In contrast to some car companies, who send out a long press release every time their designers undertake the mildest of bumper refreshes, there is a pleasing air of mystery surrounding Suzuki’s design department. The brand rarely shouts that loud about its products or indeed the designers behind them. Which is why you’re unlikely to have heard very much about Yoshio Takeuchi, Suzuki’s design boss, in charge of the look and feel of the circa-three-million vehicles that Suzuki now produces every year, but who still has a relatively humble job title: General manager, automotive styling design department.
Takeuchi studied art and design at Tokai University – to the west of Tokyo – between 1983-87 and joined Suzuki in 1987 as an exterior designer. Some of the earliest projects in which he was involved include the Cervo kei car from the early '90s, the first Baleno (called the Cultus Crescent in some markets) and the long-running, pocket-sized 4x4 Jimny from 1998. The latter is a design that still looks remarkably fresh today, and remains as the current model – bar just a few slight tweaks – 18 years on.
In 2002 Takeuchi became the chief designer for B-segment cars before being promoted to group advanced design manager in 2005. There he oversaw concept cars including the Airstream-esque 2005 PX minivan, the bold-grilled 2007-08 Kizashi trio and the far future-facing, circular- and scissor-doored Q city car plus the Regina, with its coolly pixelated interior; both of which debuted at the 2011 Tokyo motor show.
In 2013 he took on Suzuki’s top design job – general manager, automotive styling design department – a title he still holds, and has gone on to oversee the well-received 2015 Air Triser and Mighty Deck concepts among others.
Car Design News tracked Takeuchi down in Tokyo and found a mild-mannered, quiet and thoughtful man, wearing all-black Adidas trainers with his black suit, hinting at his design flair and perhaps also expressing his individuality within the corporate structure. The conversation that followed covered design’s place within Suzuki’s big business, the concept car that made him choose a career at Suzuki in the first place and his admiration of Italian design and Giugiaro in particular...
Suzuki’s design team is a little unknown to say the least. Could you explain what you do and where?
There are 200 of us in total. I’m based in Suzuki’s headquarters in Hamamatsu City [south-west of Tokyo towards Nagoya] but we have other studios; one in Yokohama, covering advanced and production design and research and another in Turin in Italy, also dedicated to advanced design and research projects.
I’m not sure how many people would have been aware of Suzuki’s Italian design outpost. Why was that set up and when?
It has been in place for about 15 years as we think we can learn a lot from Italian design. Remember the 1969 Carry micro van and 1971 Fronte Coupe were both by Italdesign. We’ve had a good historic relationship with Giugiaro.
Did you ever personally get to meet Giugiaro?
I did, and I have so many memories of that encounter. I learned a lot about the emphasis on proportions and balance from him.
Going back to the main Japanese part of Suzuki, how does design fit into the rest of the business and what power does it wield?
Design is part of the technical department alongside engineering and planning and we all report into the board members. For production models, the planning team gives the brief to design and then we give feedback on layouts and hard points. Where there may be some ‘hard point inconveniences’, we negotiate. Regarding concept cars, it’s more direct with the board, with design making suggestions on hard points, as the concepts may not be based on existing platforms.
The Suzuki brand can appear to mean different things in different parts of the world. What do you think the brand stands for?
As a personal opinion, Suzuki is about A- and B-segment cars and crossovers. Most are daily-use vehicles. It’s not about supercars, but if we can add some small extra enjoyment and spice on top through design, we strive to.
What’s your most important market segment?
In the domestic Japanese market our strength is in the kei car segment [defined by its very small vehicle footprint, engine size and emissions]. We’re number one, with a 30 percent share. Daihatsu is a very close second and our biggest rival. Our kei car range is eight-strong, made up of the Lapin, Alto, Jimny, Carry, Every, Spacia, Hustler and Wagon R. We’re a tech brand, but as compact as possible.
What makes good design in your view?
Good proportions and the atmosphere the car gives. Maybe the Swift [supermini] is a good example: the lines suggest how it drives.
What was the first car you owned?
A 1987 Isuzu Gemini. The model was designed by Giugiaro and I knew that when I bought it. It’s just a normal B-segment hatchback, but it’s perfect.
Which of your car design achievements makes you most proud?
I’ve worked hard to improve Suzuki design, step by step, but the Hustler model launched in 2013 was a highlight. It’s more focused on the youth market and now sells about 100,000 units a year.
What do you consider your biggest mistake?
[Laughs and smiles] I’ve made many mistakes but every time I develop a car I try to learn from the errors. One example was a side moulding on the Cervo which looked very brilliant in design but which proved very difficult to manufacture and made the highlight wind in a peculiar way.
Do you own any interesting cars?
I used to have a Pininfarina-designed 1980 Alfa Romeo Spider classic but someone crashed into it. It’s dead. So I’m on the look-out for a new classic, another open-top roadster.
Which car did you wish you had designed?
The 1985 Suzuki R/S 1 sportscar concept. After I saw it, I wanted to join Suzuki.
...And which car are you glad you didn’t design?
The 1995 Suzuki X90.