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Isuzu History - November 2006 Baselines

An Exclusive Diesel Heritage

Photography by Courtesy of Isuzu

Isuzu Motors Limited has the longest historical background of all the motor vehicle platform makers in Japan. The company's vast production output includes diesel and gasoline trucks, buses, all-wheel-drive vehicles (both four- and six-wheel drive), dump trucks, and special service government vehicles along with its sale of generators, stationary power units, and marine engines. In fact, Isuzu is one of the world's foremost pioneers of both diesel powerplants and light- and medium-duty commercial truck platforms.

The company can trace its automotive origins in both diesel power and marine applications. It should be noted that Japan's first two-stroke diesel marine engine was developed by its navy in 1907. The remarkable unit was developed with government funding solely for research purposes. Several of the islands' companies soon began efforts to expand this novel power source for marine and automotive applications.

The company's marine heritage began with Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding and Engineering Company in 1893, but it took an additional 17 years for the company to broaden its horizons with the construction of several horseless carriages for detailed evaluation. The first large commercial contract to officially begin vehicle production began in 1916 when the company formed an alliance with Tokyo Gas and Electric Industrial Company to construct Japan's first self-powered commercial truck. Two years later the company entered into an agreement with Britain's cottage automotive manufacturer, Wolseley. Soon, a Japanese version of the Wolseley A-9 four-cylinder Touring Car was running through the Tokyo streets. This vehicle is considered to be the first passenger vehicle produced in Japan.

Based on its initial success, a second agreement was signed four years later to produce versions of Wolseley commercial trucks and buses. This agreement admittedly proved to be a rapid learning experience and a highly profitable venture for the young company. In short order it was designing and applying offshore production techniques for manufacturing automotive and commercial platforms.

By 1924 the Japanese version of the Wolseley CP, a multi-purpose 5- ton truck platform, was recognized as the official government military truck. The new T.G.E. brand was produced under the Military Support Act. As success further took hold, the cooperative ties with the British manufacturer were severed in 1927.

The 1930s era was both a period of rapid industrialization and militarization in Japan. In 1933 Ishikawajima's Automotive Works merged with a competitor, the Dot Automobile Manufacturing Company and changed its name to Automobile Industries Company (AIL), now a subsidiary of TIS & E. As a sign of the times, the company's product lines were officially approved by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, as Japan's national standard vehicles. In addition, the Isuzu brand was awarded by the same Ministry, after Japan's oldest shrine the Ise Shrine of Mie prefecture on the sacred river. The new brand was only approved for use on the company's truck line.

The year of 1934 found AIL establishing a diesel research committee. The DA-6 was the initial result, completed in 1936. This unit was both Isuzu's first diesel and Japan's first production, air-cooled, high-speed diesel unit. It was also considered one of the forerunners in the history of diesel development. As with its truck platforms, the new diesel units were also approved by Japan's Ministry of War and Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Labeled as the national standard, these diesel engines were mounted in military, governmental, and civilian motor vehicles. The approved units soon surpassed their competitive brands. This same year found the company entering the commercial bus market with a new series of platforms featuring air brakes and a pancake engine mounted under the passenger floor. Because of its continued successes, AIL found itself as Japan's only company permitted to manufacture diesel-powered vehicles in 1941.

The Postwar Era
During the occupation, the company's biggest news was that of another name change to Isuzu Motors Limited in 1949. Domestic demand for Isuzu-powered trucks continued to push the company to higher profits. On the product side, the company developed the diesel DA80, a V-8 configured unit, in 1950. In addition, company researchers developed a pre-combustion chamber, which had been evaluated during wartime and carried into the postwar era. Isuzu considered it the industry's standard indirect-injection combustion chamber. In addition, development was also completed on direct-injection units. These DI units attracted industry attention for their higher performance capabilities.

The automotive side of the business was not neglected, and another joint venture was signed in 1953 with Britain's Rootes Group. Initially, Hillman Minx-branded passenger cars were sourced with local components and assembled for public consumption.

During this period, Japan still suffered a shortage of fuel, and the company's launch of Isuzu's bonnet-type truck series led to massive sales gains and popularity. Equipped with the excellent fuel economy advantages of its DA640 diesel powerplant, the new platform series provided rugged performance on- and off-road. Users quickly found that they could overload these units and still receive surprising durability.

The Elf series, the company's first 2-ton, light-duty, forward-control platform was introduced in 1959. World-recognized today as the N-series, it remains Japan's best-selling light-duty truck platform.

Isuzu announced its DL201 diesel powerplant for the passenger-car market in 1961. The DL201 series was presented with the '61 Tech Award by the Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers.

