Boost & bust



Mo­tor­cy­cling was spas­ming too. Honda and Yamaha were at war, each try­ing to be nu­mero uno world­wide, each try­ing to out-pro­duce one an­other and beat the other sense­less with new-think tech­nol­ogy and rapid-fire new-bike launches. Honda, for in­stance, in­tro­duced nearly 40 all-new models be­tween ’81 and ’84, with Yamaha not far be­hind. Forty. That’s un­think­able to­day.

But while the two com­pa­nies duked it out, Amer­ica’s over­all two-wheel en­vi­ron­ment was in de­cline. You had an eco­nomic re­ces­sion, baby boomers tak­ing a break from all the record-set­ting bike buy­ing they’d done dur­ing the late ’60s and through­out the ’70s, and many thou­sands of non­cur­rent ma­chines pil­ing up at deal­er­ships and be­ing sold at half of re­tail, which de­val­ued every­thing around them. It was a de­press­ing time for the OEMS, and the irony of it all—hand­fuls of in­ter­est­ing, tech­ni­cally ad­vanced new bikes be­ing in­tro­duced but far fewer buy­ers for them—was pal­pa­ble.

One of the ear­li­est of th­ese tech­ni­cally ad­vanced bikes to ap­pear was a not-ready-for-pro­duc­tion Honda pro­to­type, which showed up in late 1980 at that year’s Cologne Mo­tor Show, just weeks be­fore the Rea­gan/carter elec­tion. The pro­to­type, with its gold ac­cents and swoopy, fu­tur­is­tic look, was the hit of the show, and no one failed to miss the sig­nif­i­cance of a par­tic­u­larly rivet­ing word em­bla­zoned on its flanks and ex­haust sys­tem: Turbo.

Even then, en­gine tur­bocharg­ing wasn’t par­tic­u­larly new; P38s and B17s in WWII used tur­bocharged en­gines, and Kawasaki had done a lim­ited-edi­tion Z1-R turbo—the Z1R-TC—IN ’78. But by the ’80s, the word had be­come al­most magic, sort of a buzz­word for every­thing trick, spe­cial, and fast in the mo­tor­ing world.

“It was im­pres­sive,” says former Mo­tor­cy­clist Ed­i­tor Art Fried­man, who at­tended that year’s Cologne show. “I came back thrilled by the idea of a stylish 500 with liter-like power.”

Honda would in nor­mal times have kept a pro­to­type of this im­por­tance un­der wraps. But th­ese weren’t nor­mal times. This was war, and Honda, suddenly awake after sev­eral years of lack­lus­ter ef­fort on the two-wheel side (thanks to some goad­ing from Soichiro Honda him­self ), wasn’t about to let an op­por­tu­nity to es­tab­lish new­found cred­i­bil­ity—or tweak Yamaha’s nose—pass by. The mes­sage was clear: “We built the six-cylin­der CBX, and we’ll build a turbo too.”

As promised, Honda’s pro­duc­tion turbo—the 1982 Honda Cx500t—ap­peared a year later to great fan­fare and high ex­pec­ta­tions. The gen­eral idea seemed promis­ing: Tur­bocharge a mid­dleweight ma­chine to give it the horse­power and speed of heav­ier and more cumbersome open-classers.

Mo­tor­cy­clist, in­vited ex­clu­sively to ride a pair of pre-pro­duc­tion ma­chines for its Septem­ber ’81 is­sue (be­fore other press out­lets got their test­bikes), came away with a rea­son­ably pos­i­tive re­view, which helped set the stage for some of those ex­pec­ta­tions. Staffers Fried­man, Jeff Karr, and Ken Vreeke found the CX-T smooth, well en­gi­neered, com­fort­able, and sur­pris­ingly fast on the boost, with less turbo lag than the af­ter­mar­ket, non­pro­duc­tion turbos they’d rid­den be­fore—but still enough to make ag­gres­sive rid­ing prob­lem­atic. Com­plaints sur­rounded weight, com­plex­ity, price, high-speed han­dling, fuel mileage, and lag. That’s a long list of neg­a­tives, but hey, this here, folks,


