Museum Classic: 1971 Isuzu 117 Coupé – Hang In There

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.

1967-73 Fiat Dino Coupé


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.


Related posts:


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