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
‘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