Suzuki GS1000


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

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