The near-century old history of Isuzu reveals its founding fathers as being pioneers in the Japanese motor industry. Forty years ago General Motors South African began local production of Isuzu-based light commercial vehicles, an activity that has since grown from strength to strength in establishing the brand as one of the country’s major players.
Chapter 3 of a five-part history of GMSA’s 40-year association with Isuzu LCVs –
Troopers and innovations
Following the launch in 1984 of the WFR van and minibus, a 2,2-litre diesel engine was introduced to replace the 1,9 in the KB pick-ups. The motor produced 45 kW and 130 N.m of torque at 2 200 r/min and was fitted to the KBD22 and KBD22 LE swb models together with a five-speed gearbox, and to the lwb KBD27 plus the KBD42 and KBD42 LE four-wheel drive derivatives that all retained a four-speed ’box.
Detail improvements were made to the entire KB range. In a test of the KBD22 LE, it was stated “if a diesel-powered bakkie is right for you, this must be one of the most attractive options”. Soon after the 2,2 diesel, a 2,0-litre petrol was introduced to the range, along with various upgrades including improved interior trim, ventilated front disc brakes, auto-lock free-wheeling front hubs and bigger wheels and tyres. A 2,0-litre KB43 LE fared extremely well in a CAR 4×4 group test along the Cape West Coast in November 1984.
It was at this time that Isuzu revealed an automatic transmission development that was a variation on what is termed today as a continuously variable transmission. Called NAVI-5 (New Advanced Vehicle with Intelligence – 5-speed), the gearbox was equipped with an electronically-controlled hydraulic clutch and gear shift. The transmission offered gear range selection and was even capable of skipping gears. The absence of a torque converter meant that changes were always crisp, and took place in less than a second – a notable achievement for the time. The test mule – an Isuzu Aska, which was effectively a Japanese version of what was sold in South Africa as an Opel Ascona – even boasted Hill Start Aid to prevent the car from rolling backwards. NAVI-5 was lighter than a conventional autobox and was claimed to be 12 per cent more economical.
General Motors South African became the locally-controlled Delta Motor Corporation in 1986 without affecting the company’s relationship with Isuzu Motors. A minor facelift and a switch to a 2,0-litre engine for the WFRs took place in mid-year as well as a host of upgrades to the entire KB eight-model line-up, which ranged from a short-wheelbase KB21 1,6-litre petrol to a KB43 LE 4wd 2,0-litre diesel and with prices spanning R13 000 to R20 475. Isuzu KBs accounted for 25 per cent of the one-ton pick-up market at the time. Back in Japan, total export sales exceeded three million units.
In 1987 Isuzu Japan celebrated its Golden Anniversary and opened truck production plants in America, and SIA (Subaru-Isuzu Automotive) is established as a joint venture with Fuji Heavy Industries, the parent company of Subaru. In South Africa, a Fleetside version of the KB21 that featured numerous extras as standard for a R300 premium was added to the range mid-year, followed by upgrades to all models with variants increased to 10.
A new, lightweight 2,3-litre petrol powered the KB24, KB24 LE, KB29, KB44 and KB44 LE and a 2,5-litre direct-injection diesel was fitted to the KBD23 LE and KBD28. All were mated with a five-speed gearbox. Retained were the 1,6 petrol in the base KB21 Fleetline and the 2,2-litre diesel in the KBD22 and KBD42. Fuel tank capacity was raised from 53 to 73 litres. Increased ground clearance of 60 mm and larger wheels resulted in the KB44 models being called Highlift. All 4wd models featured a local Borg Warner locking rear diff, and a test of the KB44 LE suggested it was “… well built and packaged to appeal to the leisure market … has the off-road capability to match its looks … the ability to transport people to distant off-road spots in car-like comfort”.
In Japan, the 1988 production figure for heavy duty diesel engines at the Kawasaki factory passed the two-million mark and Isuzu became the No 1 truck maker in the world, a position it retained for two more years. In South Africa, Delta produced the WFR under its new name of Isuzu Relay with a number of refinements over its predecessor. Prices were R33 315 for the van and R37 150 for the 16-seater minibus.
The third-generation KB appeared mid-1989 by which time over 80 000 units of the popular pick-up had been sold in South Africa. Japanese and local engineers were involved in the vehicle’s development and a lot of attention to detail was evident in the product, such as three-fold door seals to combat local dusty operating conditions. The cab was claimed to be the biggest in class, and so was the long-wheelbase models’ load bed. Five-speed gearboxes were standard across the range as was a rear diff lock on 4×4 derivatives, which was optional on 4x2s. Ride height was increased by 20 mm on standard pick-ups and 120 mm on the four-wheel drives.
The range comprised KB160 base and Fleetside, KB230 swb, lwb and LE, KB250D swb, lwb and LE plus four-wheel drive KB230 lwb and LE and KB250D lwb LE. In subsequent CAR road tests, the KB230 LE was summed up, “We were impressed with the general build quality … It’s a tough, refined and fun-to-drive bakkie with the bonus of really handsome styling”, and the 4wd version was described as “the Sylvester Stallone of the 4×4 bakkie crowd”. The 250D was rated as being “fun to drive” and the KB models in general having “proved their worth”. “A well-screwed together workhorse with some honest design features conceived specifically for the South African market,” summed up the KB160 Fleetside.
For the 1989 fiscal, Isuzu’s Japanese production of medium and heavy duty trucks (over 6,1 tonnes GVW) was the highest in the world. In partnership with Sumitomo Metal Industries, in 1990 Isuzu introduced the world’s most compact retarder for the braking systems of heavy duty trucks. The following year, the world’s first prototype electric truck was completed by the company.
In 1992, American Isuzu Motors Inc. achieved one million unit sales while the
Trooper received the 1992/1993 Japan Car of the Year Selection Committee Award. Here in South Africa, a new 2,6-litre petrol engine replaced the 2,3 except for the base KB230 swb and lwb models. The 78 kW/195 N.m motor was described as being” among the finest commercial units of its type” and in a KB260 LE 4×4 test, the improved performance and excellent off-road ability musters a very strong argument in favour of this Delta product”. A Rhythm option for the Relay minibus was launched with (amongst a few minor changes) jazz-inspired graphics to appeal to commuters “who are looking for an entertaining alternative in their daily travel experience”.
Next: Enter the double-cabs – KBs dominate