Be­yond The power­band

Suzuki’s triples are more civilised than other peaky ’70s stro­kers. In a first-ever group test of the GT380, 550 and 750, we judge which one’s the best

Classic Bike (UK) - - News - WORDS JOHN NAISH. PHO­TOG­RA­PHY STU­ART COLLINS

‘DON’T EX­PECT THESE GTS TO PICK UP THEIR SKIRTS AND FLY’

Men­tion ‘two-stroke triples’ to any ’70s bike fan and their imag­i­na­tion will churn up im­ages of out­ra­geous noise, thirst, wheel­ies, psy­chotic bad man­ners and, in a word, Kawasakis. In the face of the moun­tain of mythol­ogy built up around the Kawas, the ‘quiet neigh­bour’ ef­fect haunts their con­tem­po­rary cousins, the Suzuki GTS. Nice fel­lows. What­ever be­came of them?

I’m pon­der­ing this while punt­ing along a dual car­riage­way on the small­est of Ha­ma­matsu’s triple range, a 1972 GT380J. It’s hap­pily keep­ing pace with the traf­fic, the rub­ber-mounted mo­tor hum­ming through the footrests, a po­litely muted howl from the four-pipe ex­haust sys­tem. I’ve been aboard the turquoise-blue ma­chine only ten min­utes, but al­ready it feels vice­lessly fa­mil­iar. The bike feels all about the midrange. Sit it in top gear at 60 and it will quickly gather an­other 10mph on a twist of the wrist. No need for down­shifts. Try do­ing that on a Honda 400/4 or RD400. Ahead of me is owner Martin Young, cruis­ing his 1973 GT750K. We’re off to rendezvous with his newly-ser­viced 1972 GT550J at a garage in the wilds of Sus­sex. Yes, he owns the whole range – lucky guy. Martin bought the 380 five years ago as a prizewin­ning restora­tion, although the mo­tor re­quired a com­plete re-fet­tle be­fore it would match the body­work’s glis­ter.

I’ve never seen all three pit­ted head-to-head in a mag­a­zine be­fore. So this is late-break­ing news, hot from the days that spawned Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power. Or per­haps more per­ti­nently, Deep Pur­ple’s Who Do We Think We Are? For the early Suzuki triples were born with­out the ben­e­fit of a strong iden­tity, ei­ther good or bad. They came across as nei­ther fire­balls, econ­omy bikes or ex­ot­ica. They were in­deed badged ‘GT’. But so was your dad’s Ford or Opel. And surely a sub-400cc bike can’t claim to be a pukka grand tourer. So what’s their schtick? Rid­ing them to­gether on the road cre­ates a long-awaited op­por­tu­nity for ap­praisal.

It’s fair to say that Suzuki launched its triple range with more of a whim­per than a bang. Ru­mours about their new wa­ter-cooled 750cc stro­ker triple sparked ex­pec­ta­tions of a fire­cracker race­track refugee that would eat Z1s, Tri­dents and CB750S alive, then spit their splin­tered bones from its yowl­ing span­nies. But Suzuki’s engi­neers de­cided oth­er­wise. Ul­ti­mately, the sheer weight of the wa­ter-cooled mo­tor and frame dic­tated that a highly-tuned job would fail to beat all-com­ers on ei­ther speed or han­dling. In­stead, it was launched in 1971 as a big, plush tourer.

After all the an­tic­i­pa­tion, this was some­thing of a let­down. In­deed, once we’d hit some in­ter­est­ing coun­try roads on the 380, I ini­tially thought it an anti-cli­max. “What? No power­band?” My mis­take. These GTS aren’t tuned for power­bands. You can’t ex­pect them sud­denly to pick up their skirts and fly. The GT380’S bore and stroke are the same as Suzuki’s GT250 twin, which was a de­cid­edly peaky lit­tle L-plater. Adding one cylin­der bumped the dis­place­ment to 371cc. But mild port tim­ing, low com­pres­sion and small carbs all de­lib­er­ately smooth the de­liv­ery of the 380’s 38bhp. Tractabil­ity is the ben­e­fit – no coughs, splut­ters or jud­ders, no des­per­ate gear­lever stomp­ing to main­tain progress. There are other at­tempts to ban­ish stinkwheel delin­quency: the oil-in­jec­tion sys­tem has a re­cy­cling cir­cuit to scav­enge un­burnt hy­dro­car­bons from the crank­case and feed them into the com­bus­tion cham­bers, re­duc­ing the smoke­screen ef­fect when open­ing the taps.

