Yes, the now most famous Japanese manufacturer for diesel engines was in fact the first Japanese automaker.
We came across an old marketing document the other day. It dates back to the 80s and promotes the Isuzu Piazza RS Turbo. It carried the Isuzu slogan at the time which read ‘Japan‘s first automobile manufacturers‘.
You may be thinking that this cannot be true. After all, Toyota’s first car dates back to 1936, even before the brand was called âToyotaâ. Well, in a similar vein, and much like the humble beginnings of Mitsubishi – Isuzu started building cars under an entirely different name.
“Isuzu” was originally part of a company called Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding & Engineering Co., Ltd. (founded in 1889).
Shipping was a big problem in the late 1800s in Japan thanks to the trade and resource boom of the Meiji period. Japan had locked its economy away from the world for over 100 years during the previous Edo period and as such had a huge amount of technology to catch up with. The next frontier of trade and shipping was local manufacturing.
Meanwhile, in the West, automakers were conducting studies on how to tap into the recent automotive needs of the Japanese population. The first to boldly establish a Japanese operation was Wolseley Motors in the UK at the time, a growing company. In 1918, Wolseley formed a joint venture with Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding & Engineering Co., Ltd. and in 1922 the world’s first Japanese car was built, a Wolseley A9.
This version of the car had the chassis and some components imported from the UK, but the body and even the engine were said to have been built at the Ishikawajima factory. What was the engine behind the very first JDM car? A 2.6-liter four-cylinder developing 15.6 hp (11.6 kW). At the time, this engine was relatively advanced thanks to its use of overhead camshaft technology.
The future Isuzu had many problems, however. When the A9 came out, it was around 40% more expensive than cars imported from the United States and was having a really hard time finding customers. On top of that, a particularly nasty earthquake in 1923 destroyed most of the unsold A9 inventory.
This resulted in a radical overhaul of operations, and the plant almost entirely switched to producing the 1.5-ton Wolseley CP truck to exploit Japan’s subsidies for military and commercial vehicles. (Through its contribution during World War I, Japan was recognized as a geopolitical power and, as such, pursued a vast military build-up from 1918 through World War II.)
So how did Isuzu really come about from these messy early efforts? In 1929, Ishikawajima ended his involvement with Wolseley and chose to build his own cars. The company separated its automotive division under the name Ishikawa Automotive Works Co., Ltd. and produced the very first car designed and built entirely in Japan, the Sumida. A 30 kW, 2.7-liter four-cylinder chassis, available as a truck or bus version. To this day, Isuzu keeps a historic example in its Kawasaki factory (although you can’t even watch it, it’s behind closed doors …)
Then, in 1933, a truck called “Isuzu” was launched. Isuzu literally translates to “fifty bells” and is the name of a river that flows past one of Japan’s most revered holy sites. It was a truck for the Japanese government fleet and therefore enjoyed series production. Such was the influence of this successful model that when the company was reorganized from the ashes of WWII, it was named Isuzu.
Here. The first cars built and designed locally in Japan were Isuzus based on British models, becoming trucks spurred on by the Japanese government’s need for utility vehicles. With the eradication of Isuzu passenger cars and the rise of Isuzu commercial and diesel vehicles, you could almost say the company has come full circle.
Want more stories about the origins of Japanese manufacturers? Discover them:
Honda’s first car
Toyota’s first car
Did I bore you to death with the story of the very first JDM car? Let us know what you think in the comments.