About twelve years ago I visited a Coventry scrapyard in search of bits for my rapidly self-composting Rover. Just outside the office of that Ryton-On-Dunsmore car breaker, there sat a pale metallic blue SC100. I wondered what parts the owner might himself be searching for. Next day, when I returned to collect the cast aluminium window frame covers I had found, there was a fresh addition atop the pile I had been rummaging through. That SC100 had become a new, doomed, crown, mounted high upon a column of rust. I’m pretty sure that was the last time I saw one.
Now here I am sitting at the wheel of a Whizzkid. What a strange day it’s been.
It was the annual UK motor industry Press Driving Day at Millbrook proving ground. Suzuki were there with a roster of Vitaras and other exotica, from which the Whizzkid stood out like a sore thumb. In fact it wasn’t immediately obvious what Little Suzi was doing there at all. Suzuki UK hadn’t sold a coupé here since, well, since the Whizzkid, assuming you discount the magical Autozam AZ-1 . There was a brief blip when the banzai Cappucino was sold here during the ’90s, but otherwise their non SUV offerings have been a story of Swifts, Balenos and Kizashis. And Lianas, of course. We can’t forget Lianas. Reasonably priced, you see.
Is the SC100 here because Suzuki are planning a return to the ridiculous little car forum? Probably not, but it would be nice to think so. Whatever the reasoning for its appearance today, it stands as a reminder of how deeply interesting a past the Japanese company has enjoyed. I’ve long been fascinated by this little thing. I love tiny, miniaturised things of great detail and the SC100 is barely any bigger than my 1:18 collection.
When the rear compartment was opened I didn’t know what reaction to give. My first instinct was to simply laugh out loud at the wonderful different-ness of it all, more different now than even when it was new thirty three years ago. But then my thoughts changed to admiration. It’s all very cleanly engineered. The F10A four cylinder mill huddles down out of the way, part smothered by its bulkhead-cum-firewall and somehow allowing a second row of seats fit inside that abbreviated bodyshell. It sits, posed laterally and with its gearbox underslung, providing drive to the rear 12 inch wheels.
It may only have 47hp, a figure probably less than the electric window motors of a current German sedan, but the car’s weight is within an order of magnitude of a plastic bag caught an updraught. It also has little diddy tyres which could probably be made to unstick on a whim. There is a chance, and a good one at that, of more than a little fun being had in this car. If only Suzuki could be persuaded to let the likes of me take their beautifully preserved little trinket out for a spin.
“There you go, mate”.
And that was it. I had the keys. Awesome! Millbrook had made the very wise decision to place restrictions on certain less athletic cars at the event, so I couldn’t take the Whizzkid on the Hill route or the high speed bowl. That would have been silly anyway. Of course this would all have been academic if I found that I couldn’t actually fit inside, and it ended up being a very close call. I pre-booked my dose of deep-vein thrombosis and threaded my limbs under the perversely outsized steering wheel and docked my arse into position in a most ungainly fashion. I wasn’t so much sitting in the car as wearing it. My underpants feel baggy compared to this car.
But I was in. The driving position I was forced to adopt was a very strange one indeed, part reclined yet with my head sticking through the sunroof, and with my knees wide apart either side of the wheel. The gearstick actually fell directly beneath my left knee, to select fourth gear I had to pass the stick under my leg. Apart from the whole knee-transmission interface deal, the rest of the driving position actually reminded me strangely of a ’70s C3 Corvette. The way I was slouching in the low, low seat, the way the instruments were inset into the dashboard, and the way that I was surrounded by brittle black plastic. Of course, take the bizarre posture I was forced to adopt out of the equation and you’re actually left with a generic Japanese car interior, only about 3/5ths scale.
So I was in, to a fashion, and then the Suzuki press guy clanged the door closed, whereupon it bounced off my right knee and sprang open again. Turns out I wasn’t really in at all. So I used a set of muscles I don’t think I’d ever troubled before to reformat my legs and managed to get the door shut. I chuckled when I noticed that the door itself was only about an inch thick.
The car started sweetly thanks to having been kept warm all day, no need for the choke, though I pulled it anyway to bring the tickover up a bit. There was that rich aroma associated with carburettored cars, it permeated the cabin and caused my nostrils to flare like railway tunnels. Evocative. And then of course I stalled it. Now, I’m going to claim for indemnity here, the three pedals are offset acutely towards the centre of the car, and my Size 13 (UK) shoes easily covered all three at one. Picking out the clutch pedal really needed tweezers and a magnifying glass. So I assigned a tiny portion of the toe of my left foot to the clutch and likewise my right for the brake and accelerator. If I was to gain nothing from this driving experience at least I would do well at honing my ballet pointe technique.