You can sit back and en­joy the ride with­out the stro­ker en­gine con­stantly bad­ger­ing you like a hy­per­ac­tive tod­dler for gear and throt­tle shifts. Don’t think you can’t tear it up on a GT380, though – if you rev the mo­tor into the howl­ing zone and keep it there, the Suzuki grows hair and teeth. The ex­haust trans­forms from a muted pob­ble into a tear­ing race­track scream. The bike’s small di­men­sions mean you can get it through the bends with a com­bi­na­tion of bully and hus­tle on mod­ern Avon Road­rid­ers.

There are lim­i­ta­tions – not least with the front drum brake, which feels un­der­pow­ered and re­luc­tant. Suzuki tried to fix that the fol­low­ing year by fit­ting a disc that worked bet­ter in the dry – but not at all in the wet. I was least happy with the rear sus­pen­sion, which felt dis­con­cert­ingly jumpy on bumpy straights. Close in­spec­tion re­vealed the rear shocks to be pat­tern (the over-long up­per mount’s a give­away). I’d trans­form the rid­ing by junk­ing them for Ko­nis or Hagons, though Martin thinks this sac­ri­le­gious.

What’s ac­tu­ally ‘Gran Turismo’ about the GT380? Def­i­nitely the seat – I barely no­ticed it, which must be the ul­ti­mate accolade for any mo­tor­cy­cle perch. The same goes for the other two bikes here – they will con­vey you in com­fort for miles. In com­mon with the GT550, the 380 also has beau­ti­fully re­strained in­stru­men­ta­tion. Neu­tral and high-beam lights are tucked at the bot­tom of the tacho. Be­tween the clocks, just one light sits in your eye­line. It’s the only one nec­es­sary – the in­di­ca­tor re­peater. Then there’s a speedo and an ig­ni­tion switch. What more do you need?

The GT550J shares the smaller Suzi’s re­strained in­stru­ments and comfy er­gonomics, along with the ‘Ram Air’ sys­tem – a bent metal plate meant to duct cool­ing flow over the cylin­der heads and rears, with ques­tion­able re­sults. Of course, it also has three cylin­ders – but there the sim­i­lar­i­ties end. Phys­i­cally the 550 is a sig­nif­i­cantly larger bike (I’d call it proper-sized) with a wholly dif­fer­ent per­son­al­ity. It’s a com­pelling mix of ci­vil­ity and edgi­ness.

You no­tice this straight away, thanks to the elec­tric starter but­ton. That re­fined touch is dis­pelled by the de­li­cious racket the

en­sues when the mo­tor fires. There’s a real mean cackle from these early-model pipes – so much so that a pre­vi­ous owner tried to quell them by wrap­ping house­hold dusters around the baf­fles.

Martin bought the bike, sight un­seen, from a seller in north­ern Eng­land five months ago and it’s turned out to be a cracker. Sans dusters, the 550’s con­vo­luted pipework snick­ers with in­tent. The primeval edge is ex­ac­er­bated when you first try the front brake. At low speeds the big drum is per­turbingly grabby. Care­ful now...

On the road, though, the bike shows its friendly side as a fine stro­ker com­pro­mise – its 50bhp is plenty enough power to get you there, while the chas­sis stays on the healthy side of hefty. Like all two-strokes, though, it is in­deed a com­pro­mise. Flog the bike too hard and you’ll quickly start feel­ing tired and out of place. It’s a dis­tance-run­ner rather than a manic sprinter.

