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Gerhard Horn: History of Suzuki’s 4x4s

25 July 2014

The name Suzuki is synonymous with small, affordable cars with a can-do attitude. The company has stuck faithfully to the vision of its founder, Michio Suzuki.

Michio Suzuki started his professional life in the silk industry, which wasn’t as glamorous or fun-filled as the backgrounds to manufacturers like Ferrari or Lamborghini. No, this is the story of foresight and ingenuity, two qualities that deserve to be celebrated just as much as glamour and humour.

Suzuki realised that if he wanted to be properly successful he’d have to diversify his portfolio. For some reason, he decided to get into the motor industry but his vehicles, unlike other cars of the time, would be compact and cheap.

His venture was halted almost immediately by the Second World War, but Suzuki started the Suzuki Motor Corporation shortly after the war.

The company dabbled mostly in motorcycles as they were the most affordable means of transport at the time, but in1955 it introduced the Suzulight, which had front-wheel drive and independent suspension for all four wheels. It seems Suzuki was at the forefront of technological breakthroughs back in the day.

Over the next 15 years the company continued to focus on the motorcycle side of the business, and it was not until 1970 that it revealed its first 4×4. Unlike other 4x4s of the day, it wasn’t a large, V8 powered monster. The LJ10 was tiny – so small, in fact, that it could seat only three people. The seat behind the driver had to be removed so there was somewhere to put the spare wheel.

This meant the car was extremely light, so it didn’t need a big engine. Suzuki designed an all-new twin-cylinder, air-cooled 360cc unit that developed 18kW.

The LJ10 turned out to be just the thing for an already congested Japan, but Suzuki knew it had to export its off-road offering if it wanted to be taken seriously.

Australia was one of its first foreign markets, and to succeed in the harsh Outback it needed a few upgrades.

The engine size was increased to 550cc, and the vehicle had to accommodate at least four people, so the spare wheel was moved to the tailgate. This specific model was named the LJ50 and was arguably the car that cemented Suzuki’s reputation as a builder of small, affordable, yet extremely capable off-road machines.

Two years later the LJ underwent its final facelift. This time Suzuki meant business, replacing the 550cc engine with an 800cc four-cylinder unit with 30kW on tap. It helped the LJ find some traction in Europe, but by then the motoring enthusiast was demanding at least some semblance of sophistication. If Suzuki wanted to conquer the western world, it would need an entirely new car.

So in 1981 Suzuki dropped the LJ and rebranded its small 4×4 as the SJ410. The engine size finally reached one whole litre and it developed 33kW. This was still a laughable amount of power compared to the outputs of larger 4x4s, but when the going got tough, the SJ410 scampered on. The little car soon earned a reputation as a giant slayer. It could do everything the most expensive 4×4 could do, but at a fraction of the price.

Three years later Suzuki responded to customer demand for more interior comfort. It also upgraded the engine to 1,3-litres, producing 50kW.

Finally, in 1985, Suzuki decided to tackle the toughest market of them all. The SJ was renamed the Samurai, loaded on a ship and sent to the US.

The hardcore off-road fraternity in the US immediately fell in love with the Samurai. It made the 4×4 lifestyle available to people who previously couldn’t afford to get involved. It didn’t take long for the Samurai to achieve the cult status it already had elsewhere in the world.

Because of Suzuki’s solid reputation, aftermarket companies soon started designing accessories for the Samurai. A supercharged and lifted model still holds the record for the highest altitude ever scaled by a 4×4.

And it was not just the 4×4 fraternity that took to the Samurai. By 1988 there was sufficient demand for a softer, less hardcore car for Suzuki to respond by updating the Samurai with a softer suspension and an improved dashboard.

But times were changing and by 1995 sales were dwindling. Finally, a host of new safety regulations hammered the last nails into the Samurai’s coffin.

Two years later, Suzuki was back – with the Jimny. Yes, the same Jimny that’s still going strong after all these years. It is still being built on the same principles as the very first LJ – small, light and extremely capable. We’ve seen this tiny tot humiliate 4x4s costing three times as much and its fans are more loyal than ever.

How long will the current generation vehicle last? We have no idea, but Suzuki seems to be looking at replacing it within the next four years.

At the recent Geneva Motor Show, Suzuki revealed four compact crossover concept vehicles. Any one of them could be the basis of the next Jimny. All four have compact dimensions and small, frugal engines. And it’s certain that the Jimny’s legendary off-road abilities will be retained.

Interestingly, there are parts of the world where you can buy an SJ410 brand-new. Maruti Suzuki is still manufacturing it in India, where it is so popular that there’s a waiting list. Prices for second-hand models are shooting through the roof, and with India’s economy booming, there’s no sign of sales slowing down any time soon.