A Truly Tiny Time Machine: The 1981 Suzuki LJ80

It has been a very, very long time since driving enjoyment topped the list of a manufacturer’s design criteria. Fuel economy, safety, power, emissions and performance all leap-frogged good old fashioned fun decades ago, and given the current economic climate, aren’t about to take a back seat any time soon. With such automotive giants as General Motors and Toyota recently realizing their mortality, the risk associated with the creation of a car that doesn’t meet society’s various self-imposed standards is catastrophically huge, regardless of how fun that car may be.

This is not one of those cars. What this is, is a 1981 Suzuki LJ80.

A little known and exceedingly rare relic stemming from Suzuki’s popular 4x4 vehicles in overseas markets, the diminutive LJ80 entered the market in 1979 as Suzuki’s first foray into the Canadian automotive market.  Eventually replaced by the larger and more powerful SJ410 and Samurai shortly after its launch, the LJ’s sales lagged behind the competition’s due to the tiny truck’s relatively spartan nature and 41-horsepower, 797cc four cylinder engine. As a result, very few were sold and even fewer have survived.

But, trundling (for that’s the best way to describe the truck’s forward movement) down the road today, this particular survivor feels excellent. And it certainly gets a reaction like nothing else; it’s nearly impossible to come to a stop without being approached by some curious onlooker. With the classic 4x4 silhouette, a rounded grille topped with a bulging hood, and corrugated flanks, it looks like the pint-sized and friendlier offspring of a Toyota FJ40. Be it at the local gas station or the grocery store parking lot, people simply flock to it in droves, enquiring about everything from its name (the only identifying mark being the Suzuki lettering across the grille) to its powerplant to its year of manufacture. And of course, driving past any elementary school is downright dangerous, with a ridiculous number of small children being all too eager to evade their mother’s grasp in an effort to get a closer look at what must appear to be a real-life Tonka truck.

And of course, with just 41 horsepower on tap from the tiny four cylinder engine, escaping isn’t much of an option. Granted, the truck’s paltry 1,698 pound curb weight does endow it with a bit more verve than you’d expect, but acceleration simply isn’t the truck’s strong suit. Capable of moving with the flow of traffic under most circumstances, the tiny powerplant simply can’t keep up with more modern machines on the highway, where your top speed is as much a test of your mental mettle as it is of the truck’s. That said, the truck surges forward with surprising ease when it’s not forced to blaze its own aerodynamic trail on the highway, leading one to surmise that the truck’s top speed is as much a factor of its barn-door aerodynamic efficiency as it is of its horsepower rating. 

However, get it off the major highway systems, and the little LJ rapidly finds itself in its element. In and around Vancouver’s various suburbs, the little truck’s tiny wheelbase of 76 inches (just two and a half inches longer than that of a smart fortwo) and featherweight nature make it one of the most nimble vehicles I’ve ever had the pleasure of driving. In fact, with an overall width that’s around half a foot narrower than the aforementioned smart car, this is the single most nimble, confidence-inspiring vehicle I’ve ever driven. Don’t let the leaf springs, solid axles and relatively tall seating position fool you; not a hole in traffic appeared that I couldn’t drive this thing through without the utmost confidence. Sure, sports cars are scalpel-precise and just as sharp, but there’s a lot to be said for a tiny footprint and sight lines that aren’t impeded by… well… anything.

And it’s practical, to boot. Although that little motor may not offer much in the way of unbridled power, after some pretty lengthy drives you can’t help but wonder if the fuel gauge is broken, as it seems to hang on full for days on end. Even after nearly exhausting the fuel supply, a trip to the gas station typically involves something in the neighbourhood of $35 dollars before the pump shuts off; the 40 litre tank brimming for another week’s worth of heavy driving. And should the weather turn, as it’s liable to do around this time of year, an excellent four wheel drive system gives an amazing amount of confidence.

But although the solid front and rear axles, the little engine that could underhood, and high- and low-range divorced transfer case will undoubtedly see you through or around most obstacles, the spartan interior won’t provide the most comfortable setting throughout your travels. Oh sure, on a nice sunny day and all the sheltering contrivances cast aside, it’s a blessedly fun ride… but when the weather turns you rapidly realize that driving something only slightly larger than Shaquille O’Neal’s left shoe does have ramifications. The seats, limited in rearward travel by a dividing cross-brace, can’t get far enough away from the pedal box for my own 6’1” frame, and the continuous flapping of the fabric top combined with the engine’s less than subtle existence quickly make driving a tiresome chore. Add in the tiny heater’s inability to overcome Vancouver’s oftentimes dank weather and it wasn’t long before even the most stalwart of companions end up damp, cold, and miserable.

But there’s an adage that states; the difference between an ordeal and an adventure is attitude. And although your driving companions may find ignoring such faults impossible, as the driver, you’re usually too fantastically distracted to notice such things. Hunting for the next gap to squeeze through, convincing the inside rear tire lift around the next corner, or wringing ever last bit of momentum out of the tiny motor can have that effect. Even better still, should the sun come out once more (isn’t that all one can ask in Canada?), all those negatives are instantly obliterated, replaced by the overwhelming sense of freedom one can only get from driving a topless 4x4 of this scale. There quite literally seems to be nowhere it can’t go in both urban and extra-urban settings, no parking space it can’t squeeze into, no back alley it can’t negotiate.

Obviously, as a vehicle imported in somewhat limited quantities, and constructed of steel typical of Japanese automobiles of the era, they aren’t exactly growing on trees. Originally available in three variants known as the LJ80, LJ80Q, and LJ80V, there seems to be a greater proliferation of the topless, doorless LJ80 and door-equipped LJ80Q variants, with hard top van (LJ80V) and pickup truck (LJ81) models following close behind. Parts availability, as with most obscure vehicles, is quite limited although fantastic online resources like LJ10.com exist to assist the would-be or enthusiastic LJ80 owner. With prices ranging from a few hundred dollars for terminally rusty examples to many thousands of dollars for restored models, even the most expensive LJ’s will halve the cost of a more popular Land Cruiser or Land Rover in similar shape. And although those larger vehicles may seem eminently more comfortable, the reality is that for the average young city dweller looking to spend some weekends in the woods, the LJ80’s tiny size and thrifty fuel economy make it an enviable package. And although it may not have ABS, TC, ESP, and SRS, this tiny little truck sure does have a lion’s share of FUN.

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