25 Years of GSX-Rs | Riding the Legend

A quarter-century later, the GSX-R750 Limited is still a hot ticket

By Ari Henning, Photography by Kevin Wing

I was in diapers when the original GSX-R750 made its mark, so pre-existing knowledge of the bike’s technology, performance and overall impact is limited. My co-workers have educated me in regards to the bike’s importance, and thanks to two Southern California collectors I’ve had the opportunity to ride both an original 1986 GSX-R750 and an ultra-rare Limited Edition model.

Roger Torrices loaned us the clean ’86 GSX-R that graces this month’s cover, while Dave Waugh provided the pristine LE model shown here. With a sizable collection of vintage Suzukis, it’s fair to say Waugh is dedicated to the brand. “I forged a relationship with Yoshimura in the ’80s, and because I had access to their special parts it was natural for me to get into Suzukis,” he says. Dave bought the LE in ’91 from “Matsu” Matsuzawa, the iconic Yoshimura engine-builder responsible for such widow-makers as the Big Papa Formula USA racers. “Matsu had a lot of rare bikes, so the GSX-R wasn’t particularly special to him,” Waugh remembers. “Like they say, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”

And what a treasure it is! Even by today’s standards, the LE came equipped with some pretty trick components: a close-ratio six-speed gearbox, dry clutch, GSX-R1100 suspension, solo seat and quick-release bodywork fasteners, among other things. Based on the rules at the time, as few as 200 machines may have been imported to satisfy AMA Superbike homologation requirements, and most of those would have seen racetrack duty, making Dave’s near-stock, low-mileage example especially rare. While in Matsu’s possession, the machine was graced with one of the mechanic’s hand-made exhaust systems and a set of 36mm flat-slide carbs in lieu of the stock 31mm CV jobs. Aside from new Bridgestone Battlax BT-045 tires, the bike is just as it was when Matsu owned it. Dave is so determined to keep the bike in stasis that he even left the minor paint damage incurred during the ’94 Northridge Earthquake. “It was an Act of God, and now it’s part of the bike’s history,” he says.

My concern was that an inadvertent Act of Clod would give Dave cause to make me history, as he rode the bike to our photo location and kept a watchful eye on it during the shoot. To me, the bike looked like a bug-eyed torpedo: long, low and in no way suggestive of speed or performance. While I had prepared myself for a frightening ride on a heavy, ill-handling beast, I was instead pleasantly surprised. And once I adjusted to the bizarre period ergonomics, I found myself lost in the rhythm of Glendora Mountain Road.

Engine character and performance were by far the biggest surprises, and provided the bulk of the Limited’s appeal. Between the growling exhaust, rattling dry clutch and clicking carb slide rollers, the bike was an audible treat. From the cockpit the tank-top vent, austere foam-surround dash and exposed fairing brackets make the GSX-R look like a raw racebike. And with a splash of Sonoco race fuel in the tank from Dave’s visit to Yoshimura to have the tires installed, the bike even smelled like the real deal! Under load, Matsu’s exhaust let out a deep growl that escalated into a shrill scream above 8000 rpm. Low-end torque felt strong but the engine spooled up lazily until 7500 rpm; then the revs rose with haste, charging toward the 11,000-rpm redline as a sudden rush of horsepower was unleashed. So this is the peaky behavior of which the elders spoke!

The Limited’s cable-actuated dry clutch offered better modulation and feel than the light-switch action of the standard model’s hydraulically operated wet pack. That helped immensely during downshifts, which made utilizing the close-ratio gearbox much easier. Re-jetted carbs with accelerator pumps helped smooth the standard bike’s midrange lag and improved throttle response significantly.

Handicapped by suspension components decades overdue for a rebuild, the Limited nonetheless impressed me with surprisingly good handling. The big-wheeled bike took some effort to bend into a turn, but was willing enough, and once set on a line tracked with admirable stability.

As you’d expect, hot air collects behind the finely finned cylinders and wafts up from the fairing, tinged with an aroma of hot paint and vaporized oil. I appreciated that warmth during our frigid (by Southern California standards) winter photo shoot, but it must be brutal on a hot summer day. Immaculate though it may be, this machine is 25 years old, and time has not been kind to its brakes. Early testers boasted that the GSX-R could lift the rear tire under heavy braking, but that ability has long since been lost on this example.

The only thing that felt truly unfamiliar about the LE was its ergonomics. Rather than sitting on top of the machine like one does with a modern sportbike, the vintage GSX-R rider sits within the bike on an exceedingly plush saddle, arms stretched way forward toward the narrow, high clip-ons. The stepped, padded seatback proved helpful while powering out of turns and transitioning between bends, and provided a new bracing point for a rider accustomed to anchoring his thighs to the tank sides. The ’86 GSX-R was considered uncompromisingly aggressive for its time, but compared to today’s torture racks its riding position is actually fairly tame, and much easier on your backside. The large half-bubble windscreen works far better than that of any modern sportbike, as do the wide-set mirrors.

After riding the Limited, I’m beginning to understand what a huge step forward this bike was for its time. If the suspension and brakes were freshened up, I’m confident this 25-year-old motorcycle would blow my mind. As it was, it did a commendable job of dissecting a twisty mountain road, and I finally understand why those early GSX-R riders were so floored. My education is complete.

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