For now, Isuzu SUVs and trucks are all that you’ll see at your local Isuzu dealer; it’s been quite a few years since there’s been an Isuzu car. The company’s specialized lineup is more a function of circumstance than choice. In recent years, Isuzu has seen its share of hard times; a lack of funding for both new product investment and marketing has forced the company to rely heavily on its partnership with GM. Both of the models in its line are derived from existing GM products.
Isuzu, which means “50 bells,” is the name of a river that flows through a province dotted with ancient Shinto shrines in Japan. The company’s roots date back to 1916, when Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding and Engineering Company first decided to broaden its business to include automobile manufacturing. The company forged a technical union with the U.K.-based Wolseley Motor Company in 1918. Its debut licensed offering, the A9 car, soon followed, as did its first truck, the CP. By 1949, the company’s name had been changed to the more succinct Isuzu.
In the postwar years, production of Isuzu trucks boomed. The company’s vehicles played a significant role in Japan’s reconstruction effort, and were used to ferry clothes, food and other essentials. In 1953, Isuzu rolled out the Hillman Minx passenger car, the product of a technical union with Rootes, a U.K. outfit.
The 1960s saw the launch of passenger cars like the Florian, the Bellett and the 117 Coupe, as well as trucks like the WASP. In 1971, Isuzu entered into a partnership with General Motors. The Gemini, released a couple of years later, was the first Isuzu vehicle to be produced from the pairing.
By the 1980s, Isuzu had landed on American shores. The Pup was the first Isuzu sold in the U.S. market. The Trooper, an SUV available in two- or four-door form, was introduced in 1983 and quickly became popular in that new market segment. The company entered into a joint venture with Subaru in 1987, a union that spawned the Isuzu Rodeo and the Isuzu Pickup. Less popular than the trucks were the cars, such as the dated I-Mark sedan and the handsome, Italian-designed Impulse sport coupe.
The company’s sales were relatively strong in the 1990s, thanks in part to the increasing success of the Trooper, which by that time had grown in size and luxury. The Trooper was one of the models responsible for the massive popularity of the SUV vehicle category during that decade. In 1999, GM upped its stake in Isuzu to assume the role of majority shareholder.
The new millennium brought bad news, however. Previous bestsellers like the Rodeo and the Trooper were outclassed by newer, fresher competition, and sales plummeted. The Rodeo and the Axiom (a crossover SUV) were dropped from the lineup in 2004. Currently, Isuzu’s lineup comprises just two vehicles — a truck and an SUV, both of which are based on GM products.