It is a true time-capsule moment, one so crammed with pleasant memories and deja vu I can hardly believe it.
I'm running along the 405 freeway on a totally original 1979 Suzuki GS1000S with just 6300 miles on the odometer, and it's all I can do to keep the stupid grin from screwing up my face permanently. The S cruises smoothly at 75 mph, its cafe-racer cockpit fairing routing most of the day's chilly wind away from my arms and chest. The bike's soft suspension lets the chassis do a slow-motion float over the freeway's undulations, but I'm not bothered in the least. Because as I look down at the stunningly beautiful blue-and-white tank and classic analog instrument panel, I'm reminded I'm aboard a very special and historically significant motorcycle-and it's an experience to be savored.
I'd bought the bike two years earlier from a guy in Nebraska and had finally gotten the thing running. I'd owned an '80-spec S-model in college but totaled it riding like the rookie I was, and had always wanted another one to fill the emotional gap it left-which I was now doing in earnest. As I motored along smiling that big, goofy smile, I wondered what the heck had taken me so long...
To the uninitiated, it'd be easy to conclude Suzuki has always been a force in the four-stroke performance wars. After all, the GSX-R nameplate is as golden as they come, motor- cycling's equivalent of Porsche's 911 or Chevrolet's Corvette. Retail sales since '85? Hundreds of thousands. Race wins? More thousands. Magazine comparison victories? Hundreds, at least.
But there's some irony here a whole generation of enthusiasts probably don't know-that Suzuki was the last of the Big Four to adopt camshafts and valves.
It's true. Before it began building four-stroke motor- cycles en masse, Suzuki was known as a maker of two-strokes, beginning with the bicycle-like Power Free and Diamond Free models of the '50s and culminating with the mighty GT750 LeMans triple of the '70s. Suzuki had reasonable sales and racing success with its ring-dings, although the shadow cast by longtime four-stroke maker Honda-and also Yamaha and Kawasaki, which joined the four-stroke club in the late '60s and early-'70s, respectively-meant Suzuki was never quite considered a top-tier performance player on the streetbike side.
But with its GS models, the first of which debuted in '76, all that changed-and set the stage for the world-beating GSX-Rs.
Suzuki didn't start out building motorcycles. Michio Suzuki founded the Suzuki Loom Company in 1909, and while the weaving-equipment business was brisk early on, the company needed to diversify. So it built a prototype car powered by a wholly ahead-of-its-time engine: a liquid-cooled four-stroke inline-four with alloy crankcases. The car was never produced, but considering Suzuki would go on to build only two-strokes right up until our country's bicentennial, that highly advanced prototype engine held plenty of irony.
After World War II, Suzuki turned its attention once again to vehicles, this time two-wheelers, building bikes more advanced than the motor-powered bicycles then becoming popular in Japan. From the early '50s to the early '60s, Suzuki's bikes were small, economical and surprisingly popular.
In the mid-'60s came a breakthrough bike: the T20, known in the U.S. as the X6 Hustler. Packing a 247cc two-stroke twin with an industry-first six-speed transmission, dependable 12-volt electrical system, double-leading-shoe front brake and adjustable shocks, the performance-oriented Hustler became a big seller in several countries and did well in racing, even scoring victories at the Isle of Man. Small, lightweight and fast, the X6 was a window on the future for Suzuki.
Suzuki expanded upon the X6's goodness from the late-'60s into the early and mid-'70s with an entire line of competent-but-stodgy two-stroke streetbikes, from the GT185 and 250 twins to the GT380 and 550 triples and, ultimately, the GT750 LeMans. Still, these bikes were considered imperfect next to fast, smooth, quiet and imposing four-strokes such as Honda's CB750 Four and Kawasaki's mighty Z1. That, along with impending air-quality legislation in America and Europe, soon spelled the end of the two-stroke. All of which meant that if Suzuki wanted to compete in the world's largest market, it needed a big-bore four-stroke-and fast.