This story starts with a good buddy of mine, Flavien at Amagasaki Motors. We met at a random Cars and Coffee in Nagoya when I had the Honda Beat there, and realizing we’re both like-minded idiots for cars, we became good friends. He works at a shop called Amagasaki Motors out in Osaka exporting cars to the US. He’s always bringing weird and cool stuff to send overseas. So, one day he sends me a picture of this:
He’s never really tried to sell me a car before because he knows I have too many as it is, but he also knows I have a soft spot for Isuzus. This one in particular is a 1992 Isuzu Gemini Irmscher R. In the US we got this bodystyle as the Isuzu Stylus, and normally I wouldn’t entertain importing a car that we got here. However, this being the Irmscher R model means it came equipped with the 180 HP, turbocharged 4XE1-W engine mated up to a 43% front 57% rear AWD drivetrain. Now we’re talking!
Now, that’s a pretty rare car and a pretty rare drivetrain. We actually got the drivetrain in the US in the 2nd generation Isuzu Impulse RS, but they only imported a very small number of those. It means that I can still find some parts though. However, while Americans tend to view Isuzus as cheap and sometimes disposable, Japanese view Isuzus in a different light – and as they should, their history with Isuzu was much more storied and filled with beautiful classics like the 117 Coupe and the Bellett. This means that while a Stylus may be cheap here, the Geminis tend to pull a pretty penny there.
Knowing that I shouldn’t be able to afford it, I asked him why he sent it to me. He told me the price and I then immediately asked what was wrong with it. He wasn’t 100% sure, but he thought it might be a headgasket. Essentially, it would be fine, but if you leaned on it a bit or took it for a long drive, it would start to puke up coolant and get a little warm. Either way, it meant the head had to come off at a minimum and well, just look at the engine bay.
Yeah, with the amount of labor involved to get the head off, they couldn’t really make money on the vehicle. Knowing I was an aficionado of Isuzus, he asked if I was interested. Indeed I was, but I wanted to see it in person. Fortunately, I was flying out to Japan a few months later for business and it would give me the perfect opportunity to check it out.
Once I saw it in person, I was sold – I needed it. However, I was at my spouse-imposed limit of nine cars in the stable. One of them had to go. I had a 1979 Mazda RX-7 at the time and it’s the one that left. I still miss that car on the occasion, but I sold it to an awesome kid nearby, so I still get to play with it on the occasion!
With the RX-7 sold, I started the long, arduous journey of getting it back to here. If you’re curious what’s involved, watch my Honda Beat videos. Although, keep in mind I made those before I had Flavien ship a car to me, he’s helped simplify the process quite a bit. A few months of fiddling about later and she landed in Galveston!
Once home, I drove it up and down the driveway a few times, then immediately pulled her in and started work. It took me three days of disconnecting and removing bits and pieces just to get the head off. The biggest problem was that I couldn’t get to either the turbocharger bolts or the intake manifold bolts to remove them. So, I just left them attached, slid the hoist over and pulled the cylinder head out with the turbo and intake manifold still attached.
The head looked surprisingly good for something that had been having troubles with getting hot. The block on the other hand needed some love. The coolant channels around cylinders three and four were completely clogged up and nasty. No wonder it would get hot, coolant was only smoothly flowing through half the engine. I probably could have cleaned it out and flushed the entire cooling system and been alright, but I’d come this far and figured I might as well do it right. So, another day worth of work and I had the bottom end out
With the engine fully out, I dropped it off at the rebuilders to have the block hot-tanked, decked, honed and new main /connecting rod bearings and rings put in. Additionally, the entire head got dismantled, decked, and fully rebuilt. Nothing but new parts went in except for the main bearings. The ones we pulled out looked like they barely had any miles on them (which makes sense, the whole car is pretty low mileage) and despite a few weeks of searching in America, Japan and England (for the Lotus Elan M100), we kept couldn’t find anyone that had new ones in stock.
While the engine was at the machine shop, I dismantled the front end to get at a bit of rust that I knew was going to need work from when I saw it in person. Japanese batteries tended to leak and the battery acid just ate away paint and metal, causing the underside of battery trays to rust out. Aside from bodged wiring by previous owners, rusted battery trays is the single most common thing I’ve found on old Japanese cars. So, I cut out the old rust, welded in some new steel and coated it. The tray itself unbolted, but it was past it. So, I bent up some new metal and built a new from scratch.
With the engine back and the rust fixed, it was time to start reassembling things. Now, here’s the right way to remove and install the transmission: Remove the axles, remove the transfer case, then remove the transmission; reverse for installation. However, my axles were so stubbornly attached that I actually disassembled the CV-joints on the car to be able to remove the engine and transmission as a unit. On the ground, I still couldn’t get the axles out. So, I removed the transmission the hard way – with the transfer still attached. Technically, not supposed to be doable, but big screwdrivers, a lot of kicking and a whole lot of swearing got it done. After installing the new clutch disc, pressure plated and resurfaced flywheel, it was time to put the transmission with transfer back on.
Done and done! Minus the fact that it took two of us and it beat the crap out of us for about an hour and a half, but we got it done.
And that brings us up to date! I’ve still got a lot of work to do from here, but here’s a rare picture of when all four of my Isuzus were running at the same time.