Of the many car companies to come from Japan, only a few were able to come here on their own. The rest made the journey by building vehicles for American car companies as private label manufacturers. One of these contract car builders was Isuzu Motors, purveyors of SUVs like the Isuzu Rodeo and Isuzu Trooper. And they’ve made a lot more vehicles than you probably think they have.
Back in 1916, a large Japanese shipbuilding company teamed with the Tokyo Gas and Electric Company to build cars under license from the Wolseley car company in England. This mashup of money and manufacturing produced a raft of cars and trucks, which carried the name ‘Isuzus’ in 1934. They named the company in honor of the Isuzu River; the name literally translates to “fifty bells”, which has something to do with the Ise Grand Shrine, built along the river in the 6th century.
After the war, Isuzu Motors partnered with several car companies in an effort to expand. The partnership that ‘worked’ was formed in 1972 with General Motors. Under the arrangement, GM purchased a 34% stake in Isuzu and sold their vehicles worldwide. The first Isuzu to be sold in the United States was the 1972 Chevy LUV (Light Utility Vehicle), which was designed to compete against the imported small trucks from Datsun, Toyota, and Mazda’s Ford Courier. This collaboration was a success, and in 1981 it allowed Isuzu Motors to begin selling cars in America under its own name.
In addition to their popular Isuzu P’Up, they added a radical ‘halo car’ called the Isuzu Impulse. Arriving for the ’83 model year, the RWD Impulse sport coupe featured streamlined styling by Giugiaro of Italy, pop-up headlights, and a ‘punchy’ 16-valve 4-cylinder. Later models got a more powerful turbo-4 and a Lotus-designed suspension. In its day, the Isuzu Impulse was exotic and exciting. They followed this with a host of un-interesting cars like the Isuzu I-Mark and Isuzu Stylus. Their trucks, however, remained popular with private buyers and fleet managers alike.
By 1990s, Isuzu had fully embraced the truck market with a new version of the go-anywhere Isuzu Trooper, a soft-top runabout called the Isuzu Amigo, and a new midsize SUV called the Isuzu Rodeo. These proved to be so popular that Honda started buying Rodeos and rebadging them as the Honda Passport. A year later, their Acura luxury division started selling a leather-lined version of the Trooper called the Acura SLX. As part of this arrangement, Isuzu was able to sell a rebadged version of the Odyssey minivan called the Isuzu Oasis. Other badge-swapping projects included the Isuzu Hombre, which was actually a Chevy S-10. The Isuzu Ascender was really a LWB Chevy Trailblazer/GMC Envoy, and the Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon started their lives as an Isuzu i-Series pickup. All of this name shuffling led to some quality control issues, which left customers feeling indifferent toward the brand.
Isuzu officially pulled out of the U.S. passenger car market in 2008. However, they continue to be a significant player in the commercial truck segment. And you know those “Duramax Diesel” engines that they put in Chevy Silverado HD/GMC Sierra HD pickups? Those came from Isuzu.