Ride it like a fast tourer and you’ll be right in the fun zone. The sound­track will make you feel like you’re fly­ing, while you cover miles tire­lessly. You don’t have to wres­tle. That soft Suzi tun­ing makes the mo­tor strongly use­able through­out its rev range – though it does have a rough-vibe patch around 5000rpm. There are no power-wheel­ies, but al­most no bog­ging, ei­ther.

The ex­hausts and stands will ground out on cor­ners, but at that point you’re about to etch hero scars on your tyre edges. Few clas­sic own­ers ride that way now. And are you re­ally go­ing to take it on track­days? At speed, that front drum is the best stop­per of all three bikes. It’s a mas­sive four-lead­ing-shoe dou­ble-sided job, -shared with the launch-model GT750. While the Ket­tle’s weight over­whelmed it, the drum makes a strong, pro­gres­sive match for the 550’s pro­por­tions. Just en­sure its twin ca­bles are set up right.

De­spite se­rial abuse, I couldn’t make the drum fade. No won­der so many of these units get snaf­fled for clas­sic rac­ing. The fol­low­ing year it was dropped for a trendy but un­der­de­vel­oped disc. The term ‘fash­ion vic­tim’ springs to mind. Speak­ing of fash­ion, the Suzis’ styling might most diplo­mat­i­cally be de­fined as ‘a mat­ter of taste’. Most ap­pro­pri­ate, per­haps, is the de­scrip­tion jolie laide – French for ‘ugly-pretty’ – in the way that a gap-toothed smile can make a per­son ro­man­ti­cally com­pelling. Like­wise the Ram-air­topped cylin­ders, viewed from the front, re­sem­ble the best of Bru­tal­ist mod­ernist ar­chi­tec­ture. Then there’s the gas-plumb­ing work that joins the 550’s three ex­haust head­ers, the bulky side­pan­els with their go-faster shark’s gills and the chunky-bar du­al­bulb rear light. Such de­tails would never grace some­thing so clas­si­cally lithe as a 900SS. But I rather love them.

Gen­uinely gor­geous are the gun­metal-coloured crankcases that were fit­ted only to the GT550J model. Martin’s ex­am­ple has just a few tiny worm-shaped im­per­fec­tions where cor­ro­sion has crept be­neath the lac­quer. Some own­ers have made the cruel mis­take of polishing them back to base al­loy. There’s no way to re­store this sheen. The light it glints is mes­meris­ing.

In the ’70s, Cy­cle mag­a­zine pitched the GT550, then four years old, into a long-range test against newer mid­dleweights such as the CB550, RD400, XS500 and KH400. It trounced the lot... but went on to be the low­est-sell­ing and short­est-lived Suzi triple.

There is no doubt, though, which bike has al­ways been the star of the bunch. Martin’s 1973 GT750K model is a low-mileage orig­i­nal ex­am­ple that he bought ten years ago for £5000, which seemed a ti­tanic price at the time. It still has only 19,000 miles on the clock, not least be­cause it was dogged by a chronic oil­ing prob­lem. A pre­vi­ous owner loved the smell of Cas­trol R, but the GT nearly choked to death on it. After years of bad run­ning, a full strip was re­quired to clear the bike’s ev­ery jet and pas­sage­way.

This K model abounds with early de­tails such as the big chromium sur­round on the ra­di­a­tor, black-coned ex­hausts and plain-sided cylin­der walls. It also has the orig­i­nal cowhorn Us-style bars. Un­like the 380 and 550, which you sit upon, the 750 en­velopes you. Arms stretch ahead and out to the grips, legs splay around the tank. Hit the starter and the en­gine bursts into big torquey life. You’re in for an Ex­pe­ri­ence with a cap­i­tal E. It can feel ini­tially in­tim­i­dat­ing. But again, thanks largely to the com­modi­ous state of tun­ing, it’s an easy bike just to jump on and ride. The tiller­sized bars mean you can heft it around eas­ily enough, all the con­trols are dis­arm­ingly light and (for their time) so­phis­ti­cated.

