My New CC: 1987 Suzuki Forsa – Wake Up Little Suzuki; The Forsa Is With Me

A few weeks ago, I spotted an ad for a 1987 Suzuki Forsa with only 38,000 original kilometers on the clock.  The car, the ad said, was a true “barn find”.  It was the same as a Chevy Sprint, had the 1.0 litre non-turbo 3-cylinder, reached 50 mpg and had been parked in a seacan for years, forgotten, and recently rediscovered.  There was only one picture, showing the driver’s side of a blue 4-door which looked decent enough.  I was interested. I replied with a message: “Good morning! Can I come have a look at the Suzuki? I’m a serious buyer and won’t waste your time”.  In fact, I was not serious, believing that it was probably rotted over time, full of leaks and seal issues anyhow.  I’ve been burned before with low-mile vehicles.  Still, I wanted a reply, and the canned “Hello, is this still available?” enquiry is often ignored, especially with dozens of people likely responding.

A week went by before I received a reply:  A lot of people are interested.  Can you be here tomorrow at 10:30 tomorrow? Here’s the address . . .  Please make sure you close the gates behind you, as we have some horses that might get out.

I checked Google Maps. It was shown as a 30-minute drive from my home to the outskirts of Calgary, through a couple of private gates, down a country road, towards a home by a riverbank. In any event, this sounded like a pleasant drive.  In the morning I headed off.

I travelled down the gravel road, the only obstacles being the two gates; both secured by chains loosely wrapped around the posts.  After closing and chaining the last gate, I saw a few parked holiday trailers and the blue Suzuki about 100 feet to the right, as described in the directions.

Weatherstripping that resembled bacon

I I drove towards the Suzuki, which had its hood up, underneath which stood three men peering at the running engine.  I’m too late, I thought.  I exited my truck and approached the vehicle and the men, who cheerfully greeted me.  The tall one whom I’ll call “Ed”, was the seller.  He was helping his aunt, who lived on the property, sell the car, which was currently running poorly and barely idling.

“What do you think the problem is?” one of the men asked me.  “Sounds like a vacuum leak”, I replied.  That’s what they thought too.  I flicked on the headlights, and the idle immediately sped up to 2800 rpm.  That seems strange, I thought. A look under the hood revealed an ancient battery and a new fuel filter. Ed had jumped the car to start it as the battery was useless.  The other two men said goodbye and drove off.  They must have been curious bystanders, not prospective buyers.

I surveyed the interior, which looked to be in good condition other than dash vents missing a rib or two, and a tear in the driver’s headrest.  Someone had installed a Honda tape deck. There was a pungent barn odor. Some mice had obviously decided that this would make a nice family home.

The exterior showed no dents and no rust, but some significantly warped weatherstripping, shrunken over time.  The paint looked okay, though there was some orange peel.  Was this how Suzuki painted cars in the eighties?   No, because I saw blue paint on some of the mouldings that the tape hadn’t covered. This car had been repainted at some point.  The Kumho winter tires showed a DOT date of 2006 but showed no cracks. A quick look under the vehicle revealed no or rust, but there was some wet oil around the oil pan gasket.

A test drive down the gravel road revealed no obvious problems.  When I shut the car off, it dieseled for a few seconds before I hit the gas pedal and put it to rest.

Okay, so this wasn’t a showroom vehicle that was hidden away for 36 years just to be revealed to me in its full factory glory.  Maybe I should have walked, but I liked the vehicle.  My gut wasn’t telling me no.   We agreed on a price.  Ed and his aunt were probably getting the better end of this deal, I thought.

I returned two later with a plate, some cash, and a new Kirkland battery from Costco, which I installed immediately.  I turned the key and the car fired right up.  It could idle!  In fact, it was quite smooth now.  I think that fixed it, I said.  “Ah, I’m sure there are vacuum leaks in a car like this”, he advised with a dismissive wave of his hand.

“I have an air compressor over there.  Drive it over”.  I added more air to the 17-year-old air already in the tires, which were each at about 15 psi.

As I put the car into first gear, I noticed a rubbery feel with the stick, as if it wasn’t quite engaging. When I released the clutch, there was a grinding sound. I pulled the shifter into second, then back into first.  The gears engaged. Was this a synchro problem? Did these cars even have synchros on the first gear?

I drove back through the gates, down the gravel road, and onto the highway, where the car smoothly made it up to speed with no hesitations or shifting issues.  120 kilometers per hour and no shakes, oscillations, or other concerning noises.  I made it home successfully, the only glaring problem being a high idle — over 3000 rpm.

The next day I drained the circa-2006 oil and wrestled the filter off with some difficulty.  I added 5W30 Kirkland synthetic and installed a Fram filter.  I gently snugged the oil pan bolts, noticing that they easily turned with finger pressure.  The gasket had shrunk.  We’ll see how this holds up.

I did a voltage test on the alternator.  With no accessories on, the voltage was 14.8, where is should be.  When I flicked on the fan or the headlights, it dropped to 13.85.  This must be the problem, I thought.  It wasn’t regulating properly, so the car is compensating by increasing the revs.  I ordered a new unit from Rock Auto for $150 and it arrived a couple of days later.

After I installed the new alternator, a simple enough task, it was obvious that nothing had changed and the idle was still high.  Oh well, I guess I have a spare now.

