Suzuki recalls its automotive history during centennial celebration

Company started by making weaving looms, but planned to build cars as early as 1937

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Suzuki
Michio Suzuki and his car development team in 1954 | Suzuki photos

In the United States, Suzuki is best known for its motorcycles and ATVs, but the company had plans to produce automobiles as early as 1937 and is celebrating in 2020 the centennial of its founding as the manufacturer of textile looms.

It wasn’t until 1952 that Suzuki began producing motor vehicles, and at first, they were, indeed, motorcycles. Automobile production began in 1956.

Although the company traces its history to 1909, when Michio Suzuki founded the Suzuki Loom Works in Hamamatsu, Japan, to spin silk thread into cloth, its official 100th anniversary celebration is taking place this year. It was in 1920 that the Suzuki Loom Manufacturing Co. was founded.

By the 1930s, Suzuki realized a need to diversify his company and began a car-building project that produced several prototype vehicles. War interrupted those plans, and Suzuki concentrated again on weaving looms, this time for the cotton that was being shipped to Japan by the United States. 

But cotton suffered a global decline in the early 1950s so, once again, Suzuki turned to motor vehicles to diversify and to stay in business. In 1954, Suzuki Motor Co. Limited was created under the spirit of “Yaramaika,” the company said, adding the translation for that Japanese word is “Let’s do it.”

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A 1955 Suzulight

The first Suzuki car was the Suzulight, a compact vehicle weighing little more than 1,100 pounds and propelled by a 2-cylliner, 360cc 2-stroke engine that provided 15 horsepower. The car was the first in Japan with front-wheel-drive architecture.

As part of the centennial celebration, Suzuki recalled the Suzulight prototype’s “most memorable early drive,” a 300-kilometer trip across the Hakone mountainous region between Hamamatsu and Tokyo, “which proved challenging on roads that had not yet been paved.”

Arriving in Tokyo, the car was displayed to the head of Yanase Auto, considered Japan’s largest automobile dealership which had been established in 1915.

“The President had stayed on late to greet the team and made his way out to thoroughly test the car,” the Suzuki news release noted. “Several hours later he returned very impressed and immediately gave Suzuki full approval to put the Suzulight into production. It was way ahead of its time with independent coil-spring suspension and rack-and-pinion steering.”

Production began slowly, 3 or 4 cars a month, but Suzuki was producing 30 a month by early 1956. In 1959, it introduced the Suzulight TL model with both more interior and cargo space “and (the) popularity of Suzuki cars quickly grew.”

A 1959 Suzulight TL

In 1981, General Motors imported the Suzuki Cultus as the Chevrolet Sprint and Pontiac Firefly. The cars also were exported to Europe as the Suzuki Swift. Suzuki established its own American dealer network in 1986 with its Samurai, a 4×4 utility vehicle. It also sold the Sidekick, another SUV, in Canada, and that vehicle entered the U.S. at first with GM as the Geo Tracker. GM also sold the Swift as the Geo Metro.  

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The company also became known for a series of amazing concept vehicles it unveiled through the years at the Tokyo Motor Show, and for its Cappucino sports car.

Although it closed its North American automotive operations in 2013, Suzuki remains the third-largest among automakers in sales in Japan.

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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