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.
Work began as early as '73 on just such a motorcycle. Suzuki's inkling that its first big four-stroke could not fail was proven true by '75 as it watched its poor-handling and weird-Alice RE5 Rotary lose momentum and nosedive into oblivion soon after its debut. So Suzuki stuck to basics with its new four-stroke engine, incorporating many of the design cues found in Kawasaki's hammer-reliable Z1 powerplant: overbuilt crankcases, the same basic lower- and upper-end architecture, etc. Reliability could not be chanced.
Power would be plentiful, but not overwhelming. Styling would be basic and handsome, not funky or new-wave. And handling would be world-class via a stiff and well-designed frame, above-average suspension bits and smart details such as needle swingarm bearings instead of the more common plastic or bronze bushings. The idea was to outrun Honda's not-so-fast-and now seven-year-old-CB750 and outhandle the powerful 903cc Z1, which packed an engine that could overwhelm its flexy chassis with a flick of the wrist.
It worked-and spectacularly so. Right out of the gate, Suzuki's '76 GS750 impressed with solid looks, decent comfort, above-average power, a nearly indestructible engine and, most importantly, high-speed handling that put every other streetbike to shame. It was the first superbike to get it right.
Cycle magazine summed things up nicely in its September 1976 road test: "The GS750 fits in everywhere Suzuki hoped it would. It is the fastest 750 you can buy, has ... comfortable suspension and generous open-road range. It has enough cornering clearance to make mountain-road lashing a reasonable proposition. It is quietly stylish, beautifully proportioned, carefully built and correctly compromised to be many things to many people without short-changing any particular enthusiast group. It is without question the best motorcycle in the 750 class."
Not surprisingly, sales were even better than Suzuki had hoped.
Our own Roland Brown wrote this: "The [first] GS wasn't just the best bike I'd ever ridden by far, it was arguably the most competent superbike on the road. And boy was it fast! Especially to someone whose own bike was an old Triumph twin."
The first GS affected amateur roadracing overnight. "When the GS came out, club-racing changed," recalls Jack Seaver, a longtime rider and racer who worked Japanese dealership floors in the '70s and '80s. "The hardest-partying group in WERA (Western Eastern Roadracing Association) was headed up by Ed Bargy, who nicknamed the GS750-dominated class the Whisperjets because they were so quiet and fast. Well-ridden GS750s were capable of winning 750 Production, 750 Modified Production (re-named 750 Superbike around that time), Open production (against really wobbly Z1s) and Open Modified Production. They also raced in Formula One, which pitted real Grand Prix bikes against anybody who thought they had a chance. The GS was the first production bike that could get around quickly enough to figure in F1. What's more, the GS750 instantly cured Suzuki's weirdo streetbike cred caused by its two-stroke triples. It wasn't until the twin-cam Honda CB750 of '79 that anybody seriously challenged the GS."
The GS impacted professional roadracing as well, a Yoshimura- built example winning its debut AMA Superbike race on September 11, 1977, at Laguna Seca with Steve McLaughlin in the saddle. Veteran racer and journalist John Ulrich tested the 944cc machine and said, "It was magic, and my first ride on an AMA Superbike. When I raced it at Ontario Motor Speedway during an AFM weekend, I went faster on it than Wes Cooley had gone on his Kawasaki Z1 Superbike there. That would all change the first time Wes got on a Yoshimura Suzuki, but it was fun while it lasted!"
Drag-racer Terry Vance echoed Ulrich's praise. "If it wasn't for the GS750, I'd be working some parts counter in Inglewood," said the multi-time NHRA Pro Stock champ and successful businessman. "That's the bike that made the GS1000 possible, and without that I'd have missed my opportunity."
Vance continues: "Byron [Hines, his partner] and I were racing Z1s and doing well. We won a couple of championships. Suzuki Marketing Director Gene Trobaugh had this big-picture vision to radically improve Suzuki's reputation on the heels of the new bike. He came to see me and Byron at RC Engineering; we were just kids. He put a plan together, we signed a contract and they sent us a bike. When we pulled the crate off, everyone gathered around; no one had seen a GS before. We started winning pretty quickly, and away we went!"
