When someone mentions Suzuki, you instantly think of great cars with a performance you can truly count on. However, the brand is actually way more than just cars! Believe it or not, the brand conquered many other fields before making a name in the car industry, starting with looms!
Suzuki is always ranked among the ten largest car manufacturers in the world. It is also one of the leading manufacturers of motorbikes and outboard engines. Over a hundred years ago, the Suzuki Loom Manufacturing Company was founded by Michio Suzuki as a joint-stock company; and somehow, over the years, the loom factory turned into one of the most reputable car brands in history!
From its foundation in 1920 as a manufacturer of looms for the textile industry to its commercial and sporting successes in the motorbike field, the brand’s history is a history of a dedicated family and innovative minds who were not afraid to go after what they dream of. It is a success story that impresses millions of people every day. How did the brand start, and how did it get where it is now? Let’s find out!
The Loom Phase
Michio Suzuki, the founder of the brand, was born in 1887 into a farming family in the Japanese district of Enshu, where the textile industry had prospered since the 1700s. So, he decided that his future would be in textiles, too.
Using what he learnt during an apprenticeship as a carpenter, Michio made a wooden and metal treadle loom completely by himself. With this spirit, he invented a spinning frame in 1908, ten times faster than its counterparts. This gave the 21-year-old man the confidence and knowledge to found his own company, Suzuki Loom Works, in 1909.
After making a name for himself, Michio was 33 when his company became a joint-stock company exporting all over South-East Asia. The young boy, the son of cotton farmers, was making fast progress. Although the company was growing rapidly, he dreamed of trying his hand at a new business sector outside the textile industry and bet on automobile production. With that in mind, he completed his first prototype car in 1937.
Sadly, the project was interrupted by World War II, which saw the Suzuki Corporation Plant converted to munitions production and suffered heavy bombing. The post-war restart was arduous, and the turning point came from the genius of another Suzuki, his son Shunzo, who became the second president in 1957.
The Motorbike Phase
The first motorbike that the brand produced was the Power Free. It came out of necessity and was born out of an idea of Shunzo in 1952. The story goes that in Hamamatsu, where the brand’s parent company is based, strong seasonal winds often make it hard to get around when the wind is against them. Since Shunzo used his bicycle to go fishing, he thought it would be much easier if this bike had a motor.
At the same time, regulations on using motorised bicycles changed from requiring a licence to just a permit, making them accessible to everyone. This immensely helped the Power Free in its immediate success, with record sales.
Due to the success of the Power Free, the brand started to develop motorised bicycles with more powerful engines. The second motorised bicycle was the Diamond Free, which went on sale in March 1953. This 60 CC (two-horsepower engine) motorised bicycle was more powerful than its counterparts. By the autumn of that year, its production volume exceeded expectations, reaching 150% of the planned monthly production.
The Diamond Free won the Fuji Mountain Climbing Race that year and became popular for its trouble-free 3,000 km ride between Hokkaido and Kagoshima. As a result of the great sales success in the motorbike sector, the company name was changed from Suzuki Loom Manufacturing Co. to Suzuki Motor Co. Ltd. on 1 June 1954.
The Cars Phase
In 1954, the brand decided to enter the four-wheel passenger car business, which had been a long-held ambition. So, it changed its name again to Suzuki Motor Industry. Having already been involved in motorbikes, the brand planned to transform into a full-fledged passenger car manufacturer to mass-produce four-wheeled passenger cars. This plan required more advanced technology.
At that time, the company chose to change its name as a clear manifestation of its desire to venture into car production. After hard work, in the autumn of 1954, a new team of just 28-year-olds completed the prototype car, which was offered on the market under the name Suzulight. The car was launched in 1955 with a two-stroke engine of 360 cubic centimetres.
The “Suzulight” earned the brand an esteemed position in the automobile market. After all, this small car with a two-cylinder engine significantly contributed to Japan‘s economic upswing as it had a big share in the country’s motorisation!
A Time of Prosperity
Things were going very well for the brand. In 1958, it was time for a new logo. From more than 300 proposals, the logo proposed by Mr Masamichi Tezeni, a student at the University of the Arts in Tokyo, was chosen. Mr Masamichi’s proposal was a representation of the initial ‘S’ of the company. From that moment, the brand’s logo remained unchanged, and it is internationally recognised to the present day.
In 1962, the brand came out with the Fronte car, which was an absolute hit. The following year, the brand began its international expansion as early as 1963, when the US sales company Suzuki Motor Corp was founded in Los Angeles. Another milestone in the formation of today’s Suzuki came in 1965 when the Japanese company entered the outboard engine market with the D55 engine.
In 1967, a modification of the Suzuki Fronte came out, the Fronte 360 LC 10 with a rear engine and rear-wheel drive; the brand broke new ground in the Japanese small car segment. This car was followed by the Carry Van Truck in 1968 and the Jimny Small SUV in 1970. The latter is still on the market today.
In 1976, the GS 400 and the GS 750 motorbikes debuted at the IFMA in Cologne. The new four-stroke motorbikes consumed less petrol than the two-stroke engines and were the answer to the first oil crisis. Three years later, the brand presented the new Fronte generation at the 1979 Amsterdam Motor Show, from which the Suzuki Alto was derived later on.
