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Isuzu before Isuzu
Isuzu might specialize in building diesel engines and commercial vehicles, but at one point it was a fairly successful manufacturer of passenger cars in the US. Its history stretches back to 1916 when the Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Ltd. partnered with the Tokyo Gas and Electric Industrial Company with plans to build commercial trucks. Both companies had reached a point of success and growth that created an opportunity for expansion. Together they could research and develop their own vehicle, and with a plan in mind they set their sights on developing a commercial truck.
Building an automobile is no simple task, and both companies' engineers soon discovered this after studying the assembly of a few models. Tokyo Gas and Electric was able to develop and manufacture the TGE A-Type truck, using motors built by Ishikawajima, but management thought it would be best to team up with British manufacturer Wolseley Motors to give the companies rights to a few of Wolseley's models, including the CP truck and the A-9.
The A-9 went on to be the first passenger car manufactured in Japan, and the CP Japan's first truck. The A-9 was a success, but production quickly halted following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which, along with a fire on the same day, damaged the assembly plant at Fukagawa. The company saved itself thanks to subsidies offered by the Japanese government to companies that could meet their vehicle specifications. The venture resulted in the 5-ton Wolseley CP Truck, which helped further establish a strong domestic automobile industry in Japan.
The companies' agreement with Wolseley ended in 1927, but at that point they had accrued the experience and resources needed to operate independently. A year later, the "Woselely" moniker was replaced with "Sumida"-taken from the nearby Sumidagawa River-along with two engines-a four-cylinder, the A4 and a six-cylinder, the A6. The company went on to convert the Woselely CP into a few different styles, such as an armored and a six-wheeled version. The Ishikawajima Shipbuilding and Engineering Company then decided to form its automotive division into an independent company in 1929, known as Ishikawa Auto Works.
Ishikawa soon found other partners to continue developing its technologies. The company merged with DAT Automobile Manufacturing Inc. in 1933 to create Automobile Industries Co. The company later merged with Tokyo Gas & Electric Co. in 1937 to form Tokyo Automobile Industries at the behest of the Japanese government under a plan to strengthen Japan's domestic automobile production. One ofits biggest specialties was the DA6-a 5.3L air-cooled diesel engine. In fact, Tokyo Automobile Industries became so adept at building diesel engines that it was the lone source of diesel engines for the Japanese military during WWII.
Ishikawa Auto Works is behind the Isuzu name. In 1933 it released the "Isuzu" passenger car, also known as the TX35, named after the Isuzu River. Apart from passenger cars, Ishikawa also developed buses like the BX40 bus for public transportation. Ishikawa further developed its technology and offered a TA92 5-ton tractor equipped with the DA6.
The Real Isuzu
After WWII, the Japanese government limited the amount of production vehicles, but the TX80 was lauded for its exceptional fuel economy and power. A 5-ton truck, it came with a water-cooled 6-cylinder engine that kicked 85 horsepower. A few years later, the company decided to name itself after the car that initially built its reputation, and became Isuzu Motors Limited in 1949.
By this point, Isuzu had established itself as a leading diesel engine manufacturer. A year later, it released the diesel DA80, Japan's first V8 engine. It would be featured on trucks, as Isuzu didn't release Japan's first diesel engines for passenger cars, the DL201, until 1961. The DL200 debuted in the light-duty ELF in 1959, which was a 2-ton light-duty truck on a forward-control platform.
Many of Japan's domestic industries were in turmoil following the War, and with its auto industry in shambles, the Japanese government knew that foreign companies were itching to import their cars. In order to keep Japan's industry afloat, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry put forth a policy that required all foreign makers to reach agreements with already-established Japanese automakers. As it had done with Wolseley before, Isuzu acquired rights to the Hillman Minx compact car and a few other designs through an agreement with Roots Motors Ltd in 1953. The agreement only lasted until 1965, because Isuzu had its own plans in the works. During that period, Isuzu had spent all of its energy building other companies' models, but management finally reached a point where it decided it was best to have the company build its own again. So, not soon after it annulled the agreement, Isuzu introduced the Bellett.
Much like the Hillman Minx, the Bellett was meant to be a compact passenger car. It came with a 4-cylinder 1.8L diesel engine and eventually found its way into the European market. The company continued to grow, and this later lead to developments like 117 Coupe-a two-door luxury coupe released in 1968. By 1970, Isuzu's domestic sales reached 1 million. One year later the company reached an agreement with GM to develop platforms together in an effort to break into the US. GM took a 34% stake in Isuzu in 1972. The Chevrolet LUV became the first vehicle built by Isuzu that was sold in the US. While automakers spent much of the decade battling oil crises, resource shortage was not something new to the company. Its diesel engines were well prepared to offer fuel economy in an era that treasured it.
The ‘70s can be seen as a warm-up for the ‘80s, when the real breakthrough for Isuzu happened. In 1981, Isuzu established itself as a legitimate brand to the US public. It offered both domestic and commercial vehicles, the first being the Pup mini-pickup and the heavy-duty 810 truck series. Throughout the ‘80s Isuzu offered all types of vehicles like the I-Mark, Geo Storm, and Stylus; and developed a personality from ads that featured its dishonest spokesman "Joe Isuzu"-who was known for making outlandish claims about Isuzu's cars, such as: "You can drive it forever," which were usually corrected by text overlays like "your mileage may vary." The character left such an impression on popular culture that 1988 Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis claimed George H. W. Bush was at risk of becoming the "Joe Isuzu of American politics."
Isuzu eventually went on to become the world-leading manufacturer of medium and heavy duty trucks, but, by 1993, Isuzu announced that it would end its run of passenger cars due to high manufacturing costs and low sales. The company was still wildly successful with SUVs, whose sales peaked in 1996 with offerings like the Trooper and Rodeo.
Despite the downturn in production, there was plenty of value left in Isuzu's diesel engines. In 1998, GM and Isuzu teamed up to form a joint venture called DMAX to produce diesel engines. That same year, GM gained control of Isuzu by raising its stake to 49% to gain control of the company. However, Isuzu's breadwinners-the Rodeo and the Trooper-were losing popularity, despite an appearance from the Trooper in the first Spy Kids movie.
Out of America
By 2002, GM reduced its share to 12% due to a corporate reorganization of Isuzu. In 2004, Rodeo and Axiom production came to an end, and by 2005 Isuzu only offered two models: the Ascender SUV and the i-Series compact pickup trucks. Without new models to offer, many Isuzu dealerships around the US started to close up shop. Four years later, Isuzu pulled itself out from the US market due to a lack of sales, which may have been due to Isuzu only offering pickup trucks that were really rebranded Chevrolet Colorados.
Although Isuzu still offers many types of passenger cars around the world, it's known in the US for its commercial trucks. Despite the downfall, its commercial NPR truck series was the best-selling commercial truck in the US at the time. Isuzu is still quite a relevant company, supplying parts to GM vehicles and working behind the scenes with its diesel engines. There is still a little bit of Isuzu left in the US, and, you never know, maybe even in your car.