There are only so many ways to skin a cat, they say. Well, having zero experience or opinion on the flaying of felines, I really couldn’t comment. But what if one were to take this as a metaphor, which might well have been the point of the phrase in the first place (cat-skinning was perhaps an oft-discussed and practiced occupation in the past, but that’s less the case meowadays), and apply it to, oh I don’t know, Italian car designers?
Yes, the Isuzu 117 Coupé is a gorgeous car. Especially this ultra-rare 1st generation version, unsullied by the grubby hands of GM beancounters. It’s just the was Giorgetto Giugiaro wanted it to be when he designed the car while at Ghia in 1966. The young designer started out over at Bertone in 1959 and stayed there until the mid-‘60s, and it seems one of the last jobs Giugiaro did for them was the Fiat Dino Coupé, launched in early 1967.
The Dino is often hailed as one of the most beautiful cars of the ‘60s – and rightly so. But let’s not kid ourselves here: Giugiaro just sold his design twice. The Isuzu is a dead ringer for the Fiat. On a foggy day, you would be really hard pressed to tell those two apart – except from the rear, where the cars do look a bit different. This is not a new thing. PininFarina did this repeatedly, most famously perhaps with the Florida design, which was transposed to Lancia, Fiat, BMC and Peugeot saloons. This is just another egregious example of this phenomenon. At least, with this Isuzu 117 / Fiat Dino case, the basic design is a very good one.
The resemblance is pretty striking in profile, though the little differences also stand out. The Fiat’s longer wheelbase and tail make for a slightly more harmonious result, but I’m more partial to the Isuzu’s airier greenhouse. The Coke bottle beltline, door shape, roof line and front end are almost identical.
Underneath, the Isuzu is perhaps a bit more pedestrian than its Ferrari-engined false twin. The Isuzu Florian’s floorpan and suspension were used, along with a 1.6 litre DOHC 4-cyl. derived from the Bellett. When it was launched, in December 1968, the 117 Coupé was seen by Isuzu as a pure halo car. The carmaker did not have the means to produce it any other way than “by hand,” to the rate of about 10 units per week – which incidentally is pretty close to the production rate of a small Italian carrozzeria.
Even though the car’s price was high and above the rest of the range, the few 117 Coupés that were made in those days sold like hotcakes. There was no incentive to export them, as Isuzu’s global image, assuming it actually had one, was more closely associated with small family cars like the Bellett.
Isuzu and GM signed a deal in 1971 that changed things rather dramatically, including for the 117 Coupé. Isuzu now had access to GM’s financial clout, so they made their flagship coupé on a much larger scale starting in early 1973. There were a number of subtle changes to the car, chiefly to bring down production costs, enabling production to increase by a factor of ten. Our feature car, though, pre-dates this unfortunate effort in democratization. It’s one of the hand-built cars, with its delicate front bumper decorated by exquisite little turn signals and its unfussy rear end.
The biggest differences with the later cars, allegedly, are inside. Early models like this one are masterfully made and very well appointed within. The Italian theme continues in the cabin, too – this could be an Alfa Romeo interior. That blue leather seat looks so inviting…
In theory, four people could sit in the 117 Coupé. And I guess half a century ago, Japanese folks were generally a lot shorter than today, so this four-seater denomination was accurate then. Rear passengers get ashtrays, too. Those are the kind of touches that would be eliminated when the car switched to large-scale production.
Lots of other things were to change over the 117 Coupé’s surprisingly long career, which spanned from 1968 to 1981, such as the badges. These early ones wouldn’t have looked out of place on a car from the early ‘60s. The one that always remained in place was the Chinese lion on the grille, designed by Giugiaro along with the rest of the car. But then, is there more than one way to skin a lion?
I’m confident that we haven’t seen the last of the 117 Coupé on CC. In fact, if you want the absolute truth, I had already caught a genuine curbside late model example – in purr-fectly mint condition, unlike the one I posted earlier this year – even before I happened upon this one at the Megaweb museum. But seeing as this is the car in its purest (and rarest) form, I figured this one should grace the site’s pages first. So if you haven’t had too much of these extraordinary cars yet, you’re in luck, more is on the way. I just hope the cat won’t have got my tongue and I’ll still have stuff to write about it.
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
Pure perfection. I agree on the greenhouse distinction, maybe because I’m tired of seeing that rear kickup on modern monstrosities.
Also, the Isuzu version is just a little bit sharper in every angle, which helps somehow.