The company moved into the 1970s facing a U.S. dollar crisis in 1971, followed by the first oil crisis in 1973. Both issues forced the worldwide automakers to pay attention once more to energy-saving vehicles. The automotive component market surged with the sudden interest in turbocharged and intercooled powerplants. Air pollution and operational noise issues began to be monitored and measured.

In 1971 the Isuzu brand suddenly appeared in North America with its agreement with GM concerning joint vehicle platform development and marketing of economical automobiles.

Buick's Opel brand and the Chevrolet LUV mini pickup became the first Isuzu-produced vehicles to reach American dealers. A decade later, the LUV was replaced by an American-produced Chevrolet S-10.

In 1973 Isuzu adopted its new low-emission, lightweight, high-output PA diesel series in the company's V-series lineup, including the company's largest, a 10-ton tractor.

A second oil crisis in 1979 launched the rapid development of the Isuzu 10-ton trucks, now equipped with high-torque, fuel-saving 8PB1-T and 6RA1-T turbocharged diesels (these features were introduced in 1981). On the passenger side, the company introduced fuel-efficient diesel power in both its Florian and Gemini automotive platforms.

The year of 1980 found American Isuzu Motors marketing and selling exclusive branded vehicles in the U.S. The company's Isuzu Pup mini-pickup was the first product introduced.

The automaker continued on the diesel side with the launch of a new heavy-duty truck series in the homeland, designated the 810. The new platform debuted Isuzu's first full-scale engineering diesel changes in 15 years. The new series also included the introduction of electronic controls for the 6RA1-TC turbocharged mill, which now incorporated intercoolers. The company's V-type PC series was also updated, which enhanced its displacement. Light-duty truck platforms also shared the advantages of the new direct-injection design. The new metering process featured high output combined with lower fuel consumption on platforms with a 2-ton payload. The company claimed it was the first to develop electronically controlled diesel powerplants for both light- and heavy-duty truck platforms.

Isuzu also considered itself the leader in ceramic development for diesel power applications. The company's Quick Check on Start eliminated preheating time during startup for the first time. The new system incorporated a newly developed ceramic glow-plug generating higher heat resistance along with electronic control.

The company also fielded its Aska Turbo Diesel passenger car in performance trials in 1983, which established diesel world records in 13 different categories.

Four years later, continuing to ride a sales high with both SUVs and automobiles, Isuzu and Subaru signed a joint venture with a new American assembly plant, dubbed Subaru-Isuzu Automotive (SIA). In 1988 Isuzu established itself as the number-one producer of medium- and heavy-duty trucks in the world, surpassing Daimler-Benz.

"Japan's first two-stroke diesel marine engine was developed by its navy in 1907."

The Downslide
In 1993 the company discontinued its passenger-car line in the U.S. and continued to ride its sales success of SUV platforms, which peaked in 1996. Two short years later, GM and Isuzu form DMAX Limited, a joint venture to produce diesel engines in Moraine, Ohio. Less than one year later, the General raises its stake in the company to 49 percent, thus gaining control. The company's SUV line, now becoming dated, begins a sales slide. A new Axiom, Trooper, and Vehicross do not stop the bleeding, and, under pressure from the General, Isuzu now relies on only its diesel truck market. In a parallel move, the DMAX plant in Moraine, Ohio, begins production of high-performance Duramax direct-injection V-8 engines for GM-branded heavy-duty pickups in 2000. In the same year the partners form yet another new venture called General Motors Isuzu Commercial Truck LLC to market medium-duty cabovers for both Chevrolet and GMC.

Isuzu's presence continues to slip in 2002 with the sale of its joint passenger-car production facility to its old partner, Subaru. On August 14, 2002, the General reduces its 49 percent performance share in Isuzu to 12 percent as part of a comprehensive recapitalization of Isuzu. In addition, GM then took full control of DMAX along with Isuzu Motors Polska, with Isuzu not only losing its U.S. factories but also ownership of all engine designs. A high note finds the Isuzu-branded NPR the best selling low-cab-forward, medium-duty commercial truck in the U.S. for 14 straight years.

A year later the company eliminates its Canadian market, with its established dealer organization now selling Saab and Saturn products. In July of 2004 all production of the Axiom and Rodeo ceased. Only 27,188 units have been sold under heavy discount with both brands making up 71 percent of the total. In addition, Isuzu Motors America now merges with American Isuzu Motors to again become the sole U.S. distributor of Isuzu vehicles and diesel engines. The dealer organization continues to suffer, but soldiers on with two models of GM's Envoy/Trailblazer SUVs along with the redesigned I-Series compact trucks based on the General's Colorado/Canyon pickup trucks. Today, Isuzu now has roughly 290 dealers in the U.S.

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