Hamamatsu does it again.
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.
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.
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, 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.
 Toyota chief engineer Tatsuo Hasegawa had a history in aircraft design, which may have informed the Publica Sports concept’s sliding canopy.