My attention shifted to the carburetor.  The carb cleaner test over the vacuum hoses, and a few pinch tests revealed no vacuum leaks.   I decided to tinker with the two screws on the back of the carburetor.  With the car started and headlights on, I turned them both in all the way, then backed them out two turns.  No change in the fast idle.  I backed out the top one a half-turn. The idle slowed. Another quarter-turn. It slowed more – down to about 1200 rpm.  I flicked the lights off. The idle dropped to 900 rpm.  Good enough.

In the morning, I started the car.  The idle was at 3200 rpm.  I backed out the lower carburetor screw about a half-turn.  The idle dropped to about 2000 rpm, when I think it should be.  Over then next couple of minutes, the idle slowly dropped to 900 rpm.  Idle problems solved?  Perhaps.

Next task: the mouse smell. I removed the rear carpet in the hatch area, stuffed it in the washing machine and sent it through a cycle.  I removed the spare tire, found evidence of a mouse residence, and cleaned the area.

Near the clutch pedal, I saw a small hole in the carpet.  I lifted the carpet, saw the former mouse mansion, and removed the underlay.  I cleaned the metal, which now had some surface rust thanks to the penetrative qualities of mouse pee, and applied some blue touch-up aerosol paint I found in my garage.

The musty smell was now almost gone but not gone completely, the odd whiff occasionally presenting itself. The musty scent evokes childhood memories of old cabins and country home basements; a sweet and pungent smell that as a child I had never recognized as being caused by mice. I remember sitting in my neighbor’s basement, playing Lode Runner on a Commodore 64.  Memories aside, it’s not a smell I want at all.

Maybe one day I’ll find a parts car with nice blue carpet intact.  A parts car.  Should be simple.

The next task was the warped beltline weather stripping.  The strip that goes on the outer door sill and tucks behind and against the window.  There should be a Sprint/Firefly/Forsa parts car somewhere in the city, right?

Wrong.  None of the Pick ‘n’ Pulls have anything like this. shows a few of these cars, but a few phone calls resulted in nothing.  “Yeah, it shows up on the page, but we haven’t had that car for years!” was a typical response.  “Holy sh**, that’s old!” was another unhelpful comment I received from a couple of parts guys.  Considering the number of these vehicles once on the roads, I’m surprised how few are left to pick through.

Fine, maybe I can fix this myself. I popped out a beltline strip from the driver’s door. The rubber was shrunken over a small metal rod that ran through it and protruded an inch on both ends.  I popped in in the kitchen oven under low heat for a few minutes.  It came out soft and pliable.  As I grabbed both ends of the strip and pulled, the rubber stretched nicely over the metal rod.   The warpage was mostly gone.  It worked, sort of.

With the help of some adhesive, I did the same to the other three strips and reinstalled them.

The rear window washer refused to spray fluid, although I heard the motor kick in.  I followed the hose up and found that one of the connectors was clogged with white residue. (I’m not sure what this was). Easy fix.  Another problem rectified.

Over the past couple of weeks, this car has slowly been evolving into a daily driver that I look forward to being in.  I’ve learned finesse the finicky shifter, which occasionally has trouble popping into first gear.  When it happens,  I just let the clutch out slowly to let the teeth align, popping it into gear.  Sometimes a quick shift into second then first does the trick.  The oil pan gasket is bone dry, I’ve discovered no other oil leaks, no coolant leaks, no tire leaks, no bearing issues, no bushing-related clunks.

I enjoy the honks and thumbs up I get from others, the comments from strangers, the smiles.  A few people, recognizing this as a rebranded Sprint or Firefly, have approached me and told me they had one of these as their first car.  I also enjoy the qualities of the car itself.  It holds the road nicely and corners well.  It cruises easily at 120 and even 140 kph.  It easily cuts through (or over) snow.  Though it gets up to speed quickly enough around town, the slightest incline on the highway requires a downshift, or even two.  I like the organic feel of the steering, the sense of the road closely beneath me. It’s a similar feel to driving a motorcycle.  A drive in my wife’s 2017 Escape now leaves me with the unpleasant sense of a Novocain injection; though the Ford is quick and comfortable, the steering now seems numb and the feeling of isolation from the road (something the Escape is not even known for) is slightly disconcerting after spending hours in the Suzuki.

General Motors, believing that gas prices would rise to ridiculous heights, had started the design on these cars before purportedly realizing that these would not be profitable for them.  They approached Suzuki, who agreed to finish the engineering and to give GM five percent of the company. This was probably a good move for both companies.  Given the trends of the time, GM almost certainly would have created an overweight and unreliable subcompact using the parts bin and chopped components from other incompetent offerings to cut costs. Was GM capable of designing a suitable engine?  If not, had they been planning to use the drivetrain from the old Chevette, which this car was to replace?  Would GM have used X-body or Chevette suspension à la the Fiero? Regardless, Suzuki took the ball and ran with it, engineering an excellent and reliable supermini.

Back in the day, some saw these as cheapo penalty boxes, which is unfortunate.  Though many remember these cars fondly, I believe they didn’t get the respect they deserved; perhaps because of the GM brand association.  They seemed to sell in larger numbers in Canada (especially the Pontiac Firefly variant) where gasoline was more expensive.  Owners, many of whom struggled financially, often refused to maintain them, or could not afford to. Used examples in good condition sold for peanuts.

As for my example: one day soon, I should replace the timing chain, which appears to be an easy job.  Maybe I’ll enjoy it the car for a few months and then sell it.  Maybe I’ll keep it and make it pristine over time.

Or maybe I’ll just drive it, enjoy it, and save some money on gas, as Suzuki and GM intended over 40 years ago.

I think there’s supposed to be a “V” between “FORSA” and “GL”