It’s almost heartbreaking to recount now that my next emotion was disappointment. I’m talking about the noise. For all the Whizzkid’s diminutiveness the noise wasn’t excessive or unpleasant, it just seemed rather generic for a car of such character. For some reason I was expecting the offbeat thrum of a triple or the breathy whine of a twin. What I got was, basically, the same noise as you experience in a Suzuki Samurai which uses the same engine, just louder and coming from behind you. I’ll bet that a similarly sized triple would feel torquier and more accelerative, too. I would have expected the SC100 to have more verve and cheekiness than the four can provide, though it’s certainly not sluggish. Overall it’s a fine enough engine, but is probably the most uninteresting part of the entire package.
The rest of it is a riot. From about 4mph the whole car fizzes with activity. Because you’re so intimately connected to the car on account of how snugly you fit inside it, you feel vibrations and shimmies from any source that cares to communicate. The bodyshell itself acts like a tuning fork, live and reactive to all the components attached to it. This would be a curse on a daily-driver, but for a one-time experience it’s engaging and probably addictive. The ride is bouncy, crashy and fidgety, as if the suspension was set up to deal with a much, much heavier car or much, much fatter occupants. The steering feels remote and alien; in fact it would have seemed incongruous if the sensation felt anything but weird through that disproportionately huge steering wheel.
The gearbox, at first acquaintance, is terrible. It’s obstinate, argumentative and stubborn, wilfully disobeying instructions and serving you ratios often quite disparate to the ones you ordered. Then, magically, it forgives you and the gears slot home with precision and speed. What on Earth is going on? On my journey out to the “City” route at Millbrook, the SC100 was awkward, unco-operative and unforgiving. During an extraordinarily short period of time, it and myself have reached a strange accord, a syncronicity. I’m finding all the gears first time, steering with grace and authority and starting to really enjoy myself. What’s changed?
Nothing has changed. This is what we do when we’re exposed to a new device or a new routine. We adapt, and if the thing that we’re adapting to is fundamentally right, we do it quickly and easily. The SC100 is basically a tiny version of a much bigger car. If the engine were in a more orthodox location it could be a diddy little Celica or Ford Capri. There’s nothing radical about the Whizzkid aside from it’s stature, or lack thereof. The driving experience, the sensations, feelings and signals you receive from all over the place are honest transactions. They’re feeding back information about what’s happening. The car is constantly making you aware of its little quirks and idiosyncrasies and the supply of data means that you’re in a better place to deal with them. Progress in car development has told us that a lot of this vocal communication is unwanted. They’re unrefined. Uncivilised. Mechanical feedback has been all-but eliminated today. People don’t want it.
The SC100 without all these little frissons of activity would be disastrous. Driving a Whizzkid would be a singularly unrewarding experience if the car simply did as you demanded of it and didn’t talk back. A car like this needs to feel like this. If it had a voice I get the feeling that it would be cheerfully saying “OK! OK! OK! OK! OK!” as it responded to input. Every input.
After just fifteen minutes I’m genuinely sad to have to return the keys.
Which returns us to speculating as to why Suzuki had this car on their stand. Suzuki will never be able to produce a car quite like the SC100 ever again. Sure, they can release any number of Whizzkid inspired coupés (I’d love to see a Factory Sportster with a Suzuki bike engine) but consumer demand, safety and environmental legislation will determine that the original recipe can never be followed. It would never slot back into its original market sector, either. The SC100 was, basically, a budget car. In 1980 it sold for £2500 a piece at a time when a similarly rear-engined yet far less refined Fiat 126 was only a couple of hundred quid less. Look at Suzuki’s most lowly UK offering today- the Celerio, which starts at just on eight grand, and notice just how many light years away, conceptually, it is from the SC100.
So what happened to all the Whizzkids? How come this one was the first one I’ve seen for over a decade? Well, rust, for one thing. The SC100 loved to oxidise. So many Whizzkid owners parked up one night and went out to their cars the next day to find that an overnight shower had reduced their car to orange rubble and loose plastic pieces. I suspect that had been the fate of the pale blue example I met in Coventry.
And I wonder if the Whizzkid might have been, ultimately, too small. In urban Japan the Kei-type measurements made lots of sense but on the comparatively spacious roads of Britain its tiny stature didn’t really help it. After the novelty of a sporty looking, well equipped tiny coupé wore off, people moved onto more sensibly proportioned and conventionally packaged machines where all four seats could actually be used simultaneously by people taller than Snow White’s entourage. The SS20 Cervo that formed the basis of the SC100 was replaced by a front engined, front wheel drive next generation SS40 which held very little of the eccentric charm of the original. Suzuki owe us a new Whizzkid.
And there you have it. The Suzuki SC100 Whizzkid. Another car which is measurably terrible in so many ways, but which you end up loving every fibre of, even though you shouldn’t.
(Disclosure: Suzuki very graciously lent me the key to their little bundle of joy and I drove it in an inquisitive fashion at Millbrook. I thank them very sincerely. All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2015)