Suzuki GSX-R1100


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

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