2023 Shannons Sydney Classic - special club celebration for 60th anniversary of the Bellett & Wasp

The Isuzu Bellett was the first medium size car of all Isuzu design and build after the vehicle industry reconstruction during the 1950’s. Japan had the opportunity of a retool with a new start and Isuzu, as one of Japan’s oldest auto manufacturers, seized the opportunity.

At this time no clear Japanese market existed for volume passenger cars let alone sports cars and the roads that formed the highways and byways were harsh with many unmade or poorly maintained. Any new vehicle needed to be robust to deal with the harsh conditions and have style to create the demand with no consumer finance.

Released in Japan in June 1963 and on sale from 20 November 1963, the Isuzu Bellett 1500 sedan was something of a revelation in its native Japan. The Bellett’s playfully sporty nature was showcased with round dials, a four-speed floor shift, direct rack and pinion steering and independent rear suspension, all unheard of in a mass market Japanese car.

In Australia, the first batch of 30 cars went on sale 21 August 1964 and as more shipments arrived the highly anticipated Bellett briefly topped the sales charts in some states; not bad going when one in every two cars sold was a ubiquitous Holden. With V8s remaining the preserve of luxury cars for the next few years yet, the nippy Bellett found favour with regular motorists, club racers and rally enthusiasts alike.

Although its 1471cc OHV 71 bhp engine was more torque-monster than Hiroshima screamer, it shoved the Bellett to speeds well above its station. Less enamoring were the four-wheel drum brakes, which proved inadequate on the race circuit, especially the annual long-distance tin-top test at Bathurst. Also of concern was the IRS rear, which could bite the motorist who dared to lift mid-corner, something learned early on when an Isuzu test driver plonked a pre-production prototype on its roof.

That vehicle was salvaged, however, and the race Team Isuzu with Suzuki Bankin fabrications built with it a new two-door coupe. Debuting at the Tokyo Motor Show in October 1963, just prior to the release of the sedan, the Bellett 1500GT prototype featured a lowered roofline with a revised steering column angle and seating to suit, full instrumentation, twin carburetors and front disc brakes. By April 1964 over 120 of these new FIA homologated 1600GTs were built to qualify for the Japanese GP2 at Suzuka, May 1964. On 28 April 1964, limited production commenced with the halo model, the 1600GT; the first GT car from a Japanese manufacturer.

Following some minor updates, Australia received just 55 PR90-model Bellett 1600GTs with sales beginning in April 1966, however two cars, earlier series II cars with 14” wheels and a KM/H speedo, were here mid 1965 for promotion and road tests appeared in Sports Car World, Modern Motor and Wheels magazines from August 1965 onwards.

The Bellett was also the basis of the one-tonne-rated Isuzu Wasp with Australia receiving a single batch of 122 including 30 style sides and 92 cab-chassis. Unlike the sedan, they sold slowly, taking up to three years to clear the dealerships.

The Bellett sedan received a major update with the ‘1966½’ featuring a new grille, GT-style taillights, a new dash and a host of other engine and driveline refinements. On the 26 September 1966 the Bellett 1600GT received similar upgrades.

On 26 March 1968 the 1600GT received another facelift, sporting a black mesh grille and ‘strip’ taillights, with the sedan following on 4 July with comparable but not identical appointments. While both versions were sold in Australia, by 1968 the bulk of Bellett sales were done. As cutting edge as it was when released, the Bellett was noticeably ageing and being fully imported, quite expensive especially compared to local fare, including Japanese manufacturers like Toyota and Datsun, who were now building cars here.

As the decade drew to a close, so too did Bellett sales in Australia, with a single batch of five 1970-models selling in Tasmania only. But as the Bellett entered the history books here, it truly hit its stride in Japan with the release of the Bellett GT Type-R, a homologation special with a lusty 1600cc twin-cam engine. Bellett production stopped at Fujisawa Japan in April 1973 after over 10 years of continuous production and export.

Around 16,000 Bellett sedans found homes in Australia along with 122 Wasps and 293 Bellett 1600GTs. There’s a small but dedicated Bellett community nationwide with many owners having more than one example. When the nature of these little beasts are so disparate across sedans, utes and GTs, who could blame us?