A short history of the Suzuki four-wheel drive

a-short-history-of-the-suzuki-four-wheel-drive

The Suzuki four-wheel drive turns 50 this year. We take a look back at what makes this little battler so special

With the Suzuki Jimny one of the most in-demand new vehicles today, much of the car’s success is pinned on its unique style and fun nature.

Rather than compete directly with other large volume small and medium SUVs, Suzuki has kept true to the heritage of the Jimny and built a new take on their iconic small four-wheel drive.

And since landing in Australia in 1971, this year marks 50 years of the much-loved, pint-sized four-wheel drive first arrived Down Under.

More broadly, Suzuki traces back to 1909, and a chap by the name of Michio Suzuki. A carpenter by trade, Michio founded Suzuki Loom Works after building his mother an efficient pedal-driven loom.

A loom – a manually-operated machine used to weave cloth and textiles – was an integral part of the local economy, and Suzuki’s initial loom constructions were of high quality, and were faster to operate than other examples.

Suzuki Loom Works showed an innovative design bent as early as 1912, developing a unique loom design that allowed the operator to quickly and easily weave popular plaid patterns into fabric.

After 30 years of building looms for the Japanese silk industry, Suzuki looked to diversify the company’s wares and began looking at building an automobile.

A prototype car was built in 1937, but the project was short-lived. As Japan entered the second world war, Suzuki was forced away from its automotive project as the nation focussed on the war effort.

It wasn’t until 1945, the end of World War II, that Suzuki was able to return to building looms. This was at the behest of USA, which occupied Japan post-war and wanted to revitalise the country’s textile industry.

Fast-forward to 1952, and Suzuki builds its first engine. It was called Power Free, a 36cc single-cylinder two-stroke motor that was designed to fit onto a bicycle, and could power the bike either independently from, or in combination with, the pedals. Something of a hybrid, then?

This part of the business flourished, and paved the way for Suzuki’s long and prestigious part of the global motorcycle industry.

Suzuki also returned to its automobile development project, with the Suzulight debuting in September 1954.

The Suzulight measured in at 2990mm long, and had a 360cc two cylinder, two-stroke engine that pushed 12kW/31Nm to the front wheels. It was also a notable early adopter of double-wishbone suspension and rack-and-pinion steering.

The Suzulight was tested by driving some 300 kilometres between Hamamatsu and Tokyo, across the Hakone mountains, which was mostly unpaved.

The journey was a success, with production of the Suzulight quickly ramped up to 30 units per month.

The 1960s saw Suzuki attain big growth and success with their range of rapidly evolving automobiles and motorcycles, leaving its mark at the Isle of Man TT and expanding into markets like south-east Asia and America. Suzuki was well on its way to becoming a global automotive force.

And in April 1970, Suzuki expanded once again with a new style of vehicle. It continued the theme of being small and affordable, but this time was a four-wheel drive vehicle. And it set in motion a tradition for Suzuki that continues strongly today.

The first iteration, known as the LJ10, was in development for two years after Suzuki acquired Hope Motors in 1968. The Hopestar 360, which initially used a handful of Mitsubishi components, was the basis on which the first Suzuki four-wheel drive was developed.

The LJ10 debuted in 1970 with its distinctive horizontal grille slats, used Suzuki’s own 360cc two-stroke, two-cylinder air-cooled engine, which ran through a proper four-wheel drive system with a low-range transfer case.

LJ20 soon followed, with vertical grille slats and water cooling for the motor. However, it kept the same tiny dimensions: 2995mm long, 1295mm wide and weighing under 600 kilograms.

As the success of this tiny four-wheel drive grew – especially in markets like Australia – Suzuki upped the ante with the LJ50. It grew slightly at 3180mm – still 760mm shorter than a 2021 Toyota Yaris – and scored a new big-block 550cc three-cylinder two-stroke motor for the Australian market.

Pumping out 19.8kW at 6000rpm and 36.3Nm at 5000rpm, this new engine allowed the Suzuki to reach a new top speed of 80km/h. But importantly, it proved to be a useful and reliable four-wheel drive where it mattered: off-road.

While the Suzuki Jimny is known as a recreational four-wheel drive more than anything these days, it’s worth remembering Suzuki cut it’s teeth off-road as a hard-working tool for farmers and cockies, where its small footprint and lightweight ability was invaluable.

