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 2 of a five-part history of GMSA’s 33-year association with Isuzu LCVs –
From LUV to KB – the star is born
In 1973, Isuzu-based trucks were introduced for the first time to South Africa when 12 models were added to GM’s existing Bedford line-up. This was followed in 1975 with the introduction of the Isuzu SBR422 with its high-speed direct injection diesel engine that set new standards for performance and economy for medium trucks.
Then, in 1978, GMSA launched a new pick-up that spawned a model line that continues to this day as a leading contender in the market place. The facelifted LUV was released but this time properly branded as an Isuzu. “This change of name will bring this general purpose pick-up into the commercial vehicle family marketed by GMSA, which is where it really belongs. We are proud of General Motors’ association with this famous Japanese vehicle manufacturer,” said a company spokesman. The 1,6-litre petrol engine continued in the KB20 and a 2,0-litre indirect injection diesel developing 44 kW and 121 N.m of torque was fitted to the KBD20. Launch prices were R3 485 and R4 295, respectively. “Rougher to operate than the petrol-engined LUV, but it is an honest vehicle, much more economical – and it runs like a train”, was CAR’s road test verdict. The KB story had begun…
And as a sign of GMSA’s long-term belief in Isuzu, local production was centred on Opel and Isuzu sourced products as the Holden, Vauxhall and Bedford brands were phased out. Complementing this faith was the invaluable assistance given by Isuzu’s engineering division in converting GMSA’s medium and heavy commercial vehicles to South Africa’s short-lived ADE diesel engine programme.
Meanwhile, in Japan, the three-million production mark was achieved that included the one-millionth export vehicle shipped in the August, and in the following year Isuzu achieved annual sales of 100 000 diesel engines, a first for a Japanese manufacturer. Mid-1979 saw the South African introduction of the Isuzu KB40, the first petrol and diesel powered four-wheel drive pick-up from Japan. It featured on-the-move engagement of 4wd and front hubs that could be locked by stopping and reversing for a short distance. “A new generation of four-wheel drives has arrived,” was a test summary. “A surprising and attractive vehicle at a reasonable price. It should have a bright future in South Africa. ” The KB25 – a long-wheelbase version of the KB20 – was also introduced.
By the end of the decade, Isuzu led the industry in the field of direct-injection diesel engines for light-duty trucks, and in 1981 introduced a design that featured both high output and low fuel consumption. In addition, it was Isuzu that developed the world’s first full-scale electronically-controlled diesel for both light- and heavy-duty trucks. Isuzu also led the industry in developing ceramics for diesels. The company developed the Ultra Quick-on Start (QOS) system in 1981, which – for the first time in the world – eliminated pre-heating time during start-up. QOS incorporated a newly-developed ceramic glow plug with high heat resistance and electronic control, features that became indispensable for diesels, especially in passenger cars. In South Africa, Isuzu KBs were to become the first pick-ups to feature rack and pinion steering and independent front suspension.
The year 1981 turned out to be a busy time for Isuzu. The Trooper 4×4 SUV was introduced and the KP pick-up was released in the USA as the Isuzu P’up rather than as a badge-engineered Chevrolet. An advanced passenger, the Piazza, was developed for the Japanese market in a record two years from prototype to production and soon after General Motors, Ford and Chrysler each imported a model to reverse engineer and integrate Isuzu design and technology into their own products.
In South Africa, GMSA launched the second-generation KB pick-ups – KB20 swb, KB25 lwb and KB41 four-wheel drive – each available with either a petrol or diesel engine. New styling, a bigger cab, revised suspension and brakes and a double-skinned load box were among the changes. Much was made of the model’s “passenger car looks and feel” but “Isuzu believes in building vehicles that are tough,” the company stated. Pricing ranged from R5 610 to R8 840. A road test described the KB21 as “a good working and general purpose bakkie, less Spartan than before and particularly well-suited to dual-purpose operation.”
At the end of 1981, the Trooper was introduced with two spec options and a choice of a petrol or diesel engine. It featured two- and four-wheel drive plus high/low gear ranges and an independent front suspension – a 4wd rarity at the time. Priced between R15 700 and R18 180, it was the lowest-priced 4wd SUV on the market.
The KB range was upgraded late in 1982 with the addition of an overhead-cam 1,8-litre engine replacing the 1,6 petrol in all but the base KB21, which received revised gearing for more load-hauling capability. The up-spec KB21 LE gained a five-speed gearbox, and was described as introducing “new standards of operating comfort and efficiency in the popular Isuzu range from GM”.
This launch was soon followed by the release of the Isuzu Piazza (which went on sale in the USA as the Impulse). This Giugiaro-designed coupé received rave reviews and CAR said it “could well set new trends in practical car design”. “Under its sheer lines it presents a display of Japanese mechanical engineering and electronic technology which is all but unrivalled,” the test went on. This striking car was only ever going to be imported in limited numbers – it was priced at R28 000 – so was “sure to become a collector’s item in the future”.
In 1984 the Trooper was introduced into the US as GM discontinued the Chev LUV pick-up. Early the same year, the Isuzu WFR long-wheelbase high-roof panel van and 16-seater minibus were introduced to South Africa. Both were powered by a 1,8-litre petrol engine mated with a four-speed gearbox. Despite their length, the vehicles had a tight turning circle, which made for good manoeuvrability. Prices were R11 950 for the van and R12 950 for the minibus. The van was superseded by a ‘semi-blind version’ at the end of the year – load capacity was 6,9 cubic metres.