Mo­tor­cy­clist staffers Jeff Karr and Ken Vreeke thrash the Yamaha and Honda turbo models for our July ’82 is­sue. The Honda won, barely, but nei­ther was a per­for­mance break­through. Weight, price, and turbo lag made them less at­trac­tive than the liter­bikes of the day.

was a pro­duc­tion turbo! And be­cause the guys were eval­u­at­ing pre-pro­duc­tion ma­chines, the ten­dency was (and still is) to give a man­u­fac­turer the ben­e­fit of the doubt un­til a full-pro­duc­tion bike could be rid­den and fully tested, which hap­pened in May of ’82.

By that point, Yamaha had joined the turbo fra­ter­nity, hav­ing in­tro­duced its XJ650L Seca Turbo to, again, great fan­fare and high ex­pec­ta­tions. Al­ways hot for a good com­par­i­son test, Mo­tor­cy­clist pit­ted the ’82-spec Honda and Yamaha against one an­other in its July ’82 is­sue and in 12 ex­haus­tive pages pro­ceeded to set the record straight on the true na­ture of the pro­duc­tion turbo phe­nom­e­non. To that point, at least.

On pa­per, the Yamaha was de­cid­edly less ad­vanced than the tech-heavy Honda, which many in­sid­ers be­lieved to be a re­sult of Yamaha pos­si­bly rush­ing a bit to get to mar­ket in close time prox­im­ity to the Honda’s re­lease. The Yamaha en­gine was air-cooled, based on the com­pany’s two-valve ( but DOHC) XJ650 mill. The Honda was liq­uid-cooled, based on its four-valve (but pushrod) CX500 V-twin. The Yamaha used car­bu­re­tors, pres­sur­ized in this case, ver­sus the Honda’s fuel in­jec­tion (and, in­ci­den­tally, the very first Honda product to fea­ture FI). The Yamaha had twin shocks, while the Honda of­fered up its Pro-link sin­gle-shock sys­tem. Both, cu­ri­ously, were shaft driven, with the Honda of­fer­ing triple discs, the Yamaha two ro­tors up front and an old-school drum in back. Both were ex­pen­sive, too, re­tail­ing for just a tick un­der the $5,000 mark—nearly dou­ble the price of a good mid­dleweight and many hun­dreds more than a com­pe­tent liter­bike.

In ac­tion, the Honda was the quicker of the two, but both were still mired in the mid-12s and quite a ways be­hind the 11-sec­ond liter­bikes then available. Turbo lag was a headache, with the edi­tors writ­ing, “Deal­ing with turbo lag is the main chal­lenge in rid­ing th­ese bikes swiftly.” When rid­den be­neath each bike’s boost thresh­old (roughly 4,000 rpm), they were sur­pris­ingly lethar­gic, their weight (581 pounds for the CX-T and 565 pounds for the Seca) and smaller dis­place­ments con­spir­ing to make them feel even slower than the non-boosted mid­dleweights from which they sprang. Both bikes proved rea­son­ably com­fort­able, and their fair­ings made them above-av­er­age tour­ers, though wind­shield tur­bu­lence and

knee/fair­ing-clear­ance is­sues were noted. Each proved a rea­son­ably good han­dler but, again, turbo lag, ex­cess weight, soft and un­der­damped sus­pen­sion, and fade-prone brakes made them less than happy when rid­den hard. Mileage was poor, too, dip­ping into the 20-mpg range at times.

The staff chose the Honda nar­rowly over the Yamaha, but its over­all ver­dict on the ’82 turbo bikes—and turbos in gen­eral—was not what the two OEMS were hop­ing for or what the pub­lic ex­pected. “The turbos are great as en­gi­neer­ing ex­er­cises,” Karr wrote, “and they’re def­i­nitely eye-catch­ing, but func­tion­ally they’re a bad com­pro­mise, par­tic­u­larly when you con­sider price.” Fried­man agreed: “What we’ve got here are two mo­tor­cy­cles that are no faster, lighter, sim­pler, or oth­er­wise su­pe­rior to nor­mally as­pi­rated bikes dis­plac­ing more and cost­ing less.”

