A journey through Suzuki’s century – 1920 to 2020

Posted by Nidha Narrandes on 14 December 2020

Look at the figures around Suzuki today and you’d never know that it was once a tiny Japanese company manufacturing weaving looms for the silk industry. Today the company employs more than 40 000 employees in 35 production facilities across 23 countries with 133 distributors in 192 countries. It’s come a long way…

1920: Pianos, pies, endless wind and a great idea 

It all started with Michio Suzuki creating the Suzuki Loom Manufacturing Company in Hamamatsu; the town, famous for its pianos, the Unagi Pie Factory, the only cable car above a lake in Japan, and half a million tulips at the Flower Park in mid-May, is also notorious for its incessant wind. It was this wind that birthed a really great idea and sent Suzuki on its path to success. In 1952 the company manufactured its first engine – to attach to a bicycle so it was easier for workers to get to the factory through the gales. The dye was cast, engines were the future, Suzuki was off and running.

Michio Suzuki.

1955: Rebels without causes, hoop skirts and a legend is born

It wasn’t long before the bicycle engine found new applications, and three years later Suzuki’s first passenger car, the Suzulight was born. It was intended to be Japan’s budget sensation for the country’s People’s Car Programme – and it was. Two-cylinders, two-stroke engine, four wheels, four seats, 350cc, 100kph, it was perfect for post war austerity, even if, over the Pond, cars were getting bigger, teenagers were a thing and the world was gearing up for James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and youth culture.

1962: Rockets, nuclear fears, rock ‘n roll

Against a backdrop of miniskirts, Carnaby Street, a resurgent industrial Japan and a world worried about nuclear war, Suzuki introduced the Fronte, an update of the Suzulight. It went on to win first and second place in its class in the inaugural 1963 Japanese Grand Prix. Suzuki was diversifying and getting ready to take its idea of small, high quality engineering to the world.

1970: Floppy discs, the oil crisis and Suzuki’s time on the international stage arrives

As the floppy disc and the home video machine entered our collective consciousness, Suzuki had a masterstroke; just in time for the oil crisis, Suzuki came up with the idea of a mini 4×4. The concept was right for the time: fuel was expensive for the first time in history, people were increasingly venturing into the wilderness as ‘weekenders’ and needed something affordable and capable. The launch LJ10 became the best-selling SJ which, after years of stellar sales, transformed into today’s Jimny. It is still the best-selling mini 4×4 in history, selling 2.85 million units in 194 countries (and counting).

1988: Great music, big hair, shoulder pads and a SUV frontrunner

Motoring’s love affair with the people carrier played out across the world. Suzuki saw the trend away from sedans and introduced the first Vitara, an instant SUV best seller. The model went through four generations and emerged in 2015 as a trend setting executive crossover, again reflecting changing buyer trends. The world it entered was changing rapidly – an openly gay man won twin Olympic gold medals in Seoul, Madonna was rewriting the Feminist handbook and the Internet finally linked Europe and America..

1991: The end of the Soviets and Suzuki reveals its playful side

The beginning of the Nineties felt like the world was on the cusp of great change – the Soviet Union dissolved as the Berlin Wall came down, South Africa was entering the last stretch before emancipation and Suzuki, ever playful, delivered up a real surprise, a mini sports car called Cappuccino. It was only meant for the Japanese market, but interest was so great that it was also released in Europe. The three-cylinder turbocharged, rear wheel drive revelation became an instant classic.

2004: Social media, great engineering and the Swift phenomenon

It’s difficult to conceive of a world without Facebook, but it was only 16 years ago when Mark Zuckerberg dreamed up the idea of a digital stream of consciousness. Suzuki was also innovating – the second-generation Swift debuted in Paris and it was soon apparent they’d hit the sweet spot again. The compact hatchback with the cheeky good looks and the drive-by-wire attitude went on to win Car of the Year in Japan and India, outselling many far pricier competitors.

2008: Viva South Africa!

Equipped with a new strategy and clear vision, Suzuki opened shop in South Africa, offering the SX4 and the Swift to a grateful market. Both the best-selling hatchback and the compact crossover were instant successes, setting the manufacturer up for a bright future. The SX4 got a cool Top Gear-like chase video in Mzansi and the guy in the tie trended on Twitter, the freshly minted microblogging site which went live in 2007.

2016: Twitter trolls, daring design and a world record for Mzansi

As the world welcomed the man with a busy Twitter account and a spray tan, Suzuki introduced the Ignis, key to its plan to be the best small car manufacturer in the world. The daring, think-out-the-box urban SUV with the 1.2-litre four-cylinder engine quickly racked up design awards in Japan, New Zealand and the UK, as well as title of 2017 Budget Car of the Year in South Africa. The world was getting ever more interesting; the UK voted to leave the EU, Caster Semenya carried the South African flag in Rio and Wayde van Niekerk set a new world record of 43.03 seconds for the 400m.

2020: A virus, a budget superstar and more weirdness

It’s difficult to believe 2020 delivered up anything other than chaos, but it’s also the year of the S-Presso, Suzuki’s most excellent value offering, the cheapest car in South Africa. Cheap, most definitely cheerful but definitely not low quality – the spirited Jack Russell of the market has won an adoring fan base enamoured by its zippy drive, spacious interior, excellent build quality and features; ABS, EBD, two airbags, a two-year service plan and a three-year 100 000km warranty. In sizzle orange it brings sunshine to a stormy year, which seems to just keep giving – earthquakes in Cape Town, epic hailstorms in Gauteng. Roll on 2021, a new Suzuki century hopefully just as full of innovation, though please, just a little less eventful.   

Keep driving, exploring, stay cool, seek the fun.



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