In a parallel universe, GM might’ve avoided the NUMMI exercise and entrusted Isuzu to develop its entire small car range with help from Opel. It’s not that far-fetched, really; the small Buicks we get today are Opels and mass-market Chevies are Opel-based cars with modifications made in partnership with GM Korea (formerly Daewoo) to add value and mass-market appeal for a public raised on Asian labels.
By most measures, this most recent approach of having an Asian subsidiary re-interpret Opel’s work has been working well, resulting in a better Corolla in the Cruze than Toyota can build. Whether or not one views this Opel by Isuzu (aka Isuzu Gemini) as analogous today’s C-segment Chevy, though, it was a surprising find for me during a cold, wet Indiana March.
This has been a locally-owned car since it was first sold (Curry Buick-Cadillac still does solid business in Bloomington today, selling CTSs to well-heeled Chinese undergrads and LaCrosses to realtors) and as you can see, there’s not much remarkable about it other than sheer rarity. It seems that most surviving Isuzu-built T-platform cars are powered by Isuzu’s 1.8 liter OHC diesel, but this automatic-equipped version is a gasser. I caught it in the Kroger parking lot during an errand and waited a freaking eternity for its occupants to slowly ooze out, turn back around and shamble five feet back to the car to lock the door. Even that effort took multiple attempts, as the owner apparently couldn’t remember to hold the exterior door handle up so that the door wouldn’t unlock itself upon latching (a very vintage Japanese quirk). I swear it was about ten minutes before I could go grab pics without having the need to explain myself; the car’s current driver clearly cares little for speed of any sort.
T-car cognoscenti or those well-versed in small imports of the time can enlighten us, but it would seem few buyers saw the point of a Buick-badged fake-German small Japanese sedan. Contemporary press I found after the most cursory of Google searches suggests the little Isuzu did nothing to distinguish itself against the average Colt, Datsun 210 or Corolla, but as with the forthcoming J-car, the T-car’s Isuzu-built iterations at least bettered their American-built relations, if not their Opel-badged brethren.
A view inside provides the clearest example of this. It’s not a bad econo-car interior for the time, free from non-functional affectations (fake wood aside), ergonomically sensible and imbued with well-fitting hardware. Less austere than what you’d see in a contemporary Kadett or Rabbit, too.If you wanted anything close to Rabbit performance, though, a true Isuzu-badged version, post-facelift, is a more desirable option. While I’d take a manual-transmissioned US-market gasser over our featured car or the forthcoming i-Mark diesel, the real version to have is the Japan-only Gemini ZZ-R, with a twin-cam making up to 135 Japanese-rated horsepower (this was a gross measurement, I’d surmise).
They fetch around $10-15k on Japanese online classifieds, and would make for a very fascinating import into the US today (if you can live without much recognition for your expenditure). As it stood, though, such a version fell far astray of Buick’s plans for the “Opel,” let alone those of Isuzu who made a bigger splash during the car’s official US-market debut by equipping the car with a diesel. I personally think it’d have been wiser to handle the transition from Opel to Isuzu production with a concurrent Chevy rebadge, resulting in a much nicer Chevette sedan to lift the reputation of the rather dire hatchback, but for reasons we’ll never know, the powers that be preferred Tri-Shield dealers have a T-car of their very own to sell.
Related reading: Skyhawk-Ascona
Oog. [BUICK/OPEL], with the slash and the two different typefaces. Yeah, that doesn’t suggest a car cobbled together by two or three committees carefully prevented from communicating with each other. Nope, huh-uh, not a bit.
That’s worse than the HOLDEN – ISUZU badge between the taillights of the early Geminis. At least the fonts matched.
Isuzu Belletts had been fairly popular here in the sixties before the advent of the Datsun 1600, and gained something of a reputation as a sporting small Japanese car, so I guess it gave the new small Holden some credibility among those in the know, and underlined that this one wasn’t just a Vauxhall rebadge.
Meant to show the badge.
Dashes in manufacturer names are generally only acceptable if said machine is a piece of farm equipment–Massey-Ferguson, Massey-Harris, Deutz-Allis, etc.
Um, what about Mercedes-Benz? Mercedes-Maybach? Mercedes-AMG? Rolls-Royce?
Gol Dang It! Why didn’t I think of that! LOL!
You left out Hoyt-Clangwell 🙂
And there’s gotta be a reason why most Mercedes cars don’t have “Mercedes-Benz” spelled out across the trunk lid.
‘ Rolls-Can’ardly ‘ .
