Junkyard Classic: 1966 Isuzu Bellel – Turkey On A Stick

Sometimes, finding CCs is all about going the extra mile. As daytime temperatures started falling in my area, I’ve had more occasions to go for long walks. As I’m out in the country, there are mathematically fewer cars about, but that doesn’t necessarily mean fewer CCs. Country folk everywhere are liable to keep their cars longer than in the suburbs, for a start. And there are a few junkyards about, too.

The area I’ve been doing some rambling in is in Gunma Prefecture. It’s about 100 km north of Tokyo, where the terrain starts getting seriously hilly and the population density much lower. The villages are not particularly picturesque: unlike Europeans, Japanese people tend to demolish old houses and build new ones in whatever style they feel like, so the result lacks esthetic unity. But the countryside is still beautiful, with the bright green rice paddies set against dark forested hills and tufts of bamboo.

On that day, walking alone, I was not exactly wandering aimlessly. Well, I did wander a bit, but then I got my bearings – and found a purpose. I realized the road I was on would lead me to a trio of ancient wrecks I had found a couple months ago. I thought there might have been a junkyard nearby, which warranted further investigation. I walked up the hill for a while, along the winding road. Sure enough, the old Toyota fire truck, the Daihatsu trike and the A30 Gloria were by the road, just as I had left them. But beyond them, in the distance, I saw another intriguing car in a most unusual position.

It was just floating above the rooflines of the surrounding buildings. From this distance, I had no idea what I was dealing with. The only feature that was really distinguishable were the stacked quad headlamps. I did a quick mental survey of JDM cars with such a feature and could only find two: the A30 Gloria, which this clearly wasn’t, and the very first Nissan Cedric.

But that didn’t work either: as I got closer, I recalled the Cedric’s full Detroit-style panoramic windshield, which this thing clearly did not have. From the side, it looked a bit like a Volga. That wasn’t it either, of course. The size – big for an older Japanese car – was quite similar, though. Some kind of tricked out Toyota or maybe a mutant Mitsubishi? That would have made more sense, but I couldn’t think what kind of JDM model fit this car’s features.

I finally meandered my way to a metal scrapyard, where the mystery car’s pedestal was rooted. I was hoping for a junkyard full of similarly enigmatic contraptions, but there was not a single other vehicle about the place. Nobody around either, so I just snapped away while attempting to identify the bloody thing. Pretty soon, I spied a chrome script on the fender. Bellel. Aha! In my earlier mental identikit exercise, I had completely forgotten about Isuzu.

The Isuzu Motor Co. can lay claim to be Japan’s oldest automotive concern. They built their first car back in 1916, but soon oriented the bulk of their production towards trucks and buses, which were (and still are) ubiquitous in Japan, though some Wolseley cars were also made under license in the ‘20s and ‘30s. By the early ‘50s, Isuzu were ready to diversify their production and re-visit the car concept on a larger scale. They did what many a fledgling Japanese automaker did back then and built European models under license – in Isuzu’s case, the Hillman Minx. This was a wise pick, ideally suited to the local conditions and tastes. By the late ‘50s, having made two generations of Minxes, Isuzu were keen to try their hand at designing their own car.

That was the Bellel, launched at the 1961 Tokyo Motor Show. The name was a sort of play on words: Isuzu means “fifty bells” in Japanese, so they called their car “Bell” and added “L,” the Roman numeral for fifty. As the Bellel was being designed and introduced, Isuzu were still producing the Minx, so they aimed a class above. Engines included a 1491cc and a 1991cc 4-cyl. (good for 73 and 86 hp gross, respectively), derived from the Elf truck line, as well as a 2-litre Diesel – a JDM first.

This seemed all well and good, but during the winter of 1961-62, contemporary observers wondered why the Bellel was not seen around Japan. It seems Isuzu had launched their brand new Crown-fighter a bit prematurely. There were many details still being worked out and parts supply lines to establish for a completely new car – and all in a brand new factory, no less. Isuzu had jumped the gun, and it did not go unnoticed. The production line only started moving in April 1962 and pretty slowly at first. Isuzu limited the Bellel supply to dealerships located in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka to begin with. Parts supply issues were finally sorted by January 1963, but by this time, the turkey had started showing its feathers.

Most Japanese car buyers were weary of the Bellel for a number of well-founded reasons. The number one problem can be traced back to the Bellel’s rush to production within a new factory – a recipe for disaster. Outsourced parts were made to incorrect specifications, panel gaps were often uneven, hard driving (in the taxi trade especially) was tough on the front suspension, which was a poorly-copied version of the Minx’s. There were countless issues with early cars’ paintwork and general fit and finish. Some of these issues were ironed out, but the initial impression of poor quality left the model with a lingering reputation for shoddy workmanship.

Isuzu nonetheless pressed on with broadening the range. In January 1963, a Special Deluxe version was proposed with a twin-carb 2-litre that provided a whopping 95 hp. The Bellel Express wagon appeared in June 1963, just as its Minx equivalent was about to become extinct. The range was now complete: an economy 1500, a Deluxe 2000, a Super-Deluxe, a Diesel and a wagon were in dealerships. Yet the Bellel still struggled to convince the buying public.

There were issues across the range, but also for specific models – especially the groundbreaking Diesel. It was chiefly aimed at the all-important taxi market, though it was available for the general public as well. Not that it made much difference: the overwhelming majority of Bellel Diesel ended up as taxis, as the noise and vibrations of the 55 hp engine were apparently well beyond most people’s tolerance levels. It was so bad that some taxi companies offered a special “Bellel hardship allowance” for their drivers. Despite this, the dreaded Diesel became the best-selling version of the Bellel. The only people buying them were taxi companies, but soon they were representing a majority of the model’s customers. In 1963, 20% of Bellels were Diesels; by 1965, that share had grown to 80%. At the same time, the car’s market share plummeted from 10% of mid-size JDM sedans to 2%. Ouch!

