Suzuki is sometimes thought of as a minor player in the automotive world – the four-wheeled automotive world, that is, as they are a major motorbike maker. And maybe they are in a sense, being focused on smaller cars than most other Japanese automakers. This does not mean that there haven’t been some interesting ones. The Fronte Coupé, for instance, should be on your fantasy garage shortlist. Let me tell you why.
All was well and teeny-tiny in the kei world of mid-‘60s Japan when a company that refused to follow the rules came barging in. That company was Honda, and their N360, launched in 1967, upset the status quo and forced everyone to up their game. Honda looked at the kei car class and figured there was no reason why they couldn’t make something exciting, good-looking and competent when the majority of the competition was building outdated and underpowered tin cans. Think Subaru 360, think Mitsubishi Minica – and think gen 1 Suzuki Fronte, too.
Honda had another ace up their sleeve: they invented the kei coupé when they launched the Z360 in 1970. Naturally, the competition knew this was coming, but Honda were still first on the scene. For their part, Suzuki saw what was coming and were working feverishly since early 1969 to make sure Honda would not be alone for long.
The Suzuki Coupé would be based on the 3rd generation Fronte, launched in 1970. Back in those days, there were a lot of technological differences from one kei maker to the next (the opposite of today, in a way), so whereas Honda went for an air-cooled four-stroke twin and FWD, Suzuki were working with a water-cooled two-stroke triple in the rear.
But the key feature was less the drivetrain than the racier styling. The Honda Z was a radical design, so Suzuki needed something equally strong to make their mark. Perhaps doubting in their in-house capabilities, they contacted Italdesign’s Giorgetto Giugiaro.
It so happened that, while at Ghia in the late ‘60s, Giugiaro had authored the Rowan Electric car, another project that Alejandro de Tomaso had bought into and tried to get off the ground. Only a handful of these EVs were made, but the general style of the car had caught the eye of many in the automotive biz. And it was a little smaller than kei sized, so Giugiaro started from there.
This is what Giugiaro delivered. It was clean, modern and spacious. It was also completely not what Suzuki wanted. They took it anyway and set their in-house design team, headed by Yasuhiro Naito, to redesign the whole thing into a sporty-looking two-seater coupé, not a high-waisted two-door saloon.
It took a little work to get the greenhouse into shape, but the aspect that took the longest time to settle was the front end. In these early sketches, the overall shape is still pretty much one-box, with a steeply sloped front trunk lid morphing straight into the windshield. The finished product kept the raked windshield, but the nose given more prominence – probably for the better in terms of cargo space, and certainly improving the looks.
For such a small design though, the Fronte Coupé is crammed full of cool touches. The simplicity of the engine air intake is commendable, but also counterbalanced by the three Mustang-like cabin vents.
Same with the fresh air vent up front. Quite mesmerizing. It didn’t have to be so intricately crafted, but it was.
And again with the mandated fender mirrors. Those were so very stylish items – nothing of the kind had ever been attempted on a kei car before Suzuki came along. And almost as soon as the Coupé came out in September 1971, there would be a host of copycats.
Initially, the Coupé was only offered in two trim levels. The base model was the GE, the deluxe option was the GX and that was that. Most unusual for a Japanese carmaker – just compare the number of Fronte saloon declensions that were on offer at the same time.
The base model had painted bumpers and lacked bright trim on the windows, as well as a few nicknacks on the dash, but nothing really substantial compared to the GX. The range would grow in future years, of course. Early cars were also strict two-seaters; a back seat was only added as an option on the GX in early 1972. Our feature car has one, but it may have been added later – the owner assured me it was a ’71 model.
The 356cc two-stroke triple, mated to a 4-speed manual, is set quite deep in the tail in an effort to keep the centre of gravity lower. It produces all of 37hp (gross), which doesn’t sound like much, but we should bear in mind that the car itself weighs less than 500kg.
The engine is water-cooled, with the radiator situated in the nose – that grille is no dummy. The suspension is bang up to date for 1971, with double wishbones and coils in the front and a semi-trailing arm (also coil-sprung) in the rear.
Suzuki marketed the car as a bona fide baby sports car, with a lot of optional and aftermarket extras (e.g. bucket seats, roll cage, 3-point seat belts, leather-wrapped steering wheel and the like) available for folks who wanted to take their Fronte to the track. This was a first for the kei car class, and it was instrumental in changing Suzuki’s image in the four-wheeler scene.
The cherry on top has to be the interior. Not even contemporary Ferraris have such an impressive alignment of dials on their dashes. Granted, it’s probably easier to monitor all this when one only has 37 ponies spinning the back wheels…
If the proof of a design’s success can be measured by its longevity, then the Fronte Coupé was a real hit. There was a hiatus caused by the rather unexpected revision of the kei class rules, enacted in 1976. In June of that year, the Fronte Coupé went out of production, but was revived with only minor changes in late 1977 as the 550cc Cervo, which carried on until mid-1982. Pretty impressive run – the Honda Z, let we forget, never made it to its fourth birthday.
I have the great pleasure of being able to admire this particular car regularly, as it is a frequent visitor to the Jingu Gaien on Sundays. Its owner is justly proud of his Fronte Coupé and can often be seen polishing this or tending to that on the gingko-lined avenue, before getting inside and speeding off in an inimitable motorbike-like racket and traces of blue smoke. It’s a joy to behold and, if nothing else, has made taking photos for this post a lot easier.
But in doing the research for said post, what struck me is that this car is often credited to Giugiaro in non-Japanese sources, when the reality is that his involvement was a lot less direct than that. It makes me wonder how many other allegedly Italian-designed cars, be they Japanese or otherwise, are actually only tangentially so. Whatever the case may be, as far as this Fronte is concerned, the Euro-Asian fusion was certainly a recipe for success.