RING ANY BELLS?

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Isuzu Motors Limited of Japan as it commemorated 80 years in 2017. The company built a strong reputation as a manufacturer of rugged and reliable commercial vehicles but it did delve into car manufacture along the way. Ever heard of aBellett? It is one of the coolest 1960s saloons, and makes one wonder why so few Isuzus fought it out in the passenger market.

Before getting into the swing of it let’s briefly look at the Isuzu tale…

The company’s roots can be traced back more than a century to 1916, when the Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Limited was formed and started building trucks under licence from British company Wolseley.  Various acquisitions and mergers occurred through the 1930s and ʼ40s, resulting in the eventual formation of Isuzu Motors Limited – Isuzu also being the name of a Japanese river. Translated into English it means ‘Fifty Bells’.

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Isuzu established a diesel research committee in 1934 and poured its energies into the development of diesel engines, a technology that had not yet been commercially established, even in the advanced nations of Europe and North America. In 1936 it introduced the air-cooled 5.3-litre DA6 diesel engine, followed three years later by the DA4, which went on to serve as the foundation of all later generations of Isuzu diesel engines. These were Japan’s first commercial diesel engines and marked a breakthrough in the history of diesel engine development. Since then, the company has supplied industrial engines for various types of applications, including construction machinery, generators, and even snow vehicles to be used for expeditions in the harsh and precarious conditions of the South Pole, maintaining a strong reputation among industrial machinery manufacturers, both in Japan and overseas.

On the South African front, the Isuzu story started in the early 1970s with the launch of the Chevrolet LUV (Light Utility Vehicle), in essence the first Isuzu ‘bakkie’, which was imported from Japan. Local production of the LUV commenced in 1972 at the Kempston Road plant in Port Elizabeth, and in 1973 Isuzu-based trucks were introduced for the first time. The KB nomenclature which is unique to South Africa was first introduced when the facelifted LUV was released in 1979, but this time branded as an Isuzu KB. The following year saw the South African introduction of the Isuzu KB40, the first petrol- and diesel-powered 4-wheel drive pick-up from Japan. Now in its 6th Generation, the Isuzu KB continues the legacy established by the LUV.

While the press seems to relegate Isuzu to the commercial/utility sector it does in fact have a reasonable passenger car making history. In 1953 Isuzu started producing the Minx, a carbon-copy of the Hillman version sporting the same name, thanks to a licence agreement with the British Rootes Group. This remained in production through to 1962, with the arrival of Isuzu’s first own car, the Bellel – naming done by taking the English word ‘bell’ and combining it with the Roman numeral ‘L’ (50) to mean fifty bells.

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Not only was the Bellel the first Isuzu but it was the first Japanese car to make use of a diesel power plant. This came in the form of a 40kW 2-litre diesel lump that initially ran alongside a 1500cc petrol engine and then later a 2-litre offering.  Despite its European styling and scooping the 1962 Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers Prize, sales were not exactly stellar for the mid-sized saloon, with the only real fans being the local taxi industry who saw the fuel consumption benefits given by the diesel variant. In total 37 206 Bellels hit the road before being replaced by the Ghia-penned Isuzu Florian in 1967. The Florian enjoyed a 16-year production span, again offering petrol and diesel variants in both sedan and wagon format. A pretty Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed coupé badged as the 117 Coupé based on the Florian underpinnings was also offered.  This wasn’t the company’s first coupé or sporting attempt though, with these honours going the way of the Isuzu Bellett GT of 1964, a natural addition to the Bellett sedan range launched in ’63. 

With the Bellel filling the mid-sized sedan requirement, the smaller Bellett was aimed at the more diminutive sub-compact set and – you guessed right – the name Bellett was meant to indicate a smaller Bellel in the same way as cigarette vs cigar.

In June 1963, the Bellett began life with a 1.5-litre SOHV 4-cylinder petrol and 1.8-litre diesel option. By April 1964, a 1.3-litre mill borrowed from the Isuzu Wasp bakkie joined the party and a 3-door van/wagon version called the Express showed the intent to cover a wide range of the market requirements. In January 1965, the Bellett became the first Isuzu to be exported to Europe, when 1000 units were shipped to Finland. The Swiss and Swedish market opened up after showing off the Isuzu at the 1965 Geneva Salon and Canada followed suit in March that year. South of the Equator, the Bellett was assembled and sold in New Zealand and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

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In 1958 BMC opened a Zimbabwe assembly plant in Umtali (now Mutare) but it soon diversified and churned out Citroën DS 19s, Daihatsu 1000s, Cheetah (BMW/Glas) and the Isuzu Bellett 1500 4-door.

While there’s not much sporting about the 4-door Bellett, the Japanese newcomer had a few tricks up its sleeve in the form of a 2-door GT in April ’64. Not only was it lower than the 4-door but it also received a 1.6-litre single overhead camshaft motor and a set of twin carbs that enabled an impressive top speed of 160km/h, which together with disc brakes up front was enough to scare the likes of its Ford Cortina GT competitor. Try this on for size…

MK1 FORD CORTINA 1500GT      
Capacity: 1498cc 
Power: 78bhp 
Torque: 120Nm  
Mass: 869kg   
Specific output: 52.1bhp/litre    

ISUZU BELLETT 1600GT
Capacity: 1579cc
Power: 89bhp
Torque: 128Nm
Mass: 939kg
Specific output:56.3bhp/litre

Ah, yes Ford fans will of course counter this by adding the Mk1 Lotus Cortina. Isuzu had an answer, though, in the form of the 1969 Isuzu Bellett GT-R or GT Type R.  

MK1 LOTUS CORTINA                   
Capacity: 1558cc   
Power: 110bhp     
Torque: 145Nm          
Mass: 905kg               
Specific output: 70.6bhp/litre         

ISUZU BELLETT 1600GT-R
Capacity: 1584cc
Power: 118bhp
Torque: 142Nm
Mass: 970kg
Specific output: 74bhp/litre

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Like the Lotus, Isuzu went the double overhead camshaft route, which was borrowed from the Isuzu 117 Coupé. Twin Solex carbs replaced the regular GT’s Hitachi items, a brake booster was added and the package all slotted under a black bonnet – the main visual difference between a GT and GT-R. Both Bellett GT and GT-R featured independent wishbones with coil springs and torsion bar at the front, while the rear was an independent type with diagonal link type swing axle, coil springs and a transverse leaf spring but the road tests indicate it was not as competent as the Lotus Cortina in the handling department. Neutral to slight understeer was said to be the norm, but as and when a bump was encountered mid-corner the Bellett would snap into oversteer quickly. This trait was also in evidence in the wet. Nonetheless, the Bellett did well on track in various guises, especially in its homeland and Australia. Bruce McLaren even piloted a 1500 4-door at Goodwood in 1965, when the Nippon Company entered that year’s Goodwood Easter Meeting (it never actually raced but completed some practice laps).

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In total, 2894 Mk1 Lotus Cortinas were produced – double the number of 1400 GT-Rs. While the 4-door was assembled in Zimbabwe, it does appear that a number of GT versions also made it there. A few also seem to have made it to Mozambique in period. South Africa can thank these neighbours for half a dozen or so GTs running around today. Rumour has it there’s a GT-R lurking locally too. Can anyone confirm this?

That’s about it as far as Isuzu passenger cars go in Southern Africa, but the brand did come back briefly with the SUV-type Trooper. Other markets kept going with saloons, following the Bellett with the likes of the Florian and Aska (sold as Holden in Australia) but the real focus has and always will remain the diesel power plant and utility market.

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