By on September 28, 2010

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.

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39 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1982 Isuzu I-Mark Diesel...”

  • avatar

    Buick dealer marketing song from the 70s: We hopel you’ll drivel the Opel.  Sounds better than Daewoo Maepsy.  That name sounds like parts are ready to fall off.

    • 0 avatar

      I swear I heard a Buick commercial last night that said the new Regal was the first ever German designed Buick. I thought – no, GM has been down this road before…

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh the coveted LS or “Luxury Sport” version!  :P

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    For some reason I belive that the car diesel was a 1.9L and the one that went in the pickups was a 2.2? My dad had an ’85 pickup with the diesel, and its only flaw was an appetite for alternators (iirc the diesel vibration shook them apart after a while). The frame rails on the truck eventually rusted out around age 15 and sagged badly enough to make the driveshaft chatter one day, so he parked it and bought a ’98 S10. He sold the Isuzu to a neighbor who wanted the engine (180k) for his boat.

    There is a guy around here who has one of those I-Mark diesel hatches. Has some rust blobs but seems to be primarily intact.

    • 0 avatar

      The sedan had a completely different engine than the 2.2L pushrod diesel found in the truck. The sedan was available with a 1.8L single overhead cam diesel. I had one and put some 228,000 mi on it. The engine was a jewel. The rest of the car rotted away.

  • avatar

    It was indeed sold as the Buick/Opel by Isuzu, and half of that name was spelled out on the tape stripes that (as far as I can recall) every car had.
    A sad end to the Opel brand in the U.S. for those who had loved the Kadett Rallye, the 1900, 1900 sport wagon, and Manta (my next door neighbor was an Opel loyalist and owned them all).

  • avatar

    As someone who got over 300K beating the crap out of my ’75 LUV pickup I can surely say yes, the Isuzu gas engine was a tough little number. And the ONLY thing it asked for was a couple of head gaskets, and that was because of mere oil leaks, not running issues.

    • 0 avatar

      Ditto.  I put 300k+ on a ’86 gas trooper running laps to Alaska and back. Never had any trouble, barley did any maintenance now that I’m thinking about it. Any Isuzu diesels get fought over on ebay.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    1. The Buick/Opel By Isuzu wasn’t a bad car. We had one in our driveway when i was in high school. I drove the hell out of it, and the worst thing I can say for the “Buick/Opel By Isuzu” is that the brake pads were about the size of postage stamps, literally about a third of the size as the brake pads on our 1974 Toyota Celica. The Buick/Opel By Isuzu handled decently, and even though it shared a “platform” with the Chevette, the Buick/Opel By Isuzu was still fun to drive, unlike the Chevette.
    2. The Buick/Opel By Isuzu came from The Factory with lousy tires that had no rain traction. Several times I spun my Buick/Opel By Isuzu unintentionally while gently accelerating from a stop during a Florida frog strangler.
    3. One of my friends later bought a used Buick/Opel By Isuzu for driving in suburban Chicago. She and her husband drove the Buick/Opel By Isuzu until the wheels fell off, about 180,000 miles.
    4. Another one of my friends had the Isuzu P’up diesel. He drove it for 250,000 miles and then started running cooking oil in it from his restaurant. The engine still ran very well but he parted with it after the frame was rusted out. That took about 310,000 miles in coastal Florida.
    5. “Toad & Snack” magazine tested the “sporting” version of the Buick/Opel By Isuzu. The sporting package consisted of alloy wheeels, a gauge package, and a five-speed. They did not think much of the car, and described the Buick/Opel by Isuzu with this statement, “It’s as sporting as a rubber raft.” I really didn’t know what to make of that statement since I knew that rubber rafts were indeed used in whitewater excursions, which looked pretty sporting to me.
    That was also when I began to really wonder what was really going on at car magazines.

  • avatar

    There was a Diesel Chevette? Who knew? Too bad they didn’t try it in the Vega.

    • 0 avatar

      During some hard times growing up, my father was given an 82 diesel Chevette with only 40,000 miles on it, which had also been rolled once.  My dad – being faithful about maintenance – asked when the last time the oil was changed.  Answer – never.
      So when we changed the oil, it came out like jelly.  But the engine didn’t seem to suffer over all the years we owned it.
      Worse, that car had an automatic transmission.  The accelerator was really just a binary switch – idle or full throttle.  Anything in between was meaningless.  Top speed was about 78 mph on the level.
      Fuel economy was a steady 40 mpg in town, and a little more on the highway.  While I was never a Chevette fan, the diesel drivetrain was indestructible.

  • avatar
    Amendment X

    Talk about obscurity…
    Never seen this jalopy before.

