The Suzuki Samurai has become a cult favorite among off-roaders and rock crawlers since its US introduction in 1986, but its origins can be traced back to 1968. The first model was launched as the 360-cc, two-stroke ON360 Kei vehicle by the Hope Motor Company in Japan almost 20 years earlier. Suzuki bought the Hope company and developed the Mitsubishi-powered mini-Jeep into the 1970 LJ10 “Light Jeep.” It was marketed briefly in the US in 1971-72 as the Suzuki Brute and elsewhere in the world as the Jimny.
Convinced that it had a good idea – especially in the Third World – Suzuki persevered and the second generation Jimny was launched in 1981 with a 63-horsepower, carbureted 1.3-liter OHC four-cylinder engine. When it arrived in the US as the Samurai, it was still slow – 0-60 in 16.9 seconds and a quarter-mile in 20.47 seconds – but it was fine for around town and enormously useful off-road. Manual locking hubs were standard, and a dealer added auto-lock system available. It was light and a favorite for towing behind RVs. Best of all, the base price was $6550, two thirds that of a Jeep Wrangler.
Helped by a catchy advertising program “Beep, Beep, Hi!” sales soared. Suzuki anticipated 1200 US sales per month but recorded 47,000 buyers in the first year. In 18 months the little Jeep passed the 100,000 mark and the company was selling 8000 Samurais a month. Suzuki also offered a catalog full of accessories that buyers could select at the dealerships.
The Samurai was lightly redesigned for 1988 as an “88½” model and the new Samurai had a softer suspension, new wheels, beefier front sway bar, new gauges and seats and high rear end gear to help performance. A handsome and useful hardtop was also offered in addition to the soft top.
Then things started to go wrong. A stronger yen bumped the price to $8495, which slowed sales somewhat. Then Consumer Reports magazine rolled a test car and deemed the Samurai “unacceptable.” The magazine urged a recall by the NHTSA, which refused. Suzuki sued Consumers Union in 1996, claiming the magazine test was manipulated to achieve a rollover result and the case was settled out of court in 2004. Meanwhile, Suzuki had launched the larger 1.6-liter Sidekick in 1989 (which was also sold by GM as the Geo Tracker), and these eventually replaced their smaller ancestor.
Despite the rollover issue, the Samurai continued to be sold in the US gaining throttle-body fuel injection in 1990, which boosted power to 68 hp. A two-wheel drive version was offered in 1992-93 and the rear seat deleted in 1994, rather than add rear seatbelts. The last year for the Samurai was 1995 in the US, and 206,419 had found American buyers in 10 years.
The Samurai has become a charming and useful collectible, prized for its off-road qualities and handy size. However, finding one which has not been modified can be difficult and many modifications are ill-advised, especially if they enable off-road abuse. It’s possible to retro-fit the 1.6-liter Sidekick/Tracker motor but that requires several modifications which must be done correctly. Extreme lifts and huge wheels are best avoided, unless rock-crawling is all you plan to do, and don’t expect it to last long.
Proof of the Samurai’s off-road prowess exists in several records. For example, in 2007 Chileans Gonzalo Bravo and Eduardo Canales drove their modified 1986 Suzuki Samurai up the Andean Ojos del Salado, at 22,615 feet the highest active volcano in the world. The pair reached the altitude of 21,942 feet, breaking the record of 21,804 feet set by a Jeep Wrangler. The Jeep drivers left a sign which said “Jeep Parking Only – all others don’t make it up here anyway” and Bravo and Canales brought that sign back down with them.