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V4 Saab Or Diesel Isuzu: Which Oddball 2 Door Deserves A Second Chance?

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Good morning, fellow Autopians! It’s time to look at a couple more cheap old cars. I’m considering implementing a “Two-Door Tuesday” rule here on Shitbox Showdown. It’s the rule for today, anyway; we’ll see how long I can keep it going. Yes, I know yesterday’s cars were both two doors as well. Purely coincidence. And speaking of yesterday:

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Well, I’ll be damned. This one actually surprises me. I guess I underestimated your dislike for automatics, either transmissions or seatbelts or both, but the little Colt had its two doors blown off by the old flat-black Ford Courier.

Today’s cars are both parked in the “Where are they now?” lot, way in the back, behind a row of Dodge Miradas and broken-down Divco delivery vans. I’m willing to bet a lot of our older readers haven’t seen either of these in many years, and our younger readers may not even be aware they ever existed.

1970 Saab 96 – $1495

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.5 liter V4, 4 speed manual, FWD

Location: Amity, OR

Odometer reading: unknown

Runs/drives? Nope

It’s one of those things that non-car-people say that make car-people cringe: “My car has a V4.” In almost every instance, they mean an inline-4, and have gotten confused by V6 and V8 engines into thinking that “V” stands for cylinder count. But there is always the chance, however slight, that this person knows exactly what they’re talking about, and drives a 1970s Saab.

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This unusual powerplant found its way to Saab by way of Ford Germany, who developed the engine for the Taunus (not to be confused with the Taurus). Saab originally used their own three-cylinder two-stroke engine in the 96 (and sister model 95 station wagon), but abandoned it in the late ’60s in favor of the V4 Ford. The engine sits far forward in the engine bay, in front of the transaxle, which is a column-shifted 4 speed equipped with a “freewheel” device (a holdover from the two-stroke days).

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If a Saab 96 is the car you want, you will find your choices limited. It’s going to be hard to cross-shop this with similar cars like you would a Honda Accord or something. This one doesn’t look like a bad starting point; it’s all there, I think, more or less. It’s a bit rusty, but completeness counts for a lot with a project like this. You could search for years to find a missing trim piece or a working fuel gauge to replace your broken one. Best to start with as much of it as you can.

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I just gotta say, I love these headrests. It’s almost worth restoring the rest of the car just to be able to see these every day.

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1981 Isuzu I-Mark – $1000

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.8 liter diesel inline 4, 5 speed manual, RWD

Location: Renton, WA

Odometer reading: 172,000 miles

Runs/drives? Not at the moment

You can be forgiven for not remembering this car, but it has a far more famous cousin that you may have heard of: the Chevy Chevette. Isuzu’s version of GM’s global T-platform was called the Gemini in Japan, and originally came to the US as the “Buick Opel by Isuzu,” replacing the real Opel Kadett, also sold through Buick dealerships, in 1976. In 1981, when this example was made, it became the Isuzu I-Mark, a nameplate that would bounce along the bottom of sales charts for another decade. The car might have done better if they just called it the Gemini; it’s a much cooler-sounding name.

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It’s a sharp looking little car: nice crisp fastback coupe styling, a Hofmeister kink accentuated by that little vent grille behind the rear window, and a friendly face.  There’s a bit of rust here and there, and there may be more underneath; a good hard look at the floors and rocker panels is probably warranted. Inside, things are quite a bit better; the oxblood-red interior is in nice shape, but I do wonder what’s under the paper (?) taped to the dash. I dig the jaunty angle of the shifter, though – very Alfa-like.

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Not much mechanical information is given, other than “it doesn’t run.” But Isuzu diesels are stout units, known to go half a million miles or more, so if you can get it going again, it should stay operational for a good long while. You won’t be getting anywhere very fast; it’s only good for 51 horsepower, but that gives passers-by more time to gawk.

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Whichever one you choose, I guarantee you’ll have the only one on your block. Neither one is likely a candidate for a full-on restoration; they’re not really worth the hassle and expense. But as scruffy time-capsules to putter around in, either one could be a lot of fun. Which one is for you?


