Curbside Classic: 1980 Isuzu 117 Coupé XE – Square In The Eye


It is said that blood cannot be squeezed out of a stone and old dogs can’t learn new tricks. But can I wring another post out of the Isuzu 117 Coupé? You bet. I’ve been sitting on these pics for over two years now, because for some reason a glut of 117s pressed itself in front of my damn smartphone back in 2020. Actually, there have been a few more in the interim – and most of them were of the square-eyed variety, but this one was always going to be the featured player. Time for it to be shared with the wider world.

The year was 1977 and the month was November. The Isuzu 117 Coupé entered its tenth year of existence mere weeks earlier, but it was also embarking onto the third and final stage of its production life. The starkest change was, quite prominently, front and middle on either side: the hitherto circular quad headlights that the car sported since the late ‘60s were ditched in favour of a set of trendy rectangular ones.

They did to the 117 Coupé exactly what they also did to the Florian it was based on, in other words. Even the Diesel engine eventually made it to the “sporty” 117 from the saloon. At least they didn’t slap that awful grille on the two-door as well.

None of that chintzy B.S. here – the mythical Chinese lion that was always at the centre of the 117 Coupé’s identity is still there, keeping the guard up. This feline form was selected by Giugiaro himself to adorn the Isuzu, and it is said that he was involved in this last facelift. This is certainly not always the norm in automotive history: many times, one designer will create the car and some other, sometimes lesser hand will try to give it an update.

So I guess it could have been a lot worse. The rear end actually improved with time in my opinion, with those bigger taillight clusters.

Aerodynamic add-ons such as a front air dam and wheel arch fairings were tacked on, but remained relatively unobtrusive. On the other hand, the thicker bumpers with rubber inserts are a sign of the times – the dreaded late ‘70s. At least, this car’s pretty restricted market presence outside Japan allowed it to eschew the humiliation of the Botox 5mph concrete blocks on either end that disfigured countless other cars.

The thickness was also extended to the fender mirrors, though that was also becoming quite common on JDM cars as a whole. They are chromed on this car, but many have them finished in body colour. They stick out, but not quite as much as the late-model 117 Coupé’s worst change, i.e. those squared quads that look like they came straight off a late ‘70s Firebird.

For ten years, between its 1968 introduction pictured above and the squaring of certain innocent circles in late 1977, the 117 Coupé had its eyes on the ball and kept things nice and circular, quad-wise.

The new headlights aren’t a total deal-breaker – the 117 Coupé, even in its late form, still turns heads and sold quite well, given its age. Actually, it edged even closer in appearance to another lion-festooned Italian-designed two-door from the late ‘60s: the Peugeot 504C, especially the first iteration thereof, made between 1969 and 1974, is oddly prescient of the Isuzu’s late period.

The 504C is superior to the 117 in many respects: looks, ride, reliability, brakes… But not everything is as clear-cut. This 117 is the high-end XE version, with much better trim than the Peugeot. Plus it’s a “double-star,” which indicates that it’s packing a fuel-injected 2-litre DOHC engine (or more accurately, given its 1949cc displacement, the 1.95 litre). Unless we use the later V6-powered version of the 504 for comparison, the two cars are about even there. Disc brakes were fitted on all wheels for all models in 1979, making the very last Isuzus as good as the 504 on that score as well.

The twin-carb 1.8 that came before was no longer employable due to new emissions regulations enacted in 1979, though its single OHC version was still in the lower-tier 117s. The 130hp 2-litre was the biggest engine used in the 117 Coupé, (at least until Isuzu shoehorned a 72hp 2.2 litre Diesel in there for MY 1980, for some unknown reason) but it was not the most powerful.

The standard issue transmission for the “**XE” was a 5-speed manual, but many were fitted with a 3-speed auto, like today’s example. The quality and layout of the interior, if we go back to the Peugeot 504C comparison for a minute, swings the pendulum back towards the 117 Coupé.

Over the years, the 117 Coupé went from being a virtually coachbuilt luxury car to a more mass-produced vehicle when Isuzu tied the knot with GM in the early ‘70s. As such, the 117 Coupé we have here is more de-contented and less premium than before, but it still oozes quality. The suede upholstery in this one looks very inviting, though the rear seat is a tad wanting in the headroom department.

Between 1968 and 1981, Isuzu sold over 85,000 units of their fancy Italian-flavoured coupé. The early-model “handmade” ones only represented less than 3000 of that total, so those are the ones that command a serious amount of yen.

The square-eyed late model cars, on the other hand, are the most recent and sold over 30,000 units, so they tend to be the ones you run into.

I think if I were in the market for a 117, I would probably try for the goldilocks “Mark II” from the mid-‘70s: with its sexy round headlights and thin bumpers, it was mass-produced so spares are easier to come by and has the most desirable 140hp 1800cc engine. Ideally, that’s the one to get.

There are plenty of folks here who go ahead and scratch that itch: the 117 Coupé is without a doubt the most popular classic Isuzu. It’s certainly the one you’re most likely to encounter in the street. Which isn’t saying all that much, but it’s better to be the big fish in the smaller pond sometimes.

With time, beer goggles and increasing familiarity, the square eyes are hurting my optic nerve less and less, but this late variant of the 117 Coupé will never hit the note of near-Fiat Dino perfection that the older ones do. Some automotive facelifts go well, most do not. Just because this one could have been a whole lot worse doesn’t make it a great success.


Related posts:


Museum Classic: 1971 Isuzu 117 Coupé – Hang In There, by T87

Curbside Classic: 1975 Isuzu 117 XC Coupé (Series 2) – Quite XC-Looking, For An Isuzu, by T87

Junkyard Classics: 1974 Isuzu Florian TS, 1975 Isuzu 117 XT & 1979 Isuzu 117 – The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, by T87

Vintage Review: 1971 Isuzu 117 Coupe – Road Test Magazine Showcases Isuzu’s First Italian Impulse, by GN