By Tony Whitney
The news at the recent New York Auto Show that Suzuki was launching not one, but two new models for 2007 prompted me to take a look at the history of a company which might be one of the auto industry’s most significant “unsung heroes.”
Suzuki is far from a major player in the vehicle market (although it’s in the top four with motorcycles), but it is nonetheless a very important member of the industry with an interesting background and ambitions beyond its size.
In New York, Suzuki announced a new XL7 mid-size SUV that will be built in Canada, together with an intriguing new SX4 crossover hatchback – not bad for a small company that hasn’t been selling four-wheel vehicles that long in North America.
Accounts of Suzuki’s history vary according to where you do your research (Suzuki’s own websites are scant on historical details), but it seems that like Toyota, Suzuki began its corporate life by building weaving looms. The loom company was founded by Michio Suzuki way back in 1909 and building vehicles of any kind was still a long way off.
Like so many of his contemporaries in Japanese industry, Suzuki eventually figured that if his emergent company was to grow, it should diversify into other products. Work on a small car began in 1937 and within two years, several prototypes had been built.
Not surprisingly, WW2 put a hold on the whole idea of developing an automotive division since the authorities deemed that passenger cars were “non-essential luxuries.” Companies like Suzuki were told to turn their attention to the war effort, just as manufacturers were in other countries involved in the conflict.
When the war came to a close, Suzuki went back to its roots in the loom industry and the business prospered. When the cotton market took a downturn in the early 1950s, Suzuki started looking at the transportation sector again and this time, gained inspiration from the huge demand for inexpensive motorcycles that followed the end of the war.
1952 Suzuki Power Free. Photo: NACC archive. Click image to enlarge
The first motorcycle was little more than a motorized bicycle, rather like some of the products that boomed in the UK market around that period – does anybody remember the BSA Winged Wheel?
Simple it may have been, but the 1952 Suzuki Power Free bike sold well with its 36-cc two-stroke engine and it included several features novel for its day. This little two-wheeler got Suzuki Motor Corporation started and it wasn’t long before the motorcycle range expanded and the company was even posting race victories with some of its machines. By 1964, Suzuki was reportedly manufacturing some 6,000 motorcycles a month.
Suzuki motorcycles were first sold by Suzuki Canada Ltd. in 1973. In 1979, the LJ80 was first imported into Canada. This was the forerunner of the popular four-wheel drive Samurai. Suzuki claims to be the first automaker to have offered a compact SUV in North America and from the start, the little four-wheelers were respected, capable machines. They may not have had too many frills, but they got the job done, on road and off.
I remember testing one of the first Suzuki SUVs on some rugged logging roads in my home province of British Columbia back when the company was first diversifying from the motorcycle segment. It was fairly crude by today’s Suzuki SUV standards, but it was well built, rugged and durable – a forecast of interesting products to come. Every now and again, I see one of these original Suzuki compact SUVs, often lovingly restored by someone who may not even have been born when the vehicle rolled off the production line.
1987 Suzuki Samurai. Photo: 4wheeldrive.about.com. Click image to enlarge
Suzuki was very much an unwitting pioneer, because the compact SUV segment is now the largest in Canada with over 40 per cent of the SUV market. And needless to say, it’s still growing steadily as gas prices rise.
Over the years, Suzuki expanded its model range to include various sedans and hatchbacks as well as a broader SUV lineup. With General Motors of Canada, Suzuki operates the “joint venture” CAMI manufacturing plant in Ingersol, Ontario, where in addition to the new XL7, Chevrolet’s Equinox is built.
In addition to vehicles and motorcycles, Suzuki manufactures and markets all-terrain vehicles and outboard boat motors.
Like many of its rival Japanese automaker rivals, Suzuki began operations in an area of manufacturing completely divorced from the vehicle sector. As mentioned earlier, Toyota got started by building textile machinery and Subaru was formed from the post-WW2 remnants of the Japanese aviation industry. Nissan, on the other hand, had its roots in the auto industry as far back as 1914 and Mitsubishi built a small car in 1917. Honda, like Suzuki, first gained fame as a manufacturer of motorcycles and is a relative newcomer to the automobile industry.
As with their North American and European counterparts, many Japanese automakers have lengthy and fascinating histories and even a comparatively minor player like Suzuki can claim an impressive and storied heritage.