Cape Town - While a certain Bavarian car company is making quite a fuss about its centenary this year, a vehicle producer on the other side of the world is also celebrating 100 years of existence – with no bells and whistles.
Actually, the Tokyo based outfit has much to clamour about. Not only is the company the world’s biggest producer of diesel power units, it is also Japan’s oldest vehicle company.
Does this ring any bells?
Well, it should. Fifty of them… Because translated into English its name means ‘fifty bells’ - the sound of the water flowing in the Isuzu River.
It’s also for this reason that the word ‘bell’ (as in the Bellel of 1962 and the Bellet of 1963) was used in the naming of Isuzu’s earlier home-grown car products.
Over the years Isuzu has established itself as a leading player in the pickup and commercial vehicle sectors, not only in Asia and America, but also in Africa and South Africa.
Like BMW it didn’t start out as a vehicle manufacturer, and its chequered history can be traced back to the Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding and Engineering company, established in 1893.
The A Truck
However, the roots of Isuzu Motors was established in 1916 when the Ishikawajima company and the Tokyo Gas and Electric Industrial Company decided to work together, specifically to build motor vehicles, starting with the A Truck.
Two years later the company, called Ishikawajima Automotive Works, entered into a technical agreement with Wolseley Motors in England to produce the Wolseley A9.
In 1922 the first car rolled off the Fukagawa line, becoming the first-ever locally produced passenger car in Japan, and in March 1924 this was followed by the first Japanese-built Wolseley CP truck.
In 1927 the company, now with some manufacturing experience behind it, ended the agreement with Wolseley and began building the Sumida (named for the Sumidagawa River, Tokyo's main river), designed locally and built from Japanese materials.
In the same year the Ishikawa Automotive Works Company was set up as an independent operation and in 1933 this company merged with DAT Automobile Manufacturing Incorporated to form a new company - Automobile Industries Company Limited.
Following a meeting with the Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry in 1934 the company’s trucks were renamed Isuzu - after the river that flows past the Ise Grand Shrine in the Mie prefecture, the most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan.
A diesel research committee was established in 1934 and in 1936 the air-cooled 5.3-litre DA6 diesel engine was introduced. The DA4 followed three years later - marking a breakthrough in diesel engine development.
In 1937 Automobile Industries merged with two other companies into the Tokyo Automobile Industries Company Limited and in 1941 the Japanese government designated the company as the only one permitted to manufacture diesel-powered vehicles.
In 1949 the company was renamed Isuzu Motors Limited and established itself as an industry leader in diesel engine technology, a year later developing the DA80 – Japan’s first diesel V8 engine.
Today, Isuzu has produced over 22 million diesel engines in its global engine production network, and after a century the production lines at Isuzu are still steadily flowing – like the river it was named after.
READ: 800 000km in Isuzu KB
To celebrate the company’s centenary, herewith some lesser known facts about Japan’s first vehicle company.
Ten things you probably didn’t know about Isuzu in South Africa
1. Isuzu has two companies in South Africa.
Locally Isuzu consist of two companies – Isuzu Motors, part of General Motors SA, and Isuzu Trucks SA, a subsidiary of Isuzu Motors Ltd in Japan which has a 70% stake in the company, with GMSA holding the remaining 30%.
2. Isuzu assembles LCVs and trucks locally.
Isuzu assembles both light commercials and trucks in Port Elizabeth - Isuzu Motors the sixth generation KB bakkie range and Isuzu Trucks the N-Series and F-Series trucks. Isuzu’s truck plant builds 47 different model derivatives varying from 1.5 to 40 ton carrying capacity.
3. Isuzu has built over 30 000 trucks locally.
The 30 000th Isuzu truck was produced at the Kempston Road plant in November last year since operations started in 2007. Trucks assembled here are distributed to all right-hand drive countries in Africa, while KB pickups are built in left and right-hand drive for export to sub-Sahara African countries.
4. Isuzu’s first pickup was introduced here over 40 years ago.
On the passenger vehicle side the first Isuzu derived pickup (based on the first generation Faster) was introduced locally in 1972 as the Chevrolet LUV.
5. Isuzu did sell a passenger car in SA.
Isuzu actually did sell a passenger car in South Africa – the first generation Isuzu Piazza, produced from 1980 to 1990. Locally it was available from 1981 to 1983.
6. Isuzu also sold SUV’s and minibuses.
Besides the KB bakkie Isuzu also sold the mid-sized Trooper SUV (first introduced in 1981) and from 1984 the WFR van and minibus, later renamed to Relay, in South Africa.
7. Some KB firsts in South Africa.
Locally the KB was the first petrol and diesel powered four-wheel drive pick-up from Japan and also the first to feature rack and pinion steering and independent front suspension. It was SA’s best-selling one-ton pick-up in 1997 and 1998.
8. The first bakkie-based SUV.
The Frontier, one of the first local bakkie-based SUV’s, was launched in 1998. Based on the Isuzu Rodeo, this very popular model shared many components with the KB, but had a shorter wheelbase. Interestingly, in 1996 a limited edition “Frontier” KB pickup model was introduced.
9. Isuzu still holds 15 local endurance records.
In April 2010 the KB range set 15 new overall speed and distance records over 72 hours at the Gerotek proving grounds with a KB 300 D-TEQ bakkie completing 12 243.385 km at an average speed of 170,047 km/h. A KB 250 D-TEQ also achieved a new class record distance of 11 495.567 km.
10. Over half-a-million KB’s sold.
The sixth-generation Isuzu pickup is now built in South Africa, and up until now around 600 000 KB bakkies have locally been sold.
Ten things you probably didn’t know about Isuzu
1. Isuzu is the world’s biggest manufacturer of diesel power units.
2. With its preceding corporate entities established in 1916, Isuzu is Japan’s oldest vehicle company.
3. The company produced Japan’s first-ever locally built passenger car and truck – in 1922 and 1924 respectively.
4. It built Japan’s first locally designed truck, the Sumida, in 1927.
5. It manufactures Japan’s first air-cooled diesel engine in 1936. In 1937 it merged with two other companies to form Tokyo Automobile Industries.
6. In 1949 Tokyo Automobile Industries was renamed Isuzu Motors Limited. In 1950 it developed the DA80 –Japan’s first diesel V8 engine.
7. The company and its products were named after a river, the Isuzu River. Isuzu translated into English means ‘fifty bells’ – the sound of the water flowing in the river.
8. Isuzu was the first manufacturer to introduce a car with fuel injection in Japan and also the first to introduce a sports car with a diesel engine world-wide – the 117 Coupe.
9. In July 1971 General Motors obtained a 34,2% stake in the Japanese company and in 1998 Isuzu and GM formed D-MAX, a joint venture to produce diesel engines.
10. From humble origins Isuzu Motors is now represented in more than 120 countries and employs over 20 000 people only in Japan. Nowadays it produces more than a million diesel engines a year.