The Vauxhall had a different front and powertrain they sat side by side in the showroom at my Dads work
The T car wore so many different faces, but I think the Vauxhall front clip was a particularly well-integrated and sleek interpretation (relatively speaking, of course).
That interior is in incredibly nice shape for a nearly 40 year old subcompact. In fact, the whole car is, save for the missing gas filler cover and that small dent in the hood. Elderly owned, I’d presume?
I’m sure I’d see these periodically in the 80’s but I’m pretty sure I’ve not encountered one since then.
I was thinking that, too. And the dashboard is so futuristic for the time, esp. compared to the Chevette dash!
If I recall correctly, the available diesel was its major selling-point along with its build quality. Pathetic that at the time, a 2nd-tier Japanese company knew how to build a car diesel when the world’s largest car company, with two divisions long experienced in them (DD & EMD), could not.
This car’s slow-motion owner reminds me of the DMV sloth in the recent CGI Disney film “Zootopia.”
Diesel wasn’t offered on these, not until Isuzu set up under their own name in ’81,
Between the two I’d go for a Chevette – plusher optional interior, better-integrated big bumpers and hatchback. Just gotta get the F41 package and avoid the automatic.
I have never seen one of these in person that I can remember
As far as T-cars go, I would take a Isuzu over ANY Opel or Shovette. But, I am biased due to the stellar performance (not in a hod rod way) and reliability of my Isuzu LUV pickups. You can call them a Chevy if you need to.
Buick dealers were contracted with Opel brands and had to sell something after GM stopped importing Euro versions in 1975. So, they got the Isuzu ones, “Buick Opel by Isuzu” for awhile then the /.
To some, Opels were a ‘small Buick’, but Olds and Pontiac should have been able to sell too, and maybe would have been better off? Most Buick dealers looked at them as the Merkur for L-M. Until the ’79 gas crisis, then it was “Come see our little Opels!”
Our were badged Isuzu/Holden and shared the showroom with the British Vauxhall version of T car the Chevette.
This was the most popular Chevette body style and it only came in Vauxhall engines ranged from 1156cc to 2300cc
These were a disgrace to the “Opel” name, IMO. Having owned Opel Manta & 1900(Ascona) A-body’s (to ’75) over the years, this “pile” makes me feel like hurling. I saw a few of these when they hit the streets. It seemed like they rusted on the dealers’ lot if they couldn’t sell them fast enough?
Great find (and demonstrated patience) Perry. I can’t imagine someone owning a car like this, and not being one who marches to their own drummer.
I knew someone in the late ’70s that had an Opel by Isuzu SC coupe. It had an even cheaper feeling interior than the typical Japanese econocar of the time, with weak synchronizers in the manual transmission just like my Accord. I wasn’t impressed. I think the T-car could have been so much better than what we were offered from Isuzu and Chevy.
The interior on this featured car looks to be amazingly clean. Sure brings back memories.
Great find! And this provides me with my plaid fix for the next week weeks, too.
Buick/Opel marketing was unusual — sometimes stressing its Isuzu heritage (like anyone at the time knew what that was), and sometimes stressing its Buick badge. But the oddest ad was the one that accompanied this illustration below.
The ad was about a contrived “comparison test” between Opel and 4 competitors. What’s remarkable is that the ad glorified the fact that the Opel finished… SECOND! Woo-hoo! The VW Rabbit was judged the best car, but the fact that Opel was 2nd meant that it was competitive with the best. Huh??
Tangentially, I had long forgotten about Japanese cars’ door locks requiring the handle to be held up… my most vivid memory regarding that was occasionally exiting domestic cars, holding the handle up by mistake, and being rewarded with an awful thud.
Without text, the context of the ad is lost. Could they have been saying, Ok We came In #2 but that beat _number of other cars? We Try Harder™? It cost $200 less, Who knows – It was the ’70s. It being RWD might have sold me, Or perhaps the idea of a “Factory authorized” Buick Chevette (With woodgrain trim) is just goofy enough! To bad they’re kinda rare, The Idea of stuffing a 3.8 Buick 6 in to one appeals to me! (With “Limited” badging,natch!)
The ads were pretty wordy, but the premise was that the Opel (being a new, unheard-of car) ran competitively with the established competition, therefore it’s worth a look.
In theory, that’s a completely understandable premise, but from a marketing standpoint, proclaiming that you’re Second Best has never been a winning strategy. Of course, Buick/Opel does deserve some credit for honesty here, but was this the best way to sell their cars? Probably not.
