CC hunting at night is not usually very successful. This exceptional Isuzu Bellett coupé is the exception that proved the rule. Well, what it really is, is it shows that there are still a number of CCs hiding in plain sight in my neighbourhood.
The car cover is the bane of the CC hunter’s existence. These abominations are widely used in Japan, where folks like to keep their car clean and have fewer options to garage them. In this instance, all signs point to a big American two-door of some kind — late ’60s or early ’70s. Frustrating.
Sometimes, of course, the car’s distinctive shape can inform the onlooker as to its identity. Hi there, Mini Cooper.
Sometimes, the dreaded car cover can even be so considerate as to provide information about the marque of the car it is protecting. The folks at Daihatsu went so far as to putting the model name on the damn thing. Too kind.
But when all you see is this, it can be difficult to ascertain what is underneath. Besides, even if you do figure out that there’s a classic gem hidden there, you still can’t take a photo. In this case, the tell-tale sign should have been the fender mirrors, which the majority of cars dispensed with in the mid-‘80s. Though I passed by this car many times in broad daylight, it never caught my eye.
Little did I know of the eminently CC-worthy JDM coupé lurking under there, until a fatefully late and rainy evening. I was on my way home from a drinks party, passed by this little parking area and stopped in my tracks. Now, it might have been a combination of beer goggles and low lighting, but I thought this Isuzu looked fantastic.
As far as I know, the design is home-grown, though there are rumours of Giovanni Michelotti having been involved. He did work on a number of Japanese cars in the early ‘60s (e.g. Hino Contessa, Prince Skyline coupé, Daihatsu Sport), but in the Bellett’s case, it’s unclear whether he had a hand in the saloon or the coupé, or both. Or, indeed, either.
As far as the Bellett coupé is concerned, whoever penned its lines must have had a couple photos of the 1960-66 Alfa Romeo 2000/2600 Sprint on the office wall. The Alfa was one of Giugiaro’s early efforts while at Bertone; he was definitely involved with Isuzu to create the 117 Coupé later in the ‘60s, but he’s not suspected of having any involvement with the Bellett.
But the “Japanese Alfa” vibe goes beyond looks. The whole Bellett concept was something of a new departure for Isuzu. After years of assembling Hillman Minxes and Diesel trucks, the company had created its first entirely new car in 1961. Unfortunately, the Bellel was beset by problems. After a difficult birth, it had a tough life, punctuated by a premature death in 1967.
But the Bellel was a relatively big car – an attempt at competing with the Toyota Crown or the Prince Gloria. Isuzu simultaneously worked to keep their share of the owner-driver 1500cc family car bracket, where the Hillman Minx was making a killing. In an effort to wean themselves off Rootes, Isuzu introduced the Bellett saloon at the 1962 Tokyo Motor Show and progressively abandoned the Minx.
The Bellett originally featured a 1.5 litre 4-cyl. – nothing too special, just a decent and reliable OHV engine. Power was sent to the rear wheels via an all-synchromesh 4-speed gearbox – slightly ahead of the competition, as 3-speed and partially synchronized gearboxes were still common in 1962. But the real ace in the hole was the IRS: Isuzu were definitely ahead of the curve in this regard. Also, the Bellett was available from the get-go with a 1.8 litre Diesel – not a common thing in the early ‘60s.
Isuzu aced out their competitors with the modern-looking Bellett, which sported trendy quads (except on the lower-spec models) and eschewed the fins still present on comparable domestic saloons. Nissan and Toyota fought back with the Bluebird 410 and the Corona T40, launched in 1963 and 1964 respectively. The Prince Skyline S50, launched in 1963, also boxed in the 1500cc category. Hino’s 1964 Contessa PD only had a 1.3 litre, but it was in the same category size-wise and was the only one (other than Isuzu) to offer all-independent suspension. Mitsubishi belatedly got their act together with their Colt 1500, which came out in late 1965.
All followed Isuzu’s styling lead, to an extent, and most emulated the Isuzu’s variants as well: wagon, sports coupé, two-door sedan and pickup variants were expected in this category. But only Isuzu made a nearly full array of derivatives. The Bellett existed as a four-door saloon (including a low-spec 1.3 litre variant), a two-door sedan (middle left – a late model) , two- and four-door Wasp pickups (bottom pics), GT coupé (not shown) and two-door Express wagon (top right, a 1966-67 model). Covering all bases, Isuzu even launched the Bellett B, with a bigger trunk and the pickup’s live rear axle made chiefly for the taxi trade, in 1966.
