Curbside Classic: 1972 Isuzu Bellett 1600 GTR – The Best For Last

Not all cars achieve greatness. Of those that do, some are born great, but others only achieve it near the end of their production span. The 1963-73 Isuzu Bellett is clearly from that latter school of thought, as this pumpkin-spiced very late model 1600 GTR will hopefully demonstrate. This little orange monster has plenty of juice!

I found and wrote up a fairly similar car a couple years back: it was a year younger and had the 1.8 litre engine. What a difference 12 months and 200cc makes! This 1600 GTR (or “1600 GT R-Type,” but that’s just too long) is the absolute queen of the Belletts, the closest that early ‘70s Japan got to a domestic Alfa Romeo or a BMW.

I won’t bother with the Bellett’s wider history – just take a peek at my previous piece if you need a refresher. Let’s skip right to late 1969, when the Tokyo Motor Show saw the Bellett 1600 GTR for the first time, looking pretty much like the car above. The beta version had just won a race at Suzuka, so this newcomer came haloed with fresh racing cred from the get-go.

The idea was to take the 117 Coupé’s 120hp DOHC twin-carb engine and install it in the Bellett notchback coupé, mated to a 4-speed manual. Said notchback coupé was somewhat lighter than the 117 and it had all-independent suspension to boot. The Bellett’s IRS was a swing axle design, with stiffer springs front and rear for the GTR. Another technical amelioration specific to the GTR was the addition of a servo for the brakes, which as far as I know remained discs at front and drums at the rear. So better than Alfa? I’d say about even.

The one thing that was not quite as great as anything made in Italy was the Isuzu’s interior. There are few places more appealing to sit in than an Alfa or Lancia of this era, but to be entirely fair, we’re setting the bar quite high and the quality of the pic is quite low.

But even if we look at a (much clearer and well-lit) period photo of a completely original interior, the fact remains that our Bellett is more comparable to a BMW -02 than a Lancia, from this angle at least. BMW -02s are great cars, but they had rather drab interiors…

I stated in my Bellett 1800 GT post that Isuzu built only 1400 units of the 1600 GTRs in two years, which would be 1970 and 1971. It’s a factoid floating about some English-speaking websites, but clearly an incorrect assumption, as proven by the above period photo of a GTR with the MY 1972/73 “mask” grille displayed at the Tokyo Motor Show in late 1971. The total fleet, i.e. 1400 made, is confirmed by all sources though, so this is a rare car indeed.

Our CC is also wearing this admittedly unfortunate grille, so if it is a genuine GTR (one can never be 100% certain of these things), it’s one of the last ones. By this time, the Bellett was really becoming an afterthought at Isuzu. Production of all Bellett GTs (GTRs included) after 1969 dropped to minuscule levels – less than 1500 units per year – and cars were pretty much built to order until it was halted in March 1973.

The GTRs were essentially built to order anyway, given that the DOHC head for their 1584cc engines were more or less hand-made, just like the rest of the initial 117 Coupés. Those fine motors were related but different from the OHV and SOHC Isuzu 1600s – they made many variations of that G-series 4-cyl., which lasted all the way to the Piazza. Much as the late-model grille is not my cuppa (a common enough gripe, apparently), I quite like the revamped taillights on these final Belletts.

Of course, our feature car has had a few questionable extras tacked on. The front chin spoiler kind of, er, spoils the front end and the fat tyres and Watanabe rims, coupled with the black plastic over-fenders, is another particularly objectionable mod on this car. On the other hand, painting the bumpers black kind of works, here…

This specific car is also adorned with a few too many decals and stickers, in my opinion. I’m particularly wondering why there is an Italian tricolour on it. The Alfa Romeo connection again? This car may be used in historic racing events, so it’s understandable that some sponsoring would be displayed (the Total sticker on the rear end, for instance), but these other ones diminish the visual impact of that majestic “Type R” emblem. Pity.

I’m nitpicking, as usual. In truth, even in spite of those ugly wheels, this rare Bellett’s delightfully ‘70s hue made for a very pleasant surprise – and made it possible to find, too! It was parked beside a building entrance, partially hidden by a row of parked cars. Had it been a duller shade, like silver or white, I might not have perked up and noticed it from the street. This is the classic Bellett GTR colour, it seems. Green, blue and yellow were also used, but iconic orange just can’t be bested.

In Japan, these cars are just as revered as the contemporary C10 Skyline GT-R, Mazda Cosmo or Toyota 2000GT. Internationally, the fading of Isuzu as a carmaker has perhaps tainted their sporting legacy, and the Bellett GTR does not have the same status abroad as it deserves. It’s certainly not put on the same level as the aforementioned Japanese automotive legends. Isuzu, as a carmaker, ended with a whimper, but the Bellett ended with a real bang of a variant.


Related posts:


Curbside Classic: 1964 Isuzu Bellett – Canadian CC Holy Grail, by DougD

Curbside Classic: 1971 Isuzu Bellett 1800 GT – Not Undercover Of The Night. by T87