$200 was a lot at that end of the market, close to 10% of an average base price, and it was due to get wider for the very same reason GM gave up on real German-built Opels, the runaway strength of the D-mark.
I think it was R&T that penned a particularly snarky road test of this “Opel”, in “sport” trim no less.
As I recall, the test was only one page long, with nearly a third of the page occupied by a b&w pic of the car. It started out in the vein of “what were they thinking sticking an Opel badge on this thing?”, and went downhill from there. The test concluded along the lines of “the only reason we bothered to publish this test is to warn people off of this car”.
Surprisingly blunt article, as R&T usually reserved such vitriol for the products of British Leyland.
No; I just read the R&T review of it, and it was rather positive. Some aspects where not as good as the former Opel Manta/1900, but it acquitted itself fairly well, especially in terms of its performance, which was better than average for the times.
It was more likely C&D, which specialized in snark.
Would you feel up to scanning it and sending it my way to post? Or even up to posting it yourself if you have something you’d like to add? Context is everything and an article from a familiar auto rag would provide at least a little…
I’ll post it soon. A reader just sent me 15 years of old R&T, from 1976 through 1990. A trip back in time…
That is awesome. So awesome.
It was more likely C&D, which specialized in snark.
Maybe. If not R&T, it was more likely Motor Trend, as I had subscribed to MT since about 72. I added R&T around 76, but never subscribed to C&D.
“Snark” was one of the many, many reasons that “Car & Driver” stayed in our house, on a continuous subscription basis, for over 30 years. David E. Davis, Brock Yates and the other delightful monthly columnists gave my Father and his eldest son decades of enjoyment and road test opinions.
When my present subscription dies a merciful death later on this year; I will NOT renew it. “C&D” is a pale imitation of what DED’s created in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
People forget how narrow these cars were, like the Chevette, approx. 62 inches. No need for power door locks, just reach over to all four doors.
I can’t remember the last time I saw one of these, but I have recently seen a historical relic, if you will. This sign adorns what is now an empty lot in Oxford, North Carolina, which must have at one point sold these little guys (though I think the sign is likely 60’s vintage rather than 70’s…)
Good thing you photographed that sign when you did, because it’s now gone.
That picture fascinated me, so I tried to research it a bit. Seems like the City of Oxford passed an ordinance (or, possibly, decided to enforce an existing ordinance) requiring the removal of “obsolete signs.” Evidently, the owner of this lot tried to get the sign declared an historical artifact, but it doesn’t appear that that tactic worked, as the sign was removed sometime in 2015.
Too bad, because it was quite an interesting relic.
That’s a shame. Old signs that have survived past the businesses they once advertised are a fascinating piece of history, and it’s unfortunate they don’t realize that. If you look at the google Street View of that corner, the 2015 view shows the sign frame lying on the ground, but the panels have been removed–hopefully they were saved at least.
The tree is gone too, which is also unfortunate.
This diesel I Mark is still clattering away here, years after I first shot it and wrote it up. It just won’t stop.
Given its rust-free shape, prob not too hard to restore and, in the process, fit low compression pistons and the turbo hardware from overseas’ turbodiesel versions.
Nice double CC photo with your F-100. You’d think they’d want to do something about the two missing pieces of glass though, with all the rain you get there…?
Granted, glass for an I-Mark is probably just about impossible to find unless you buy an entire parts car (which would also be quite hard to find). It’s not like anything else in this country had that same roofline, other than of course the buick/opel coupe.
The DOHC ZZ-R engine, previously offered in the Isuzu 117, was definitely gross rated at that point — 135 PS JIS gross, which was probably in the realm of 115–120 net horsepower.
I assumed as much; but I think it’d have resulted in a fun little RWD buzz bomb regardless.
“If your looking for a great Japanese car, look for a great American name. You’ll like the likes of Opel!”
Can’t see how that would confuse buyers at all…
Whaddan ad, whaddan ad, whaddan ad, whadda mighty bad ad…
I know there where a lot of psychedelic drugs around in the ’70s but what the he** were they on when they wrote that?!?
Seemed a perfectly innocuous if dated advertisement. But the WTF moment was when she poured the soap suds on his mouth. Ewww.
A second tier deadly sin — a complete swing and miss by the GM marketing dept.
Didn’t know these existed – although when I saw it I immediately thought “Holden Gemini”.
The interior, and especially the seats remind me of the Vauxhall Chevette. Contemporary Cavaliers were also big on what is known as “plaid” in the US.
