Rear and side views of the Isuzu 117 Coupe.
Space age promotion material for the coupe.
The Giugiaro design made the Isuzu Coupe look very European.
Side view of the Isuzu 117 Coupe.

IF we deem that the success of a car company should be judged by the beauty of the products that they make, then there is no justice in this world because there are so many beautiful cars made by companies which no longer exist.

Names like Hispano Suiza, Delahaye, Jensen and even Saab are now consigned into the pages of history together with that great Japanese brand Isuzu.

Well, Saab still makes military systems but it doesn’t make cars and the Isuzu NPR PRO is never going to make it on any beauty shortlist, not even one for trucks.

Rummaging through the extensive collection of useless information that is the Internet, I was surprised to come across the delicately proportioned Isuzu 117 Coupe.

It’s as if the Opel Manta, Ford Capri and the NSU RO80 had a threesome and their best bits somehow got together in the new baby.

In reality, Isuzu had commissioned Italian styling house Ghia to come up with an arresting body style to be stitched on top of their mid-size sedan platform, a tried and tested formula of squeezing higher perception of style from a humdrum segment.

Evidently the assignment fell onto the desk of a young stylist named Giorgetto Giugiaro and he sketched this beauty on the back of a diner napkin after one particularly satisfying vegetarian lasagne.

I say vegetarian lasagne because these days it’s kind of cool to care about what we eat and I conjured up the alternate fact about the diner napkin because people want a good story, in fact they prefer a fairy tale to the grisly truth every time.

So Gigi, we’ll call him that in this version of reality, had good work ethics and excellent design sensibilities and he just came up with this design after carefully studying the dimensional restrictions and matching those with the client’s brief for a coupe that could be built on a sedan platform with reasonably minimal reengineering.

See I told you that you would prefer the napkin and lasagne story.

The 117 Coupe went into production in 1968 and lived a long and fruitful life until the age of 13, which is more than double the average age of car models, and Isuzu eventually sold nearly 90,000 copies of this very European-looking car.

The gently curving bonnet lines and gracefully tapered tail is topped off by a delicate fastback roofline and airy glasshouse.

The four round headlamps, mandatory for any car that wanted to look classy in those days, added an extra splash of glamour to the car. The slim chrome bumpers completed the look.

While the exterior is glamorous, the interior is warm and welcoming while remaining spacious and light.

Today’s safety regulations and crash testing requirements prevent us from ever seeing cabins like this again but at a time when safety meant a lapbelt and not drinking more than a few pints within 45 minutes of driving, this was the very idea of a sporty cabin.

The sleek and simple dashboard is matched with equally timeless seats upholstered in some rich, dark shade of brown or red. The steering wheel had a metal boss that would make modern crash testers shriek and faint and slim wooden rims that promise to send a million splinters in a thousand random directions in the event of crash.

Interiors like these may have made the word fatal a redundant prefix to accident but boy, do they look slim and elegant.

You may have spotted that this article makes no mention about the engine or handling and there is a very good reason for this; no reference could be found. Everyone just gushes about the gorgeous styling and makes a passing mention about the diesel engine. What?

The range topper came with a 2.2-litre diesel thumper. Never mind that the oil burner was only available between 1978 and 1979, it was probably the first time anyone thought the idea of a diesel coupe was attractive.

Well it wasn’t. Ye olde worlde diesels are not like modern ones that have efficient variable vane turbocharging and torque spread as wide as a casino buffet. Old diesels needed time to spool up and ran out of breath as soon as the engine speed came anywhere near interesting.

Torque was good from just above idle to just above 2,000rpm, so unless you had a 17-speed gearbox the pace was not going to be exciting. Fitted with the standard five-cog, driving this must have felt like being in a bread van with fancy metalwork.

We cannot really fault Isuzu, they’re known for their diesel engines, so naturally they just want to stick it into everything.

The 117 Coupe was such a roaring success that they went back to Italy and looked Gigi up again and asked him if he could apply his magic once more in 1978. By this time, Isuzu was firmly wedded to General Motors so they sent over a few of their T-series Chevrolet Chevette for the stylist to play with.

Given the base ingredients, Gigi came up with one heck of a looker which was introduced to the world at the 1979 Tokyo Motor Show as the Asso di Fiori or Ace of Clubs concept car.

It was an exceedingly sleek design and people thought, if he could make the Chevette look like this, he must be a genius. It took Isuzu four years to develop the car before launching the new coupe as the Piazza.

So the takeaway today is, a beautiful car will not save a company that insists on putting diesel into everything.

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