I happened upon this unlikely trio of last week, as I meandered in a part of the city I thought I knew. Talk about a trifecta! Tokyo’s full of surprises. Some areas are just a maze of tiny residential alleyways and cul-de-sacs. Take a left instead of a right and you can end up discovering a mini-treasure trove of CCs.
The term “Junkyard” used in the title is a bit of a stretch here. We’re really talking about a yard (and a Japanese yard, at that) full of junk, not a proper Jim Klein-approved facility. That means that I could not just hop over the fence and start opening the doors and looking under the hoods of these Isuzus. Someone would have called the cops on me. My photographic options were unfortunately rather limited – c’est la vie.
Let’s take these one by one, then. First up, the Florian. This unusual machine, which had a long production life but little impact on the market, will be known to most of you as the front end of the Isuzu Faster / Chevrolet LUV. And as a pickup, this car did earn its keep, but as a saloon, it was a bit of a disaster.
The Florian’s original mission was to replace the Bellel, Isuzu’s ill-fated first home-grown effort. Previewed in 1966 and launched in 1967, the Florian had been designed by Filippo Sapino (at Ghia) and inherited the Bellett GT’s competent 1.6 litre engine. The saloon was quickly joined by a rather beautiful station wagon, but the pickup version only arrived in 1972, after Isuzu and GM got hitched. The Florian was given a facelift with big quad headlamps and bigger taillights for 1971, which kind of ruined the car’s looks. As a trade-off, the Florian became available with the 1.8 litre OHC engine. In 1977, they went a step further and slapped a big chrome snout and square eyes, making a right pig’s breakfast of the whole thing. A Diesel version was added to the mix and the old Florian survived this way until 1983, chiefly thanks to fleet sales.
Our feature car is a “hot” 1800 TS model, with the SOHC 113hp engine and (probably) a 4-speed manual. That model was nixed after 1975 because of tightening emission standards, but it’s probably the liveliest of the lot. Which is not saying much – and it’s a poor substitute for the rather delicate (yet already somewhat awkward) looks of the pre-facelift models.
It’s a real pity I didn’t dare to enter that front yard to take more pictures of the beast(s) within, especially from the back. This is what the rear of the Florian looked like by the mid-‘70s, before it was given its final (and worst) facelift. By this point, the original Italianate taillamps were replaced by a more American-looking light bar affair – not great, but still acceptable.
It’s an even greater pity that I could not document the interior, with its distinctive oval dials set into oval(-ish) dash pods. It looks like Isuzu were thinking of making LHD versions, facilitated by this mirror image design, but I’m not sure any Florians got a steering wheel on the other side. A few were exported to RHD markets like Australia and Indonesia, but by and large, the 100,000-odd saloons made stayed in Japan. Same for the circa 40,000 wagons, which thankfully kept their original rear end design intact through to the bitter end.
The Florian saloon / wagon line was a lost cause, but Isuzu and GM made several gazillion gallons of lemonade with those lemons as the Isuzu Faster / Chevy LUV pickup became a worldwide hit. They were shifting over 100,000 units per year in the US alone by the late ‘70s. So that elaborate dash did come in handy, after all. Even in the ‘70s, it seemed the universe was telling Isuzu to focus on the truck business, yet they kept on trying to peddle their cars for another couple of decades.
One reason, perhaps, was the 117 Coupé. The Florian quickly faded to the fleet market on the JDM, but its sexy two-door derivative, on the other hand, was a bona fide hit. It’s not difficult to see why. Even in this rusty and decrepit state, the 117 looks like a long lost cousin of the Iso Grifo, the Fiat Dino or the Peugeot 504C – the kind of late ’60s Italian-bodied beauties that still make many a CCognoscenti, yours truly included, weak-kneed and teary-eyed.
PininFarina and Bertone were not involved with this one, though. The design was penned by Giugiaro while at Ghia – one of the Italian maestro’s very first Japanese cars. And what a splendid job he did, too. Though based on the Florian, the 117 prototype was unveiled at the 1966 Geneva Motor Show, six months before the 117 saloon prototype (soon renamed Florian) was unveiled at the Tokyo show, along with the definitive version of the “117 Sports” (above). Putting the coupé in production was a bit more of a challenge.
The Florian hit the streets first in late 1967; the coupé only followed suit in December 1968, over two years after it had been first shown. Isuzu and Giugiaro had tried to make the production car as close as possible to the initial prototype, but this meant that the 117 would have to be pretty much hand-built, carrozzeria-style. As a result, for the first few years, only about 50 coupés were made per month and prices were very high. This only exacerbated the public’s hunger for the car.
When the GM deal happened, Isuzu got access to a big pile of greenbacks and used it to put the 117 Coupé on a genuine production line. This meant simplifying the design a bit, but the changes were relatively minor when the series II was introduced in March 1973. Production was multiplied by 10, but prices remained high and sales followed – it seemed the appetite for the car was insatiable.
The funny thing is that, dynamically, the 117 Coupé was not exactly stellar. It kept the Florian’s leaf-sprung live axle and rear drum brakes. For the first couple of years, the engine was a 1.6 with a model-specific DOHC head. From 1971, the coupé received the Florian’s 1.8 litre 4-cyl. declined in several grades, from the single-carb SOHC base model up to the fuel-injected DOHC 140hp sports version.
Our blue car is a mid-‘70s “mass production” Series II car (1973-77) – based on the wheels, it looks like it’s a base-spec XT model with the 103hp single carburetor engine (unfortunately) and no woodgrain on the dash (fortunately). It is just drop-dead gorgeous. Sure, it looks pretty rusty already, but also complete – with the exception of the grille emblem…
In December 1977, just after the Florian got its botched final facelift, the 117 Coupé got dressed for the disco era. Quad headlamps were the latest American fad, so those just had to be there. The grille went to black plastic, of course. Chrome bumpers were starting to look a bit passé, so Isuzu smothered the 117’s extremities with rubber.
The 1.8 engine was losing quite a lot of its edge due to tightening emissions regulations, so Isuzu bumped the displacement up to 1949cc (and 135hp max) and introduced a 2.2 litre Diesel option (73hp) for 1979 – a first on this type of car. While they were at it, they also put disc brakes on the rear wheels and found ways to further drive down costs, but not prices.
By that point though, the 117 was getting on a bit and sales were starting to slide. Production stopped in 1981; over 85,000 units were made (“hand-made” Series I: 2500; “round eyes” Series II: 50,000; “square eyes” Series III: 33,000), which is an incredible amount for a sports-luxury coupé that was hardly exported and came from the unlikeliest Japanese marque.
The Series III coupé I found, with its interesting rust-doily effect on the hood, fortunately kept its grille emblem. It’s what the Japanese call a karajishi (= Chinese lion), a creature usually found in pairs guarding the entrance of temples in this part of the world. It was picked by Giugiaro himself as the mascot for the 117 since the beginning. That lion plus the square quads really gives this final version of the Isuzu coupé a Peugeot 504C vibe, which almost makes up for the rubber bumpers.
Just like the Faster / LUV, the 117 was another one of the Florian’s amazingly successful side-projects. The saloon was a dud, but its offshoots were decidedly not. Out of these three, my pick would have to be the blue coupé. Restored to roadworthy condition, even with its slightly less capable engine, it would make for a superb addition to the 21st Century traffic.
The Series III coupé, for its part, is well beyond salvation as a vehicle, but hold its own as a piece of street art. The ungainly Florian, with its comically misshapen body and horn-rimmed eyes, is my least favourite, though it’s apparently very rare these days. Three classic Isuzus, one good, one bad, one ugly – probably my best CC find so far this year.