Isuzu Bellett: The club car that helped ’Bondy’ become a superstar
Race and rally great Colin Bond was one of many young drivers learning their craft in the thriving Australian sporting car club scene in the 1960s, so the release of Isuzu’s Bellett 1500 sedan in 1964 and hotter two-door GT version in 1966 could not have been better timed.
‘Bondy’ raced and rallied Isuzu Belletts with car owner Arthur Treloar prolifically during this period, which served as an ideal launching pad for a race and rally career that really took off as soon as Bond’s prodigious talent became evident.
These Bellett outings included some big step-ups from club competition too, with a 12 Hour international sports car race in Queensland and two starts and two finishes in the annual Bathurst 500 mile (800 km) endurance classic.
Those two races at Mount Panorama allowed Bond to learn the difficult track, which laid the foundation for his first and only outright Bathurst win when he returned in 1969 at the wheel of a brutish HDT Monaro GTS 350.
The list of other well-known drivers who had an association with Belletts in those days included rally ace Barry Ferguson, 1964 Bathurst 500 winner George Reynolds and touring car racing icon Peter ‘Racecam’ Williamson to name a few.
And thanks to their efforts and those of numerous ‘clubbies’ in racing and rallying, the little known Japanese cars quickly built a reputation as fast, rugged and affordable all-rounders ideally suited to numerous motor sport activities.
The Land of the Rising Sun rises again
The Isuzu Bellett was among the first of a wave of Japanese cars that hit the Australian market in the 1960s and started appearing at the annual Bathurst 500 to prove their credentials in front of a sceptical Australian public.
This post-war oriental influx started with Toyota and Isuzu in the 1965 race followed in later years by Datsun, Prince, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Honda and Subaru.
The first Bellett model sold in Australia from September 1964 was the 1500 sedan. Powered by a 71 bhp (53 kW) pushrod inline four (early evaluation cars had 66bhp low-comp versions) the 1.5 litre engine was mated to an outdated four-speed gearbox with non-synchro first.
With a kerb weight of 914 kgs, the stylish four-door sedan showed sporty breeding in its rack and pinion steering and rear suspension, which was quite sophisticated for the time. In fact, the Bellett’s fully independent rear end was a first for a Japanese car of its size and mechanical layout.
The front end featured unequal length wishbones with coil springs and anti-roll bar. The rear consisted of a solid-mounted differential with swing axles located by coil-sprung semi-trailing arms.
However, to help control body roll and the undesirable handling traits caused by rear wheel camber change during cornering, a leaf spring was mounted transversely below the diff which connected to the semi-trailing arms at each end.
Although an inherently tail-happy car, the Isuzu engineers managed to tame most of the handling flaws of the swing axle design and the Bellett’s overall chassis balance was widely praised. For Colin Bond and Arthur Treloar, it was the right car at the right time.
“I first met Arthur when I was competing in the 1964 Ampol Round Australia Trial with George Shepheard,” Bond told Shannons Club.
“There were a number of us running Beetles in that event so it was sort of like a big Formula Vee race with all these VWs climbing over the top of each other. The competition was pretty close so you soon got to know who you were running against.
“Arthur and I were both based in Sydney, so when he bought one of the new Isuzu Belletts (1500 sedan) to do some club events, we decided to team up and took turns at driving and navigating.”
Bond’s raw talent behind the wheel would soon see him progress to a more serious involvement with rival Japanese brand Mitsubishi rallying a Colt Fastback in the late 1960s, which would famously catch the eye of Harry Firth and lead to his drive with the Holden Dealer Team.
At the time, Griffon Motors (a division of LNC Industries Ltd) was the NSW/ACT distributor for the then little known Mitsubishi and Isuzu brands from Japan.
Treloar’s commercial ties with Griffon Motors strengthened during his time campaigning Belletts with Bond in local motor sport. In later events, like the 1966 Rothmans 12 Hour race at Surfers Paradise, Griffon Motors was listed as the official entrant for their car.
Bond has vivid memories of the Bellett 1500 sedan he shared with Treloar, as it played an important role in a sparkling career that includes national touring car championship and rally championship titles.
“Overall the Bellett 1500 was not a bad rally car,” Bond said. “It handled well and had plenty of suspension travel with the independent rear end and all.