  • avatar

    As an Isuzu owner myself (the last gen FWD Impulse), I have to say… FOR TEH WIN
    I’ll forward the link to my Isuzu friends.
    The Holden Gemini is highly regarded in Aussiesland. And they still use them for running rallies. There are some awesome youtube videos showing them.
    There are more Isuzu cars in your place… IIRC there should be a 1st gen Impulse and a 2nd gen Impulse too.

  • avatar

    These were great cars. One of the best economy cars of the early 80s. My family had one for a few years and it ran great. 2 door/white/stick shift.
    The Impulse in those years was very impressive also. I also liked the last gen that had AWD and Lotus tuned handling. I have heard those make very impressive power and performance modded. The aftermarket and easy cheap used parts of the Eclipse/Talon kept me in DSMs though. I’d hate to have to find a replacement AWD tranny for one of those Impulses!

  • avatar

    Since I was 5 when this car was purchased new and Canada didn’t get Isuzus until the “Passport” brand was setup in Canada, I’ve never seen one of these until today. Neat looking car. Now I need to go look up specs on it. I wonder if appointments had to be made to pass on 2 lane roads like my ’85 Jetta diesel (no turbo).
    Have you ever spotted a Cressida diesel in Oregon? That would make a good CC. I saw one probably about 11 or 12 years ago in Southern Ontario. It would go well with the obscure Transporter you posted the other day.

  • avatar

    I had a gasoline Isuzu Opel which I drove in SCCA Showroom Stock C in 1978. It was a very predictable, forgiving car. Its one fault was the drum brakes in the rear. The right rear wheel would lock up under heavy braking. It took some experimentation at a local brake relining shop to find linings that didn’t lock up.
    I never knew there was a diesel model.

  • avatar

    Such a fine line between a Curbside Classic and a Deadly Sin.

  • avatar

    Isuzu was never meant to make cars. Primarily a Diesel Manufactuer, they probably make the best diesels in the business.

    Given the shit GM foisted upon them, it’s a testement to their engineers that cars they made were any good at all. Sure, the I-Mark was certainly no match for the Civic, Corolla, Sentra, Colt, 323 or GL, but it was worlds better than it’s atrocious GM counterparts.

    The Aska, despite being based on the miserable J-body, was actually pretty decent. But this Charade could not go forever, so they finally ditched the crappy GM platforms and started Licence building Subaru Legacys in 1990. It was cheaper to buy a well-engineered car than completely re-design some GM piece of crap.

    • 0 avatar

      I put alot of miles on an Isuzu delivery truck – the kind with a flip forward cab. The engine had 160,000 city miles on it with college guys driving it. Turbo and automatic tranny and all of it was solid. Needed front brake rotors badly but the boss was a cheap-skate that didn’t spend anything on the delivery truck or the store. All of it went to some expensive personal habits that included controlled substances and German sports cars. I got fed up with it all and left eventually but it helped put me through college.

      I decided ages ago that if I have a need for a truck it won’t be a traditional American style pickup truck – it’ll be the stake-side version of that little Isuzu turbo diesel flipforward cab truck. Wanting to build a house one of these days.

  • avatar

    About a month ago, while pulling into a Meijer parking lot, I spied an interestingly old and foreign-looking vehicle, so I parked next to it.  An I-Mark diesel, eh?  A look through the window revealed that long and angled gear change lever.  The car was powder blue, and looked perfect, but I have no idea if that was an original color.

  • avatar

    My best friend got one of these after graduating college in 1978; I don’t know if he knew the true, twisted corporate roots of the vehicle. His was a deep robin’s egg blue with black graphics and a white vinyl interior. Nice looking, if perhaps a little feminine. The one time I drove it, I was struck by the poor acceleration… sort of like molasses running uphill.

  • avatar

    What a fantastic find! They where never sold in Canada so I’ve never seen one.

  • avatar

    Why the TTAC infatuation with diesels? Ok, they get better mileage than equivalent gas engines. So what? Since when do enthusiasts put that ahead of all else? If you want low end torque, get a turbo. And diesels are generally weak as hell anyway: how is an engine making 150hp from 1k to 5k better than one that makes 150 at 1k and 300 past 3?

    That, and they sound truly awful – the antithesis of everything soul-stirring in an engine. If you wanted to mandate an engine to drain the enthusiasm for cars, I can’t imagine a better one than the diesel.

    So, what am I missing, here? Is it just contrarianism?

