The first litre-plus superbike
‘When I tipped it into the curve, at what must have been well over 150 km/h, the bike was so rock-steady that it felt as though it could have gone much faster still with no problem at all’
MY FIRST RIDE ON the GSX-R1100 was more than 30 years ago, and I can still remember it as though it was yesterday. On the first real day of spring in 1986, the south of England’s early morning mist had burned off to reveal bright sunlight. And I was on the loose on a freshly uncrated example of the fastest, lightest, besthandling, most outrageously brilliant open-class superbike that the world had ever seen.
One sequence in particular from that morning stands out in my memory: a long, slightly uphill stretch of straight road on which I opened up the big Suzuki for one of the first times, followed by a gentle right-hand curve that was taken as fast as I dared. The GSX-R accelerated so hard on the straight that it almost left my stomach behind at the bottom of the hill. And when I tipped it into the curve, at what must have been well over 150 km/h, the bike was so rock-steady that it felt as though it could have gone much faster still with no problem at all.
Suzuki’s long-awaited new GSX-R1000 has made a fine first impression, but it will do well even to approach the impact of its predecessor of three decades earlier. During that first blast on the original GSX-R1100, I recall thinking that it was in a different league from anything I’d ridden in several years as a road-tester; and a further two weeks astride the Suzuki did nothing to alter that view. Nor, come to that, did owning a GSX-R1100 the following year, and racing it at a variety of events from short sprints to the 24 Hours at Le Mans, where the oil-cooled four proved that it was not just fast but impressively tough and reliable too.
Along with just about everyone else fortunate enough to ride the GSX-R1100 in the spring of 1986, I spent my first few days recalibrating my brain to understand just how fast a road-going motorcycle could be. The powerful, light and streamlined Suzuki was searingly fast in a straight line. And its combination of agility, high-speed stability and braking power surpassed that of the lookalike GSX-R750 that had stunned the superbike world on its launch a year earlier.
At a glance, the GSX-R1100 was almost indistinguishable from its smaller sibling, apart from the stickers on its tailpiece. The two models shared Suzuki’s endurance racer styling, with round twin headlamps in a tall full fairing. The aluminium frame’s design was very similar, too: a collection of rectangular-section extrusions in a twin-downtube arrangement, with cast sections at the steering head and around the pivot of a box-section swingarm that was made from the same lightweight alloy.
The engine’s basic layout followed that of the smaller GSX-R, which meant 16 valves in Suzuki’s familiar Twin Swirl Combustion Chamber layout, and oil-cooling from a twin-pump system that delivered 20 litres of lubricant to the cylinder-head every minute, and also sprayed the underside of the pistons. Like the GSX-R750 motor, the larger unit, whose dimensions of 76 x 58 mm gave a capacity of 1,052 cc, was lightened in every conceivable way. But some parts, notably the fivespeed (instead of six-speed) gearbox, were strengthened considerably.
If the engine’s basic layout was unchanged, its larger capacity gave dramatically different power characteristics. Where the 750-cc bike demanded high revs to go fast, the GSX-R1100, which also differed in having a lower 10:1 compression ratio, and a bank of 34-mm Mikuni CV carburettors instead of the 750’s simpler slide carbs, was much more flexible. Its power curve impressed not just with its peak of 128 PS at
9,500 rpm, but also with its enormously broad spread of torque.
That power output is modest for a big bike these days, of course. When I find myself back behind the distinctive twin-headlamp fairing of the GSX-R, there is inevitably not the same sense of all-conquering performance; however, the big Suzuki still takes very little time to make its presence felt. So much of the bike is familiar; etched into my memory in a way that so many more recent bikes have not managed.
The view from the rider’s seat is of a tall screen, foam-mounted clocks, the flat fuel tank with its blue-and-white paintwork and the raised section with its rubber breather pipe. And the GSX-R still rips forward like crazy when I tweak its throttle, accelerating with brutal force even when the tacho needle is barely off its 3,000-rpm stop. By the time I’m into top gear on this well-preserved and essentially standard GSX-R, it’s clear that the old warrior still has the performance to put a big smile on its rider’s face.
