Curbside Classic: 1988 Isuzu Pickup – No Soup For You!

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A failure to display the requisite amount of respect cost Seinfeld’s famously neurotic Elaine to lose attention from the famed Soup Nazi. American consumers, whose finicky habits have scared away many auto manufacturers, likewise frustrated Isuzu to the point that their famously tough pickups were yanked from the grasp of pickup buyers in the US.

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On one hand, you can’t really blame American pickup buyers.  Trucks were getting bigger, plusher and stronger and by the mid ’90s, Isuzu’s mainstay was unable to keep up.  For a while, too, it may have seemed to corporate HQ that SUVs would pay the bills in the US and that revamping their basic, low-profit compact pickups for American tastes was hardly worth the effort.  But after the well publicized, Consumer Reports Trooper roll-over “scandal,” this sentiment was reversed and the low-content S10 rebadge, the Hombre, was brought in to fill the hole left by the long-in-the-tooth homegrown truck for less outlay by Isuzu.

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Never called by its real name in the US, the Faster began life as a body-on-frame version of the Florian sedan (replaced by the Aska, a high-quality GM J-car) with a pickup bed.  Known for being both tough and cheap, Chevy imported it to the US until 1982, badging it the Light Utility Vehicle.  I had a chance to drive a particularly beat up 1982 diesel 4×2, its final year before Isuzu completely took over marketing of the truck with the P’up.  LUV and P’up might be cute names, but the particular truck I borrowed and maintained for my friend in the summer of 2011 was anything but cuddly.

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The picture on the right is sadly the only one we have of it; I can be seen in the foreground petting my nineteen year old cat, Sox (RIP).  My friend’s LUV diesel had broken power steering (much stiffer than proper manual steering), broken motor mounts, a cracked exhaust manifold, no radiator, no seals on the doors and about 400,000 miles on it.  Between the effort required to drive it around town (it was dangerously slow on the highway, though my friends and I also drove it there), the panic involved in keeping up with traffic, the vibration and the noise, I was required to take a nap each time I got back from a trip of any duration in that thing.  I would always remark to my buddy that “your Isuzu punched me in the face,” because that was exactly what I felt had been done to me each time I drove it.  Of course, I now realize the fumes it emitted may have had something to do with this sentiment, but I nevertheless came away with an immense amount of respect for the thing.

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It was on its original engine, master cylinder, clutch and transmission (there were maintenance records).  It could get up to about ninety miles per hour, if you waited long enough, and keep up with urban traffic, if you kept it floored and used the surprisingly precise shifter enough.  My friend and I also learned a fair degree of wrenching on that car, replacing its injector pump and front shocks, and as well as embarking on an ultimately abortive installation of a biodiesel fuel system.

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My friend had worked on a North Carolina biodiesel farm (where chicken shit–along with other bi-products–was turned into fuel) where she bought the truck for $1000.  It was used for errands around the farm, and rarely taken on the open road before she purchased it.  It probably should have stayed on the farm, but if that were the case, I’d have never gotten the chance to fall in love with this particular pickup, which was replaced by a ’95 LeSabre, its polar opposite.

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Back to the featured truck which, in its resplendent burnt umber, is a welcome break from all the white cars the lords of the curbside classic keep sending my way.  I found it during a walk parked in front of another extremely honest Japanese car, a first gen Mazda Protege (in white, natch) and knew I had to get it on camera.  These actually hold up pretty well (their predecessors, on the other hand, were particularly bad rusters), and were pretty popular in the US for the first couple years they were sold.  A neighbor of mine, whose wife worked at the local Buick/Isuzu/Lotus dealer and who owned a LeSabre of her own, replaced his beige Datsun 720 in 1988 with a then-new Isuzu pickup.  Its styling stood out to me then and they still look attractive to me today.  The Hardbody may have been California cool, but the 1988 Isuzu Pickup (no longer called P’up but still called Faster overseas in 4×2 configuration, and Rodeo when equipped with 4WD) has aged better and looks, dare I say it, brawnier than the famed Nissan.

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No longer offered with a diesel–a shame as the last of its KB P’up predecessors offered a stout turbocharged 2.2–the new TF series could never match Nissan’s smooth and responsive VG-series V6 for power nor, after 1989, its base level KA-block 2.4 liter four.  Isuzu, stretched thin in the US, specialized in toughness and like the soup nazi, the presentation of its high-quality product was minimally tailored for urban sensibilities (the final Trooper and Vehicross being notable exceptions).  While the company was happy to give foreign markets legendary turbodiesels, and were hold-outs in offering them to US customers, they ultimately determined that it just wasn’t worth the effort.

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Too bad, though; with such low sales of the truck overall, it may have gone far in cultivating a loyal clique of buyers.  Even in VW’s darkest years, there were always diesels on tap and Mercedes, despite playing in a glamorous market sector, has always offered a diesel.  Isuzu’s approach, on the other hand, meant that this truck has a carbureted 2.3 liter, offered until 1993.  4x4s got a 2.6 liter fuel-injected unit, shared with the Rodeo and Amigo, as well as a 3.1 Chevy V6 option, shared with various GM products.  Isuzu’s Rodeo SUV, incidentally, was the first to leapfrog Nissan and Toyota’s 3.0 twelve-valve V6s in 1993 with their excellent 3.2 liter dual-cam (quad-cam after 1996) unit, but the pickup was never to receive it, having been dropped from the US line-up after 1995.

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Not that the refined new V6 would’ve been a bad fit; a good amount of effort was made to make these trucks a pleasant place to spend time.  The dashboard is particularly car-like, much as with the Nissan and Toyota pickups which also shared so much of their interiors with their SUV derivatives.  Isuzu was particularly fond of the pod-mounted ancillary switchgear and while often derided by the autorags, it now seems to be a pleasing period quirk.  Complain all you like about the following statement, but the level of quality–if not luxury–evident in this interior far exceeds even the nicest pre-1995 Explorer, to say nothing of the Blazers and Jimmys of the era.  The current owner must be thanked for keeping it in such nice condition.

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This vent window means this truck must be older than 1994, and the more square-rigged grille makes it 1991 at the newest.

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The Isuzu script on the rear changed after 1990, so this truck is from one of the first three years of the TF-series’ US sales.  While the Hombre replaced it in 1996, the TF-series continued until 2002 elsewhere in the world, with all varieties of crew cabs, 24-valve V6s and turbodiesels.  It’s somewhat of a mystery to me why the Hombre even happened; after all, the mechanically similar Rodeo was still being made in Indiana, and was also offered with a new, dual-airbag dashboard, which should’ve been easy to adapt to the existing truck.

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Eventually, with the S10’s overdue replacement, the Colorado/Canyon, the Isuzu pickup made a comeback of sorts, in widebody format with GM engines, but once again American buyers rejected its back-to-basics ethos.  With its restrained styling and available 5.3 V8, it was my favorite pickup during the years it was offered, but by this point, compact trucks were mostly abandoned by consumers, leaving no room for anything which was even slightly unique.  That’s the market’s loss, as far as I’m concerned.  I’ve heard of LUV trucks with small block Chevy V8s swapped in and thirty years later, GM actually offered the same thing from the factory.  As for me, one day I’ll find a carburetted TF-series Pickup like the one we see here and swap in a Chevy V8 of my own, sans emissions equipment (they wouldn’t know here in Indiana).  That would make for a very special soup indeed.

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Related reading:

1984 Isuzu Pickup: Found In A Surprising Location1979 Chevy LUV 4×4 (Isuzu Faster): Tough Love