The al­most utopian idea that turbos would make lighter, smaller-dis­place­ment mo­tor­cy­cles as fast as liter­bikes was clearly not be­ing re­al­ized—so far, at least. Was the idea flawed or was the ex­e­cu­tion to blame?

In ’83, Suzuki joined the turbo ranks with its XN85, which used the air­cooled, 673cc in­line-four from its GS650 and was con­sid­er­ably sportier than the Honda and Yamaha. (The “85” de­noted 85 bhp, ac­cord­ing to Suzuki.) With its sharply an­gled clip-ons, 16-inch wheels at both ends, and racy body­work, it cer­tainly looked to be the most se­ri­ous sport­bike of the three­some, and its en­gine per­for­mance mostly backed up the im­pres­sion, the XN get­ting into the 11s at the dragstrip. Ex­cel­lent back-road han­dling helped too. Mag­a­zine tests pooh-poohed the XN85’S price ($4,700), lack of cor­ner­ing clear­ance (its ex­haust grounded badly), han­dle­bar shape, and— again—turbo lag. But as Cy­cle edi­tors wrote in the De­cem­ber ’82 is­sue, “If you want a turbo, go for the Suzuki. There’s more to this [one] than meets the eye.”

In a shock­ing move (or maybe not so shock­ing given Honda’s ag­gres­sive pos­ture and the new-model crazi­ness of the early 1980s), Honda in­tro­duced a new turbo model just a year after launch­ing its CX500T. For ’83, the CX500T would be re­placed by the higher-dis­place­ment, faster, and more re­fined CX650T. In ei­ther an ob­vi­ous ad­mis­sion that they’d got­ten it partly wrong the first time or be­cause en­gi­neers for ’83 had a 650cc ver­sion of the CX en­gine ready for pro­duc­tion for the CX650 Cus­tom, Sil­ver Wing, and In­ter­state (likely a lit­tle of both), the ’83 T-model got 674cc, a stronger crank­case, a sim­pler com­puter, re­vised gear ra­tios, and nu­mer­ous other re­fine­ments, all of which made it a much bet­ter mo­tor­cy­cle.

“The 1983 Honda CX650T,” wrote Cy­cle’s edi­tors, “ful­fills the prom­ise last year’s turbos couldn’t keep. Honda has come a long way to­ward de­feat­ing limp off-boost power and turbo lag, mak­ing the 650T a splen­did Grand Tour­ing bike that thrives on back roads as well as

The 1980s Ja­panese turbo wars com­prised a brief but ex­cit­ing pe­riod in mo­tor­cy­cling.

Long­time Mo­tor­cy­clist staffer Jeff Karr was im­pressed with GPz turbo but knew the genre was a dead end. You could tell the turbo phe­nom­e­non was go­ing nowhere,” he says to­day, “but the whole thing was still pretty fun!”

high­ways. Last year, the 500T’s attraction was the idea of a turbo; this year, the 650 de­liv­ers.”

If the func­tional, Grand Tour­ing-es­que ex­cel­lence of Honda’s CX650T shined a softer, gen­tler light on the en­tire turbo move­ment, the folks at Kawasaki were about to melt the en­tire turbo com­mu­nity with a sus­tained blast of its laser can­non. Be­cause, at that very mo­ment in early ’83, Kawasaki was putting the fi­nal touches on its own turbo model, the ’84-spec GPZ750 Turbo. Eigh­teen months ear­lier, Kawasaki had shown a Kz750-based turbo pro­to­type at the 1981 Tokyo Show, and while it was a bit cobby look­ing and never pro­duc­tion­ized as planned, some­thing Kawasaki’s head of en­gi­neer­ing said at the time about the pro­ject would prove prescient: “Horse­power comes first,” en­thused Takahito Aoyama. “We want the fastest mo­tor­cy­cle!”

