Historiography: One of The Spoils of Living in California

My childhood was dictated by a few well-known facts about the USA automotive market.

One, I lived in California. This was a very convenient place for importers to start their operations first, as its ports were across the Pacific from Japan and the Republic of Korea. Also, the state’s market had a track record of customer acceptance of Japanese and Korean imports. Toyota and Nissan started in California and saw their fortunes grow there over time.

The ironic piece about that statement is that both manufacturers have since moved their USA headquarters out of California.

Since 1970, I witnessed the birth of several brands in my birth state. With the exception of a few, these brands remain in business today. And all of them remain headquartered in California.

This story actually starts with Mazda. Although the company has been around since 1920 in Japan, Mazda’s USA operations began in 1970. They introduced an all-new car to kick things off called the RX-2, which was called Capella back in Japan. What made this car interesting was the engine underneath its hood, a rotary engine.

1972 Mazda RX-2

Mazda figured to take Wankel’s small displacement motor and manufacture it for wider use. They were able to perfect what NSU had been working on in the 1960s to be able to sell them worldwide through the Capella. Californians were astonished at this new engine design that they were taking delivery of the lion's share of available inventory of them.

You can get the Capella in a piston engine form at USA Mazda dealers in the early years. The 616 provided an alternative to the RX-2 for those who were not convinced that the rotary engine was the answer to the future. Alongside the Capella were two compact Familia models: The 1200 and R100. The latter was also equipped with a smaller rotary engine than the RX-2.

Mazda also made small pickup trucks. The B-Series pickup had a rotary engine, as well.

The problem with the rotary engine was fuel economy. That did not sit well with customers as the Oil Crisis took hold and rationing was in place. Mazda saw the rotary engine as part of their identity, yet it became a sales liability. Sales slipped through the mid-1970s, as the brand was expanding across the USA. The solution was to sell a rotary engine vehicle as a specialty model and offer more piston engines across the board. If a customer wanted a rotary engine they were led to the Cosmo luxury coupe and, starting in 1978, the iconic RX-7.

By the end of the 1970s, Mazda had a lineup of cars and pickup trucks in the USA that offered solid value and provided a steady revenue stream that would sustain the company today. In the years ahead, Mazda would add a minivan, SUVs, and a larger car to their showrooms. One would also point out that it did not hurt Mazda to have Ford import their pickup trucks to add more volume and revenue from the early 1970s well into the mid-1980s.

The Oil Crisis was not a time to start up a new brand. Yet, Detroit’s automakers also added captive imports to their lineups from manufacturers that did not have USA operations at the time. While Mazda provided Ford with their own version of the B-Series pickup truck, called the Courier, Chevrolet brought in the LUV pickup truck made by Isuzu. The arrival of the LUV and the Courier had a couple of affects for the small pickup truck market. One, both trucks introduced Mazda and Isuzu to the rest of the USA. Secondly, they both added to the growth of small pickup trucks along with Toyota and Datsun in California.

1980 Chevrolet LUV

Isuzu saw another opportunity at General Motors in the USA, thanks to Opel. For years, Buick sold German-made Opels at their showrooms. Somehow, Buick was not satisfied with the vehicle they received from Opel in terms of value and efficiency. To replace the German-made offerings, Buick looked at the Isuzu Bellett Gemini as their sole replacement. By 1976, the Buick Opel by Isuzu arrived alongside the likes of the Electra, Riviera, Le Sabre, Regal, Century, Skylark, and Skyhawk.

The ironic part of the Buick Opel by Isuzu is that its was related to the Opel Kadett and the Chevrolet Chevette. The T-Car platform was GM’s first truly global effort that was adopted by every entity the company owned or had a stake in. The latter was the case for Isuzu, who saw the opportunity to eventually establish their own dealership network in 1981. All thanks to Chevrolet and Buick for importing their wares into their respective showrooms.

Isuzu began with just two models: The I-Mark and the P'Up. The I-Mark was a facelifted version of the Gemini with a slanted front end and rectangular headlamps. The arrival of the I-Mark spelled the end of sales of Buick’s version of the same vehicle. There was some overlap with Chevrolet on the P'Up, as the LUV soldiered on until GM introduced the new S-Series small pickup trucks for 1982. The P'Up became the focal point of Isuzu's USA lineup, especially with the inclusion of the diesel engine.

Isuzu added a third model to the lineup later in its initial year in the USA. The Trooper was a game changer, as the idea of semi-civilized SUVs began to circulate across the industry. As GM and Ford were about to introduce their small SUV lineups, the Trooper caused a stir for families looking for adventure and space to roam. They were smaller than the Jeep Cherokee/Wagoneer, Chevrolet Blazer, Dodge Ramcharger, and Ford Bronco, yet they offered more occupant protection than the Jeep CJ-7.

By 1983, Isuzu added another model to its USA showrooms that, in particular, caught my eye. At first, it was a concept on ItalDesign styling, as penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro. The Piazza became the Impulse and enthusiasts were curious and interested. The Impulse arrived as another trend began to take hold in the USA with smaller sports coupes saw substantial growth coming out of the 1970s.

I actually wanted an Isuzu Impulse. Of course, I was warned against doing so. The first models had a 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine that did not inspire performance. Then, they added a turbocharger to that engine, which was not intercooled. I read about reliability issues with the turbo and its ability to blow up after 60,000 miles. Then, GM leveraged their relationship with Lotus to retune the suspension on the Impulse. That caught my attention. Sadly, I never got around to driving one.

