Cars Of A Lifetime: Suzuki SJ 413 – Four Times 88 Equals….Success


(Submittted by Gonzalo Tampier)  After reading Brendan’s recent article about the Olds 88, I decided to share with you my personal story about the number 88. It’s not about Olds, but it is about the probably four best cars I’ve owned, all of them (who knows why), from the year 1988.

First of all, I must say that for CC, this might be a rather exotic story since it takes place in very distant places: the south of Chile, and Germany. So here I begin: My first car was a red ‘88, long-wheelbase Suzuki SJ-413 (Samurai predecessor), with a factory installed fiberglass roof. I owned that car for more than five years and, besides being my daily driver to visit university, it allowed me to visit great mountain and coastal places in southern Chile and Argentina.


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Its long wheelbase, moderate fuel consumption (about 20 mpg) and excellent  off-road capabilities (unmatched, in my opinion, by any other small 4×4) made it the always-preferred vehicle when organizing weekend trips with my friends. But for each of its great characteristics, you could find one or more that were negative, most of which related to comfort–suspension, seats, heating and noise–but its stability, maneuvering ability and top speed were… well, I think you can imagine. And thanks to our climate, at least rust wasn’t a big issue.

While looking for them in other regions of the world, however, I learned that this was probably the biggest problem with these little cars. SJs were built between 1980 and 1989 when, after minimal changes, they were renamed  Samurai. The first SJ models had a 1.0-liter four-cylinder engine (Sj-410) until a 1985 upgrade brought a larger 1.3-liter engine plus a five-speed box. They were available in short- and long-wheelbase models with different roof configs, as well as a pick-up version.


They became quite popular here, since the only competitors (Toyota Land Cruiser FJ-40, Nissan Patrol and Jeep CJ) were as least twice as expensive. In those days, comfort and size weren’t terribly important to most people who simply needed to get somewhere where a normal car couldn’t go. Due to a regulation that imposed much higher taxes on import vehicles with engines larger than one liter, another model, called the SJ-408 and equipped with the 800cc engine of the older LJ’s, was available. These models, even lighter than the standard ones and with a very high transmission ratio, were even better off-roaders (and even more terrible on-roaders). As far as I know, these models were sold only here between 1984 and 1986, when the tax barrier was ended.

I will never forget the motorcycle-like feel of the engine, which could rev up to 8,000 RPM when necessary, and its narrow width that allowed passage through even the narrowest of trails. One more advantage was that you never got stuck in the deep tracks left by large trucks or tractors. Two wheels on one side of the vehicle are always securely placed between the deep, muddy tracks.


Long-wheelbase Suzuki SJ’s were not as popular here as the short-wheelbase version despite the latter’s even worse ride. Actually, I think that other than in India (where they are still built as the Maruti Gypsy, by Maruti-Suzuki), they weren’t popular at all. So, why were the SWB models so popular?

This first part of this story ends with my need for a laptop, which at the time was more important to my studies than a car, and which 10 years ago meant a big investment. At least I had enough money left to purchase a Chilean-made ‘74 Citroën 2CV, known here as the Citroën AX-330, or simply “Citroneta”. But that’s another story.


Some years and cars later I was living in Berlin and driving probably the worst car I ever owned (a Renault Rapid ‘95). During a bike trip, in a small town near to Berlin, I found a white VW Caravelle (Vanagon) with some fancy pink stickers on its side offered for sale. I’d always wanted to own one of them, and this particular example was in particularly good shape and priced fairly.  It was equipped with the 2.0-liter “Wasserboxer” and… ehmmm… not much more.


But it was in good shape–and from 1988! For the second time, destiny had put that number in my life. I don’t think I need to say much about the VW Transporter / Vanagon / Multivan / Caravelle here other than that I still dream of finding a good example again–but this time, a syncro (4WD) model with a diesel engine (unfortunately a rare and very expensive combination, even in Germany). After a year or so, my permanent attempt to get better fuel mileage led me to Poland, where I made a cheap LPG conversion. It was the beginning of the end.


Here you see the LPG tank arrangement: It just didn’t work as expected, and wouldn’t pass the strict German TÜV inspection. So ends the second part of the story.

Again, a replacement was needed quickly, and a ‘95 Citroen ZX with very just 50K kms (~32K miles) and in very good (external) shape was my choice. It was the second-worst car of my life. After getting rid of it after one or two months, one thing was clear: Score: 1988, plus two points; 1995, minus two points. I was learning.


It was time in my life for a Mercedes. I always wanted a W123 station wagon, but no good one could be found within my budget. They were already “Kult” in Germany, and thus not good for my wallet. During my search, I started to like the next-gen W124, which was built from 1985 to 1995. People say that they are the last “real Mercedes”, while others regard them as the beginning of Mercedes’ decadent era. I agree with the first assessment. As with their predecessors, European W124s were available in any combination you could imagine,–from the simple 200E, with fewer extras than the cheapest Japanese car of that time, to fully-loaded models able to delight even the most demanding customers. Eccentricities such as the single-arm windshield wiper,  heated washer fluid tank and heated nozzles are among the many wonderful, Mercedes-typical details that I just loved.