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93 Responses

  1. I really don’t understand the comments lamenting about the “low powered Isuzu diesel”, then they go and vote for the Saab, which on its best day would be left in the dust by the Isuzu oil burner.

    My vote is for the Isuzu, even if the Saab was in a similar condition, let alone its current sorry state that nobody will actually get it to running again from. At the same time you could probably get that diesel going with a screwdriver and a piece of wire, and then enjoy the 60mpg on your daily commute.

  2. I can’t see the poll. Although the vote has to be for the Saab, can I just say that I see a lot of appeal in that Isuzu? The cosmetics are a lot better, and it’s a rather handsome if a bit anonymous car. If I saw someone at Radwood rocking one I would most certainly have a chat with them.

    1. My only connection is finding one in my friend’s dad’s barn and being enamored with it. I knew nothing about it (I was well aware of 80s-90s Saabs) but I really wanted to know more. He said his dad loved it and wanted to restore it, then went to show me his Model A in another building lol. I wish I’d hung out there more, his dad was a true car guy and I craved that kinda stuff.

  3. My vote is for the Saab, because the engine layout is more interesting, and diesels of that era were problematic. I remember someone with a diesel Volkswagen who had to filter his fuel from the pump.

  4. Vote button doesn’t show up on my computer but I’m going with the Isuzu. Saab seems cool, but I would say that there is a near 100% chance that you’ll never find the parts to get it running.

  5. Everyone needs a good Saab Story. It even has good glass. The rest you can fabricate yourself. Everything on it you can reproduce with hand tools. Although I have a soft spot for diesel Izusus, there is no question here. Saab, hands down.

  6. I was forced to ride in one of those wretched, reeking Isuzu I-Mark diesels once in the ’80s. When I was in a Yugo not long after, it was OMG terrible yet so, SO much better than the Isuzu. Saab all the way–it’s an ambitious project but at the end you’ll have something cool.

  7. Gotta go with the Saab. It’s got enough of a cult following one could probably find what you need to get it going again. And once you do, it might even be worth something.

    The Isuzu, not so much on either account.

    1. I had a ’73 Saab 96. Most parts aren’t that hard to find; sheet metal and glass is the hardest probably. Between Ashcraft (are they still around?), Skandix, and the various forums/clubs, you can find just about everything you need. Sure, it ain’t as easy as a ’69 Camaro, but it ain’t that bad.

      1. Brake hardware has become difficult to find over the course of the last decade or so. Rebuild kits aren’t so bad but new master cylinders are now more or less not to be had anywhere on the planet and new front calipers aren’t easy to locate in stock even from the international specialty suppliers. For the earlier models, new parts for the front drum brakes are essentially mythical but this doesn’t affect the V4 cars.

  8. If I were to take on a non running V4 Saab I’d want a Sonett. Not that a non functional Isuzu diesel sounds much more appealing, but something about the looks of the car appeals to me, and I like that red interior.

  9. My vote is for the Saab. But if you really want an old V-Saab, you will be far better off financially to get one in better shape. A halfway decent version won’t cost a ton more; these things aren’t that pricey.

  10. I don’t see a poll for today’s showdown. I’ll go with the Saab. If you’re going to work on something super obscure and hard to find parts for, you at least want it to be unique and interesting looking. The I-mark is handsome enough, but kind of anonymous and not especially interesting.

  11. I came in here fully expecting to vote Saab but the Isuzu won me over and I went with that instead.

    It’s not only cheaper and in much better shape but has an old mechanical diesel that Isuzu made a ton of and has a reputation for being pretty bulletproof. It probably wouldn’t take too much to get it running again and parts should still be out there. Maybe not in this country but they likely still exist somewhere. Worst case scenario you end up swapping some other small 4 cylinder in there. I bet a BP from a Miata would make that car a blast to drive.

    Plus as much as I love those old Saabs, I think the Isuzu is a much better looking car.

    1. In Japan these were also available with Isuzu’s fuel injected, twin cam 1800 with 130 JIS ponies. My engine of choice would be the 2.5-liter QR25DE four from a Nissan Frontier. Maybe Sentra SE-R parts could be fitted to it?

