Play, The Adolfe Way

For such a wee car, the Suzuki Alto packs a musical punch.

1979 Suzuki Alto. Favcars

Belgian, Adolfe Sax patented the saxophone back in 1864. A lifelong inventor, any influence upon the nascent motor industry he may have had is doubtful, shuffling off this mortal coil, penniless in 1894. Fast forward to 1909, when Michio Suzuki founded his Loom Manufacturing Works – another 28 years passing before becoming a motor manufacturer. Again, it’s somewhat unlikely that he himself (then aged 92) had any input in the naming or gestation of what became his eponymous company’s smash hit selling vehicle in 1979. But this little car was destined to prove a game changer – welcome to the four decade (and counting) life of the Suzuki Alto.

Higher than a tenor, lower than soprano; in saxophonist terms, alto was a key instigator in the field of jazz. Where that latter name was eventually taken by rival, Honda, the principles Suzuki latched onto were playful, frugal and cheap. The Alto name was originally given to homeland commercial van iterations of the Fronte model from the early 1960s – so named due to its front-wheel drive set up. In fact early European market cars (SS40) wore Fronte badges before switching to Alto, the musical term taking over completely by 1990. The sit up and beg (politely) styling charmed many, although an austere interior might not have swayed those who wanted more than just mere transportation.

Pricing too was an important factor. In the 1970s, Japanese car prices increased with distance from factory to market – pity the poor Sapporo-based Suzuki customer – around 500 miles from Hamamatsu. Astute thinking saw a single price of ¥470,000, regardless of customer location, causing a few dropped octaves amongst rivals, especially as the three door car was technically a commercial vehicle, which lay in a lower tax band along and was subject to less stringent emission regulations.

Initial suggested monthly targets of 5,000 saw Suzuki taking years to catch up with demand. This led to build locations other than Japan being established. South Pacific Assemblers, New Zealand managed six cars per day, whereas the Indian Maruti connection and Karachi based Pak Motors ramped production figures up considerably; by the Alto’s thirtieth birthday, an aggregate ten million had been made, selling in 130 countries. 

European exports warranted upgrades; Japanese 10” wheels grew to a foot in diameter. JDM engines began as a two-stroke SS30 but emissions legislation put the oil blender out to pasture within two years and was never offered for export – the three cylinder 796cc SS80 tipped the scales around 550Kgs, managing an output of 40bhp and 46 foot pounds of effort. Four manual or two-speed automatic gears were Europe’s options, with the UK receiving their first Alto’s in 1981. Modest sales figures allowed Suzuki a British foothold allowing them to alter the symphony’s pitch by the second generation’s instalment. 

1984 Alto. steermit

The original Alto measured one hundred and twenty six inches long (3,195mm) was fifty five inches wide (1,395mm) standing fifty two and half inches tall (1,335mm). The wheelbase lay at eighty four and a half inches (2,150mm). For that difficult second album (CA71) in 1984, the original’s cuteness had become somewhat angular; a b sharp opposed to the initial b flat arrangement whilst measurement changes were, at best, marginal.

Length and width remained but wheelbase shot up to 2,175mm, height topped 1.4 metres with weight now nudging 600Kgs. This generation’s rear carried resonances of larger rival, Austin’s Metro. Production now expanded into China whereas many European-sold models were manufactured in India by Maruti Udyog. The Guragon facility ramped up numbers to around 100,000 per annum and would continue producing similar numbers until as recently as 2014. Chinese examples had the delightful monikers of City Baby along with Little and Happy Prince.


1988’s third generation Alto became even more angular, and in the case of the five door variants, obtaining a rear window and D-pillar that appeared to have been dropped in from above. The car’s length remained the same until 1990 when changes to kei-car regulations allowed a longer overall vehicle, now 130” (3,295mm) coinciding with a wheelbase change to 92” (2,335mm) and, with the unusual looking but delightfully named Hustle, a roofline over 66 inches (1,685mm). Engines also altered; now a 657cc unit could be in six or twelve valve flavours, with turbocharging and single or double overhead camshafts. Weights sneaked up as a fluid saxophonist’s fingers, to a maximum of 730Kgs.

