Driven to Write profiles an unjustly forgotten Japanese outlier.
They say the alcoholic always remembers his or her first drink. I can’t remember mine, so I guess I’m clear on that front, despite none of my assorted ethnicities being notable as strangers to the bottle. On the car-spotting matter, it’s quite different. I can remember seeing my first Ro80, XJ6, and Miura with complete clarity, including colour and location, despite the passage of four and a half decades or more. The same is true of my first sighting of an Isuzu Bellett. Dark blue 4 door, Market Street, Sydney, June 1992. The Bellett had embedded itself in my automotive consciousness long before, the curiosity fired by reports in Autocar and Motor of saloon racing and rally successes which suggested that this was something out of the ordinary, from an industry about which we were told little.
The manufacturer’s history is complex, beginning with an automobile building venture instigated in 1916 by Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Ltd and Tokyo Gas and Electric Industrial Company. Wolseley cars were being produced under licence by 1922, and the business evolved into a complex industrial organism which consumed and divided in the inter-war years. Hino and DAT were at various times part of the conglomerate. The Isuzu name was not used until 1934, on a light truck manufactured to Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry standards.
War and occupation determined the company’s direction, and by 1949 Tokyo Automobile Industries was re-incorporated as Isuzu Motors Limited, producing the Chevrolet-inspired TX40 and TU60 trucks. By 1953 Isuzu had brokered a deal with the British Rootes Group and had begun manufacture of the Hillman Minx Mk.VI under license, replaced in 1956 by the Loewy designed Minx Series 1. The Rootes venture was a useful stepping-stone into passenger car manufacture, but Isuzu’s ambitions were too big to remain an assembler of another manufacturer’s designs. The Bellett was not Isuzu’s first post-Rootes era car. That was the 1961 Bellel, a much larger saloon, whose appearance shows strong Pininfarina influence.
The curious model name is a piece of wordplay. The word Isuzu means “fifty bells”, the name of a river in Mie Prefecture on which sits the Ise Grand Shrine, which has fifty ceremonial bells. Bellel is a portmanteau of the English word ‘bell’, and the Roman numeral ‘L’, signifying fifty. The Bellel was never produced in large numbers, but seems to have had a good reputation. It made sense to promote the car which would replace the Minx as its little sister. Complicating the linguistic games further, “Bellett” uses a diminutive found in the Romance languages to suggest a smaller Bellel. In reality, the two cars had very little in common.
The Bellett arrived in June 1963, a 1500cc four door saloon, mid-sized by Japanese standards at the time, with an all-new oversquare 1471 cc OHV four cylinder engine, rear wheel drive, and all-independent suspension. The rear suspension is the most notable element of the technical specification. “Independent rear suspension with coil springs and transverse leaf” looks like a typographical error, but it is not. The semi trailing arm arrangement is supplemented by a hefty leaf spring, attached to the rear of the differential casing, and picking up rearward extensions to the suspension arms. It’s a neat means of taming the semi-trailing arm design’s inherent susceptibility to camber changes, which can result in unpredictable behaviour in extreme situations.
What it is not, is cheap. On the Bellett’s contemporary rivals, Toyota and Nissan were content to adopt the lowest common denominator of a live axle and longitudinal leaf springs. The Isuzu design does not just demonstrate a pragmatic and innovative approach to an engineering problem, it indicates an ambition to position themselves as a premium manufacturer, aspiring to a position equivalent to western manufacturers such as Volvo, Peugeot, Alfa Romeo, and Borgward. The last of these had departed the world that it was too good for, just as Isuzu set out to make their mark with a car very much in the spirit of the Isabella.
It is worthwhile to reflect that in same the year the Bellett arrived, their erstwhile partners introduced the Minx Series V, looking like a relic of the previous decade with its high-mounted headlamps and vestigial tail fins.
By comparison, the Bellett is positively avant-garde. In the absence of definitive evidence, we can only speculate on whether Isuzu sought outside help with the Bellett’s styling. For a Japanese car which reached production in late 1962, the design seems particularly “well informed” and bereft of the awkwardness of contemporary home-grown designs. The reader may wish to speculate on the designs and trends which inspired and informed the Isuzu’s design.
The Bellett beat the Nissan Bluebird 410 (September 1963) and Toyota Corona T40 (September 1964) to market. These two cars are seen as highly significant to the growth of Japan’s industry as they were widely regarded as its first products developed to be competitive in the large and sophisticated markets of North America and Europe. The Isuzu, almost identical in dimensions, and similarly cosmopolitan in its styling, was not just their equal, but surpassed them with its engineering sophistication.
The Bellett range expanded rapidly. As a company renowned for its trucks, it was no surprise that Isuzu would spin a commercial vehicle from the Bellett. The Wasp, introduced in 1963, was offered with a conventional pick-up bed, and also as a flat-bed derivative.
April 1964 brought the Bellett Express, a three door estate car, but also the far more alluring 1600GT coupe. The first Japanese car to carry the ‘GT’ designation, it featured a roofline 40mm lower than the saloon, and a claimed 88PS from a 1600cc G series engine with twin SU carburettors. At this point the engine still had pushrod valve operation, but the intent to create a “Far Eastern Alfa Romeo” was abundantly clear.
