A bike that gave Suzuki a reputation for big four-strokes almost overnight
IT WAS THE SORT of manoeuvre that any rider of a modern superbike would make with barely a thought. When the traffic momentarily cleared, I gave the bike a big handful of throttle, accelerating hard up to about 160 km/h on a long, uphill straight. Then the road curved left, so I braked slightly, changed down a gear and cranked the Suzuki into the turn, gradually feeding in the power to send it shooting smoothly off again.
Throughout the bend the bike behaved perfectly, following exactly the course I'd aimed it on, soaking up road bumps effortlessly and remaining totally under control at all times. There's nothing so special about that, you may say. Except that the Suzuki in question was built in 1978 — when it's doubtful whether any other Japanese superbike could have negotiated the bend with quite the same blend of speed and stability.
In its own quiet and unassuming way, the GS1000 was as much a landmark motorcycle as the more celebrated early superbike stars, Honda's CB750 and Kawasaki's Z1. Its performance edge over contemporary machines — notably its direct rival, the Z1000, descendant of the legendary Z1 — was relatively slight. But here, for the first time, was a big four whose chassis was truly a match for its motor. For the Japanese, the GS was a major breakthrough.
For such an important machine, its basic format could hardly have been more ordinary. Like the Z1000 and Suzuki's own GS750, which had been released to much acclaim a year earlier, the GS1000 consisted of an air-cooled, eight-valve DOHC engine in a steel, duplex-cradle frame. Its forks held a 19-inch front wheel and there were twin rear shocks at the rear. The new Suzuki's neat but understated styling was also obviously derived from that of the smaller model.
For all the similarities, the GS1000 had plenty of attractions of its own. Its frame was larger in places, and its tubular steel swingarm stronger. Its tyres were wider (3.50 x 19 inch front, 4.50 x 17 rear), and it had an extra disc up front. Its forks were air-assisted, and its shocks could be adjusted through four rebound damping positions — giving the GS the most sophisticated suspension system yet seen on a massproduced roadster.
The new engine was bigger and better, too. Dimensions of 70 x 64.8 cc gave a capacity of 997 cc. Breathing through a bank of similar 26-mm Mikuni carbs, the Suzuki produced a claimed maximum of 87 PS at 8,000 rpm, four PS up on the Z1000, and its torque peak of 83 Nm at 6,500 rpm was also higher. Concerted effort to reduce weight (including lighter flywheel, thinner cases and no kick-starter) meant that the GS1000 engine was slightly lighter than its smaller relation, let alone Kawasaki's bigger lump.
It all added up to the best four-cylinder motorcycle that Japan or anyone else had yet produced. Straight-line performance was scorching, with a standing quarter-mile time of less than 12 seconds, and a genuine top speed of over 215 km/h. Mid-range response was equally impressive and the Suzuki soon proved that it was extremely reliable as well.
Better still, the GS1000's chassis really was capable of harnessing
The GS1000 was so supremely competent that Suzuki had created a reputation for big fourstrokes almost overnight
that engine output. The bike was rock-steady at speed in a straight line, having no need for a steering damper. Even in bends that would have had most Japanese rivals wallowing and snaking, the Suzuki's blend of frame rigidity and suspension control ensured that the big GS remained unfussed. Only Honda's new CBX1000 six could match the GS for allround performance, and that cost half as much again.
A fairly sporty, leant-forward riding position and broad, generously padded seat meant that the Suzuki was comfortable, too, by the unfaired standards of 1978. It was versatile enough to be used for anything from commuting to touring to production racing — and GS1000s rapidly made a strong impression on the track against more exotic and specialised bikes such as Laverda's Jota and Ducati's 900SS.
By those standards, this unrestored GS has had a relatively pampered life, judging from its fine condition after over 50,000 km. Its exhaust had been replaced by a pattern system, its engine covers were slightly scratched, there were a couple of small tears in its seat, and the side-stand tang had snapped off, making lowering the stand tricky.
But the GS' red and white paintwork was sparkling and its engine burst into life at the press of a button, with a typical Suzuki mix of fourcylinder rustling and slightly audible clutch rattle. By the standards of early superbikes, the GS felt fairly small and compact. The rider's eye view was of the broad petrol tank, fork air-caps visible beneath the almost flat handlebars, the top of a big round headlamp, and simple instruments: speedo, tacho red-lined at 8,500 rpm, and a column of warning lights between the two.
Tickover was slightly too high and first gear went in with a loud clonk, but otherwise the GS was as well mannered as the day it left the showroom. As I pulled away, the Suzuki's combination of riding position and four-cylinder engine buzziness was enough to bring back memories of many a “Universal Japanese Motorcycle”, as they were nicknamed, from the late 1970s and early '80s. Power delivery was superbly tractable, the bike accelerating from below 3,000 rpm without a hint of complaint.
In fact, the Suzuki was so torquey and responsive that it was the bike's much-praised chassis rather than its engine that made the strongest initial impression — and not exactly for the right reasons. At 242 kg with a partially filled tank, the GS was reasonably light by 1978 standards (the Z1000, CBX, and Yamaha's XS1100 all weighed more), but it still felt a heavy machine.
That was particularly true at low speed, where the Suzuki's steering geometry and narrow, 19-inch front wheel combined to ensure that I had to tug firmly on the fairly narrow handlebars to tip the bike down into a bend. After riding a rival 1970s superbike, the GS' steering would doubtless have felt neutral and responsive. After stepping off a modern sports bike, as I did, it felt ponderous and distinctly old-fashioned.
I had few complaints about the suspension which, despite the bike's weight, combined a reasonably soft ride with pretty good control over bumps. The forks' air-assistance allowed them to be firmed up considerably for fast riding or racing, and on the road they were fine at the normal atmospheric pressures. And the shocks, too, worked well enough to make it clear why they were rated superior to most other factory-fitted units back in '78.
This bike's cast alloy wheels wore recently fitted Dunlop tyres, which gave more grip than a GS rider would have had in the bike's heyday. The brakes had been uprated, too, with braided lines. Feel at the handlebar was wooden, but the Suzuki could be stopped abruptly if given a hard squeeze of the lever. It's likely that the brakes' poor wetweather performance had been improved by modern pads, too, though I didn't have a chance to check.
Perhaps, it's inevitable that the 87-PS motor didn't make a huge impression so many years later, but the GS unit still felt mighty strong — especially in its willingness to pull strongly from almost any revs. Just open the light-action throttle, and go. The five-speed gearbox was slick, but on the open road it was hardly needed. The Suzuki cruised happily at 150 km/h with less than 6,000 rpm on the clock, and accelerated happily from 60 km/h in top if required.
This was phenomenal performance by 1978 standards, and especially impressive considering that the GS was Suzuki's first attempt at an open-class superbike. Apart from a few minor criticisms such as the lack of a pillion grab-rail, the GS' only real failing was, perhaps, that, for all its brilliance, it was a bit lacking in character — even by Japanese standards. The Z1000 was an inferior bike in most respects, but it was, after all, a big Kawasaki, with all that meant in terms of image.
This situation was set to change, though, because the GS1000 was so supremely competent that Suzuki had created a reputation for big fourstrokes almost overnight. From this model the line can be traced through the 16-valve GSX1100 and Katanas, then the air/oil-cooled GSX-R1100, to the modern GSX-R1000. A great dynasty had been founded. The GS1000 had raised the high-performance bar, and motorcycling was all the better for that.
Although feel at the lever was wooden, twin 280-mm discs were potent
One of the best engines of its time
Dials were laid out in a simple clear-toread fashion
A 280-mm disc managed braking duties at the rear