Iced Gem

Hamamatsu does it again.

1997 Suzuki C2. diseno-art

From Turin to Tamworth, from Minato to Michigan and elsewhere besides, the mid-1990s sports car revival was in full swing. Leading the charge from an emotional and commercial-savvy perspective was Mazda, who just prior to the new decade had perhaps unwittingly created not just a durable global phenomenon, but as the passage of time would illustrate, the default (relatively) inexpensive 2-seat roadster – the MX-5 Miata.

Decades after Europe had started to cool its kitten heels on the subject, Japan became home to the affordable sports car in all its myriad forms, fuelled on one hand by a durable domestic demand, but on another, and more dominant one, an unfettered appetite for such vehicular indulgences from the land of the brave.

All of which made the idea of a compact Japanese two-seater a relatively uncontroversial one – certainly during this period, and notwithstanding Japan’s own post-asset-bubble economic woes, no shortage of such delicacies turned up amid the annual speculative Tokyo show fare. Committed production cars were however fewer and further between.

Masters of the small car, be they Keijidōsha-shaped tots or cutely dimensioned diminutive roadsters like the 1991 Cappuccino, Suzuki were masters too of the concept car, the carmaker’s back catalogue brim-full of tiny joys, alas never to see production. Suzuki have long been in possession of a highly talented group of designers, but it did seem (and still does to a certain extent) that their senior management are of a less adventurous stripe – a consequence one imagines of Suzuki’s small scale and relative vulnerability. Market failures after all are as ruinously expensive now as they were then.

Frankfurt 1997. The C2’s debut.

First revealed in 1997, not at Tokyo as one might have expected, but at Frankfurt, the Suzuki C2 was every inch the instant want-one Japanese roadster concept. Consisting of a conventional front engined, rear-wheel drive layout, the C2’s power unit was however rather unusual for such a compact roadster, the Suzuki being powered by a turbocharged, double overhead camshaft 1644 cc, 32-valve V8, producing 250 horsepower at 7000 rpm and 209 lb/ft of torque at 4000 rpm, through a 6-speed manual transmission. Suspension was by double wishbones, front and rear. The quoted kerb weight was 848 kg.

The roof design allowed the C2 to be either fully enclosed, a full convertible, or by removing the centre panel, a Targa. Styling was neat, purposeful, beautifully proportioned and very, very pretty. A masterful example of how a few confident, well-chosen lines can add up to something quite irresistible. Modern in form, yet at the same time somewhat redolent in detail, the C2 was a visual delight.

Nevertheless, despite Suzuki’s designers threading a deft line between modernity and nostalgia – retrospective design being very much a Japanese industry speciality – the C2 appears to have doffed its metaphorical cap to another more historic Japanese sportster.

Toyota Sports 800. favcars

In 1962, Toyota made its first foray into sportscars, unveiling the Publica Sports concept at that year’s Tokyo motor show. Based on the running gear of the entry-level Publica saloon, the pretty and diminutive two-seater was first shown with a distinctive, if impractical sliding canopy[1], which allowed entry and egress – albeit, with a certain element of discomfort.

In 1965, a production version was introduced, designed by in-house stylist, Shozo Sato. Now with a larger 790 cc air-cooled two-cylinder horizontally opposed engine, developing 45 bhp, this, combined with a kerb weight of 580 kg and a clean, aerodynamic shape made for near-100 mph performance. While maintaining the basic style of the concept, the production model gained conventional doors and a removable targa roof arrangement – amongst the first to bring such a feature to production.

The Sports 800 also lent a degree of stylistic influence to its larger 2000 GT sibling, especially in terms of headlamp treatment (and placement). Built by local subcontractor Kanto Auto Works, only slightly over 3000 were made, largely confined to the Japanese domestic market before production ceased in 1969.

It remains somewhat unclear just how much of an influence the Sports 800 was to Suzuki’s design team for the C2 concept, but there is unquestionably a reference there in dimensions, in aspects of detail design and in ‘feeling’, even if the stance and proportions of the Hamamatsu design are of a somewhat more contemporary idiom. What both designs have in common however is that they both demonstrate how it is possible to make a very compact design utterly coherent and proportionally correct – something which is a good deal harder to pull off than it might first appear.


Not that it really matters, because like so many highly promising Suzuki concepts, it disappeared as quickly as it emerged and that very much was that. Not that there was likely to have been anything even approaching a business case, (whatever about a market) for a compact 2-seater with a unique small-capacity V8 engine up front.

