Sorry, Hemi Cuda fans, but this is one of my most prized CC finds. As you know all too well by now, CC is not about haunting car shows for immaculate trailer queens. It’s about documenting the cars that were once so (kind of?) common on our streets, and now are mostly gone. When is the last time you ran across a gen1 I-Mark? There’s probably a thousand Hemi Cudas (genuine or clone) for every I-Mark still soldiering along. And let’s not forget that in addition to just its rarity, the I-Mark also represents GM’s first big global car adventure. The T-Cars were made and sold by the millions all over the globe. I assume you recognize a mildly disguised Chevette or Opel Kadett C when you see one?
The global car concept has been around for a while. The new for-1973 Kadett C (still RWD) was designed to be built throughout the General’s far-flung empire. In Europe, the Kadett offered coupe, sedan and wagon versions. Vauxhall in the UK created the hatchback Chevette, almost identical (externally) to the US built shitty little Chevy, except for the grille. But for the Asian region, GM designated Isuzu to adapt and build the T-Car, called Gemini, both for production in Japan, as well as in Australia as the Holden Gemini. Even Korea built a version of the Gemini, the Daewoo Maepsy. Yup, Daewoo was already building GM small cars thirty years ago, but a long way off from designing them.
There are two main reasons this I-Mark is still in service: they both have to do with the fact that its a diesel. That means its damn near indestructible; unlike the fragile Olds diesel the Detroit GM mothership cooked up, the Isuzu-designed and built diesel four has a legendary reputation. It’s the same little four found in the little Isuzu diesel pickups (and a few S-10s and Blazers), of which there are several still around hereabouts. And that’s not to say the Isuzu gas four wasn’t a tough little number too; actually, the diesel engine was based on the gas version. Yes, the T-Car may have looked alike externally the world over, but the Isuzus had a drive train that was in a whole different league than all the rest. Of course, it was also the Isuzu diesel that was available as an option in the Chevette. Haven’t found one of them with the tell-tale BIODIESEL sticker on the back, yet, but who knows?
The second reason is that the biodiesel boom in places like Eugene has given cars like this a whole new lease on life. A few years back, anything with a rugged diesel motor had a ready market and surprising value. That died down along with oil prices and the biodiesel bust, but this I-Mark is still clattering along. And man, do they ever clatter.
When we first moved to Eugene in 1993, we knew a family that lived two blocks down the street that had this exact same kind of Isuzu. And when I went out to get the paper in the morning, I could hear him start it up, like buckets of marbles-sized hail falling on a parking lot of new cars. Unbelievably loud, but his already then-old Isuzu just wouldn’t stop clattering, no matter how much he neglected it. It’s probably still at it in Portland somewhere.
Another factoid: this car was sold in the US as the Opel-Isuzu in its first couple of years, from ’76 through ’79. It replaced the Opel Kadett, which had fallen on hard times, along with the value of the dollar. Or was it a called the Buick Opel by Isuzu? Who remembers? Joe Isuzu, undoubtedly. The point was that GM was offering a Japanese built version of the Chevette at its Buick dealers. But who cared? Certainly mot Buick dealers. They were all-too eager to rid themselves of the little tin cans cluttering up their showrooms. So Isuzu set up its own shop in the US in 1981, and the rest is history, although not one with a happy ending.
This I-Mark is parked in front of its owner’s place, which is dominated by a very intensive gardening operation. Perhaps he’s growing the feedstock to keep his Isuzu fed.