In the early 1960s, as Japan’s automotive market was heating up, Isuzu decided to forge its own path with a full-size, six-seater sedan. Notably, the Isuzu Bellel was Japan’s first sedan with a 2.0-liter engine and Japan’s first diesel passenger car. It was supposed to be the ace up its sleeve when entering a heated arena with the likes of Toyota, Nissan, and Prince, but soon that proved to be a double-edged sword. Though it had its flaws, the Bellel was the preferred ride of one of Japan’s most successful men.
Isuzu had plenty of truck and bus building know-how, but in order to quickly get a passenger car on the market it licensed the Hillman Minx from the UK’s Rootes Group. With experience gleaned from assembling knock-down kits, Isuzu decided to move into a larger segment with a car of its own design.
Announced in October 1961, the name derived from the word “bell” and the Latin “L” for 50. That’s because Isuzu was named after the Isuzu River, itself was named for the 50 bells of the Ise Grand Shrine by which it flows. The Bellel was powered by either a gasoline-powered OHV inline-four in 1.5 or 2.0 liters, or the 2.0-liter diesel four that became its calling card.
While the initial design and engineering seemed promising, production reality proved challenging. Isuzu’s Fujisawa Plant, today its main manufacturing hub, had just opened in November 1961 and was plagued with quality control issues. Cars often saw cracking A-pillars, leaking weather seals, and paint defects. Slow production meant that six months after launch, deliveries were still only limited to the main cities of Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. Also, to our eyes, it looks a bit like a generic sedan from The Simpsons.
The majority were sold to fleets like government motor pools, driving schools, and taxi companies, the Bellel’s biggest customer base. Diesels comprised most of the sales, but soon passengers began complaining about the noise and vibrations and avoiding Bellels. With reduced fare opportunities, taxi drivers wanted nothing to do with them either, leading to legends of a “Bellel crew allowance,” a stipend for those forced to drive them.
In the end, Bellels were outclassed by the likes of the Toyota Crown, Nissan Cedric, and Prince Gloria. By the end of its production run in 1967, stories circulated of massive discounts to government agencies with a “buy two, get one free” discount. Overall, Isuzu managed to sell 37,206 Bellels, including the wagon version known as the Express.
However, the Bellel’s story has somewhat of a redemptive arc, but you’ll need to sit through the brief story of Toshiwo Doko, a turbine engineer and former chairman of Toshiba and IHI. Despite heading two of the largest companies in Japan (and thus being very wealthy), Doko was famous and admired for living a simple, unostentatious life.
There are many tales of Doko’s humble lifestyle, but one thing known to be true is that he donated most of his salary to a girls’ school that his mother had founded. Other stories say that in his 40 years at IHI he was never once late or absent. He ate the same layman’s breakfast of fish and rice every day, wore an old hat full of holes and patches, used the same pre-war comb for 50 years, and repurposed old neckties as a belts. And, as the story goes, he drove a Bellel. Purchased at a discount, of course.
Due to the myriad quality issues, Bellels are incredibly rare today, even in Japan (though we were able to find a pair of them in Arizona in 2013). It’s great to see there’s at least one running in Isuzu’s museum collection. It may have been a dark spot in Isuzu’s 100-year history, but at least it was good enough for Toshiwo Doko.