There was a time when the Isuzu Impulse was the height of fashion. When Giorgetto Giugiaro unveiled his Ace of Clubs show car in 1979, its futuristic styling drew rave reviews. When it debuted virtually unchanged as a road car in the early 1980s (named Piazza elsewhere in the world), it was a revelation.
In an angular automotive world, the Impulse had dramatic, swoopy styling, with the gentle curves, long, low hood, and smooth hatchback that would come to define sports coupes in the 1980s. On streets populated with Impalas, Fairmonts, and Gran Furys, the Impulse looked like a rocket ship.
Nearly 30 years down the line, it may be difficult to understand the fuss. Decades of me-too competitors have diluted the impact, and Impulses are now old enough that many of them are rusty and dented. It might be difficult to see that Isuzu with the faded and peeling paint as a revolutionary design.
To me, at least, it's a tragedy to see an Impulse's delicate lines sullied by ruined by fading paint, rust, or accident damage. The Impulse wasn't made in huge numbers compared to its competitors, but neither was it ever truly rare. That lack of rarity, combined with its low-prestige nameplate, means that most Impulses have been mistreated like any other disposable 1980s car.
Under the skin, the Impulse was nothing particularly special, although a turbo made an appearance later in the production cycle. Interestingly enough, and unlike some of its competition, the Impulse was a rear-wheel-drive car.
In its later years, the Impulse would capitalize on Isuzu's relationship with GM to leverage some suspension and chassis tuning from then- GM-affiliate Lotus--this helped make the Impulse an athlete as well as a beauty.
The Impulse is virtually unremembered today, and I think that's a shame. The Impulse was never a great car, but it was a good one, and it broke genuinely new stylistic ground. At the very least, it doesn't deserve its place in the dustbin of history.
Speaking of the dustbin of history, I'm also saddened by the recent news that Isuzu will be leaving the U.S. passenger car and light truck market completely in early 2009. The company recently had only offered rebadged GM trucks, and even in its heyday of the 1980s was never really more than a niche player, but it's always sad to lose another automaker from this market.
Along with the Impulse, Isuzu's other great contribution to American culture was the frequently hilarious string of Joe Isuzu commercials, which were early adopters of humor and self-parody in advertising. Below is the Joe Isuzu Impulse ad, followed by Joe Isuzu's comeback in the 1990s. As advertising goes, it's comedy gold--and, unlike many of the commercials I share in this space, the humor is intentional. I love when he drives right through the cones.
The burgundy '86 Impulse belongs to Bill Luton, and the red '89 Impulse Turbo (with the Lotus suspension tweaks!) belongs to Victor Dumeg. Somehow the the Starfleet Academy sticker on the back of Dumeg's Impulse fits nicely. I found both cars at IsuzuPerformance.com, the existence of which makes it look as if there are still a few Impulse loyalists carrying the torch.