Though I speak from the disadvantage of not having seen an early 117 in the flesh – I mean the car, not me, the latter would risk both comedic uproar and opprobrium – I venture to opine that Guigiaro sold the draft to Isuzu and masterwork to Fiat. The Japanese car has just a touch of the gawks about it, and the greenhouse you like as “airier” I dislike as positively blowy and high enough and big enough in glazing for an actual green house (or, indeed, any other coloured residence with large windows).
And if God is in the details, He’s even more contradictory than the many religions already have Him, being present in that lovely bumper but also, as a logical necessity, in the slightly naff dip and rise of the beltline. (Doubtless the Jesuits likely have some impenetrable sophistry to explain away His presence in one detail and absence in another, but that is to digress).
Whoever dwelleth amongst it, it does remain a most pretty thing.
Quite unlike the horror of a cat that has removed its fur coat and skin thereunder, which I believe is another way for it to achieve that state – just comment on the warmth in the room and ask it nicely – but I confess to even less knowledge on this subject than the author, so this may not be true.
I agree. As much as I can appreciate the 117, it pales in comparison to the Dino coupe. The 117’s rear looks hunched, like it should be a hatchback. And the way the rear side windows and rear window interact don’t really work for me. It’s just…off.
As to the front half of the car, it’s essentially generic Italian of that era. It was the style of the time. Who exactly did it first? That would take a bit of digging, but you can find the key elements on other cars to, in varying degrees.
There have been extremely few truly original designs. Everyone was constantly looking at everyone else. And the Americans were constantly looking to Italy for their inspiration. Earl and Mitchell went to Italy every year and brought back their favorite new couturier cars to inspire their designers.
Nice comment,Justy. I enjoyed that.
Now I’m seeing a lot of Audi 100 in the nose and even sort of in the taillights, although those aren’t bad at all. But still can’t get over the heaviness that I see in the rear half when viewed from the side – but curiously it looks great when at an angle such as from the rear or front 3/4. I used to think it was the glass looking too large relative to the metal the last time you found a 117 but now I think I’m leaning more toward the wheel opening being too small (?)
I think I need to see one in the metal, the character line that is evident in your photos is almost invisible in the side view of the white one (with the Dino below) – that could be it, the white one lacks definition.
Similarly the Dino contributed to the Mazda RX2 Coupe and the Opel Manta. All 4 were lovely cars.
The guys who designed the Lexus UX which Jim reviewed should have been forced to study this car for a while. Yes, it’s not a CUV. And yes, today’s rollover and impact and pedestrian safety regulations impart some constraints. But even taking that into account, the Isuzu is just so much better.
You’re comparing an early 1970’s design to one fifty years newer? Today’s Lexus UX is closer to this Isuzu than anything Isuzu itself builds today.
But to continue in that vein Isuzu should look at its own history too, google what an Isuzu Mu-X is or recall the VehiCross, not objectively lookers either. Lexus (Toyota) on the other hand could just as easily look at the 2000GT and various other cars such as the original Celica in their own portfolio as well if 60/70s inspiration is called for. Lexus has a number of other cars both past and present that do ‘Coupe” pretty well, such as the LC500 now and the original SC. But what I keep coming back to is the overwhelming opinions about a decade to a decade and a half ago that Lexus’ are all boring and look designed for old people, i.e. extremely staid. That is certainly not the case anymore. Isuzu on the other hand no longer builds anything that isn’t a truck and a couple of SUVs.
I think feelings about styling are too personal to bring in facts, like 50 years of automotive change between the Isuzu and the Lexus. But I see your point. I do agree that today’s Lexus IS less boring than some of their designs 15 years ago. To make a more chronologically appropriate comparison, then, I’d contrast the Isuzu or the Dino with the Citroen SM. I know the SM is popular here, and technically innovative, but I found it ugly 50-odd years ago and still do. Almost worse than the Lexus in fact. Though neither can be accused of being boring.
Neither boring nor readily confused with the offerings from another maker which is probably the biggest problem with the Isuzu. Although if a design is going to be re-used or cribbed, then it might as well be a good one to start with!
Those major italian design studios are such shameful recyclers and reusers, it’s embarrassing. I can also see the Audi 100 C1 (f105) here. But then again, there was no internet in those days, and of course there was no Isuzu in Europe and presumably no Audi in Japan. So the public had no clue, let alone comparison.
I suppose it was shameful for the Italians to sell very similar designs to multiple manufacturers, but on the other hand, manufacturers chose to accept this from those design firms. I doubt anyone at Isuzu said, “Hey Pinin, this looks too much like a Dino. Could you try again and give us something unique?”
