Isuzu Bellett MX1600

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Have I been over this yet? That I really, really love small displacement sports cars? 

There's something about having to work a little harder to go quickly that lends such vehicles different proportions: smaller length and width; skinnier tires; smaller front and rear overhangs; less space needed for a big engine; and, generally, aerodynamics that are quite tidy.

Sure, it's fun to thump around in a muscle car or supercar, but there's something quite amusing about flying under the radar while having fun.

The new Alfa Romeo 4C looks like it'd be fun; early Porsche Boxter models fit this template, as did cars like my 2.0-litre Porsche 914. 

At the dream fuel end of the spectrum, cars like the Porsche 904, ATS 2500 GTS and DeTomaso Vallelunga fit these parameters nicely.

Yesterday's Ford Maya was, in my mind, a little bit too chunky. A little too Probe-like. Similarly to the Maya, however, is that the MX1600 was shown a few times and turned into a prototype for further evaluation.

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See, racing and sports cars were becoming a huge focus of Japanese manufacturers. There were fierce on-track battles between not only production-derived cars like the "Hakosuka" Nissan Skyline GT-R and Mazda RX-2 and -3, but also mid-engined sports prototypes like the Toyota 7 and Nissan R381.

Isuzu had contenders in both camps: the Bellett GT Type-R (yes, really), a small sports coupe with the twin cam 1.6-litre 4-cylinder engine from the 117 Coupé. For mid-engined sports prototypes, they produced the relatively well-known R6 Coupe and R6 Spider—along with a few others models—that were powered by a number of different engines, from the Bellett GT Type-R's 4-cylinder to (apparently) a Chevrolet V8.

So why not make a road-going car that takes the Bellett's mechanicals and wraps them in a small sports car body? Now the MX1600 makes a little more sense, right?

Ghia's Tom Tjaarda penned the car, someone who you'd absolutely want designing your mid-engined sports car. Following stints at Ghia and Pininfarina, his resumé by 1969 would have included cars like the the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Type 34 (my favourite version of the car), Chevrolet Corvette Rondine concept car, Ferrari 365 GT 2+2, and Fiat 124 Spider.

He's best-known for the DeTomaso Pantera, and if you look at the MX1600's pointed nose, triangular shapes behind the driver's door, louvered engine cover, and pert tail, the resemblance is noteworthy.

It's like a Pantera light, I suppose.

First shown at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1969 in that fetching shade of orange, it featured not only slide-up (not pop-up) headlights and an active front wing. Its Bellett 1.6-litre engine was mounted behind the driver to a racing Hewland GT200 gearbox.

Top speed was estimated at more than 200 km/h (125 mph), a not-unreasonable figure considering its small size and likely light weight.

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In 1970, the car was updated and shown as the MX1600-II, this time in more "production-ready" trim—you can tell Isuzu wasn't concerned about headlights being too low to the ground!

Again, the car had the same engine and drivetrain, with the only big differences between it and the Tjaarda design being the front styling (complete with silly Nissan Juke-like marker lights above the headlights), pearl white paint, exposed vents behind the doors, and a revised tail.

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Obviously, the car never reached production—at the time, automakers were somewhat pressured to merge by the Japanese government, and Isuzu was trying to collaborate with a number of other automakers. From 1966 to 1971, they worked with Subaru, Mitsubishi, Nissan, and, finally, General Motors.

Maybe General Motors killed the MX1600. Probably not. But don't you wish you knew who to blame?

Sources / Recommended reading