COAL: 1986 Isuzu I-Mark – That’s No Lie!

(First Published 5/26/2013) At this point my car history so far may appear somewhat schizophrenic, so to continue the lack of any discernible pattern, I made as complete a change of direction from my previous car as possible…

Behold the 1986 Isuzu I-Mark!  She jumped out at me from the corner of a small used car lot in San Luis Obispo as I was just about to start my fourth year of college.  I took a test drive, liked it, couldn’t find any faults except for the mysterious disappearance of the grille logo, and closed the deal. While looking for pictures of this car, I found the bill of sale: I paid $3,366.50 for this car with 82,298 miles on it, in August of 1990.


Some of you may have never seen one of these (or forgotten them); they were relatively rare in some parts of the county, however the shape may be familiar as it was also sold as the Geo/Chevy Spectrum for a few years with a somewhat de-contented interior and exterior.  In Canada it was sold as the Pontiac Sunburst.

The shape is reminiscent of the Hyundai Excel, and to my chagrin it was sometimes misidentified as such, despite being completely unrelated; though both were designed by Guigiaro (which undoubtedly explains the similarity).  I also see a lot of Mazda 323 in the shape.


However, I found the styling of my car to be very clean, with nice looking flush  glass, plastic lower side cladding and a decent set of alloys.  A little spoiler on the back and the factory dark-tinted taillights were the icing on the cake.

The interior was gray and blue, the seats were covered in a nice thick cloth and were quite comfortable, and the instrument binnacle featured the same kind of rocker switches at the sides that my Audi 4000 had for the lights, and such. These were very easy to operate without removing a hand from the wheel.


Performance?  Well, unfortunately there wasn’t  much.  In 1986 the only available engine was a 1.5l SOHC 4-cylinder engine with 70 hp; mated to a 5-speed manual it was adequate, but no more. A good cruiser but not a great climber; that’s probably the best way to describe it.  I can’t imagine living with it at any higher altitude or with an automatic.  At least it got good gas mileage.  Later years had a turbocharged version available, and there was even a version with a handling package developed by Lotus, proudly wearing a badge to that effect.


The mid-eighties were when the Japanese hit their stride, and everybody believed that if it was “Made In Japan”, it must be good.  Rust was not a concern in California, but probably was in other areas of the country. Japanese cars were flying off the lots (especially those from Honda and Toyota) and the smaller manufacturers such as Isuzu and Mitsubishi definitely got to ride the big boys’ coattails for a while there.  Most of the seventies era Japanese iron is not really around anymore, but plenty from the eighties are still to be found driving around in California and other dry states.


Mechanically, mine was great; however a few weeks after I bought it, the clutch started to slip.  Changing it myself was not an option, and the best (i.e. cheapest) option turned out to be the “Mobile Mechanic”.  It took this guy an entire day to pull the gearbox and change the clutch in my parking lot, but afterward it worked great and I never had another issue with the car.

One evening, the car was involved in a small fender bender in a parking lot, as another student backed up into the front side of the car.  Her car nudged my front left wheel and bent the fender area behind the wheel along with putting a small crease in the leading edge of the door.

Her insurance promptly wrote me a check, and while I was getting quotes to repair the damage, a body shop technician listened to me describe the wind noise that now came in through the door seal.  He proceeded to open the door, held it firmly just below the window area, and gave the top edge a huge smack with his palm, nearly giving me a heart attack and making the whole door shake violently. However, that fixed the wind leak! In the end I used my hands to pull out the dent to an acceptable degree and used the insurance money to pay for my tuition; not exactly noble, but what’s a starving student to do?


The Isuzu was the  first car I ever drove in the snow. A bunch of us decided to go to Lake Tahoe over New Year’s. The road, although covered in snow, did not seem too slippery until all of a sudden I found myself slightly sideways, which quickly turned into a full 720 degree spin on a downhill section, thankfully without oncoming traffic.  The pictures of us fitting the chains were taken about two minutes after coming to a stop!


I made several more trips to Lake Tahoe along with a few trips along the California coast up to San Francisco, and many down to the Los Angeles area while I had the car.  It always ran quietly and without complaint, completely soaking up all the abuse a college student can give a car over about 40,000 miles in a year and a half.

I finished my college career with this car, and moved up to the Bay Area to start my first real job after graduation in December 1991.  When the paychecks (meager but steady) began rolling in, I knew it was once again time to change my car, so a few months after starting my career I traded this one in on something else…