  12. Going Isuzu, mainly because my dad had one of these for years, and I remember it being fairly reliable until the A/C went out on a summer road trip in FL. Sold it soon afterwards because a car without AC in the south is useless.

  13. Saab, of course, though I had an Isuzu P’UP with the same engine as this car in high school and it was pretty bulletproof, though it couldn’t get out of its own way. If it had 55hp, I would be amazed. Seemed more like 25hp, but it was well over the 100K mark by the time I got it.

    The V4 Saabs have a great parts supply and are easy to wrench on. If someone here actually buys this one and keeps it in the area, John Collins in Jefferson, OR is the man to call for help getting this thing running again. A guy near me, Ray Kopczynsk, who’s the current president of the vintage Saab club, drove his 2-cycle 96 from Albany, OR to Albany, NY for last years Saab convention. I can’t remember how many quarts of 2-cycle oil it took to get there, but he made it.

    1. Ray has an “i” at the end of his surname and is indeed an inspiration to us all.

      At the risk of stirring up controversy, I’ll state that I use one pint of a good-quality synthetic two-stroke oil for every six gallons of gasoline in my ’67 96. Back in the day it was common to use about twice that much but the contemporary oils weren’t as good.

  14. Well I am a bit confused. My first new car was a Chevy Spectrum which I always heard was the American cousin of the Isuzu Imark. Maybe it switched at some point and wasn’t mentioned here but with the nostalgic memory never ever again. It was not a diesel but soon after purchase it refused to take left hand turns without stalling. Many thousands of dollars later never fixed. Then the bent valves because of the design needing an eight hour engine removal. Maybe not with a diesel but I’d rather ride a child’s tricycle to work than own one of these.

    1. The I-Mark was RWD and based on GM’s T chassis until 1985, when Isuzu brought out the FWD Gemini, which was the Spectrum/I-Mark in the US (and also the basis for the 2nd gen Impulse/Geo Storm a few years later). A friend had an ’86 Spectrum that we called the NLB (Noisy Little Bastard) due to a leaky flex pipe. Crap car, but the good kind of crap. Game ’til the end, as Satch Carlson one said (ironically, in reference to a Saab).

  15. How did I not know the old I Mark was a rebranded Chevette (or visa versa)? Now I cannot unsee the Chevette in the I Mark. My first car was a ’76 Chevette. Didn’t look underneath the “fresh” paint job and first time it rained was soaked to my knees. It was a slow, horrible, little thing, but a blast to drive when you’re suddenly free. OK arm and calf workout, not even power brakes, I recall.

    Oh, and the passers by will be gawking at the 1980’s plume of smoke from that diesel.

    Still, I would go with the Isuzu, even tho the Saab will win this one.

  16. I went for the SAAB as a farmstand near me has one in his lot. Just sitting there waiting for a car guy like me to go “hey….” It moves around and is registered, pretty neat.

    For that alone, I would want to get it, fix it up, and park next to a twin.

  17. My dads first new car was the two stroke 95. This isn’t that, but the interior is close enough that it feels more soulful to me. The older car had a cooler steering wheel (you can’t beat an airplane when you’re four or five years old), but the seats are so close to what I slept on…

    The Isuzu is just a broken car compared to that.

  18. Saab, all the way. Years ago I worked with a lady who bought a Saab Sonnett. When she told me it had a V4 and I politely told her that she must be mistaken. Head slap. I wish I could apologize to her. Also, why are V4s virtually nonexistent in cars? I4? Fine. V6? Fine. V4? No way, you idiot! I’ve never understood.

    1. Cost. It has a ton of extra parts over an inline 4. On a DOHC engine it would have two more cams, an extra exhaust manifold, extra catalytic converter, longer timing belt/chain, two more cam gears etc…

      You’d have to have a really good reason to use one. That said I wish someone made a modern car version. All though an Aprilia RSV4 sportbike motor belts out about 200hp. that’ll do pig, that’ll do.

  19. I like the SAAB, remembers me of several vacations in Sweden, Denmark and Norway in the 70ties (I’m from Germany).

    But this V4 engine is not a German delopment. It was designed in the US for the Ford Cardinal-project. This whole project was later transferred to Ford Cologne where the car was build as the Taunus P4. I think it became the first front driven production Ford.

