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Suzuki sold less than 5,500 cars in Canada last year. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail)
Suzuki sold less than 5,500 cars in Canada last year. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

Suzuki could have been just like Honda. What went wrong? Add to ...

To most, it probably didn’t mean much when the Suzuki car company announced that it was pulling out of North America: to the average consumer, the company was a non-entity, and hardly anyone bought its cars (which explains the corporate pullout).

But to those who live in the mechanical universe, Suzuki’s failure prompted bittersweet memories of what once was, and what could have been. The Suzuki “S” logo stood for something, and in the world of motorcycles, it still does. So what went wrong?

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“Making cars is like making music,” says Peter Egan, a highly respected magazine columnist who has followed the vehicle industry for decades. “You need to make hits. Suzuki had bad timing, and they never came up with a hit car when they needed it most.”

My first exposure to Suzuki was in the 1960s, when the company’s small motorcycles were duking it out with Honda and Yamaha in the North American marketplace. This was a time of unparalleled hope and opportunity – America was heading to the moon, the Beatles were on the hit parade, and the great consumer bounty that followed the Second World War was at its apogee.

For a teenage boy, motorcycles were a mechanized embodiment of the North American dream, but we couldn’t afford big bikes like the Harley V-Twin or the Norton Commando. And we weren’t qualified to ride them, either. The Japanese provided the perfect answer: a 50-cc Suzuki let me live out my fantasy of personal mobility and speed on a newspaper delivery-boy’s income. On two wheels, 80 km/h felt fast, and I rode through the night with a Suzuki speedometer glowing in front of me, addicted to the wail of that tiny Japanese engine.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Suzuki was a key player in the North American motorcycle market. Bikes like the Katana and the GSXR set trends, won races, and inspired countless buyers to put their money down. I raced a 750 Suzuki in the Production motorcycle class, and the Suzuki “S” logo was burnt into my consciousness as a symbol of fine engineering and speed.

By then, the company was selling cars, too – Suzuki came to the North American market in the early 1980s with the SJ, a tiny, lightweight four-wheel-drive truck that looked like a Jeep built for children. The SJ offered consumers something that Detroit didn’t – a small, low-cost vehicle that provided top-down fun and off-road capabilities.

Suzuki’s strategy followed a proven formula – Japanese manufacturers like Toyota and Honda had established a beachhead in North America by importing inexpensive, useful vehicles like the Civic and the Corona (predecessor to the Corolla).

Like Toyota and Honda, Suzuki had humble industrial beginnings. The company was founded by Michio Suzuki, the son of a Japanese cotton farmer. In 1909, he invented a fabric loom that was soon in high demand. But the loom had a built-in problem: it lasted too long, which limited Suzuki’s repeat sales. By the 1930s, Suzuki was determined to diversify his manufacturing empire by making vehicles. In 1938, he copied a British-built Austin Seven, but the car received a lukewarm reception, and sales were soon killed by the start of the Second World War.

In the 1950s, Suzuki found its stride by making engines that could be attached to a bicycle (in post-war Japan, cheap transportation was in demand, and raw materials were hard to come by). Suzuki was soon a renowned motorcycle builder. In the meantime, rivals Toyota and Honda had also expanded into the vehicle market. Toyota was building cars like the Toyopet and Crown, and made its first foray to North America in 1957.

Honda, meanwhile, had become the world’s largest builder of motorcycles, and was preparing to make the leap into cars. By 1970, Honda had started selling cars in North America – a decade later than Toyota, but well ahead of Suzuki.

As a long-time fan of Suzuki motorcycles, I expected Suzuki to follow an arc similar to that of the other Japanese makers, using its engineering and manufacturing know-how to infiltrate the North American market. Honda had done a particularly good job of capitalizing on the industrial and marketing wizardry it had developed with its motorcycles – the early Civic was like a four-wheeled variation of the Honda motorcycles that came out during its famous “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” era.

By the 1980s, the Civic and the Corolla had conquered North America. Suzuki, meanwhile, was plagued by missteps and bad luck. In the mid-1980s, the company introduced the Samurai, a cheap and cheerful four-wheeler that captured the imagination of the youth market. It didn’t last. Samurai sales were killed by an unfavourable review in the highly influential Consumer Reports magazine, which condemned the Samurai as unstable and prone to rollovers.

Other Suzuki models included the Swift, a decent, inexpensive hatchback, and a small SUV called the Sidekick. But sales were poor, in part due to an ill-advised alliance with General Motors, which produced nearly identical models under its own brand.

Industry observers saw it as marketing suicide: “Suzuki had a small dealer base that was trying to sell the same product as the GM dealer down the road,” says Greg Edwards, a former Subaru Canada manager who went on to take an MBA, focusing on the auto industry. “It wasn’t a great strategy.”

By the 1990s, a lot of people were wondering why Suzuki couldn’t bring its motorcycle mojo to the car world as Honda had – the market-dominating Civic was a four-wheeled iteration of the bikes that Honda had built its reputation on, packed with innovative technology that made it a cult car.

In the world of motorcycles, Suzuki was at least Honda’s equal when it came to design and marketing – bikes like the Suzuki GSXR and Hayabusa (the world’s fastest motorcycle, nicknamed The Bullet Train) cemented the company’s reputation for leading-edge performance. And yet Suzuki cars remained non-entities, lacking the divine spark that made the company’s motorcycles so desirable.

By last year, the North American operation was a dead man walking – in 2012, Suzuki Canada sold less than 5,500 cars. In a business where capital investment rules, there were only two choices: double down with new products and increased investment, or fold the tents and concede defeat.

Suzuki went with the second option. From a corporate perspective, it made sense, at least in the short term. If you want to manufacture cars, you sit at the table with high rollers who are prepared to bet hundreds of millions on new designs and the factories that build them. Failure isn’t pretty.

But if you knew Suzuki, the retreat was painful to watch – I always believed that there could have been a four-wheeled GSXR that would have pulled in buyers and set them up for a lifetime of Suzuki buying. They would have bought the cool, inexpensive hatchback, then moved up to the sedan and the minivan as their lives progressed, just as millions of others had done with Honda and Toyota.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Suzuki never made the leap. Sad, especially if you once worked two paper routes to buy a machine with that magic “S” logo on it, and listened to that beautiful little Suzuki motor as it carried you through the night into a future filled with infinite promise.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

 
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