Our much beloved -and bestseller- 1973-1979 Opel Kadett C never had a diesel engine. Gasoline engines from a 40 hp 1.0 liter to a 115 hp 2.0 liter injection engine. Back then the bigger Opel Ascona B and Rekord D did have a diesel engine as an option though.
Not in the picture below is the Opel Kadett City, the popular hatchback. And look at those colors !
Holden Gemini to this Aussie.
I recall a ~300 mile day trip / Sunday drive taken in a buddy’s near-fluorescent green Buick/Opel by Isuzu coupe. I was impressed by the tidiness of the engine bay & how it ran flawlessly, something you could not take for granted in the late ’70’s. The experience as a passenger was very tiring, even for a healthy and skinny 18 year old.
As the owner of the pictured 1979 Buick Opel, I am not only creeped out that you waited for us to get out and then take pictures of our car with out wanting to talk to us, but I am offended. This car was my wife’s daily driver and yes it takes awhile to get 2 kids out of the car. Had I known you were stalking the car in the 2nd street Kroger parking lot I would have been willing to open it up to you to see how wonderfully this car has survived not only in Bloomington, but Ellettsville.. The gas flap was fixed with new plastic hinges ordered from Australia.. The car was left in a pretty much original to us condition. The car had roughly 13k miles on it when you took these pictures.
There were many fuel related parts that were replaced to get it in a shape that my wife was comfortable to drive it everyday. The car was sadly T-boned at the entrance to Target in January.. So it is now wrecked but still driven by my father in law… It was a great car with many stories that I am happy to say I was able to share in…Too bad you didn’t feel like you could talk to us… We seem to have a problem collecting original, rare, odd vehicles.. Any way it was just strange to find my car on the internet..
Kevin, thanks for the backstory on this really interesting car. Different contributors have different comfort levels when it comes to interacting with the owner of a car. Although I have generally not been shy at introducing myself and getting into a conversation about a car that I find cool, not everyone is as comfortable doing so. I wish that I had been the guy to find this one on one of my trips to visit kids in Bloomington – I would have loved to hear all about how you came upon it.
These were fascinating cars to me on many levels. GM’s switch from “Opel Opels” to “Isuzu Opels” was really confusing to me at the time and I remember having no respect for the cars at all. I have changed my mind during these many years and I now find these quite intriguing. And how terrible that a rare survivor Opel Isuzu (especially in our climate) got so badly damaged. It is a testament to the innate toughness of these little cars (that everyone derided as a Japanese tin can at the time) that it is still running and driving after being T-boned.
It truly is this car was a gift for my better half and I had dreams of making it into something better than I saw it when we got it, but then I came to see that the unique thing about this car was exactly what it was… An econo car no one cared about and had not thought about until they saw her car. We literally could not go anywhere in it with out someone stopping us and telling us about the memories of the one they owned. some were just confused as to what it was and why they had never heard of it. I loved the take your time lesson it taught me every time I drove it.
Kevin: This is an old post, but if the car ever ceases to be a going concern, or is sold, I’d sure be interested in it. Even if the body is beyond repair, that lovely interior (is there even a single crack on that dash?!) would certainly be appreciated in the community of Isuzu collectors here in the US!
Post up here if that ever happens, please!
The car is currently still being driven and enjoyed. The body is slowly rusting away in an almost adorable way. The interior is still as clean as ever, the dash is free of cracks and everything still works as it should. If it is ever put down I will let the world know.
This article was written four years ago but i just noticed it today. First of all, to call an automobile Buick Opel is an absurd marketing ’cause both names refers to a brand Make, it sounds as unconvincing as if GM would launch a new Chevrolet Plymouth, so absurd. Apart from that, this Opel Kadett C was a true worldcar then with assembly facilities in several countries to be rebadged accordingly as Vauxhall Viva (UK), Saehan Bird (Korea), Opel Kadett (DE.), GMC Chevette / GMC 500
(Brazil) , Opel 180k (Argentine) , Grumett Sport
(Uruguay) , Isuzu Gemini (Japan) , Daewoo Maepsy
(again Korea) and even in Ecuador-Peru with a strange name make Andina or Andean etc etc etc .
In general, it was an efficient machine everywhere. Long lasting durability can be proven still today over the roughest surface’s roads in Colombia Perú Ecuador Venezuela Bolivia Chile , yet there’s an amazing lot of still driven Chevette-Gemini-Kadett in both Brazil and Uruguay where these little GMs were amazingly best selling cars at their time assembled until 1993 or even more