With dealership cash registers ringing, Yoshimura and Vance & Hines winning at the track, magazines calling the GS the best 750 ever and owners and tuners everywhere building an array of GS-based hot-rods, Trobaugh's master plan was humming along nicely. By '78, Suzuki had jumped several rungs up the performance/credibility ladder.
The momentum would only increase that year with the introduction of the entirely new GS1000, basically a bigger, better and badder version of the GS750. The GS1000 often gets tagged as a warmed-over 750, but it's not. Its frame, engine and overall chassis makeup are almost completely different, though it follows the 750's basic design direction: engine durability (with more power), excellent comfort and range and superb handling, especially at high speeds. Amazingly, while the engine packed more displacement, it was smaller externally and weighed a whopping 10 pounds less than the GS750 mill.
Australian Motor Cycle News wrote this: "The GS1000 proved the Japanese could build a big, fast four-cylinder motorcycle that actually handled, something Kawasaki never managed with the fast-but-loose-handling Z1. It likewise inherited the Kawasaki's stout nature, and the two motorcycles were destined to meet head-to-head on dragstrips for years. Heavily modified, these motorcycles nevertheless proved reliable while putting out several multiples of [stock] horsepower."
"The GS1000 is damn near perfect," said Cycle in its March 1978 issue. "It does everything well. [It's] a perfectly stunning achievement."
In '79 and '80, Suzuki offered the GS1000S (a.k.a. the Wes Cooley Replica), perhaps the best-looking and most collectable GS ever. Cooley repaid the honor by winning the AMA Superbike title both years. The two models look similar but are actually slightly different, the '80 version featuring electronic ignition (instead of points), constant-velocity carbs, a stepped saddle, shorter pipes, slotted discs and more rear-set pegs.
More important that year was the debut of the next-generation open-class GS: the 16-valve GS1100E, which stomped all comers in the horsepower department, even Honda's vaunted CBX Six. Motorcyclist had this to say in the March 1980 issue: "If straight-line, tire-smoking performance is your only criteria, the GS1100 is your only choice. It is the fastest, meanest boulevard-burner ever." The 1100 also hinted at what Suzuki would do in the coming years.
Suzuki's 16-valve open-class GS engine represented a watershed moment. While Honda designed its CB-F engines for max efficiency (meaning such items as the clutch and gearbox were only as beefy as needed to handle stock horsepower), Suzuki engines were purposely overbuilt so builders and tuners could get away with all sorts of high-horsepower tweaking. This made them perfect for garage- and race-shop tuners, as well as drag racers, who continue to campaign them today. "They were the perfect hop-up bikes," said Vance. "If you wanted to build a 300-horsepower Pro Stock dragbike, they could handle it. They were really robust, and performance-minded folks knew it; it was a cultural thing with Suzuki."
These powerful and robust fours found their way into several Suzuki models, including the Hans Muth-styled Katana 1000 and 1100 of '81-'83 and, later, the ground-pounding GS1150E and ES of '84 and '85.
By this point, Suzuki had power and handling figured out. But the competition came up with a couple of trick plays in '83 and '84 in the form of Honda's V45 Interceptor and Kawasaki's Ninja 900-bikes that put Superbike-spec handling at the forefront. Suddenly, being the fastest and most powerful didn't garner an A grade.
But Suzuki had a counterplay of its own, a strategy developed in the years since the original GS750 debuted. Working from data and test results garnered from a Yoshimura-built, GS1000-engined prototype racer called the XR69 (which featured magnesium engine covers and a dry clutch), Suzuki began to conceptualize its next-generation GS-which ultimately led to the '85 GSX-R750 and, a year later, the '86 GSX-R1100. But that's another story.
And my GS1000S? I plan to ride it-a lot. And with a few period tweaks-an old-school Vance & Hines 4-into-1 header, stickier tires, a set of piggyback shocks and maybe some steel-braided brake lines-I'm pretty sure I'll be grinning like a fool the entire time. MC