By 5,000 rpm it was ripping forward violently enough to lift its front wheel in first gear; or, more usefully, to surge past a line of traffic in top. At 7,000 rpm, where the smaller GSX-R engine came alive, the 1100 was breathing even deeper as it headed for the 10,500-rpm red-line and a top speed of about 250 km/h. In typical GSX-R fashion there was a slight buzziness to the engine, but vibration never really became annoying, and the rasping note from the four-into-one exhaust was as addictive as it had been all those years ago.
Acceleration was also aided by the GSX-R1100’s weight, or rather lack of it. At 197 kg dry it was 20 kg heavier than the 750, due to many of its apparently identical parts being slightly larger and stronger. But that figure still made the Suzuki by far the lightest open-class machine in its day, when its standing quarter-mile time of less than 11 seconds put the GSX-R well ahead of all opposition.
If the GSX-R1100’s chassis contributed to the bike’s straight-line performance, it was every bit as impressive in the bends. That rigid aluminium frame was backed up by 41-mm, preload-adjustable front forks borrowed from the 750, complete with a more sophisticated, electronically operated anti-dive system. The bigger bike also had a
new rear shock, larger 310-mm front brake discs gripped by identical four-piston calipers, and wider 18-inch wheels and tyres.
The 1100 had the slightly longer wheelbase of the 1986 model 750, which had been modified for its second year with a new swingarm following complaints of high-speed wobbles from the ultra-short original machine. Steering angle was unchanged at 26 degrees, which seemed steep then if not now. And the bigger model’s stability was also aided by the addition of a steering damper, tucked away in front of the steering head.
On that first ride, my main impression had been of how amazingly light and agile the GSX-R had felt for a big bike, and how taut and racerlike it was in comparison with competitors such as Honda’s VF1000R and Kawasaki’s GPZ900R. With its low bars, stretched-out riding position, high foot-rests and firm suspension, Suzuki’s race-replica was a more aggressive and uncompromising machine than those bikes or Yamaha’s FZR1000, which would be launched a year later in 1987.
Inevitably, my thoughts were very different on riding the GSX-R again many years later. That was due partly to the arrival of so many other hard and fast open-class bikes in recent years, and to recent advances in chassis technology that made the tall Suzuki, with its 18-inch wheels and old-fashioned geometry, feel relatively slow-steering rather than the cutting-edge race-replica it had once been.
This Suzuki was stable at high speed but didn’t feel as firm and racerlike as I’d expected, partly due to this unrestored machine itself. Its suspension felt rather soggy and under-damped, especially the rear shock, and had clearly deteriorated over the years. This combined with the GSX-R’s rather tall screen to make the bike feel more like a sportstourer than the hyper-sports missile that it had been when new.
The GSX-R still responded well to hard riding, mind you, and it still felt light and flickable enough to encourage plenty of aggression in the bends. That 18-inch rear tyre might only have been a relatively narrow 150-section size, but the Suzuki’s relatively modern Bridgestone gripped the road better than the original rubber would have done. Its big front discs gave plenty of braking power, too. And in contrast to many of its contemporaries, the GSX-R1100 had enough ground clearance even for the racetrack.
In 1987 my own Suzuki (nicknamed Tyson, in honour of mighty Mike, the all-conquering heavyweight boxing champion at the time) proved its track credentials by finishing 15th at Le Mans despite three crashes. And talking of ground clearance brings back an even earlier racing memory, this time of a GSX-R1100 that I wasn’t even riding myself. I remember being amazed, on wandering round the paddock of a national-level race meeting shortly after the Suzuki had been released, to see a pair of GSX-Rs, prepared for production racing. Their lights and number-plates had been removed, but side-stands were still in place — merely lock-wired to the frame to comply with racing regulations.
Naturally, the GSX-Rs filled the first few places in the race, but it was the bike’s ability to take to the track with so few modifications that made even more of an impression on me that day. Until the GSX-Rs arrived, sports bikes simply weren’t this purposeful. And the legend of the GSX-R, already firmly established the year before by the 750-cc model, had been reinforced in the most impressive way imaginable by its big brother. For pure performance on road or racetrack, the GSX-R1100 was truly in a class of its own.
Hidden behind the ample fairing was the oil-cooled four-cylinder lump that made 128 PS
Command centre: Two dials and warning lights all you needed
Tail section of the bike is concealed behind loads of plastic
41-mm fork sports electronic anti-dive system