It was during these formative years that Suzuki found strong favour in Australia; a lightweight and capable four-wheel drive proved to be advantageous as it skipped through mud bogs and between obstacles that bigger four-wheel drives, such as Nissan Patrol and Toyota LandCruiser, couldn’t.

Suzuki started developing a giant-killing reputation, which still rings true today. It might look cute, but don’t let that fool you.

The tide of recreational four-wheel driving was growing around the world, and Suzuki’s offering was evolving to keep pace. In 1977 the LJ80 wagon gained a new four-stroke four-cylinder petrol engine, with 800cc of capacity and an overhead camshaft making 31kW at 5500rpm and 60Nm at 3500rpm. Despite the relatively small size, the F8A engine used a five-bearing crankshaft.

Once again, the Suzuki got a little larger, but was mostly unchanged aesthetically. Suzuki continued the theme of developing its four-wheel drives for local Kei regulations, alongside larger capacity variants for export.

Australia also got a special variant: the LJ81 long-wheelbase ute targeted at the likes of farmers and others on the land. With the same engine, the so-called Stockman had a decent-sized tray at the back for hauling stuff around.

In Australia, we knew the SJ410 as the Suzuki Sierra. But, it gained many other names around the world: Potohar, Samurai, Caribbean and Katana. It was also badge-engineered into the Holden Drover in Australia, Maruti Gypsy in India, and the Chevrolet Samurai in America.

Its 1.0-litre engine grew to 1.3 litres, and other changes like a five-speed transmission and disc front brakes were adopted. The wheel track was widened for more stability in 1988, and coils replaced the leaf springs in 1995.

It steadily grew in popularity over the years, riding the wave of a growing recreational four-wheel driving scene.

While Suzuki enjoyed great initial success in America, it was short-lived. In 1988, Consumer Reports magazine found the Suzuki to be prone to rollover on sharp or emergency turns, and an eight-year legal battle ensued.

Suzuki thought the testing procedure wasn’t valid, and took umbrage to the magazine wording ‘easily rolls over in turns’. Consumers Union, who owned the magazine, stuck by its testing procedure, but conceded the wording could be misconstrued. The warring parties eventually settled out of court, but Suzuki four-wheel drive sales declined until they were withdrawn fully in 1995.

In Australia, there were no such problems. The popularity of the Sierra grew steadily, and spawned a special long wheelbase variant. Popularity also came thanks to earlier exploits from the likes of Denis Bartell in the Simpson Desert, and more recently a 2007 Guiness World Record for driving to 6688m of altitude up Ojos Del Salado, on the Agentina/Chile border.

This world record was set by Chilean duo Gonzalo Bravo and Eduardo Canales in a modified Suzuki Sierra, beating a previous record of 6646m set by Matthias Jeschke in a Jeep Wrangler.

Jeschke did not let sleeping dogs lie however. In 2019, using a couple of Mercedes-Benz Unimogs, he was was able to reclaim the record at 6694m.

In Australia, renowned desert explorer and adventurist Denis Bartell completed the first motorised crossing of the Simpson Desert via the challenging un-mapped Madigan Line in 1979, behind the wheel of a Suzuki LJ80.

Bartell also set a record for crossing the Australian content solo: six days, 22 hours and seven minutes, also in an LJ80.

After 17 years, a new and modern-looking Jimny arrived in 1998. The long-serving 1.3-litre G13B made way for a new 1.3-litre engine, called M13A and making 60kW at 5500rpm and 110Nm at 4500rpm.

However, most importantly, the combination of a ladder chassis, live axles and proper four-wheel drive system remained, allowing the Jimny to go against the grain and keep its focus on authentic off-road ability.

This was in stark contrast to the growing global trend of SUVs, which offered the shape and style of a four-wheel drive without the off-road ability.

Adding a solid dose of retro-inspired design for the next generation Jimny in 2018 proved to be a masterstroke. An unashamed boxy shape, complemented by round headlights and minimum overhangs, was an instant hit around the world. And with a long waiting list hanging on for their chance to own their own Jimny, we can safely say it has been a sales success.

While other iconic four-wheel drives like the Land Rover Defender and Nissan Patrol have moved on from their utilitarian roots, the Jimny is a true legend that is sticking closely to its design roots.

Toyota’s LandCruiser and Jeep’s Wrangler are some of the most iconic examples of a four-wheel drive sticking close to its heritage. But even these vehicles can’t compete with the Suzuki, which has doggedly stuck to its unique, long-serving, design credentials.

This is a crucial element of the Jimny’s enduring popularity, and why it should be celebrated.

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