Curbside Classic: 1979 Chevy LUV 4×4 (Isuzu Faster) – Tough Love

(first posted 12/31/11)

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the toughest old Japanese pickup of them all?

If it said the Isuzu-built Chevy LUV, would you argue with it? Well yes, the Toyota pickups of the times also have a stellar rep, at least until the 22R switched to a single row timing chain in 1983. I’m not exactly an Isuzu/LUV expert, but I have yet to ever hear of any specific fundamental weakness of these trucks. But then one doesn’t exactly hear a lot of complaints about all the other Japanese trucks of those times either. So maybe the mirror is just flipping a coin.

Does the front half of this car look strangely familiar? That’s because Isuzu’s new-for 1972 pickup, the somewhat oxymorically-named Faster, borrowed pretty much all of the Isuzu Florian’s front end sheet metal. The Florian was a rather odd car for a Japanese sedan, in that it was made almost unchanged for over fifteen years, from 1967 to 1983.

Along the way, it did manage to pick up a Brougham Era front end. Thankfully, the LUV was spared that. Speaking of, let’s get back to that. But who knows if I’ll ever encounter a Florian, so this was my one chance to slide it in.

GM bought an ownership interest in Isuzu in 1971, at a time when the Big Three saw the rising sun shining brightly in California, and they all scrambled to get in on the action. Mini-pickups were a big part of that, the hot new genre at the time. That quickly bore fruit in the form of the Chevy LUV (Light Utility Vehicle), the first result of Isuzu signing an agreement with GM whereby all their products would be sold through GM’s vast distribution network.

The LUV was the first Japanese mini-pickup I ever drove, in Iowa, in around 1974 or so. A boss of mine had one, and occasionally I drove it to Cedar Rapids and back. Needless to say, it was a pretty elemental thing, as all members of these genre were. The ride was harsh, no power assists of any kind (obviously), the drum brakes so-so, it was pretty noisy, but then none of that was new to me, given that I was transitioning from a ’63 Beetle to a ’68 Dodge A100 van at the time. And of course, the cabin was more than a bit tight for someone my size.

But the appeal of these trucks was obvious: the were basic transportation that could haul a load, and do it very economically. The kids in California loved them, if for no other reason than to haul their motorcycles out to the desert, along with big coolers of beer. Detroit didn’t want to get left out of the party, so Ford brought over the Mazda-built Courier, and Chrysler had Mitsubishi-built Arrows and such.

Their tinny bodies probably made them extra-susceptible to the tin worm, but their underpinnings were built for the long haul. Isuzu used their G-Series gas engine in these, a 1.8 L SOHC development of what was powering the Florian and such back in the early sixties. Well proven indeed. And Isuzu’s primary focus on light and medium trucks seemed to have a trickle-down effect.

The little four came with 75 hp, and later got a raise to 80. Curiously, these trucks never offered the option of a five-speed, which was getting pretty popular with Toyota and Datsun buyers. Yes, they were buzzy on the freeway.

In 1978, a long-wheelbase version joined the LUV-fest. Their up-rated suspensions gave them a maximum payload of a rather hefty 1635 lbs in their 7.5 foot long bed. There’s a hard little worker.

We’ll assume our featured truck is a 1979, although it could be a 1980, the last year before the major re-style. The big news for 1979 was four wheel drive, and unlike the early Toyota trucks, it used independent front suspension with torsion bars. That gave them a lower ride height, but still 7.5″ of clearance.

This particular truck is obviously well cared for and in very good condition. Someone is into this for the long haul. Right down to the upgraded seats and the horns on the hood. There’s still a fair number of these LUVs around here, but this is the nicest of the bunch. 1979 was the peak year for LUV, with a bit over 100k sold. Not too shabby; no wonder GM decided to get into the game with their own compact truck.

Once, I even caught this one hanging out with this other toy gem, a Suzuki pickup. We’ll get to that one before long again. Toy trucks indeed, and ones that promise to be around for quite a while yet.

The LUV reappeared in its second incarnation for just two years (1981 – 1982) before GM struck out on its own with its all-American S-10. That forced Isuzu to open its own dealerships, and re-brand the pickups into the P’up. But that’s another story: Puppy Love.