Other customer bases were not neglected. Recognising that the Bellett’s chassis sophistication cut little ice with the important taxi market, Isuzu offered the Bellett B in 1966. It featured a live rear axle on longitudinal leaf springs, and squared-off tail styling. Power options were the G series engine in 1.3 litre petrol and 1.5 litre LPG versions, and the C180 1.8 litre diesel unit.
In April 1966, a fastback coupe was introduced to complement, rather than replace, the original GT. At the end of the year the 1600GT received a power boost to 95PS with the SOHC G161 engine.
In September 1969 the rare and revered Bellett GT-R arrived, with 120PS from the twin cam eight valve 1600cc G161W engine shared with the 117 Coupe. Only 1400 GT-Rs were produced. The 1970 1800GT coupe almost matched the GT-R for power, with 115PS from its SOHC G180SSS engine.
It can be seen that the G series engine also evolved continuously throughout the Bellett’s 12 year production lifespan, and indeed long outlived its original application to be used in 2 litre form in the first generation Piazza. Even in the Bellett’s ten year span, the engines’ capacities ranged from 1.3 to 1.8 litres, and gained two different SOHC cylinder heads, one non-crossflow, one crossflow, as well as the aforementioned twin cam.
As Isuzu bid to establish their niche in domestic and export markets, the Japanese automotive industry was going through a period of upheaval in the cause of consolidation and export growth, imposed by the hugely powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry. In 1964 the Japanese vehicle manufacturing industry ranked fourth in the world measured by unit output, behind the USA, Germany, and the UK. Yet commercial vehicles accounted for two-thirds of Japan’s 1,782,000 output, and the majority of passenger cars were diminutive sub-1000cc products ill-suited to export markets.
These facts come from the 1966 Times Motoring Annual, in a four page chapter entitled ‘Japanese and Russian cars’. That should be enough to demonstrate the level of interest which the western world had in the world’s fourth largest national vehicle industry.
In ‘Motor’ of June 19 1965 it was reported: Japan’s second biggest car maker, Nissan Motor Co, are to merge with the fourth biggest, Prince Motors Ltd. Negotiations are also going on between Toyota and Hino, and between Mitsubishi and Isuzu.
At that time not one Japanese manufacturer was selling cars in the UK. To the Motor’s British readers, these names would have seemed as strange and marginally relevant as Hafei or Lifan appear today. We now know that the first two mergers happened, but Isuzu stepped away from Mitsubishi, and embarked on a frenzy of commercial bed-hopping, with the mighty MITI acting as matchmaker. A co-operation deal with Subaru-maker Fuji Heavy Industries lasted from 1966 to 1968, whereupon Isuzu and Mitsubishi made a brief agreement which ended fruitlessly in 1969. On the rebound, Isuzu and Nissan attempted a collaboration, but this ended well before Isuzu went overseas to find a long-term partner.
Were Isuzu’s management particularly stubborn and uncooperative? I’d guess not – they were shrewd enough to realise that the consolidation plan was heavily weighted towards the three largest manufacturers, and that a domestic merger would mean the end of the Isuzu dream. In September 1971, an agreement was signed with General Motors, with the US company taking a 34% holding in Isuzu. As we now know, it wasn’t to be “Till death us do part”, but it gave Isuzu the stability and access to global markets it so desperately needed.
The GM alliance gave Isuzu the opening to the USA they needed for growth, but as “captive imports”, starting in 1972 with the Chevrolet LUV, a re-badged version of the Florian-based Faster pick-up. However GM investment and rationalisation would ensure the bell would soon toll for the decade-old Bellett. In the land of the four year model cycle, its demise was inevitable, as it was complex in its engineering, and something of a heavyweight; despite being a tiny car, slightly smaller in most dimensions than an Escort Mk.1, it was easily 350lb heavier than the Ford.
Production numbers for the Bellett from 1963-73 demonstrate that despite their high and honourable ambitions, Isuzu were still a very small player in the passenger car market by 1973. Total Bellett production was 171,910, of which 17,573 were coupes. The best year was 1966, with 33,209 cars produced, but from 1970-72 only around 6000 Belletts per year were being built.
There is clear evidence, in the shape of two concept cars designed by Tom Tjaarda at Ghia, that Isuzu had ambitions for the Bellett identity as something of a sub-brand. The first, the mid-engined Bellett MX-1600 from 1969, can probably be dismissed as a flight of fancy.
Tjaarda’s Bellett Sport Wagon, shown at the October 1971 Tokyo Motor Show could be an indication of how Isuzu envisaged a second generation Bellett, had GM not stepped in its way.
In November 1974, the Bellett was replaced by the GM T-car derived Gemini, marketed in its early years as the Bellett Gemini. Bigger, lighter, and mechanically less complex than its predecessor, it was effectively a Japanese-built Opel Kadett, with the true Bellett’s 1600cc G series OHC engine and all-synchromesh gearbox. It would never have the original’s exotic “dawn of a new era” allure, but it was a worthy machine, possibly the best T-car of all, by virtue of its all-Japanese engine and gearbox.
You have my word on this. Shortly before my first encounter with the Bellett in the metal in Sydney, I had driven a 13 year old Gemini to the southernmost tip of Tasmania and back. I found it utterly dependable, and an enjoyable companion, with its willing engine and slick gearchange. GM conformity would never quite suppress the spirit of “the little Japanese Alfa Romeo”.