Season four involved a homegrown affair in 1994 – European sales continued with barely altered Maruti’s. Four years later, a more gently rounded, though hardly Charlie Parker-resembling fifth generation Alto extended its length to 93 inches (3,395mm) and gained a little girth, now at 56” (1,440mm) along with a facelift for the incoming 21st century. 


This melody lasted until 2004 when the Cannonball Adderley sixth generation came into being. Dimensionally remaining kei, Alto had moulded into something of a more rounded square, the headlights in particular quite drooping in slant. Such is the way with Japanese chassis borrowing, Nissan had the Pino whereas Mazda gave Japan the Carol – jazzy names, at least.


Sixty months later, series seven arrived alongside a return to a more sit up and beg demeanour. Dimensions sneaked up a little more as the wholly Indian produced car also was sold as the Celerio. Still wedded to the thesis of cheap, frugal and practical motoring, this iteration suffers from Kenny G syndrome; perfectly fine and useable but also rather bland. These were the last versions British customers could buy new – the Ignis taking up Suzuki’s small car banner.


Bland is not a label to pin on the eighth and current version which became available to the Japanese market in 2014. Retro looks, serious C-pillar kick, Fiat Panda circa 1984 reminiscent grill along with almost Angry Bird eyes, this version of the Alto is the definitive John Coltrane. A chamfered edge to the rear screen may not float everyone’s boat but this car’s details make it. The Alto’s looks may have abundantly altered within its lifetime but the tune has prevailed; remarkably roomy, parsimonious with petrol, unequivocally urbane.

For those requiring an Alto with a more aggressive edge, performance versions have been available since 1985 with added everything. The title Works was introduced from early 1987, the current aspect leaning heavily in the direction of Napalm Death’s Everyday Pox. Yes, a screaming saxophone used in heavy metal. Poor Adolfe might turn in his grave.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

13 thoughts on “Play, The Adolfe Way”

  1. I never made the musical connection. Alto is a derogatory term for young people embracing an alternative lifestyle in the Dutch language. The musical term is ‘alt’ in Dutch.

    Having said that I think the Alto sold quite well from the second generation on. My uncle had one in silver, that was later traded in for a blue Swift. Isn’t it sad that this little car left the sales catalogue pretty much unnoticed?

  2. Good morning Andrew. The Suzuki Alto is one of those cars that, in the UK at least, are only ever in one’s peripheral vision, but are worthy of examination. The 1988 six-month iteration above didn’t, I think, make it to the UK. We had this version instead:

    There’s really quite a lot going on in design terms for such a small car, but it’s all so neatly resolved. Not highly distinctive by any means, but quietly pleasing to the eye.

    We need more small and sensible cars like these. What a shame the economics of car production makes them increasingly unviable.

    1. Good find Daniel. Our oldest Granddaughter has her eyes on a Nissan Micra but that car would be an excellent alternative for relatively little money.

  3. Prefer the looks of the 3-door 3rd/4th gen Alto (particularly in Alto Works form) as well as the sportier versions of the 3-door Cervo Mode though do not recall seeing either sold in the UK (maybe except as the odd grey import). Subsequent (and preceding) Altos were too utilitarian for my liking, yet quite fond of the 8th gen Alto apart from the rear.

    Recall reading about how the 3-cylinder engines used in a typical 660cc Kei Car are said to be strong enough to be capable of enlargements up to 770cc and beyond. Know 4-cylinder versions were built up to 1.0-1.1-litres, yet would have been content with something closer to 1.3-litres.

  4. Great article about a car I’d forgotten. I recall seeing the first and second generations around a lot, but not the others, so much. They always seemed tiny, to me.

    You can still buy used ones, according to the Suzuki UK website, but we don’t seem to have been sent the more recent version. The model changes strike me as being very frequent – I wonder how Suzuki afford it.

    The latest version has styling cues from the larger Ignis and Volkswagen up!, too.

