Fans of small, light pickup trucks fell in love with the Chevrolet LUV in the 1970s.

The trickle of little trucks from Japan that began in the late 1950s had grown into a flood by the early 1970s.

The growing market of small truck buyers included young people who had discovered the benefits of Japanese-made cars in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and business operators who wanted a smaller, lower-priced alternative to the trucks being turned out by the Big Three automakers.

While U.S. automakers introduced subcompact cars in 1970 – the AMC Gremlin, Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto – they ignored the growing small pickup truck market. Once this oversight was recognized, the Big Three scrambled to get in on the game as quickly as possible.

Introducing the Chevrolet LUV Truck – Love at first sight for the LUV

Rather than starting from scratch to create an entirely new vehicle from the ground up, the quickest route for Chevrolet to enter the small-truck race was to import Isuzu-made trucks from Japan and rename them. Chevrolet’s parent, General Motors, was a part owner of Isuzu, with a 34 per cent share in 1972, when it began bringing the Isuzu truck called the Faster into the U.S.A. It was the first Isuzu-built vehicle sold in the U.S.

The new little Chevy truck got a new name – along with a new front grill, badging and tailgate – when it arrived in the U.S.A. It was called the LUV, an acronym for “light utility vehicle” long before SUV became the common short form of “sport utility vehicle.”

(The Ford Motor Company – a part owner of Mazda – took the same route, also in 1972, with its Courier pickup truck, which was a Japanese-made Mazda B1600 pickup with a different front grill and tailgate. In 1979, Dodge used a similar approach with the Japanese-based Mitsubishi, rebranding the Forte as the Dodge D50 and the Plymouth Arrow.)

The Chevrolet LUV, which went on sale in March 1972, sat on a 102.4 inch wheelbase, had a six-foot bed and a carrying capacity of 1480 pounds. It was powered by a 110.8 cubic inch (1.8-liter), 75 horsepower SOHC, four-cylinder engine and a four-speed manual transmission.

The new LUV was part of a four-way comparison in Car and Driver magazine in August 1972, against the Datsun PL 620, Ford Courier and Toyota Hi-Lux. Car and Driver said, “The Chevrolet LUV is the best of mini-pickups because it has the roomiest cab. Its performance is about par with that of the Courier, but it doesn’t handle or ride as well. It isn’t nearly as quick as the Toyota, nor as quiet as the Datsun, and its finish and interior appointments are definitely more truck than car-like. But you can actually lean back and relax in the LUV, and do a couple of hours behind the wheel without getting a backache.”

From March to December 1972, a total of 21,098 LUVs were sold. The next model year saw very slight changes, and calendar year sales in 1973 almost doubled to 39,422. For 1974, a more luxurious trim package called the Mikado – which included striped upholstery and a three-spoke steering wheel – was offered, although calendar year sales declined to 30,328.

Sales surge in the ’70s – Love for the LUV grows

A three-speed automatic and disc brakes were new options available for the 1976 LUV. EPA mileage ratings improved to 23/city and 33/highway, up from 19/city and 29/highway the previous year. Calendar year sales increased to 46,670.

For 1977, the LUV was also available as a cab and chassis form so that a camper could be added. Another change was an increase in power to 80 hp, and sales were up to 67,539

Big changes came for the 1978 model year. Up front there was a new grill and just two headlights instead of four. Inside, there was a new instrument panel. A new option was a longer version on a 117.9 inch wheelbase with a seven-and-a-half foot bed, while the 102.4 inch wheelbase and six-foot bed remained standard. Sales were up to 71,145.

The big news for 1979 was the $971 optional four-wheel-drive. This new 4WD LUV was named Motor Trend’s “Truck of the Year” and the magazine praised it for being “a very well-engineered vehicle, solidly constructed, easy and fun to drive, and economical on fuel for a truck of this class.” Sales peaked at 100,192.

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