    • 0 avatar

      Diesels seem like they should be simple.  They aren’t, not anymore, but a lot of enthusiasts are, to a fault, conservative if not outright regressive and diesel has a lot of that old-technology charm and theoretical engineering simplicity (no throttle, no plugs, heavy block).  That they now require turbochargers, complex ECU programming, a fuel rail so high-pressure that it can abrade metal and an emissions control system that’s quite complex doesn’t seem to be on the radar.
      It’s similar to the reason why hybrids and electrics are pariahs: they’re progressive technologies and they seem like they should be complex, so they must be bad.
      It’s the same attitude—that something that sounds simple must be right—that leads to all sorts of failures of conservatism.  Often that apparent simplicity is born of willful ignorance of complexity.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree with everything psar has said, but I still believe diesels have a use in heavy/commercial vehicles, which is where they should stay.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed re: diesels in industrial use. A diesel is as right in a Pererbilt as it is wrong in a C-class.

    • 0 avatar

      @Perisoft, Draining the enthusiasm?  Please do a test drive in an Audi A5 3.0 TDI with the 6-speed manual — and then tell me it’s not an enthusiast car.  The biggest problem with the car is that there is so much torque that it’s hard to shift smoothly.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Waftable torque. Some folks never quite got over their love for the feel of big domestic V8s, and diesels are about as close as one can get to that nowadays.

    • 0 avatar

      Please do a test drive in an Audi A5 3.0 TDI with the 6-speed manual — and then tell me it’s not an enthusiast car.

      How about this: drive a 335i and a 335d, and then tell me, with a straight face, that the diesel car is better in any way save for fuel economy.   I’ve driven both, and the 335d, while it pulls like a freight train, loses the gas engine’s sound, has to be shifted far more frequently because of the low redline (and is to pleasure to rev) and, honestly, seems a little heavy.

      I’d still get a 335d, given the choice, but I wouldn’t call it, or any diesel, a holistic performance experience.  At best, diesels are like the bizarro version of the Renesis, Honda B18C or Toyota 2ZZ-GE, except that, instead having to run to 8000rpm and keep it above 6000 (which is kind of fun) you have to shift at 4500 or lower (which isn’t).

    • 0 avatar

      “loses the gas engine’s sound”
      This. On the day that a diesel sounds as compelling as this, I’ll change my mind. But until a diesel brings tears to my eyes just from the sound… nuh-uh.

    • 0 avatar

      Personally, I like diesels for exactly the reason that Bumpy put forth: Waftable torque. It has nothing to do with luddism or anything else. I don’t have any interest in revving the snot out of an engine in normal driving and I find it downright offensive when I have to-this is why my STI has been driven just a few thousand miles this year. Unless I take it to the track or out to some back roads to flog it, I can’t stand driving it. I shouldn’t HAVE to rev an engine to 3500rpms to keep up with the flow of traffic, and frankly, I don’t want to.

      “If you want low end torque, get a turbo.”

      Every turbocharged car-gas or diesel-that I’ve ever driven has some degree of lag, and only two of them-a W221 S600 and a 335D-have minimized it to a point where it no longer annoys me. A sufficiently large engine will cover for most of it, but I’m not at all optimistic that any of the newer crop of small-displacement (say, <3L) turbocharged gasoline engines are capable of satisfying my expectations with respect to torque output from right off idle to about 2500-3000rpms.

      Diesels inherently have more torque at those engine speeds, and although the turbo on the OM603 in my 300D is VERY slow to spool (it takes most of 1st gear if you floor it from a standstill), the fact of the matter is that even off-boost, it makes more torque than my STI does below about 3000rpms, and in normal driving, I like it better than I like the Subaru. I had it in San Francisco a few months back and it was pulling itself up most of those hills in 3rd gear at something like 2000 or 2500rpms. If I’d had the STI I would’ve had to grab 2nd-if not 1st-and it would’ve been doing at least 3500. Ugh. The Ecoboost and some of the other newer ones might be better, but after my experience with the STI and several other small-displacement turbocharged gas cars, I’d have to drive one to believe it.

      “That, and they sound truly awful – the antithesis of everything soul-stirring in an engine. If you wanted to mandate an engine to drain the enthusiasm for cars, I can’t imagine a better one than the diesel.”

      I totally disagree with you. The V16 link you posted? Awful. It sounds like a weed whacker on crack. I don’t like the sound of small displacement, high-speed engines. Period. Ferraris, F1 cars, Hondas… doesn’t matter. They all sound like crap to my ear. I prefer  the sound of the I6 diesels in my 300D and the 335D to anything I can think of with a redline over about 7k. Sure, I like the sound of an LS7 or an AMG 6.2L better, but I’d rather listen to a diesel than a Ferrari any day of the week.

