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Rotary-powered Suzuki Samurai

A rise to power by way of a bite-sized, 450hp 13B-swapped Samurai.

Rodrez
Apr 9, 2021
Photographer: @redherringphotography

That a Suzuki Samurai is being featured by Super Street shouldn't come as a complete shock to some of our long-time fans who know we love capturing something unique. Sure, it's not a common occurrence and in fact, I can't recall ever having featured one in the past, but this example, owned and built by Marvin Sanchez absolutely deserves the spotlight. Some of our younger audience might not even know what a Samurai is, being that it fell within the off-road market of the 80s and 90s while their interest is probably completely within the econobox hatchback and sports car segments of that era. An offshoot of the global Suzuki Jimny, the U.S. offered Samurai was well-known for being a surprisingly capable off-road vehicle, popularized by its tiny dimensions and affordability. For comparison's sake, an NA chassis Miata measures in at about 155 inches in length with an 89-in. wheelbase, while the Samurai is about 135-in. long with a 79-in. wheelbase.

002 black 1988 samurai Photo 21/21   |   Rotary-powered Suzuki Samurai

The Power Struggle

The quirky sizing certainly helped the Samurai make a name for itself and with its notoriety came some negativity for its utterly dreadful power output. In later years, many went on to swap out the original 1.3L 4-cylinder with its neck-breaking 63hp and 74lbs.-ft of tq., for Suzuki's 1.6L Sidekick mill in search of slightly better performance. The paltry powerplant wasn't tasked with much as the curb weight of a late 80s model, like this one, tipped the scales at just over 2,000lbs.

Bad Press

One of the main reasons many won't recognize or remember the Samurai is due to bad press - an issue that saw sales plummet over 70% within a year after a roll-over incident took place during testing, and which Consumer Reports warned potential buyers of the inherent dangers. At that time that was all it took to derail a promising vehicle production. Today, the Samurai carries a very loyal following for both on and off-road use, and in regions like Puerto Rico, stock and modded versions are virtually everywhere - some of which have laid down some incredible quarter mile passes while others pull relaxed duty, serving as the ultimate beach cruiser. All of this info is par for the course as far as Marvin Sanchez is concerned, he's been enamored with the little people-mover since his earliest days. "It all started when I was a kid," he recalls. "My dad's best friend had a Samurai and I remember jumping around in the back seat, going snow drifting in the 90's. It was such a fun little vehicle that brought smiles to all our faces. As I grew older, I gained love for small, square 80s-90s cars."

More Cross-chassis Rotary Swaps:
1970 Corolla13B B2600i pick-up truck

Thinking Smaller

After a number of JDM, Euro, and USDM builds, thoughts of building a wild swapped Samurai kept tugging at Marvin. He felt that he'd gained enough experience to tackle a ground-up build and saw it as a true challenge - something to hone his skills on, including learning to weld and fabricate from scratch. The search was on and wouldn't you know it, less than 4 hours away, in Philly, he found a promising subject for sale. "I rented a trailer and took the drive down with my girlfriend (now my wife). The seller finally showed up with a near mint, completely stock black Samurai. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was going to be the foundation to what would become an epic build I knew I had to have it."

003 weld racing wheels suzuki samurai Photo 21/21   |   Rotary-powered Suzuki Samurai

All Business

The exterior of Marvin's build is as simple as it gets, sporting nothing more than Weld Racing wheels with NT555R drag radials and a custom fiberglass grill cover that adds an angry uni-brow just above the headlights. You're sure to spot the intercooler peeking through the grill opening, though, and just below, those paying attention will notice the heavily modded suspension hanging well under the factory bumper. Take a step around to the passenger side and you're met by a massive 4-in. exhaust exit and you realize pretty quickly that things between Marvin and his Suzuki got pretty serious. "With very few references online and only a local friend with a Samurai, I got a few ideas for the build but no real information to go off of. I knew I wanted to lower it with some drag radials in the rear, and skinnies in the front. I love that look and knew it was a perfect look for the little square body."

The Right Fit

Engine swaps for this chassis have been plentiful over the years with most of its fan base opting for something that offers more grunt without resorting to a ton of fabrication. In Marvin's case, he relished in the custom aspect and this build served as a benchmark of sorts for someone eager to figure things out. Feeling like a rotary would be ideal, he jumped online and came across a running, clapped-out RX-7 with its native 13B. He adds, "With little to no previous knowledge of rotary engines, I told the owner of the RX-7 that if I can drive it and do a burn out, I'll buy it. The rest is history!"

Running condition is one thing, but this 13B was going to be tasked with pumping out far more power than had ever been intended, so it was freshened up for abuse. First bridge ported then fitted with Marvin's custom-built turbo manifold which hangs a Precision 76/75 snail and 66mm wastegate. He also came up with his own engine and transmission mounts, mapped out and fabricated his own intercooler piping, exhaust set up, and a list of other odds and ends necessary to make this homebuilt Mazda x Suzuki mash-up a reality.

004 13b suzuki samurai Photo 21/21   |   Rotary-powered Suzuki Samurai

Big Power, Little Car

Once the engine and its ancillary parts were installed and Marvin was content, he turned his attention toward fueling, which included both ID2000 and ID1000 injectors, while combustion action is overseen by FuelTech's rotary-friendly FT400 EFI system. An RX-7 transmission was brought on board as was a Ford 8.8 rear diff and as you might imagine, a custom driveshaft was developed to make it all work. The package of parts for this first-time 13B builder resulted in 450hp and that previously mentioned factory curb weight that sat right above 2,000lbs has actually been reduced to just 1,800lbs. Yeah, it's scary fast.

005 suzuki samuri profile Photo 21/21   |   Rotary-powered Suzuki Samurai

With the amount of time and energy poured into this late 80s throwback, you have to wonder what's next for Marvin - a guy that's owned and modified a long list of cars from various genres and now successfully completed a fabrication-heavy, cross-platform swapped monster. He adds, "What can I say the Samurai has been a blast to own and drive and I plan to keep it as long as I am alive! In the near future I plan to keep building one-offs and create a business where I can offer unique builds to the public."

By Rodrez
1000 Articles
Rotary-powered Suzuki Samurai
Tuning Menu
Car: 1988 Suzuki Samurai
Owner: Marvin Sanchez
Instagram: @chillmatic
Engine: S4 6port 13B Bridgeport; Goopy Performance Apex seals, studs, vacuum block; Precision 76/75 turbo, 66mm wastegate; 50mm TiAL blow-off valve; AEM Smart Coils; Moroso catchcan; GReddy compression intake tube; Injector Dynamics ID2000 and ID1000; AEM Electronics 340LP fuel pump; Fragola steel braided lines; Fueltech FT400 EFI system; CX Racing intercooler; Champion Cooling Systems radiatork
Drivetrain: RX-7 transmission; Act 6-puck clutch; custom driveshaft; Ford shortened 8.8 rear differential, 3.73 racing gears, factory LSD; C-clip eliminators
Suspension: Modified front suspension; 4x4 eliminated; Strange Engineering axles
Wheels & Tires: 15x4 front, 15x8 rear Weld Racing wheels; 135R15 front, 275/50 rear Nitto NT555R drag radials
Exterior: Custom fiberglass front grill, bikini leather top, 4-inch side-exhaust dump w/electronic cut out.
Interior: Grant Mahogany woodgrain steering wheel; Classic retro 5-panel rear view mirror

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