“I don’t think it was particularly well built, though (in terms of body flexing). Sometimes you’d go over a jump and the bonnet would spring open, but because it was hinged from the front, the rear edge of the bonnet would keep going up and up. So you’d have to keep raising yourself higher and higher in the seat so you could see over it, until the next big bump would shut it again!
“Sometimes the front passenger door would also get jammed and wouldn’t open when the navigator needed to get out and open a gate.
“Mind you, we often had three people on board in those days because this woman (Colin still can’t recall if she was Arthur’s wife or girlfriend) liked to ride in the back seat, so you’d be rallying along at a hundred miles an hour and she’d be just sitting back there quietly knitting!” True story.
1965 Armstrong 500
Bathurst rookies Treloar and Bond were the first drivers to compete in an Isuzu Bellett at the annual Bathurst 500 race for showroom standard series production cars.
The 1965 event was the last to use class structures based on a car’s retail price measured in pounds, shillings and pence. In 1966 it would switch to Australia’s newly introduced decimal currency based on dollars and cents.
So with four price-based classes for 1965, Treloar and Bond in their lone Isuzu found themselves in Class B for cars with a retail price between £921 and £1020.
This was a melting pot of marques from around the world including the Ford Cortina 240, Morris Cooper, Renault R8 and Toyota Corona - stiff competition for the 1.5 litre Bellett.
“It was quite a nimble car and we got it to handle quite well but it didn’t have a lot of power for circuit racing and at Bathurst you could really feel that, particularly going up the hill,” Bond recalled.
“And with those four-wheel drums, each time you put your foot on the brake you weren’t quite sure which direction the car was going to go in. Sometimes it pulled to the right, sometimes to the left and sometimes it went straight ahead!”
Bond and Treloar had their fair share of problems but battled on to finish sixth in class, nine laps behind the winning Cortina 240 shared by Max Volkers and Glyn Scott.
Bond admits their Bathurst Bellett was tired by then, having done a full season of club competition prior to the big race. Which would probably explain the incident that caused a lengthy pit stop and gave the young mechanic a surprise lesson in Isuzu engineering.
“We broke a front wheel hub in that race,” Bond recalled. “I was coming down Conrod Straight, turned into Pit Straight and the right front wheel just fell off and rolled away.
“In those days you still had to use the standard tools on board to change the wheel, so I got the jack and wheel brace out of the boot and walked around to the front of the car, only to discover that there were no wheel studs!
“The hub had broken but the brake drum (with the wheel attached) had gone with it because the hub and drum were cast as one component. So we borrowed another front hub from a bloke in the pits, bolted it on and managed to finish our first Bathurst.”
And that took a total of seven hours, 18 minutes and 22 secs. The outright win went to Barry Seton and Midge Bosworth in one of Harry Firth’s legendary Ford Cortina GT 500s.
1966 Gallaher 500
A year later Bond and Treloar returned for another crack at Mount Panorama. The Isuzu sedan’s growing credibility was reflected in its increased numbers at Bathurst, with three privately entered 1500 sedans on the grid for the 1966 race.
Bond and Treloar were joined by Bruce Dark and Don James in another Bellett, along with 1964 Bathurst 500 winner George Reynolds and rising rally talent Barry Ferguson sharing the latest 1500 sedan released in June that year.
This face-lifted version featured a distinctive mesh grille with large central slot, a new full-synchro gearbox with a faster shift action and revised rear suspension settings for improved handling. This car and driver combination was rightly expected to be the fastest of the three Bellett entries.
The Isuzu sedans were entered in Class B again, which this year catered for retail prices between $1801 - $2040 under the new currency. Class B starters were double that of the previous year’s race, reflecting growing interest in the annual Bathurst clash and the positive effect that a class win could have on showroom sales.
In addition to the trio of Belletts, the other 11 cars in Class B included more examples of the mercurial Morris (Mini) Cooper, plus Toyota Corona, Renault R8, Hillman Minx, Prince 1500 and Ford Cortina 1500.
Like the previous year, Bond and Treloar had been busy racing and rallying their Bellett during the season so by the time Bathurst rolled around on the first weekend in October, they had the perfect excuse for the noticeable difference in their car’s stance compared to the other Belletts.