    1. And to add to my own comment, the I-Mark’s name didn’t help it but it would not have sold any better in America under any circumstances – these were the days of the VRA import quotas on Japanese cars, and as a new entrant under its’ own name Isuzu’s quota was table scraps.

      Especially after 1985-6 when the new FWD model came out, the vast majority of which were sold as the rebadged Chevrolet Spectrum. Isuzu resorted to opening pickup-truck-only dealerships because they couldn’t bring in enough cars for their nascent dealer network to sell.

  20. When I was a kid, I had a neighbour with a Saab 96 V4. I got really familiar with the engine as he would always be standing over the open hood trying to get it to run while I learned new curse words from him. And no, it wasn’t a vintage car, it was relatively new.

  21. Tough call. I like the Saab more, but I suspect the Isuzu is likelier to ever move under its own power again. Not that finding parts for either of these cars will be a breeze.

    Walk on the wild side and buy the Saab with something unexpected under the hood. Who doesn’t love surprises?

  22. I’m going with the Datsun. Better shape, red interior, and the weird placement for the shifter, it’s at an angle, not on the floor. I didn’t realize anyone had done that before the 2000s minivans and box vehicles that were starting to place the shifter up towards the dashboard.

  23. That freewheel mechanism is neat, and solves a problem that I’d never considered before (two-stroke engines seizing up when the car is coasting in gear and the fuel/oil mixture stops flowing). That Wikipedia article you linked says that Saab retained the freewheel after switching to the V4 for fuel economy reasons, but that doesn’t really make sense to me? It seems like when the freewheel kicks in the engine has to run at idle, whereas if you coast in gear without one, the engine will just be turned by the wheels and won’t get any fuel. Am I missing something or is Wikipedia just wrong?

    1. The carburetor will continue to supply fuel to the engine while it is driven by the wheels, so it is indeed more efficient to allow the engine to drop to idle speed instead of remaining engaged while coasting. The tradeoff, of course, is the complete absence of engine braking and corresponding greater potential for loss of control if the brakes fail while freewheeling.

      With a two-stroke, it isn’t that the petroil mixture entirely stops flowing under deceleration, it’s that there is insufficient flow to provide adequate lubrication while engaged in engine braking (when stresses are therefore high) with the throttle closed.

      1. To broaden the topic a bit, what about a more modern, fuel-injected engine? My understanding is that with contemporary engines, the ECU will indeed sense that the motor is being turned by the wheels and will shut off the injectors. No?

  24. This one’s tight! A tie at 20 votes apiece until I tip the scales to the Saab. I really don’t want either, but as a lifelong shitbox driver in California, gun to my head I’ll always pick the smog exempt one. Plus it does look more amusing than the Isnoozu.

  25. To me, this is as close to a tossup as a Shitbox Showdown has ever been, but I’m certain the SAAB will win in a landslide.

    I’d love to have a SAAB 96 but I’d rather pay a little more for one in better shape.

    The cheap Isuzu wouldn’t tempt me to fully restore it, but I’d still have tons of fun with it. I would convert it to run on waste fryer oil, or get an old water heater tank to set up my own biodiesel conversion rig in the garage.

    (I do a lot of deep frying in the summer months, and I know many restaurant and food truck owners. Some have contracts for their waste oil, some don’t do enough volume for that.)

  26. You keep posting cars I’ve seen and several I’ve already marked on my favorites list, including the 1993 Explorer and this Saab. I had looked at the Isuzu Chevette and didn’t mark it.

    I started to suggest two $500 Dodges I found up in Washington yesterday. Tough choice: 1984 Daytona Turbo Z 5 speed that’s been sitting and runs rough, or a 1987 Caravan that supposedly runs/drives great (I’m highly suspicious, unless it smells of death inside or something). Personally, I’d take a chance on the Daytona.

      1. I’m not a MOPAR guy, but man, if I still lived up there, I’d have been all over that Daytona. Probably the Caravan too, if for nothing but to clean up and flip.

        They’re both gone now, unsurprisingly.

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