‘THE 550’S SOUND­TRACK MAKES YOU FEEL YOU’RE FLY­ING, WHILE YOU COVER MILES TIRE­LESSLY’

Again, the Suzi han­dles per­fectly well within its tour­ing-bike lim­its. Only the un­wise would want to push their luck fur­ther. Mind your corner-en­try speed: the GT750J’S twin-disc set-up is a dis­ap­point­ment, feel­ing both wooden and weak.

Pre­vi­ously I’ve only ever rid­den the last A and B mod­els. These were tuned to cre­ate a power­band, to lure speed-fix­ated buy­ers on the back of Suzuki’s GP wins. But I find their power de­liv­ery fussier than this ear­lier ver­sion. Given the 750’s tour­ing-bike pro­por­tions, a torque-laden no-sur­prises steady gush of go from idle to near-red­line makes a suit­able match. It’s raw civil­i­sa­tion.

I’d nom­i­nate the GT750 as one of those rare iconic ma­chines that you sim­ply must sam­ple at least once in a bik­ing life­time. It’s unique. You’ve got that gi­ant tem­per­a­ture gauge star­ing in your face and a snort­ing great 67bhp pow­er­plant jiv­ing away be­neath you. It’s one of the ul­ti­mate Mar­mite ma­chines. I’ll never pass up a chance to ride one, but I’d never lust after own­er­ship – 750ccs seem sim­ply too much for the ba­sic physics of a two-stroke pow­er­plant. Through town, the GT ex­pe­ri­ence is dogged by the big mo­tor surg­ing, hunt­ing and bog­ging while it tries to make sense of its own gas flow. It feels like the drive chain has been swapped for bungee rope. Afi­ciona­dos will call that ‘char­ac­ter’, but I find it in­tru­sive, tir­ing and too con­trary to the lux­ury-bike propo­si­tion. It’s not some­thing you no­tice when out tour­ing long-dis­tance, how­ever, where the GT750 is at its leggy best. But that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make it the best real-world road­burner of the bunch.

On a stretch of straight, empty road, I pinned the throt­tle. While hit­ting third gear, I glanced into the mir­rors to see how Martin was re­spond­ing on the GT550. He seemed happy enough with my an­tic. Two ra­tios later and into ‘I’m ter­ri­bly sorry, your hon­our’ ter­ri­tory, I again checked the mir­rors. There was Martin, keep­ing per­fect pace. Ver­dict: it’s no slouch, that 550. The GT550 was dis­con­tin­ued in 1977 and the GT380 in 1979 – a year after the GT750 had suc­cumbed to the grim en­vi­ron­men­tal reaper. If you’ve not gath­ered al­ready, the puppy I’d res­cue from the lit­ter is the 550. Not so for Martin. “The 380 is my favourite,” he ex­plains. “The GT750 is just sooo big (his eyes widen).”

I’m not alone in my choice. Buy­ers are be­gin­ning to prize the GT550 as a ne­glected gem (so prices are on the up.) Some com­men­ta­tors have even la­belled it ‘the think­ing man’s Kawa H1’. That’s go­ing too far. What sort of think­ing man would ride an H1?

The only light in be­tween the clocks is the in­di­ca­tor re­peater

For a fine stro­ker com­pro­mise of com­fort and per­for­mance, the GT550’S hard to beat

Be­low: Beau­ti­fully re­strained in­stru­ments grace the GT550

Right: GT550 pipes’ cackle con­trast vividly with its civilised na­ture

Ride it like a tourer, don’t push your luck in cor­ners and the GT750 won’t bite you

Black-coned ex­hausts are an early model de­tail, along with big chrome rad sur­round

That big cen­tral tem­per­a­ture gauge is hard to miss – and in­ad­vis­able to ig­nore

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