“Ours had the lowest ride height of the three because to make it handle better we doctored the springs a bit to get more negative camber on the rear wheels,” Bond revealed.
“So when Fergy (Barry Ferguson) came up and looked over our car in scrutineering he said ‘gee, your car’s quite low’ and we said ‘oh yeah, but that’s just because it’s been rallying all year and the springs have sagged a bit!’ In those days, you could get away with that sort of thing.”
History records that the Morris (Mini) Cooper S dominated Class C and the outright battle for Bathurst honours in 1966, filling the first nine places.
Its less powerful and lower-priced 1100c Cooper stable-mate was also untouchable in Class B, claiming the top three finishing spots despite claims that the rival Belletts were clocking superior top speeds down Conrod Straight.
All three Isuzu sedans finished the race, with the best placed Reynolds/Ferguson car claiming fifth in class, ahead of Bond/Treloar in eighth and Dark/James in 12th position.
Although it showed admirable speed and reliability, the Bellett 1500 clearly did not have the crucial power-to-weight ratio required to be a genuine contender under Bathurst’s price-based class structure. 1966 was the second and final time the Isuzu Bellett competed in the Bathurst 500.
1966 Rothmans 12 Hour International Sports Car Race
In April 1966 the Bellett 1500 was joined by the handsome Bellett GT with its swoopy two-door centre pillar hardtop body. The handsome and purposeful look of the new model was matched by numerous performance upgrades that justified its ‘Grand Tourer’ nameplate.
The GT’s larger capacity 1.6 litre specification featured an aluminium cylinder head with twin Hitachi side-draught carburettors, plus a hotter camshaft, higher compression and new exhaust system. This boosted power output to 91 bhp (68 kW) resulting in genuine 100 mph-plus (160 km/h) performance.
This grunt increase was matched with the long awaited arrival of front disc brakes and stiffer suspension settings that made further gains in reducing body roll and rear wheel camber change.
The only negative for the new GT was a 25 kg increase in kerb weight over the sedan.
Not surprisingly, Treloar and Bond raced and rallied the new GT in addition to the 1500 throughout 1966 which included a start in the prestigious Rothmans 12 Hour International Sports Car Race held at Surfers Paradise Raceway in August that year.
With classes catering for Sports Racing Cars, Improved Production Cars and Series Production Cars, the 12 Hour attracted a bumper field boasting exotics like Ferrari 250LM and 365 P2, Ford GT40, Porsche Spyder and Alfa Romeo GTZ-2 driven by international and local drivers the calibre of Jackie Stewart, Paul Hawkins, Frank Matich and Kevin Bartlett.
The lone Isuzu Bellett GT to be shared by Treloar, Bond and Barry Ferguson was entered by Griffon Motors in the Under 2.0 litre Series Production class, where it faced strong competition from Lotus Elan, Morgan +4 SS, MGB, Austin-Healey Sprite and more.
Bond was chosen to start the race, which in those more carefree times required a traditional Le Mans start in which drivers had to run across the track to their cars, get in, buckle up, start the engine and drive away in a flurry of panic and excitement.
Bond in his little Bellett GT surprised many observers – including himself – by being the first to leave the start line and establish such a huge lead as he disappeared down the main straight that he wondered if he’d done something wrong!
“It was a bit like when you’re sitting at the traffic lights and you’re the only one that goes and you think ‘it did go green, didn’t it?’” Bond recalled with a laugh.
“Driving down the main straight at Surfers with no one behind me felt really strange, but it was just because the top guys in their Ferraris and GT40s had those fancy six-point harnesses to do up which took a fair amount of time.
“We had a much simpler harness so I just strapped in, started it up and away I went. They caught us up pretty quickly, though. I reckon we got lapped about every four laps from then on.”
Jackie Stewart and Andrew Buchanan completed a gruelling 493 laps to claim outright victory in their magnificent V12 Ferrari 250LM entered by Scuderia Veloce, finishing one lap clear of Frank Matich and Peter Sutcliffe in a Ford GT40.
At the other end of the field, the Bellett GT impressed many with its speed and faultless reliability.
It whistled around the fast and sweeping Queensland track for 12 hours to complete 402 laps and claim third place in the Under 2.0 litre Production Car class, which was won by a Lotus Elan.
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