With the ’84 GPZ750 Turbo, Kawasaki got what it was after and then some. Be­cause if you boil down the last 33 years of per­spec­tive, mag­a­zine fea­tures, per­sonal ac­counts, and mo­tolore re­gard­ing the turbo move­ment into its es­sen­tial el­e­ments, you are left with an in­deli­ble im­print: The GPZ Turbo was, with­out doubt, the mean­est, fastest, and most po­tent pro­duc­tion turbo bike ever built.

It wasn’t par­tic­u­larly com­fort­able. Or quick steer­ing. Or light. But it was fast, run­ning 145 mph on the radar gun and high 10s at the dragstrip, be­com­ing the quick­est, fastest street­bike in the land in the process. It was also dead sta­ble at speed, of­fered great brakes (for the time, any­way), and proved an amaz­ing tool for high-speed back-road or race­track work. It was swoopy, beau­ti­fully fin­ished, and sexy, too, and when you jumped aboard and felt the boost hit you like a jump to light­speed, the goose­bumps ran heavy and deep.

“Kawasaki didn’t set out to build merely the fastest turbo,” Karr wrote in this mag­a­zine’s Septem­ber ’83 road test. “They wanted to build a land­mark. They suc­ceeded.”

“Un­til this year I was com­pletely un­der­whelmed by the turbos I’d rid­den,” Fried­man wrote in the same is­sue. “What we are get­ting now are hon­estto-goodness fire breathers. [On the GPZ Turbo] I was quite lit­er­ally strug­gling just to hold on.”

Of course, the turbo phe­nom­e­non wouldn’t last—and couldn’t, re­ally, es­pe­cially once the mo­tor­cy­cling pub­lic and press got a taste of an­other high-end sport­bike that Kawasaki launched that same year and had iron­i­cally de­vel­oped right along­side the GPZ Turbo: the leg­endary 900 Ninja. The Turbo blew writ­ers’ and en­thu­si­asts’ minds for a short time, but as soon as the equally fast, beau­ti­fully sculpted, slick-han­dling, rea­son­ably af­ford­able, and lag-free ’84 Ninja’s DNA leaked into mo­tor­cy­cling ’s blood­stream, the turbo ex­per­i­ment—for Kawasaki and the other Oems—was fin­ished. For­got­ten. Ka­put. The Ninja, along with other nat­u­rally as­pi­rated bikes like the ’84 and ’85 Yamaha FJ1100 and FZ750, Suzuki GSX-R750 (and, a year later, the GSX-R1100), rep­re­sented a new gen­er­a­tion of lighter, more powerful liter­bikes and 750s, all of which made the need for tur­bocharged mid­dleweights a moot point. Suddenly, the need for tech­no­log­i­cal Band-aids had dis­ap­peared.

Steve Had­dad, a South­ern Cal­i­for­nia col­lec­tor who owns the five turbo bikes we pho­tographed for this story (all of which were won­der­fully re­stored by turbo guru Greg Goss of Es­con­dido, Cal­i­for­nia), says the turbos’ unique­ness made him a fan. “They’re dif­fer­ent,” Had­dad says. “They’re odd. And es­o­teric. I like stuff that’s unique. And th­ese things are def­i­nitely that.”

His fa­vorite? “Prob­a­bly the Honda 650,” he says, “be­cause it’s fast, smooth, re­fined, com­fort­able, and han­dles pretty well. But the GPZ is right there. It’s so fast and so beau­ti­ful. It’s ac­tu­ally hard to choose be­tween them.

“For me,” Had­dad adds, “the turbos are time ma­chines. The con­cept may have crashed and burned in a few short years and been noth­ing more than a tech­no­log­i­cal bridge be­tween old­school and more modern sport­bikes. But those are years I love to re­mem­ber. And when I jump on one of th­ese things and feel the tur­bocharger kick in and yank my arms straight, well, there’s noth­ing quite like it.”

Which is surely the feel­ing Ja­pan Inc. was try­ing to achieve all along.

“Kawasaki didn’t set out to build merely the fastest turbo. They wanted to build a land­mark. They suc­ceeded.”

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