  5. An enforced errand meant for a short trip up the motorway. As I wafted along at the speed limit, not one but two Alto’s hurtled past in a very short space of time. The faster one appeared to be a season three, t’uther being a four, I believe. Apart from travel staining, the cars showed a clean pair of heels to the following pack of threatening German’s but looked so tiny even against a Mercedes A class.

    The Alto, in my part of the U.K. at least, is still out there but as Daniel and Charles correctly point out, they’re more chameleon than extravagant saxophonist. Suzuki do fun rather nicely but this type and class of car is never expected to excel over here in the West. The Works models appear rally giant killers. And I’m trying to imagine the scream of an above 770cc engine.

    And less than £700 for a decent fifteen year old example? Might be decent “winter motor!”

  6. Thanks for this sum-up of a once ubiquitous, but now largely forgotten car (I’m speaking for Switzerland here). Like Freerk, I have never made the musical connection, despite singing next to the alto voices in a choir (they are called ‘Alt’, like in Freerk’s Dutch). For me, the association went more south, as in the Italian word for ‘high’ (for a not so tall car, at least in the beginning).

    My memories for this car go back to the place I lived from 1998 to 2005. During all this time, one of the neighbours had a silver 1st generation Alto in their driveway. 20 to 25 years old it was by then, not a bad feat for a car that doesn’t exactly fall into the collectible category, and that was remembered as rather rust-prone.

    Indeed, when I look on the local Autoscout, all the earlier generations are absent. There are a few from the early 2000s, and the majority from 2010 to 2014. After that, Alto sales in Switzerland seemed to have stopped.

  7. I had a few Altos as rental cars in Israel in the 1980’s when I spent time doing some research there. The car hire people alternated between the Alto and the Mark 1 Swift. The Alto was a jot to push hard and frankly there was no other way to drive it – especially with the A?C on… the engine would rev noisily but quite melodiously as you resorted to second gear more often than you’d think. The car was narrow, tall, basic and still felt like it had integrity – although I remember the brakes being quite poor (perhaps that was second downhill as well as up…) Clearly a recipie for guilt-free pressing on in this minimal car: in your 20’s; hire car; no rev counter…

    The Swift by contrast felt sporty – very low-set seat, memrably fabulous gear change, light clutch – the whole car felt light, nimble, capable, stable and fun. I’ve not driven later Swifts but reviews suggest they kept that spirit right into the 2010’s – quite an accomplishment.

    1. Good to know the Swift is worthy of the name. Speaking of names, would you believe me if I told you I found four separate articles in the DTW archives concerning the Mitsubishi Carisma, all published on the same day?

  8. The boxy styling Alto 1979 model was a greek favourite car. The three door model was a minority, I do not remember it. The majority of them were five door. A friend had one, in light metallic grey. If I remeber well, there was a hidden flap on the bonnet that activated the locking latch. I remember them going around on their little wheels, very small road whells indeed, like happy puppies. The 80s Altos were painted in metallic grey colours, there were also yellow, red, beige, mostly light colours.

  9. The greek roads were famous for their holes, bumps, etc, these cars with small road wheels had a problem, but they survived. Seeems that they were well built and glued together. The 80s were the time of Japanese motoring here, because cars were expensive, actually outrageously expensive, and the people wanted reliable cars to keep for many years, without rust and mechanical problems. This trend had started from the 70s. The normal average was 1000 to 1300 cc, 4 cylinder, 4 or 5 door, and that was a family car. The ‘young person’s car’ or the ‘small family utility car’ was 800 to 1000 cc, 4 cylinder, 3 or 5 door, like the Alto, that you used as a first car or a second supporting car in a larger household. The Alto had a large rear windscreen that was flat and it opened upwards, acting as the tailgate, something that saw in VW up! in 2012.

  10. Just spotted a Suzuki 1979 model, a 5 door model in dark brown clour. In perfectly looking, spotless, roadgoing condition. It is amazing how well made these cars were. Time has proved the bare truth.

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