Yet More Japan – When Suzuki Stumbled

Much has been learned from last month’s Japan-fest, perhaps most of all that anything we assume about this extraordinary automotive industry is probably wrong, or at least far more complicated than imagined.

Suzuki 1-38-1

For example, most people imagine Suzuki were a confirmed K-car specialist until GM took a modest 5.3% stake in the business in 1981 and promoted the development of the Cultus SA310 supermini – its names were legion; who’s heard of the Isuzu Geminett?

Then, in the depths of the Japanese Society of Automotive Engineers enlightening website  I found this forgotten beauty: The 1965 Suzuki Fronte 800.  Not to be confused with the big-engined export Kei-car from 1979, more familiar as the Alto and Maruti 800. This one had a long gestation. 

At the 1962 Tokyo Motor Show, Suzuki showed a four door saloon of similar size to the Toyota Publica.  Wikipedia describes it as: “clothed in a body designed by Pietro Frua, reminiscent of his Maserati Quattroporte I and Glas 1700  saloons”. There’s no photo to back this up, but, after rigorous searching, I found this on classiccarcatalogue.com:

 suzuki 1962 1000PrototypTokio

There’s also a contemporary report, frustratingly without identification of its source: “Suzuki Motors hitherto better known in the motor-cycle field, entered the car business with a 360 c.c. two-stroke rear-engined Coupé, known as the Suzulight, last year. This year it has been restyled; of equal importance, another and bigger prototype was exhibited, but no details of it could be wrung from any of the company’s officials; it was protected by a large barrier which made it impossible to assess the technicalities. It is a four-door saloon and would appear to have a front engine, probably of around 1,000 c.c. capacity. From enquiries made, it seems that the company are anxious to compete in the larger class of vehicles and most probably this model will be starting production in time for next year’s show. As Suzuki have specialized in two-stroke engines-and made them very powerful for motor-cycle racing-it will be interesting to see whether they have changed their allegiance to the four-stroke when further details of this newcomer are released.”

Other descriptions say the engine capacity was 700cc, more credible in the light of tax and licensing class restrictions. No mention of Frua, but the headlight and grille treatment make the attribution credible. Could it have been an orphaned Lloyd or Goliath, or a Glas reject?

Regardless, the car which entered production in August 1965 was substantially different.  Back to Wikipedia: “While rumoured to have been executed by Michelotti, design was credited to Suzuki chief designer Sasaki Toru”. As observed previously, in the early ‘60s various Japanese cars looked as if they were the work of Italian styling houses, but were presented as in-house designs. By the mid-‘60s the value in export markets of a recognised designer was recognised, and Pininfarina, Ghia, Bertone, Giugiaro et al. were given their due credit.

Perhaps export plans were well down Suzuki’s list of priorities for the Fronte 800. Astonishingly, for such an attractive car, it was an utter failure: Production ended in April 1969 with 2717 built and 2612 sold in just over three and a half years.

Market resistance to its two stroke engine – a 785cc water cooled triple – was given as the reason for the ‘big’ Fronte’s failure. Otherwise it was an advanced design: front wheel drive, torsion bar suspension all round and a light, glassy, unitary bodyshell. The influence of the DKW F11 and F12 is manifestly clear.  Suzuki have some ‘form’ on this as the inaugural Suzilight was “inspired and informed” by the Lloyd LP ‘Leukoplastbomber’.

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Suzuki turned the production capacity to Kei-car manufacture, and probably had few regrets at their spurned seduction of Publica, Colt, and Sunny buyers.

Others might regret that the planned Fronte 1100 never made it to production.  The 800 body had its power almost doubled with a claimed 80PS from the bigger capacity three cylinder engine, fed by one Solex carburettor per cylinder, and with a 100mph top speed.  Even if it, too had been a failure, it could have been a glorious and memorable one.

One thought on “Yet More Japan – When Suzuki Stumbled”

  1. An interesting read. The Fronte 800 looks like it could have been from any number of manufacturers; Triumph came to my mind. The more we find out about the Italian design houses, the more we find out how willing they were to hawk around existing designs until somebody paid them.

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