Suzuki's 4x4 History

1982: SJ-Series Suzuki Samurai, Sierra, Jimny

Nov. 01, 2005 By ORC STAFF

After more than a decade of proving their 4x4 prowess in countries all over the world, Suzuki introduced the all-new SJ410 (nomenclature signifying 4-wheel-drive, 1.0 liter engine) in 1982. This truck was also known as the SJ30, the Sierra, the Jimny, and also re-badged as the Maruti Gypsy in India, as well as the Holden Drover in Australia. Larger and more modern than the LJ series, the SJ30 expanded on the LJ's pluses and addressed many of the minuses. The 970cc 4-cylinder engine was a larger version of the LJ80's power plant, delivering 45hp and an even bigger improvement in torque, helping to haul its additional 300lbs over that of the LJ more quickly to its identical top speed of 68mph.

Differences from the familiar Samurai included of course the smaller engine, the narrower track width front and rear with leaf springs mounted further inboard, 12% lower transfer case ratios in high and low range, 10% lower differential gears, a 4-speed transmission, front and rear unboosted drum brakes, a transfer case mounted drum parking brake, seat and dashboard design, lack of a roll bar, and availability of half-door convertible, pickup, hardtop, raised-panoramic-roof, and no-glass hardtop versions.

In Britain a ""gentlemen's agreement"" between British and Japanese industries limiting Japanese cars to a mere 11% of the market left Suzuki, a latecomer, with a very small allocation of market share. The popularity of the SJ series forced Suzuki to investigate overseas production. The Spanish company Land Rover Santana SA wanted a product to complement their Land Rover production, so Suzuki took a 20% (later increased to 32%) shareholding in Santana. This arrangement resulted in over 60% European content, allowing the vehicles to be exempt from Suzuki GB's quota.

Beginning in 1983, Suzuki saw a market for a larger version of the SJ410 and 413. By stretching the wheelbase 13.5 inches and the overall body length by 23 inches, the long-wheelbase SJ was born. Available as a 4 or 6 seat convertible, raised-roof hardtop, 3 different body styles of pickup, and a very rare 4-door hardtop (In fact, the ""4-door hardtop"" may actually be a hoax. Does anyone know for sure?), Suzuki had a vehicle to meet anybody's small-truck needs. As popular as it has been, the SJ series is still in production today, but has gone through several updates.

By 1984, the SJ series received its first major update. With the addition of an available all-new aluminum 1324cc 64hp engine, the SJ series was headed upscale. The new SJ413 (4wd, 1.3 liters) received power front disk, rear drum brakes, a new dashboard and seat design, and a switch from the vertical-slat metal grille to the plastic unit with which we are familiar.

Note: The brakes were still not power on the SJ410 through 1985. The metal grille was kept through 1985 on the SJ410 as well -- Eric Bewley

By this time the popularity of the Suzuki due to its price, performance, and reliability allowed it to be sold in the roughest countries in the world, and Suzuki responded by adding assembly factories in Spain and India to supplement the huge Hamamatsu factory in Japan.

Until this time, Suzuki had never officially sold any of their 4x4s in the United States, but some 3000 or so SJ410s followed various unofficial paths into the U.S. With the success of the SJ series in over 100 countries around the world, they saw a huge market ready for such a vehicle. Suzuki took the SJ413 as the basis for what was to be called the Samurai and made the few important changes from the SJ413 listed above. Unfortunately it was only offered to the United States in short wheelbase convertible and hardtop versions.

1985 was the year that the 1986 model year Samurai was released in America, and it was an instant hit. Starting at $6200 and fully loaded at $7500, many people simply could not resist it. Starting with a mere 1200 trucks imported per month, sales increased exponentially to 8000 vehicles per month and Suzuki quickly found themselves with 47,000 Samurais sold by the end of their first year. Not only was it the top-selling convertible in the United States, but it also captured the best first-year sales record of any Japanese car company.

Keeping in mind the success of the VW Bug, Suzuki planned to always revise - not change - the vehicle, therefore retaining its style and simplicity. The 1988.5 model-year brought the first significant changes to the Samurai. In an effort to improve the ride quality, softer springs and shocks were installed, while a larger front anti-sway bar was used to reduce body lean around corners.

The 5th gear ratio was reduced to improve highway performance, and a new aluminum radiator, a redesigned valve cover, and large transfer case U-joint flanges were used. The dash was totally redesigned from the round air vents to square ones with a better integration of the radio, a 4-spoke steering wheel replaced the previous 3-spoke design, more comfortable seats and rubber shifter knobs, new round-hole wheels and a slightly revised radiator grille summed up the visual changes.

--Geoff Beasley

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