Above: Australian and US ads, 1964; below: the 1963 Dutch brochure had RHD cars, strangely…

Isuzu gamely tried to ship a few of their lemons overseas, including to Australia, the Netherlands and the US, but none of these markets were very impressed by the Bellel either. They apparently sold only 300 in that last market. The American and Australian Bellels were all Diesels it seems, whereas the Dutch customers were able to choose between that and the twin-carb Special Deluxe.

The Bellel and its rivals: Nissan Cedric 31, Prince Gloria Super 6, Toyota Crown S40, Mitsubishi Debonair

And let’s state the obvious: quite apart from its production and quality control issues, the Isuzu Bellel was a botched design. Just comparing the Bellel to its mid-‘60s JDM rivals from a purely esthetic point of view, it is pretty stark how ungainly the Isuzu was, even with the help of a nice coat of black paint.

The worst part of it was probably the minuscule front door windows, which the wraparound windshield made almost inevitable. I say almost, because other carmakers had windshields not unlike this one, but usually managed to design front doors that fit accordingly. The windshield’s shape is also pretty awkward and the rear end is an acquired taste. These structural elements were beyond remedy, of course. Isuzu tried changing the trim a bit, but there was little they could do to distract from the car’s fundamental shortcomings.

One can imagine what the designers had pinned on the office wall as they were working on the Bellel, back in 1959: most likely the BMC PininFarina saloons, probably the Ford Consul Mk II and perhaps the Alfa Romeo 2000. There is a strong Eastern Bloc whiff of incompetence about the whole design, coupled with a dash of British boxiness and a smattering of Fiat flimsiness. A potent cocktail of failure. Japanese buyers were perhaps willing to forgive these superficial deficiencies in their economy cars (provided they were halfway reliable), but in the 2-litre class, such amateurism was simply unforgivable.

Not only was the Isuzu Bellel rather ugly, but it aged very quickly. After having tinkered with their cursed saloons’ detailing for a couple years, Isuzu unveiled a brand spanking “New” Bellel in October 1965. The quad headlamps did give the front end a more contemporary feel (though it does have a touch of 1957 Nash about it), but the reworking of the rear was far less successful. The original car’s quirky triangular taillamps were at least distinctive. The remodeled one’s horizontal units were anonymous and somehow the modified fender fins seem even more dated.

Given the position of the one I discovered, taking photos of the interior was mission impossible (must remember to pack a drone with me for these occasions). So here are some more excerpts from the 1966 “New” Bellel brochure to the rescue. The length and width of the cabin is comparable to the Crown or the Gloria – what the Japanese called a six-seater back then. The dash was carried over without any changes, as far as I can tell.

In October 1966, visitors at the Tokyo Motor Show saw a surprisingly modern six-light saloon on the Isuzu stand, amidst a clutch of Belletts and a couple of forlorn Bellels. This was Isuzu’s “Project 117” prototype, designed by Ghia and presented to gauge public sentiment. It was rather more positive than the feelings they had for the poor Bellel; within a year, the 117 was put in production as the Isuzu Florian, with minor changes.

For its part, the Bellel, hitherto hanging on by a thread, sank like a stone now that its replacement was in the works. Production stopped in April 1967, but there were ample stocks to liquidate and it wasn’t moving quickly enough. Isuzu got desperate and started dumping the remaining Bellels in value-pack fashion: in the summer of 1967, you could get three for ¥1m. The same amount of money could be exchanged for a Toyota Corona 1600GT hardtop coupé – but just the one. Despite (or because of) this panicky fire sale, the final Bellels lingered in Isuzu’s inventory until November.

All told, just over 32,000 Bellels were made from 1962 to 1967, wagons included. By comparison, Toyota sold around 85,000 Crown S40s per year on average during the same period. Our feature car’s very existence, over half a century after its assembly, is therefore something of a stroke of luck. Unloved at the time and soon forgotten afterwards, the Bellel has become a very rare sight nowadays – a fate that was pretty much deserved.

Proof that Isuzu could make a decent car came in 1963 with the Bellett

Isuzu survived as one Japan’s main truck makers, but their ventures into passenger cars was always on shaky ground. They are staging a comeback in that field thanks to SUVs (see my earlier post about Thailand’s Isuzu obsession), but that is taking place outside Japan. On the JDM, Isuzu had a great start with the Minx, but even with the relative success of the Bellett, the company’s car branch never amounted to all that much. Their market share was usually the smallest of all the Japanese automakers, even in the late ‘60s, and never improved. Had it not become GM’s Trojan Horse on the JDM, the company would probably have refocused solely on trucks much earlier than it actually did, in the early Naughties.

Sorry for the length of this post and the crappiness of my photos. Since there’s very little chance that I will encounter on of these gutless wonders again, I just had to make the most of it. The car and the overcast sky sort of blended into each other, which was perhaps a foretelling of the Bellel’s tragic life – which I knew nothing about as I took the pictures. I also knew they were going to be rather poor, as the zoom on my smartphone is terrible. But the more I looked into this car’s history, the more I realized it needed to be featured on CC.

We like our Deadly Sins here, and boy is this one of them. It’s an Original Sin, too, as it was Isuzu’s first home-grown design. It was also a huge misstep from a Japanese automaker. There have been several, but not usually this egregious. They’re human too, it turns out. Whoever put this Bellel on a skewer is reminding us that some JDM cars were carbuncles on the otherwise green and rolling Japanese automotive landscape.