      “It’s similar to the reason why hybrids and electrics are pariahs: they’re progressive technologies and they seem like they should be complex, so they must be bad.”

      For me, at least, your assessment could not possibly be more wrong; I dislike hybrids because I find electric motors and their control systems simplistic and boring, and with or without an ICE in the mix I take issue with the basic principle of a blender on steroids powering the drive wheels in my car.

      An electric motor is basically a bundle of magnets and wires with one moving part. Big. F*****g. Deal. I built one when I was 5. They’re cheap, nearly maintenance free and dead reliable, but there is nothing impressive or even remotely interesting about them. By contrast, an ICE is a complex piece of mechanical engineering with a large number of fairly-precisely-machined moving parts. The good ones are works of art in their own right.

      It’s like comparing a $30 Timex to a $100,000 watch by Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin. The mechanical watches are orders of magnitude more complicated and more expensive, even though they’re arguably not as good at their job (a good electronic watch is probably more accurate) and they’re less reliable (when was the last time you sent a Timex in for service?). They’re also engineering masterpieces, whereas the Timex is not.

      In the case of both watches and cars, I will happily pay more money for an arguably inferior product simply because I like the way it was engineered and assembled and because I like how it works.

      “At best, diesels are like the bizarro version of the Renesis, Honda B18C or Toyota 2ZZ-GE, except that, instead having to run to 8000rpm and keep it above 6000 (which is kind of fun) you have to shift at 4500 or lower (which isn’t).”

      As I pointed out above, the last thing I want to do on my daily commute is rev the snot out of anything. Yes, when you’re on a track or in the mountains, keeping a car like the STI, a RX-8 or a S2000 in its powerband is fun. When you’re sitting in stop-and-go traffic, going back and forth between 1st and 2nd because 1st is too short and your POS 2.5L F4 that’s boosted to within an inch of its life doesn’t make enough torque off idle to pull second from a stop, it very quickly becomes tiresome and annoying. I’ll happily trade being able to run it up to 6,000 or 7,000rpms (although the OM603/6 will do 6000+ if you ask it nicely…) on the two or three occasions per month that I might have to do so for not having to listen to the blasted thing drone along at 4500rpms or give myself a left leg/right arm workout every morning on my way to work.

      Bottom line is that some of us like big, lazy engines. And while there is some degree of truth to the old “no replacement for displacement” adage, a good (turbo)diesel is, at least in my experience, your second-best option.

    • 0 avatar

      Unfortunately a car can have only one engine at a time. As unsuited as a high-strung performance engine is the the daily schlepp, it is but a small price to pay for the open road nirvana you achieve once the traffic is cleared.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    This must be TTAC cars my family used to own day. 1st it’s the Isuzu I-Mark diesel, my mom had a 81 automatic 4 dr in white and my dad a 82 silver LS Sport 5 speed. He also had a 81 Chevette diesel 2dr 5 speed as a commuter car. The 81 automatic eventually blew it’s head gasket and they traded it in for the 1st 91 Saturn SL. The 82 was t-boned and insurance totaled it. The Chevette lasted for several years till he put a new clutch in and sold it to someone who needed cheap wheels. BTW MPG with the automatic ran in the 30’s 
    The 5 speed about 40 highway. The Chevette you could get 50 MPG, in it’s day it was the EPA mileage champ up there with the Rabbit and CRX-HF.

    Though the one drawback with these cars they are not the best in the snow a good pair of snow tires got you through the winter.

  • avatar

    My friend’s dad had a P’Up diesel 4×4 with a stick. It only lasted 5 years and maybe 115K miles before the engine cried uncle. Sure, it is only anecdotal. This was a family that got over 150K miles out of a 1985 Chrysler Lebaron GTS though. It died in a wreck. They also had a 1984 Mazda 626 hatchback that had hundreds of thousands of miles and was still in the fleet when the 4.3 liter S10 that replaced the P’Up was a memory. I don’t think the P’Up diesel or the I-mark/Chevette diesel were particularly durable. I remember that the P’Up was so underpowered that passengers used to compare it to their VW Type 2 recollections. Instead of cruise control, the floor mat placed over the fuel pedal was standard fare on the interstate. We were still the slowest vehicle on the highway.

  • avatar

    You know, the diesel Gemini could get 70 MPG.

    Just not in the same day…

  • avatar

    Isuzu had some pretty solid cars(The Impulse is awesome), shame it ended the way it did.

  • avatar

    That’s a good looking coupe for the era. I’d like to have a diesel version and add a mild turbo.

  • avatar
    Richard B

    Am I the only one who thinks this looks like a Vega? Especially around the C-pillar.

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