The GT was the halo car, of course. It was launched in 1964 as the 1500 GT and gradually improved with disc brakes and an extra 100cc (in 1965), and later a SOHC version of the 1.6 litre engine. A fastback variant was introduced in 1967 (top right), but seems not to have had much success. The infamous 1600 GT-R arrived in 1969 (bottom right), with the 117 Coupé’s 120hp DOHC engine – best of the breed performance-wise, but also one of the rarest: only 1400 units made in two years. Finally, in November 1970, the 1800 GT was launched.
Our CC is an early model 1800 GT, as the Bellett range was given a general makeover for MY 1972 that affected their grilles in a rather unfortunate way. But for their introductory year, 1800 GTs were closely modelled to look like the 1600 GT-Rs, making these ’71 coupés very attractive nowadays. The engine is a 1817cc OHC 4-cyl. churning out almost as much as the DOHC 1.6 (i.e. 115hp), but provides a smidgen more torque. There was a single-carb version called 1.8 GTN as well, which only had 100hp. The coupés lasted until early 1973; Bellett saloons were phased out in favour of the Gemini in late 1974.
Isuzu made this galaxy of Bellett models, from the dimmest of pickups to the brightest of coupés, for just over a decade, powered by anything from 1300cc to 1800cc engines (both petrol and Diesel) with OHV, OHC and DOHC heads, with or without IRS, some with automatic transmission, and so on. Spoiled for choice, how did the customer respond? By taking a look at the competition and buying one of those instead. Isuzu made just under 172,000 Belletts all models combined, of which about 10% were coupés.
What was it about Isuzu that made them perpetual underdogs, even on their home market? Comically-worded advertising like the 1968 example above? Well, no. That kind of silliness is par for the course. Nobody could read the English script – they still can’t, in many cases – so few understood how unintentionally funny these were.
Was it strangely obsolete details, such as external hinges on the trunklid or the floor-mounted gear change? Exposed hinges could still be found on most of the competition too, at least in the mid-‘60s. (They did look a tad passé by 1971.) Having one’s four on the floor was a mark of sportiness, in those days – Astons, BMWs and Maseratis had those, as did the higher-spec Skylines. If anything, those were on their way back by the late ‘60s.
It wasn’t that Isuzu shirked from conquering foreign markets. Belletts were exported to Australia (as evidenced by the 1967 advert above), Benelux, New Zealand, Scandinavia and, albeit quite modestly, to the US. Heck, Belletts were even assembled in Nova Scotia for a few months, during in their mid-‘60s heyday. Double heck, Studebaker even seriously considered producing the car in Hamilton, possibly with an elongated “S” badge in lieu of the unknown Isuzu brand. Wouldn’t that have been a lark?
And perhaps Isuzu’s relatively murky brand identity, coupled with their smaller dealer network within Japan, can help explain why they sold as many Belletts in a decade as Datsun were selling Bluebirds every year. Bellett production peaked at around 35,000 in 1966 and shrank to insignificance (around 6000 / year) by 1970 – perhaps the plug ought to have been pulled before 1974. But Isuzu lacked the capital to engineer a replacement, which turned out to be GM’s T-car, with the Bellett’s engine and transmission.
It might have been wiser for Isuzu to focus their range on fewer variants. Fragmentation is never a great recipe for high returns on investment. Did they really need two coupés and a two-door sedan? Not to mention the tooling costs for that peculiar four-door pickup. The mind boggles. Likewise, the expensive-to-develop IRS, great though it was, did not reappear after the Bellett’s demise. They didn’t even bother adapting it to the Florian or the 117 Coupé, where it would have made some sense.
In the mid-‘60s, Isuzu were rumoured to be in for a merger with Mitsubishi, just as the Hino / Toyota and the Prince / Nissan hitch-ups were being worked out. This never took place and Isuzu flirted with Nissan for a spell, before figuring that salvation lay in a foreign marriage – other Japanese carmakers would have snuffed out the marque’s car line, just as they did with Hino and Prince. If nothing else, the Bellett showed that isuzu had engineering wherewithal and design capacity to rival the big boys, a fact that doubtless impressed GM enough to make Isuzu an offer.
This Bellett, made a few months prior to this GM deal, is a good specimen of the original Isuzu: brilliant in many ways, but also quixotic in their determination to exist in a market that always saw them as a third-tier carmaker. They tried to make a truly modern Japanese family car and succeeded. However, they didn’t have the financial clout to switch to a new generation after five years like their competitors, so the ‘60s Bellett became a ‘70s anachronism, albeit very cool one. Best kept under wraps.