The Mazda MX5 amply illustrated that in order to put a specialist vehicle into production and make a success of it, one requires a fully nailed-on brief, a gimlet sharp focus in meeting it and no small amount of good fortune and timing. Suzuki and Daihatsu (who also toyed with sportscars at this time), both smaller and less well-resourced companies, seemed to fall short of these crucial characteristics, meaning that while they had no shortage of either talent or ideas, they lacked both the resources and sheer unswerving will to make them a viable production reality; none of which alters for one moment the C2’s obvious visual charms.

It is only by looking back that it’s possible to see how far you have travelled. Nobody would even consider building a car like this now, either as a concept or (heaven help us) a production vehicle. And in an automotive landscape when even amid the corridors of Mazda’s Hiroshima headquarters there are undoubtedly debates around the economics of continuing with the MX5, we are left casting our eyes rearwards and pondering lost gems.

[1] Toyota chief engineer Tatsuo Hasegawa had a history in aircraft design, which may have informed the Publica Sports concept’s sliding canopy.


Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

31 thoughts on “Iced Gem”

  1. Good morning, Eóin. I have no recollection at all of the C2, yet it’s a car right up my alley: small, more than 4 cylinders, double wishbones. The only thing I don’t like is the position of the mirrors and I have to get used to the treatment of the wheels arches. The front and rear lights on the corners seem prone to damage as well.

    Here’s the V8.

    It also seems to have an automatic transmission instead of a manual

  2. Good morning Eóin and thanks for bringing us the C2 (not something I ever expected to write, given Suzuki’s Citroën namesake!) This is new to me and I absolutely love it.

    Mazda clearly made the right commercial decision to go retro with the 1989 MX-5 but this was (and still is?) a really nice contemporary interpretation of the roadster format. I share Freerk’s reservations about the mirrors but like the contrasting wheelarches, and wheels colour marched to the body. I’m sure the engine is a jewel, but it is probably overly complex for such a car.

    It’s a shame that Suzuki didn’t have the wherewithal or confidence to put the C2 into production.

  3. Exquisite! As for the mirrors, they’re exactly where they should be in order to eliminate blind spots and I applaud any design which puts function first.

    1. I disagree. If you have a small mirror like this and you put it twice as far away as you would have otherwise, the area you see behind you gets smaller four times (the distance squared). Mirrors that are on the doors and properly adjusted usually don’t leave blindspots in my experience.

  4. Hello Eòin,
    Although I visited the 1997 Frankfurt Motorshow, the C2 went totally unnoticed by me…. luckily later that year at the Tokyo show I did spot this delightful little thing. It is indeed a pity that it never went past this stage; the only car that (although it was of course much, much less powerful) came close in size and styling “flavour” almost a decade later was the Smart Roadster.
    Here is a photo I took in Tokyo where another view of that engine can be seen, this time with the gearbox attached:

  5. The C2 was shown as a possible successor to the Suzuki Cappuccino of which they made just 27,000 in five years.

    The C2’s mirrors are where Japanese legislation demanded them to be at that time: visible through a part of the windscreen swept by the wipers.

    1. I think by that time this particular bit of legislation was already thrown out of the window. The JDM 1991 Honda Beat for instance has the mirrors on the doors.

  6. I had to read the V8 engine’s stats a few times to make sure I wasn’t going mad. What a lovely concept.

    To me, the Toyota Sport 800’s looks are mirrored somewhat in the Mazda MX 5 RF. That kerb weight of half a tonne for the 800 is amazing, although I recognise that it’s a small car.

  7. A more feasible Suzuki C2 would have been pretty nice with the 1.5-1.8 Suzuki M engines, it together with the 1991 Daihatsu X-021, 1991 Subaru Rioma, tidied up versions of the 1991 Mitsubishi HSR III and 1975 Nissan AD-1 (if not a similarly conventional sportscar successor) would have each given the Mazda MX-5 a more difficult time.

  8. The graphics of the lamps work so very well with the surfaces they are placed on. I can imagine them marked on the clay model with black flexible tape controlling the radii at the three outer corners and then meeting at a neat 90 degrees at the bootlid. This is great product design. Thanks for drawing my attention to it!

  9. I recall this car very well, or so I thought, because I recalled it as a Toyota, or wasn’t the engine by Yamaha? I think the problem is the unmemorable name, which allows one to project their own association, further distorted by the lens of time.

    Oh! I get it now… Cappuccino II, doh! I was going to say: give it a month and I will forget again, but perhaps now that I’ve sussed the code, there will be mnemonic association, only two decades late.

    Is it that they were steeped in motorcycle culture? CB… that is Honda, YZ… obviously Yamaha, GS… would be Suzuki, but ask me to name a specific Suzuki bike? Sure, “Katana”.