I always had a foible for diesels, and I thought it was the right time for one. I didn’t need speed, and since taxes in Germany are proportional to engine displacement, I looked for the rare 200TD version. As you might know, “T” doesn’t stand for ‘turbo’, but for ‘Touristik & Transport’, which denotes the Mercedes station wagons to this day. Its four-cylinder engine (with just 72 hp), combined with the heavier T body is probably why these Mercs inherited the proud nickname of their diesel-powered W115 and W123 predecessors: “Die Wanderdüne” (the moving sand dune).

This is also the reason why that combination didn’t have a long life: from 1991 on, only 250 and 300 diesel (and 300 turbodiesel) engines were available in combination with the “T” body. In my opinion, 200TD’s are actually not that slow at all. They have excellent aerodynamics (Cd of 0,28 for the sedan: see history of aerodynamics part 3 link). Many, many times I reached terminal velocity of 160km/h (~100 mph) or more on German no-limit Autobahns. The problem lies in the first derivative of speed: acceleration. It feels like an eternity until you reach your speed, whether in the city (50 Km/h) or in the Autobahn, provided there is ABSOLUTELY no slope. Even 1 or 2% of slope is noticed by the engine, reducing speed and acceleration notoriously.

After some weeks of searching, I found the right exemplar: a white ‘88 Mercedes 200TD with, again, no extras, besides a sunroof and a fifth gear (yes, the fifth gear was an Option in E-class models of that time!). Despite of not being necessarily searching for an ’88, destiny wanted me to have an ’88 for a third time in my life. I am convinced that this was definetly the best Car I’ve owned. And the Merc ads of the time claimed the same.


(image above: “(gasoline model:) it’s never been the first in the ADAC reliability statistic. No wonder, with this competitor (diesel)”

Basic Mercedes E-class models were probably one of the few and last high quality vehicles which were built for practical purposes, to last long years and delight their owners with nothing but their reliability. Taxi drivers knew and know it, and one can still see many old W124 cabs around.


But life goes on and it was time to return to Chile. I sold the Merc, and it served their new owners for several years, without significant failures.  ‘88: 3 points. ‘95:-2 points


When my family and I returned to Chile, a basic 4WD means of transportation was needed again. For the first months, we borrowed my uncle’s ‘88 Chevrolet Trooper. In certain countries, Chile included, Isuzu Troopers were rebadged as Chevrolets (Chevrolet/Isuzu P’up is a similar example). Between 1986 and 1993, Troopers were very successful here: a three-door, long wheelbase model arrived, just right to be categorized by the taxation as a commercial vehicle (I think, tax issues have had a large influence in car design and/or in the success of certain models in different countries).

Troopers were also just perfect for typical families wanting to join the worldwide SUV-trend for a low (tax-reduced) price. Well, not that you couldn’t make use of a real 4×4 here – there were plenty of roads waiting for those families and their Troopers back then. And the three-door disadvantage was forgotten when seeing the price sticker of the five-door alternative, at least 20% more expensive. The next Trooper gen, despite its better look and equipment, never reached the success of its predecessor. They were too similar, both in equipment and in price, to Monteros, Pathfinders, 4runners and Cherokees, which were finding their market share with big success.


The experience with my uncle’s Trooper was good, even if the first days, with fresh memories of the Mercedes 200TD driving feeling, were not easy at all. But it was good enough for my needs, and it was an ’88 model! I decided to convince my uncle to sell, and after some weeks, the Trooper was mine. It’s not that I really liked that car before. Or that I would have chosen it under different circumstances. But it was Japanese-typically simple, reliable, with enough room for four persons and their luggage, and with the needed off-road abilities for this latitude and my intended re-take of all the trips I used to make earlier.

And again, destiny put an ’88 model car in my life, for a fourth time.  After more than three years of having it I can just say: I learned to like this car. I’ve almost forgiven him not being honest to me, with these Chevy badges instead of ISUZU ones, and I have got used to all of the typical issues of such an old car as a daily driver.

In the meantime, I swapped the 2.6l gas engine for a ‘99 2.5 Hyundai turbodiesel for better fuel mileage (diesel is considerabily cheaper than gas here, and my cost/km is now 50-60% of the cost with the original engine). Did I already say that I’m always concerned about the fuel efficiency of my cars? I hope this doesn’t become an obsession…



Some days I think I would like to sit in a silent, comfortable SUV, with all these things I don’t have and that have become quite standard these days (a/c, power windows, automatic transmission, etc.), but then, I think of the real use I give to my car: hauling stuff with a trailer (in very bad roads), moving from A to B in a region where you really don’t need A/C, and travelling across places where you’ll never find someone fixing modern car’s problems. And as some people say, you don’t need what you don’t know. So, I must keep away from those odd post-‘95 cars. ‘88 :4 points. ‘95:-2 points

I remember an interview I read a long time ago: there was a Spanish old man which had spent every day of his life in the past 20 years (or more) in the cinema. If you believed the article, he would be the person who had seen the largest amount of movies in the cinema in the world. When he was asked about his favourite movies, he responded: the movies from Paramount Pictures. “What? All of them?” And he just repeated: “The movies from Paramount Pictures. All of them”. I don’t know if I can say I like ALL of the ‘88 model year cars, but somehow, I feel I have something in common with that old man.


What about you, dear CC readers, any specific year preference if you would have to take one?