parked.

    Now, here in Reno, NV, there are Isuzus galore.

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