That is a lovely car. I won’t tell about the doubly-incorrect headlamps if you won’t!
(oops 😉 )
One of my favourite cars, and a truly beautiful example.
I’ll just park this here, a handmade “hand made” 117.
Beautiful workmanship. And very well lit and photographed. Thanks for sharing Pete!
I agree with Daniel above — it’s always a treat to see CC-in-scale. Your collection never fails to astound me.
Thanks Eric. And Daniel. And Bernard.
I’ve never been quite sure whether I’m venturing too far off-topic posting model pictures or doing it too often. I keep expecting to get a cease and desist order from Herr Niedermeyer. Some sites would do that. Unlike many adult builders I kept on through my 20s/30s/40s though at a much reduced output. Lately with retirement I’ve been finishing off a lot of stalled projects and branching out into new ones. It is an astounding collection I’ll admit; I’ve given up telling people how many. Last time I counted was about ten years ago, and I’ve probably built about two hundred since then. (There’s probably a story here if one of the local-ish guys wants to help.)
The photography is pretty much sheer chance! I have an old 4mp Panasonic Lumix with a broken on-off switch; it has good close-up abilities so I keep on with it, and the lighting in this case was a fluorescent worklight I use on my bench combined with daylight through the window behind me. Maybe I should get a more up-to-date camera, but dementia is starting to set in, and I probably couldn’t learn my way around a new machine. So my wife says.
Back to cars. I’ve always loved the shape of the 117, and bought the kit when I found it online. I find my best models are ones where I have a real enthusiasm for the subject car. It took a while to choose the right colour (to my eyes), though I do love the blue interior with the silver in this CC.
Absolutely agree. Beautifully captured in miniature.
It would be interesting to know for certain which came first for the design theme between the 117 and Dino, but if I were a betting man, the Isuzu was first. Dino coupe debuted at Geneva ‘67, a year after the 117 prototype at the same venue in ‘66. The Isuzu design did change, and was put into production after the Dino, however:
Thanks for this shot of the 117 prototype. It clearly is from a slightly earlier time; that front end and bladed fenders are much more 1966 than 1967. Back then things changed quite a bit in a year’s time.
That 117 prototype says “1965-1966” to me, and the Dino “1967-1968”, in relation to the other concept cars at the time.
The key change between these two eras was the C pillar, which suddenly became massive and was a continuous extension of the lower body. The ’66 Toronado was one of the pioneers but others had been moving in that direction. Giugiaro’s earlier cars all had the airy greenhouses that he made himself famous with, but the Dino was a major change in direction. I want to say Marcello Gandini takes a lot of credit with that change, as his Montreal, Marzal and Miura all have it, but I’d have to look a bit deeper to find when it first really hit in Europe.
I’ll respond to myself by saying that Giugiaro was already doing the large integrated flanks/C pillar on the pioneering Mangusta and Ghibli in 1966. Those two cars were extremely influential, and one can see that influence clearly in the Dino’s roof line/rear quarters. (Ghibli below)
I just noticed this, but look at the original prototype’s front underneath the front bumper in the one color photograph I’ve been able to find. It’s red, just like the stripes seen on the lower portion of the finalized front end shown at the ‘66 Tokyo International show. That’s not a coincidence…
I’m not seeing the red under the bumper; just a bit shaded. Maybe your monitor?
You may be right. I’ve actually been thinking lately my eyesight isn’t all that. I swear that color matches the badge behind the front wheel in color, as well as the interior. I love middle age….
I wonder if it was as clear then how similar these different versions were to each other. Thinking out loud, if one is in the middle of a phase of a certain type of design, then the differences will seem more apparent than the similarities. With the passage of time, the similarities seem more important (when you compare the Isuzu and Ferrari with cars from a a decade, two, three decades later). For an egregious example of selling the same design twice, try looking at the Daewoo Espero and Citroen Xantia. Bertone never did a job for Citroen again after that.
The expression “skin a cat” actually refers to a catfish.
That makes a lot more sense. My cranky old feline may be a nuisance at times, bot I’d never want to…
Beautiful cars I’d never seen an early example not even pictures but a couple of later ones have either emigrated or visited for car shows I saw one on a transporter the early model is nicer.
I just saw the front end of this when I was scrolling through and my first thought was “who took the rings of the grille of that Audi”
Compared to the monstrous carbuncles, warts and cancerous growths the adorn modern CUVs, both the cars are a balm to the eyes.