At Chevrolet, they were planning a round of new small cars for 1985 to replace the Chevette. They leveraged three Japanese partners to do so. Two of these vehicles were captive imports, the third was part of a joint venture with Toyota to produce such a vehicle at the Fremont, California plant (now Tesla’s main facility). One of the two was the next generation Isuzu Gemini called the Spectrum This was the first front-drive Isuzu sold in the USA. The new I-Mark would arrive months later to Isuzu dealers.

The other captive import came from another Japanese automaker that GM had a stake in: Suzuki. The small car specialist brought in the first three-cylinder car in the USA lineup, as well as the smallest Chevrolet (and Pontiac, in Canada) ever sold. The car was called the Cutlus in Japan. Chevrolet called it the Sprint (Firefly for Pontiac in Canada).

The Modest 100

This was not the only Suzuki automobile to arrive in California. That distinction went to the SJ413 SUV, which American Suzuki called the Samurai. It arrived a year after the Sprint settled into West Coast Chevrolet dealers. What the Samurai did was to stir the recreational vehicle enthusiast crowd up for this smaller, more affordable alternative to the CJ-7. The engine was a small 1.3-liter four-cylinder that only managed 63 horsepower. Yet, its off-road capabilities were touted as equal to the Jeep.

That was until Consumer Reports got their hands on one. They found that the small Samurai was prone to roll over on several maneuvers. American Suzuki tried to fight back, but they found another way to make lemonade out of lemons. They eventually replaced the Samurai with the larger Vitara, known as the Sidekick here, and added their version of the Sprint into Suzuki showrooms called the Swift.

Both the Swift and Sprint had turbocharged models in their lineup. If enthusiasts were looking for a true pocket rocket, the Swift/Sprint Turbo filled the bill. Some said that this car was more fun than a Golf GTI or any of the hot hatches available in this country. That said a lot for Suzuki's small car heritage.

Another Detroit automaker making good use of the captive import marketplace was Chrysler. For years, Chrysler would bring in models from their British and French partners into Chrysler-Plymouth showrooms. For 1971, Dodge would receive its first imported car called the Colt. In actuality, the Colt was made by Mitsubishi as the Galant. The Colt's success was tremendous, which promoted Chrysler to ask Mitsubishi for more captive imports. Eventually, the Colt lineup would encompass specific models from the Galant and Lancer lineups in the 1970s and became a mainstay at Dodge dealerships for years to come.

Plymouth would get the next Mitsubishi captive import. The Celeste coupe became the Arrow for USA consumption. The coupe was positioned against the Toyota Celica and Nissan 200SX, but was only available in a fastback coupe with a huge hatchback opening in the rear. The Celeste was based on the Lancer, which provided a chunk of the Dodge Colt lineup. By 1978, both Dodge and Plymouth received their versions of the Galant Lambda coupe in the form of the Challenger and Sapporo respectively. A year later, Mitsubishi would send over their pickup truck as the Dodge D-50, making the lineup complete in the USA.

However, Mitsubishi eyed the USA market to sell their own wares under their own name. By 1982, Mitsubishi started their own dealer network on the West Coast with a three-car lineup: the Tredia sedan, the Cordia coupe, and the Starion. The Tredia was developed to fit between the Lancer and the Galant in the global lineup.  It was also the only four-door model sold in the initial USA lineup, positioned to go after the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and the then-new Nissan Sentra.

The Cordia replaced the Celeste and Arrow. Chrysler never received the Cordia, which went directly to Mitsubishi's new dealership network. Probably a good thing, since the Cordia was actually a fun alternative in the small sports coupe category. I drove the Cordia in 1983 and found it to be a lot of fun. Some feedback said that the Cordia just needed a bit more finishing to be a wonderful-to-own coupe.

MN C&C September 2018

The main attraction to the first Mitsubishi dealers was the turbocharged, two-seat Starion.

Since you can only get the Mitsubishi Starion on the West Coast, Chrysler-Plymouth dealers brought this coupe to their showrooms under the name Conquest.

Mitsubishi’s initial lineup would grow to include the Mighty Max pickup (the same as the Dodge D-50 and its Plymouth counterpart) and the Montero SUV (sold as the Dodge Raider). The latter offering would end up bring the light that would show Mitsubishi’s future as a SUV specialist. It also called Isuzu’s bluff by offering a tougher, more capable SUV that the Trooper.

By the end of the 1980s, Mitsubishi expended into a nationwide network with a full lineup of cars, a pickup truck, a minivan, a tall wagon, and a couple of SUVs. Not to mention selling their own captive import – from Hyundai.

After a roller coaster in the 2000s, thanks to the 0-for-0-for-0-etc. financing campaign that almost sunk the USA operations and the global company, Mitsubishi is regaining strength with a more concentrated lineup. It also helped to have Nissan’s backing to secure its future. But, to remember an independent Mitsubishi that yielded a well-rounded lineup, along with captive imports for Chrysler, is one way to consider its overall success since the first Colt was sold at a Dodge dealer in late 1970.

Mazda has also weathered its ups and downs with today’s aspirations towards the premium market. The success of the RX-7 and MX-5 Miata laid down the foundation of Mazda’s "Zoom-Zoom" campaign promoting its sporty side. No one ever considered thought that Mazda had any inkling towards a move upmarket. That move is now reality.

I guess we were spoiled in my birth state with these four brands making their initial mark on the automotive industry. I was glad to have witnessed their birth and subsequent expansion nationwide. It is too bad we no longer have Isuzu and Suzuki around. Instead, Mitsubishi and Mazda continue to provide content opportunities (along with Hyundai and Kia) for you to read and enjoy.

All Photos by Randy Stern

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