Suzuki motorcycle history
quick introduction to Suzuki motorcycle legacyby Boris Babic, on
A household name in the motorcycle world today, Suzuki began as a loom factory in 1909. The founder, Michio Suzuki, decided to push into the growing automotive market. On the eve of the Second World War, in 1937, the company began producing its own budget car. That same year Japan invaded China and fought until its catastrophic defeat eight years later.
As the devastated country began rebuilding, Suzuki wanted to produce a cheap vehicle available to many for simple transportation. It did it with a self-powered bicycle, named the Diamond Free, in 1952. The first real Suzuki motorcycle came two years later, with the 90-cc four-stroke Colleda CO. Exports to the United States and Europe began in the 1960s, propelling Suzuki to a huge international motorcycle brand, also making scooters, ATVs and cars.
As a motorcycle maker, Suzuki made its name early on by pushing the envelope. In 1962 it unveiled the T20 Hustler, “the fastest 250 cc bike in the world” with a then-rare six-speed transmission that could reach 160 MPH. Nine years later, it stunned with the three-cylinder, two-stroke power bike, the GT750 “Water Buffalo” in 1971. It was the first Made in Japan motorcycle with liquid cooling and the first in the world to reduce the then usual rich fuming from the exhaust pipes by collecting residual fuel and oil in the crankcase.
Another 10 years later, with the radically designed Katana 11000, it shocked again and forced rival motorcycle makers to also begin working more on the design instead of just the utilities.
Suzuki’s biggest game-changer, however, came in 1985 with the GSX-R 750. It didn’t just look different with everything else the same, as the Katana largely did, but was the world’s first street-legal race bike. It pumped out an unprecedented 107 HP while weighing only 388 lbs. dry. It was just 24 lbs. above the minimum weight proscribed for race motorcycles of the time and a whopping 160 lbs down and 17 HP on the previously most popular bike of the day, the Honda VF750F.
But Suzuki only continued to hit the right buttons: with the huge Intruder 1400 it took a slice of the Harley-pie in the United States, the best-selling Bandits 600 and 1200 series from 1995, the response to the fastest-bike-in-the-world challenge with the Hayabusa in 1999 and the budget, yet immensely fun mid-weight V-2 SV650, then offered as a naked and a sportier, half-dressed S variant. The V-Strom, first 1000 then the 650 also had success, particularly in Europe, with the then-novel amalgam of a street and an adventure motorcycle.
And then – nothing. There has been no big novelty since, as the factory continued to stick to old models, some even archaic, with just facelifts and upgrades where possible. Suzuki bikes are by no means bad and the sales remain strong in all the segments it pushes, but they have lost their charisma over the years.
It isn’t clear exactly why it happened, but for a long time now Suzuki has only reacted, and often late. The revamped Katana came several years after the retro bikes exploded with the BMW R-nine-T, Ducati Scramblers, Triumph Bonneville and, The V-Strom 1050 is basically still the same old V-Strom 1000 from 2014 and is competitive on the huge adventure bike market only with its price. The SV 650 came back after the unfortunate design experiment when it was called Gladius.
Again, the selling point is the price, rather than emotion.
Meanwhile, Honda presented the Africa Twin, KTM a whole range of exciting motorcycles from 125 to 1,290 cc, BMW spits out a reinvented GS every few years and Yamaha handed homework to everybody with the MT-07 and its offshoots, including the beautiful Tenere 700.
The niches that Suzuki had carved in the prior decades are dead or dying. Fans of the big S are clamoring for something new, but until it happens, the factory will not lead as it once had, but follow and seek out pragmatics among motorcycle riders.