1973 Isuzu Bellett: The Story So Far

I first saw the car years ago in the back yard of a little shop in Japan called Classic Car Nagoya. Unfortunately, at the time I had a ’72 C10 Skyline that was in dire need of work. Some time went by and the Bellett was still in their back yard begging for love and I had come to the realization that the Hakosuka Skyline needed more body work than I was capable of. So, after some negotiating with the man in charge, a deal was struck.

One sad Hakosuka for one less sad Isuzu and I was a happy man to have a restoration project I could tackle. The paint on the Isuzu was absolutely atrocious – chalky, matte, and cracked from stem to stern. So I knew it had to come off completely and get a repaint. Using some paint stripper and a 1,400 yen angle grinder I stripped the car down to metal to asses any metal work that might have been needed. Turned out, the usual spots had all rusted away and been very poorly repaired (coffee cans screwed over the rust). So, it was time to learn metal work!

This being a serious budget build, I actually ended up borrowing an ancient mig welder from Classic Car Nagoya along with a collection of scrap steel pieces. I then set about cutting out all the rusty nasty stuff, bending new pieces and welding them in. My 1,400 yen angle grinder was put to serious work grinding down ugly welds for a smooth finish. A layer of body filler was applied over the patches so I could get the body as smooth as I could!

Once all the body was completed and smoothed on out, it was time to lay down some primer. To do so though, I needed some essential tools. The primer/surfacer was purchased through Classic Car Nagoya (Notice a theme here? They were awesome!). I bought a 200V air compressor that was at least 30 years older than me and the paint gun was a hand me down from my father-in-law. He was a carpenter back in the day, so this air gun wasn’t particularly well suited to painting cars, but we made it work. Despite the budget equipment and painting in the garage, the paint went on smooth and clean and looked good!

After spending countless hours wetsanding and smoothing the primer, we were ready to spray color. This being the first time I’d ever painted a car in my life (and the first time painting anything aside from the random rattle can job), I had some serious learning to do. I sprayed down a beautiful blue, but the first two coats I did went on too dry and came out as rough as sandpaper. So, once it was all dry out came the sandpaper and it was wet sanded back until smooth again. In some places this meant nearly going all the way back to the primer surface. With limited paint left, I sprayed another two coats on top and surprisingly, it came out really well. The next few weeks were dedicated to wetsanding and polishing. The end result looked surprisingly good for a garage job!

With the body painted, it was time to build the engine. Upon disassembly, it was discovered that all the rings had been cracked and cylinder number three had some rust forming in it. So it definitely needed a bottom end rebuild. Sticking with the “I’m broke, this is a budget build” theme, I bought a cheap universal hone and bore gauge from the local Astro Products and got to work cleaning up cylinder three. Cylinder one, two and four cleaned up nicely and were right on the edge of the specifications for standard pistons and rings. Cylinder three ultimately cleaned up, but went just beyond spec. Still, it was close enough that I stuck with the factory pistons and a tossed in a new set of standard sized rings. The crank looked really smooth, so some fine sandpaper polished it up nicely and it went back in with a new set of standard sized main and rod bearings. The cylinder head just got a clean for the time being and went back on.

With the engine built, it was mated to the transmission and dropped in. This was the biggest turning point on the car as it was starting to come together. Assembly proceeded in earnest! The interior got treated to all new carpet, however since a carpet kit doesn’t really exist (and we were on a tight budget), we went down to the local carpet/rug store and bought a big roll of black carpet. My lovely wife then painstakingly measured, cut and sewed it all into shape! Additionally in the interior I tossed in a good used set of door panels I found along with a very cool Halda Speedpilot mechanical rally computer.

With the interior sorted, the wiring was buttoned up, the lights installed, new wheel bearings put in along with new brake pads, a new set of wheels and tires and she was almost there. Naturally, near the end of any build, the nickel and dime stuff really starts to kill you, but we soldiered through and got her all built and ready for a test drive! I popped a temporary number plate on it and took her out for her first time on the road in at least 20 years!

Unfortunately, the diff had a seized bearing that was making an absolute racket. I knew it would cost tons to get fixed properly while living in Japan, and with my wife and me planning a move back to Texas in the near future, the whole car got put on hold. Regrettably, this meant it sat outside in the elements for nearly two years while we figured out how to ship three cars, a host of car parts and all our stuff 10,000 km around the planet. To add a bit of insult to injury, during shipping, the left rear fender got slightly damaged.

Fret not though, it was home in Texas and I knew I could get her fully sorted here. The first thing I did was slide under to pull the diff. I dropped it off at the rebuilder (Fort Worth Gear and Axle for those curious – absolute legends). They gave me a list of bearings and seals that they couldn’t source and the hunt was on. While it was up on stands, I also sanded back the damage on the fender and prepped the hood and fender for a treatment of black paint – a la the GT-Type R models.

The paint went on decently smooth, but not quite as good as the original blue paint. During this time, I also stripped down the engine bay and coated it in a fresh coat of black paint as well. The reasoning behind this was when I initially sprayed paint, I sprayed it too dry. I only had enough paint to coat the exterior of the car again properly, so the engine bay was left as it was. It was finally time to fix that. However, the whole paint job itself is starting to show the result of being left outside for two years and it’ll be time for a new paint job sometime in the near future.

As for the diff, I spent about two months hunting down the right parts. I was fortunate enough to get back to Japan for a few weeks on business, so I was able to source some bearings from Isuzu directly, but in total, all the bearings and races came from about three different sources. In one of those brilliant “might as well” moments, while I was under there, I dropped the transmission once again and put in a brand new clutch as that’s something that I didn’t do while I was in Japan. The trans and diff went back in, along with new fluid. I also took this time to pull the carbs apart and give them a proper clean. With her back on the ground it was time for another test drive and then licensing!

Of course a project is never truly finished. Once I had accumulated enough funds, the cylinder head came off again and went out for a full rebuild. I also found an awesome Jeco rally clock on Yahoo Auctions, so that was purchased and installed. The entire exhaust was completely rusted out, so I got a local shop in Waco to build a new, true dual exhaust from the down pipe back. I have a set of Porter mufflers in the center and another set of Moss Motors mufflers in the back.

With the exhaust sounding good, I then focused on intake. I recently got in touch with an awesome company up in Canada called Custom Polycast, and they produce a very cool set of velocity stacks called Velo Staks. They’re one of the extremely few people that make stacks for SU carbs, so these were bought and installed. I documented this installation and test drive in some videos I’ll post up shortly!

And that brings it up to date! Thanks for reading and check back regularly for more updates!