    I enter “2001 Toyota concept” into a search engine at least once per year to remind myself of the seemingly ageless vehicle pictured below, about which I felt quite passionate for twenty years. But what was it called again? At least with “530i” or “280 S” there is a context. (Unless you are Johan de Nysschen, and you’re obsessed with the letter “Q”, in which case you’ll be afforded unlimited resources to fabricate a context.) Why don’t automakers get this?

    The extraordinarily characterful 2001 Toyota RSC Concept.

    1. The S2 is a wonderful vehicle.
      It has everything you need – plus a v8! – and what it doesn’t have, you don’t need.
      It has a passenger compartment that makes the heart beat faster. Pure simplicity.
      It’s a pity, a great pity, that it didn’t make it to production. Even with a simple 4 cylinder in-line engine it would have been a hit (at least for me).

      The 2001 Toyota study is nothing but a war vehicle. And it shows that the origin of today’s martial vehicles – they are still euphemistically called SUVs – goes back more than 20 years.
      It’s fascinating what I haven’t noticed in the last decades because I thought I had to occupy myself with other things, or was occupied with other things.

  10. For me too, the C2 was unknown. Many thanks, Eóin, for drawing attention to it! It’s a consumately delightful design. Near perfect, really. Maybe the mirrors were a nostalgic flourish? The tiny V8 is, of course, delightfully ridiculous, even more so than the 1.8 v6 from Mazda. It’s also patently obvious that there’s no viable business case for this car, certainly not from Suzuki. Toyota might’ve gotten away with it, but even then I’d doubt if they’d make mony off it. It would have to be more of a prestige project, for which Toyota would have the financial reserves.

    The front, I think, and frankly the whole design ethic of a neat, sparingly detailed, well proportioned small sports car, has very slight shades of the 2003 Fulvia concept (talking about missed chances). Of course, the Lancia is younger, so actually its front has shades of the C2’s, only somewhat less well resolved.

    1. Both today´s car and the Nuova Fulvia could have remained in production for a decade or so. They would have had a steady market and little competition. I think the Fulvia is as neat as the C2 while having a more classical character. It all looks consistent and well-detailed. Rather more obviously than the C2, the Fulvia could be a called a big missed opportunity. It could have taken over from the Fiat Barchetta and perhaps clawed a bit more money out of customers. All they needed to do was to improve the details regulary and offer revised paint and trim options. I don´t think it needed so much as new bumpers over a decade´s run. It´s not a fashion item and nor was the C2.

  11. How did that lovely Fulvia Coupé recreation not make production? It’s a delightful design, clearly referencing the original, but not slavishly retro. I would buy it in a heartbeat. Here are a couple of studio photos:

    It’s a tragedy that there is said to be no market for coupés anymore. Or is it that there are no coupés on the market? Just a thought…

    1. There´s a market for coupés but not a big one. BMW and Audi and Mercedes, to their credit, have it sewn up. I see 2-doors quite frequently, especially the A5. The 4 series also shows up too. I expect Lancia thought they could not make a Lancia interpretation of the two-door roadster that would woo the MX-5 community. One thing floating their boat is the RWD set-up. Fiat would never have allowed RWD just for a single model. The likely Fulvia customer was probably coming from another brand and vehicle format. Perhaps a few MX-5ers would have crossed over to see but not most. So, can anyone visualise the typical or archetypal Fulvia buyer? Is it the educated, professional male 45-55 with a second, family car for daily use? Higher income single, urban female 30-40? Retired couple 55+? Perhaps all of those plus stragglers randomly buying cars from all classes. Maybe I am asking who buys Mazda MX-5s because all of those demographics would be MX-5 prospects. As I see it, the Fulvia was only going to take customers from the peripheral part of the MX-5 customer group and would have to woo them with Mazda-levels of perceived quality and actual reliability. That makes me think that if Lancia allocated the resources on the interior towards Mercedes-benchmarked trim-durability and a few high-value decorative features (i.e. not much stuff but very good stuff) they would have done enough to lure many Mazda customers and perhaps some marginal Porsche customers or Z3 customers too. What I have described is the quality profile of a 60s Lancia: spartan but very well-made. It is such a compelling formula (for me at least).

    2. I would be in the target demographic for an upmarket coupé, 55+ and retired, with a second car for practical duties. That said, I wouldn’t consider any of the big German trio, primarily because they are all too brash looking and I hate the image they carry in terms of stereotypical drivers. (Perhaps I’m deceiving myself, but I don’t think my Boxster is similarly affected.)

    3. There are three MX-5s in the carpark where my “fleet” spend their idling time. Both of them belong to older couples. I live in an urban area, by the way, so car-driving is optional. I´d imagine the Fulvia might have been a car for such a demographic. Still, there are also people in the suburbs and country who have the space for a second “toy” car too. Would any Porsche or BMW drivers go for it? It depends on whether they are buying their Caymans of Z3 for the name or the package.