The Famous Suzuki Alto
In the 1970s, the biggest problem for mini-cars in Japan was the market’s small size. In the automobile industry, the Corolla launched by Toyota in 1966 was a huge hit, and one car per family was becoming the norm. However, passenger cars were expensive for the average person, and owning multiple cars was financially difficult.
As the Japanese’s incomes increased by the 1980s, it became practically possible for mothers and fathers in ordinary households to purchase a car, and a second-passenger car was sufficient to meet the minimum mobility needs. Thus, the mini-car market was expected to expand in Japan gradually.
In 1979, the brand launched the Alto, which set the standard for mini-cars. By cutting out unnecessary features such as ashtrays, the brand achieved a low price and high function, making it a practical light car. As a result, it was a big hit, attracting support from women such as housewives and couples engaged in farm work.
Suzuki Alto has been a regular favourite since 1979, and now it is in the ninth generation. The Alto’s success gave Suzuki a great deal of credibility and was the catalyst for its subsequent tie-up with American General Motors (GM) in 1981. It also helped with the company’s entry into India in 1982. In this sense, Alto gave Suzuki the chance to expand globally.
More Cars, More Success!
Making commercial success in motorbiking did not distract Suzuki from the world of cars, and the cars kept on coming. The year 1981 saw the arrival of the Suzuki Katana in the 1100 version.
In 1988, the Japanese manufacturer launched the Suzuki Vitara, an iconic model that, over the decades, has proved to be a true pioneer of compact off-road vehicles, so much so that today, generation after generation, it is still a car capable of winning the favour of the public practically all over the world.
Speaking of successes, but this time on two wheels, it is worth mentioning the Burgman 250 scooter of 1998, joined by the 400 variants, the first single-cylinder maxi-scooter above 250 cubic centimetres of displacement.
In 1982, Suzuki decided, at the request of the Indian government, to produce mini-cars in India, which was still an underdeveloped market. A joint venture company was established, in which Suzuki took a 26% stake (26% – the ratio of veto power in India), and the Indian government invested the rest.
At the time, no one believed it would succeed, so much so that Osamu Suzuki, President and CEO of Suzuki, thought that the company had entered the market with the intention of throwing money down the drain.
Meanwhile, the passenger car industry was focused on entering the US market and selling small passenger cars in Europe and the US. On the other hand, Suzuki saw India’s untapped potential as a positive place to aim for the top and decided to invest in the country, which no one was considering at the time. Large manufacturers such as Toyota and Nissan did not have the management strength to enter the Indian market. Furthermore, European and US car manufacturers had also decided not to enter the Indian market. Suzuki was the only global company that paid attention to the Indian market.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Suzuki transferred production technology to its plants in India. It produced mini-cars based on the Alto in India and built its vehicle maintenance and sales bases nationwide. In addition, Suzuki insisted on local production, even if it cost a little more, for example, by exporting the parts needed for automotive production from Japan.
As a result, by 1995, Suzuki had secured a 75% share of the passenger car market in India, almost monopolising the market. On top of that, Suzuki became synonymous with passenger cars in India and became a well-integrated car manufacturer in the country.
The Suzuki Swift
It is not only the Suzuki Alto that made history as the company’s most tremendous success; there is also the Suzuki Swift small car, which was introduced in 1983. This brilliant car was the outcome of the cooperation with General Motors.
Since it was first introduced, the car has been growing steadily, making its way to becoming one of the most memorable models the brand has produced. Currently, the car is in its third generation, all of which have been larger, heavier, and considered to be significantly more robust. It is worth mentioning that it sold more than five million units in the first nine years after its market launch!
The Japanese Samurai Going Strong!
Throughout the 1980s, the demand for mini-cars surged in Japan. Thanks to the success of the Alto, Suzuki’s sales exceeded ¥1 trillion in 1991. However, Osamu Suzuki, President of Suzuki Motor Corporation, considered the company a small to medium-sized enterprise in the passenger car industry.
Although Suzuki surpassed the ¥1 trillion sales mark, the company became controversial because of its stingy management’s cutting expenses unrelated to car production (e.g. eliminating human assistance at the reception desk).
In 1996, a change of government in India sparked criticism in the country of the ‘unfair profits’ for Suzuki against foreign companies. Eventually, the Indian government and Suzuki made peace. Suzuki increased its stake in Maruti to 54%, giving Suzuki the right to make management decisions in India. This change in capital policy enabled Suzuki to invest aggressively in its Indian operations.
Suzuki has expanded its operations by investing in local plants in line with India’s economic development. As of 2019, Suzuki still holds a 51% share of India’s passenger car market, making the Indian business Suzuki’s primary earner.
The Suzuki Cars Keep on Shinning!
In the 2000s, Suzuki Group gained momentum in car production, carried out several revisions of existing models, and signed agreements with world giants such as Kawasaki and Nissan for joint production of cars. At this time, the company introduced the largest and first-of-its-kind model among Suzuki vehicles, the XL-7. This first seven-seat SUV became the company’s best-selling vehicle.
The mentioned above are only a few of the major stops in the impressive journey of Suzuki, a brand that succeeded in creating a broadly diversified model range. Vehicles of the Suzuki brand perfectly embody the three attributes of down-to-earthiness, sportiness, and reliability. In the course of its history, the company has always managed to develop cars that are optimally tailored to customer needs, and we can’t wait to see what the brand will come up with next.