CAPE TOWN, South Africa – 2020 saw the cute (but tough!) Suzuki Jimny on/off-roader celebrate its 50th anniversary in South Africa during whic time more than three million units were sold around the world.
It’s history, however, goes back another three years…
A Japanese car company called HOPE introduced its Hopestar ON360, a tiny 4×4 built to conform to Japanese Kei (small) car regulations. Unfortunately (or fortunately for Suzuki!) the ON360 was a commercial failure – ony 15 were assembled.
Build quality was ”horrible”, they were unreliable, and the ‘fuel gauge’ was simply a clear plastic pipe on which the driver had to keep a close eye.
UP FOR SALE
If fuel was still visible in the pipe the ON360 was still good to go… only, however, for a few kilometres.
Build quality was ”horrible”, they were unreliable, and the ‘fuel gauge’ was simply a clear plastic pipe on which the driver had to keep a close eye.the driver had to keep an eye on. If fuel was visible in the pipe the ON360 was still good to go… only, however, for a few kilometres.
HOPE put the design up for sale. Suzuki bought the plans for the equivalent of about R6.5-million in today’s monetary terms and got to work on the buggy’s potential.
The ladder-frame chassis, solid axles, and leaf-spring suspension were refined to improve durability and quality to make make mass-production possible. A Suzuki 360cc two-stroke engine replaced the original’s Mitsubishi unit and a more shapely body designed to house it all.
The Suzuki LJ10 (Light Jeep 10) reached showrooms in 1970 and was an instant success.
”The tough-as-nails little 4×4 could run off-road with big Japanese 4x4s such as Toyota’s Land Cruiser and Nissan’s Patrol but for a fraction of the price,” Suzuki SA told The Corner, ”but was much easier on the pocket to buy and run.”
On road, however, left something to be desired… The 360cc engine could only muster about 70km/h, the spare wheel lived where a rear passenger should have been, and luggage/load space was minuscule.
FINALLY, AS TON-UP MODEL
By 1976 Suzuki had ditched the Kei regulations, introduced a 539cc two-stroke engine, moved the space wheel to the tail door – and made 100km/h, well, possible. ”Sales soared around the world,” Suzuki told The Corner, ”as did the little Suzuki’s popularity and reputation.”
The LJ80 followed in 1977; by then Suzuki was scaling-down its two-stroke motorcycle engine production so a 797cc four-cylinder, four-stroke, engine made its way into the LJ. Fuel tank capacity was increased to 40 litres – as it is to this day.
The SJ410 was launched in 1981: a completely new, but still leaf-sprung buggy, with live axles retained, and the engine grew to 970cc/33kW.
READ MORE Suzuki features on Carman’s Corner
Two years later (1983) came the SJ413 – named for its 1324cc, the largest-capacity engine in Suzuki’s then catalogue.
”Towards the end of the SJ413’s life-cycle,” Suzuki told The Corner, ”it became clear that many customers were using their vehicles as daily transport with only occasional off-road expeditions.”
The automaker responded yet again to change… this time with a clear shift towards on-road comfort but without sacrificing the lightt Suzuki’s by now legendary off-road prowess. That required front coil springs for the early 1990’s, along with aircon, power windows, even tape-deck/radio sound systems.
A new naming convention was required: Suzuki came up with the cheerful ‘Jimny’, at the same time adding a new coil-sprung suspension, auto-locking front hubs, a dial to select 2WD, 4WD High and 4Low (instead of the traditional second gear lever), and a new 63kW, quad-valve, 1.3-litre.
”It was still very capable off-road (even without any electronic aids or locking diffs),” Suzuki told The Corner, ”fared reasonably well in the city, and remained largely unchanged for the next 20 years.”
The current Jimny arrived in 2018 to meet continuing strong demand.
Andre Venter, divisional manager of sales and marketing with Suzuki Auto SA, said: “The Suzuki Jimny is a legend in its own time. In the Seventies it rewrote the 4×4 rulebook, demonstrating that bigger is not always better. And it is still the compact 4×4 to beat today.
“The Jimny’s reliability, genuine off-road ability, comfortable cabin with all the modern amenities and low running costs, have clearly served to further bolster its reputation. The award-winning styling is pretty much spot-on, too – though the similarities with a classic like the LJ50 are clear, it remains modern and trendy.”
“Judging by the worldwide demand for the latest Jimny, this legend is far from a done deal, even after 50 years.”