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.
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