    4. What appeals to me about the Boxster is its purity of design, the high quality of its build, relative rarity, modest size and the lack of aggression in its appearance. Yes, it handles absolutely brilliantly, but I’m not nearly good enough a driver to exploit that characteristic to the maximum and, even if I were, the public road is not the right environment to do so. Our other car, an F56 Mini Cooper, is more than fast enough and handles well enough to be a pleasure to drive. Hence, I would be happy to trade some of the Boxster’s dynamic prowess for a car that excelled in the other characteristics I mentioned. The Fulvia could have fitted the bill perfectly.

    5. The Lancia Fulvia Coupe concept would have also made a decent starting point for Fiat Siena/Albea-like 4-door saloon and 5-door estate bodystyles, in addition to a 2-door convertible (or targa) and Fulvia Sport-inspired 3-door hatchback coupe.

      The range-topper IMHO would have needed a similar spec engine as the 148 hp 2-litre 145/146 and 147 instead of the 131 hp 1.8 Punto/Barchetta motor.

    6. For the “new” Fulvia, I would almost certainly have queued up at a Lancia dealer to put my signature on the sales contract.

      Unfortunately, the concept car was a stillborn child. It was built on the floor assembly of the first series Punto, whose end of production had already been decided. For a (halfway cost-effective) series production, it would have been necessary to build on the floor assembly of the Punto of the second series. This would have meant starting development from scratch again. The expected sales figures were estimated to be too low for these costs. Justifiably so, as we can see today in retrospect. The market for coupes in this size was clearly disappearing.
      This is not really understandable, since Daniel and I would already have been two buyers…

    7. The Lancia concept was based on the barchetta’s platform which of course was based on the Punto I.
      Maggiora put in a second set of A post pressings thirty centimetres behind the first set to bring the dashboard and front seats further back to get rid of the stool-like seating position of the Punto.
      The barchetta was very expensive to make and Fiat can’t have made any money from it and they surely wouldn’t have put a car in production that was based on the same production processes that relied heavily on manual work.
      The barchetta was meant as a joke and pure fun vehicle. Its interior is more than tight for two persons and certainly would not have been acceptable for a car like this Lancia.

    8. Bob: it would have been lovely to base a range of cars around the coupé and not the other way around. I like that thinking. Dave: your point makes me wonder about the actual costs of platform sharing. So much is ruled out and so much of what is possible is variations on the theme. VAG is good at platform sharing – and many of the cars are just some form of hatchback with very similar silhouettes. And when this is the case the designer is left with fussy exterior forms and curlicued front-end and rear-end graphics (and N I C E B I G L A B E L S) to identify the car. It´s like GM´s badge engineering from the 80s at a higher level.

    9. Platform sharing over a long time enabled you to freely vary the width of the car, its wheelbase and the length of the door openings. What always remained fixed was the pedal-to-front-axle dimension. VW was the first to make that variable, too, with the MQB platform.
      The Punto platform never was meant to be this variable and the barchetta never was meant to make use of a true platform because of its small production numbers. Maggiora could not build more than 43 cars per day and in return could handle jobs that were too complicated for companies like Bertone or Pininfarina. The barchetta was built from lots of A4-sized tin snippets that were brazed or welded together to a nearly (literally) seamless body. When you open the bonnet you can see that each front wing is made from at least three individual panels and the rest is built just as madly – this wouldn’t have been necessarily the case for the Lancia. But the way they welded in the second set of lower A posts and connected them by hand welding in panels to the ‘front’ A posts, upper bulkhead and dashboard was not suitable for a true series production.
      And one thing Fiat surely didn’t need was another non-profit car like the barchetta…

  12. I like the Fulvia concept a lot. Would I buy one? On looks alone, yes. but for me a car needs more than a pretty face and I’m not sure this car would have driven as good as it looks, had it gone in production. But who knows, some parts bin specials turned out great.

    1. The Fulvia concept is promising, yes. A great stance and proportions, beautiful rump and flanks, graceful glasshouse and the proportions of the bonnet are good compared to the overall body length. But that face! This really could be the front end from a 2000’s Vauxhall hatchback. A car with the Fulvia name should have a face that can carry it off.

    2. It´s not easy for me to agree with you 100% about the front graphics of the Fulvia. I think they are neat and tidy and in keeping with Lancia values. I had a look at 2002 offerings from Opel and none of them have the same lamp design as the Fulvia. The redesigned Vectra C had something like the same concept and probably for similar reasons other than plain copying.

    1. Those front end graphics are distinctive and clear. That´d be Martin Smith´s work at Opel. If you take put up the graphics of the car´s peers you´ll find it´s easily recognisable. What´s the problem?

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