The company was founded in 1916 to build automobiles as a joint operation of Tokyo Gas Company and Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding and Engineering. The new entity was dubbed Ishikawajima Automotive Works (IAW). The company really got rolling when the combine made a deal with Wolseley Motors Limited of the UK to produce Wolsely automobiles in East Asia in 1918. Four years later, the company’s first car rolled off the production line; the Wolseley A-9.
In 1933, IAW merged with DAT Automobile Manufacturing and the name of the business was changed to Automobile Industries Company, Ltd. Its cars were marketed under the brand name “Isuzu”. This was taken from the name of the Isuzu River, which has both its source and its mouth in the city of Ise, in the Mie Prefecture of Japan. Flowing through the Ise Grand Shrine, many songs and poems have been written about the river throughout Japan’s history. The word Isuzu roughly translates to mean 50 Bells, which is which is why the brand’s first models included the word “Bell” in their names.
Those cars were a bit of the way down the road though.
In 1937, Automobile Industries was reorganized. The resulting enterprise was named Tokyo Automobile Industries Company, Limited. Until 1949, the word Isuzu continued to be used as a brand name only. After World War II, Japan’s reconstruction efforts created demand for a lot of trucks, so the Isuzu automobile company focused primarily on production of those vehicles well into the 1950s. To get a car into the marketplace, the company built the Hillman Minx under license from 1953 to 1962.
In 1961, the first of the “real” Isuzu cars was introduced; the Isuzu Bellel.
Built from 1961 to 1966, the Bellel was also Japan’s first passenger car with a diesel engine. While a number of its mechanical components were based on the Minx, it had a distinct look. Offered as both a sedan and a wagon, the wagon was called the Bellel Express.
As we mentioned before, the Bellel nameplate is derived from the English translation of the Japanese word Isuzu—50 bells. The model’s name was coined by combining the word “Bell” with the Roman numeral for 50 (L). Thus, the car was essentially called the 50 Bells 50 Bells. While the general public received the car poorly, the livery service really appreciated the robust diesel engine, as well as the concomitant exceptional fuel economy inherent to diesel engines. This ultimately led to the Bellel’s popularity as a taxi.
Never quite able to achieve significant sales volumes though, Isuzu found itself under pressure from the Japanese government’s Ministry of Trade and Industry to partner with a larger company. The Ministry’s goal was to minimize the number of car companies operating in Japan. Because of this, Isuzu found itself pushed into a shotgun marriage with Fuji Heavy Industries (parent corporation of the Subaru brand) in 1966. It wasn’t re really a good fit though, so a union with Mitsubishi was tried after the one with Fuji in 1968. But that one didn’t work either. A trial with Nissan was next—in 1970—with similar result. Just when it seemed all was lost, General Motors purchased an interest in Isuzu in 1971.
As a result of the partnership with General Motors, Isuzu products made it to the United States for the first time in 1972. Giving GM a much-needed entry into the then-new compact pickup truck category, an Isuzu small pickup truck was rebadged as the Chevrolet LUV (light utility vehicle) and became Isuzu’s first American offering.
It is important to note the U.S. market was on the cusp of being mired in the throes of the Arab oil embargo and the energy crisis that resulted. This timely event prompted a spike in the demand for compact cars just as GM started offering Isuzu products. In fact, Isuzu was just the lifeline GM needed to get a selection of small cars into the marketplace quickly while figuring out how to rework its mainstream models to deal with the new more frugally oriented realities of the marketplace.
Rebadged as Buick’s Opel by Isuzu, the 1974 Isuzu Gemini became the brand’s first passenger car to be offered in the U.S. The first Isuzu branded vehicle to be marketed in the U.S. without rebadging was the 1981 Isuzu P’up compact pickup truck. Chevrolet continued to offer the truck as well—as the aforementioned Chevrolet LUV.
In 1983, the most notable of the Isuzu cars ever offered here came to the United States. The Giorgetto Giugiaro styled Isuzu Impulse packed a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, rear-wheel drive, and a suspension system tuned by Lotus Engineering. Were it offered by any other brand, odds are it would have been a runaway best seller, so radically different and arguably better was the Impulse than anything else in the segment at the time. Sadly, Isuzu’s marketing and advertising budget was just about as small as its dealer network. Odds are, if you didn’t live in one of the large coastal cities you never even saw one.
On the other hand though, Isuzu’s trucks and SUVs were doing pretty well, benefiting from the SUV boom that started in the late 1980s. Led by the Isuzu Trooper and the Isuzu Rodeo (which was also offered in rebadged form as the Honda Passport), Isuzu enjoyed good sales volume. This lasted through much of the 1990’s, and expanded as the American appetite for SUVs became more and more voracious.
However, other manufacturers were taking note of this burgeoning market and very quickly developed models that were superior to Isuzu’s offerings. By the time the 2000 model year rolled around, Isuzu was outclassed on every front. Sales took a nosedive and the company limped through the first decade of the 21st century in the U.S. marketplace.
Ironically, by 2008, Isuzu was down to offering two models in the U.S both of which were rebadged GM products.
The company withdrew its products from the U.S. market in 2009.