Suzuki Motor Corporation’s roots go back to 1909, when Michio Suzuki founded the Suzuki Loom Works in Hamamatsu, Japan. Before Japan was known for small cars, transistor radios, and color televisions, the nation was known for its silk industry. Suzuki’s silk weaving machines were among the best and most innovative. Over his lifetime, Suzuki was granted more than 120 patents.
Born in 1887, Michio Suzuki was the second son of a farmer in Nezumino-mura, Japan. Weaving machines were an intricate part of his life from a very early age. At 14 years old, Suzuki apprenticed to a building contractor, hoping to learn construction. However, the vast majority of the work available was crafting floor looms—so that’s what Suzuki learned to do. With the advent of electricity in 1902, demand for looms increased considerably. At the age of 21, when his apprenticeship ended, Suzuki decided to get into manufacturing looms. Refitting the silkworm-raising house his family gave him, Suzuki established his first factory in October of 1909, and called the enterprise the Suzuki Loom Manufacturing Company.
In order to improve the quality of his products, he frequently visited his customers to listen to their opinions and ideas for improvements to his machines. Suzuki is quoted as having said; "Always think from your customer's point of view. Provide whatever your customer needs. It's possible if you try hard enough." This is how he learned there was a need for a loom capable of producing stripe patterns.
Suzuki’s Two-Shuttle Floor Loom appeared in 1911 to accomplish the task. In 1912, he got his first patent for his warp let-off controlling device. This an apparatus for moving the loom’s shuttle box up and down, which allows switching weft threads to make waffle patterns. Commonplace today, this was a significant innovation in 1912.
Suzuki took his enterprise public in 1920.
In 1930, Suzuki produced the machine responsible for gaining his company broad notoriety throughout Southeast Asia. Suzuki’s Sarong Loom was revolutionary in that it used fewer punched cards to weave waffle patterns because it was designed to save the cards after the pattern was done. This greatly reduced labor requirements. Small weaving mills were the primary customers for Suzuki’s Sarong Loom—typically operations with less than 20 looms. To make his machine affordable for them, Suzuki let his customers pay in monthly installments—a very rare business practice at the time. This strategy made it possible for Suzuki to sell considerably more product, as even small businesses could afford to buy them.
Things were going well for Suzuki until the run-up to World War II greatly reduced the demand for his machines. Anticipating a market shift, Suzuki had been working on developing an automobile to diversify his revenue streams since 1937. When others in his company questioned automobile development, Suzuki told them, "I can't think of any reason not to do this. It is worth it to take challenges—especially when there is little money."
Suzuki’s first engine was a liquid-cooled four-stroke four-cylinder powerplant. He employed cast aluminum for the crankcase and gearbox. The engine displaced less than 800cc and produced 13 horsepower. Suzuki got as far as the prototype stage with his car before the war intervened.
After the war, Suzuki picked up where he left off.
The loom business enjoyed a brief boom period when the U.S. government allowed cotton to be shipped into Japan. This got textile manufacturers up and running again, and generated loom sales. But then the cotton market played out in 1951.
This turned Suzuki back to automotive transportation.
His first offering that year was a small engine capable of attachment to a bicycle. But by 1952, Suzuki was building bikes with the engines already attached—the forerunner to what would eventually come to be Suzuki’s outstanding line of motorcycles. The Suzuki bike was innovative in that it permitted the rider to either pedal, use the engine alone, or both pedal and use the engine. This impressed the patent department of the Japanese government, which decided to award Suzuki a subsidy to further research the engineering of motorcycles.
This was the official start of the Suzuki Motor Corporation.
Automobile development had been continuing at Suzuki as well. The Suzulight SF four-door sedan debuted in 1955—with the SF designation standing for “Suzuki Four-wheel Car”. The front-drive model had a transversely mounted engine and was modeled after the 1953 Lloyd LP400 from Germany The Suzulight platform also supported the development of a light van (SL), a small pickup truck (SP), and a delivery van (SD).
The next Suzuki automobile was the 1959 Suzulight TL. Bristling with features considered commonplace today, the Suzulight TL offered a folding rear seat and a large hatchback style opening at the rear of the vehicle. Thing is, the TL was a commercial vehicle. The passenger car variant appeared in 1962. Rather than a hatchback, the sedan used a conventional trunk and roll-down rear windows. Since it was expected to carry less weight, it was also sprung more softly to improve its ride.
By the way, the Suzulight models were very small automobiles. For comparison, the original Mini was longer, wider, and heavier than the Suzulight TL—which was larger than the Suzulight SF. However, the Suzulight had a larger wheelbase and ran bigger tires and wheels than the Mini.
The first Suzuki branded automobile appeared in 1965—the Suzuki Fronte 800. It ran a three-cylinder, two-stroke 785cc engine with a fully synchronized four-speed column-mounted manual transmission. Base and deluxe versions were available. Interestingly, it was offered as a two-door coupe only. The model was sold until 1969.
Though a number of Suzuki models had been imported to the United States under an agreement with General Motors over the years, the first Suzuki-branded automobile to be offered here was the highly popular 1985 Suzuki Samurai small SUV. No other Japanese company had ever sold more cars in the United States in its first year than Suzuki did with the Samurai. Available as either a convertible or hardtop, the Samurai set the newly created American Suzuki Company off to a rousing start—until Consumer Reports labeled the Suzuki Samurai rollover prone in 1988.
Demand for the model fell off immediately.
American Suzuki filed a lawsuit against Consumer Reports, which it won. But the damage was done. Suzuki automobiles struggled to regain traction in the United States. So much so, none of the subsequent Suzuki automotive offerings ever really caught on in this market. In November of 2012, Suzuki announced the bankruptcy of the American Suzuki Company, as well as its intention to stop selling cars in the U.S altogether.