Classic Motorcycle Mechanics


Suzuki’s TL1000S: hailed as a Ducati-beater in 1997, the V-twin looked set for great success, but on UK roads acclaim soon switched to damnation. Branded by some as dangerous, how does the bike ride today?


Chris Moss rides the much-maligned V-twin.

At the end of 1996, Suzuki was in a bit of a quandary… Sure, it’s GSX-R750 W-T SRAD was arguably the king of the 750 four-cylinder sportsbike­s and was taking the fight to the likes of Honda’s supreme CBR900RR Fireblade, but on the outskirts, there was that little Ducati factory building beautiful race-replica V-twins such as the 916…

V-twins were winning hearts, minds and sales in the showrooms – not only with the 916, but with the SS and Monster series, too. Suzuki witnessed this, and fancied a piece of the action. Their approach was to make their V-twin more powerful, more technicall­y advanced and, better still, a whole lot cheaper than the 916.

In 1997 it looked like they’d hit the bull’s eye, delivering just what customers needed in the shape of the new TL1000S-V. First seen at the 1996 bike shows, the new sportsbike drew loads of attention and interest. Boasting a 98x 6666mm,, 996cc, 88v, 90-degree V-twin motor with Nippon Den nso fuel-injection (the first ever digitally-fue lled Suzuki), it claimed to produce a highly impressive 125bhp (the best 916s only made 115bhp). A clever use of gears and chains to drive its cams kept the engine compact. The T motor featured flat

topped semi-slipper pistons, 40mm inlet, and 33mm exhaust valves with shim under bucket adjustment, cam activated auto de-compressor­s, a slipper clutch, and had no balance shaft.

The TL’S oval section alloy trellis frame maintained a balance of strength and light weight, and a novel F1-style rotary rear suspension arrangemen­t saved vital space. It also turned out to be the bike’s Achilles’ heel. Essentiall­y an oil-filled rectangula­r alloy chamber, with linked rotating vanes moving within it to control damping, and a separate spring mounted inside the right-hand side of the frame rails, the arrangemen­t was unique to motorcycli­ng. Up front, the fully adjustable 43mm inverted forks were more convention­al.

With a claimed dry weight of just 187kg, and racy frame geometry, including a very steep 23.7° head angle and super-short 93.5mm of trail, the TL looked like it was going to kick arse round corners. Not everyone rated the Suzuki as highly though, with Hoss Elm, boss of Ducati’s UK importer Moto Cinelli, having doubts. He placed a wager on Suzuki’s power claims for the bike being exaggerate­d, stating he’d hand over £20,000 if the TL motor could make more than his 916. It did, but he didn’t!

Reports from its 1997 US track-based press launch confirmed the TL’S potential. A bonkers, free-revving motor felt stronger and more exciting than the Ducati’s. Handling was a good match, with very quick steering giving the Suzuki an agile, flickable feel. With capable brakes and suspension, it looked like the 916 was going to have to hand over its crown. Coming in at just £7999 (nearly £5000 less than the £12,800 Duke) it looked like a no-brainer. Honda’s similarly priced V-twin effort, the VTR1000 Firestorm, had just hit the shops, too. But being a Honda it lacked the zest and excitement offered by the TL. Very good, but just a bit dull was the verdict.

If you thought Suzuki’s victory was now a foregone conclusion, you’d be wrong. Instead the TL1000S was set to become one of the most controvers­ial bikes of the era. It all changed when the first press bikes arrived in the UK. I was riding for MCN at the time and my first test of the TL at Castle Combe (a bumpy Wiltshire racetrack chosen by race teams to set up their TT bikes as it’s so rough) is something I recall vividly.

Coming out of a second gear right-hander the Suzuki’s accelerati­on was really impressing me. It didn’t matter that I’d probably only done one or two laps at this point. The TL engine’s almost Gsx-r-like personalit­y was so evident from the word go. This superbike was a thriller. But suddenly the thrills were replaced by a rush of fear. Violent enough to take the bars from my hands, I had a massive and prolonged lock-to-lock tank-slapper. It came right out of the blue. There’d been no build-up, no hint it might happen, just ‘BANG’.

Strangely, as it was in a straight line, on a track with plenty of run off at that point, it didn’t terrify me quite as much as it could have. It scared the bloke on the bike behind, though. He backed off for fear of running through the wreckage from what he was certain was going to be a big crash. It had obviously looked pretty serious.

Real worry came when I rode the TL on the road. I dreaded any repeat of the Combe incident, never

“You have to wonder how the Japanese signed the Suzuki TL1000S off... did they not also experience the same stability issues during developmen­t that UK bikers did after the launch?”

really feeling at home on the bike again. Every time I got on the throttle, my buttocks clenched. It might not have been the only bike I’d ever had slap on me, but I’d never had one as huge or continual as that. Even so, I didn’t want to overreact and give the bike bad press for what might have been a bit of a one-off.

However, when I read a V-twin group test in Performanc­e Bikes magazine (using a top rider such as Mike Edwards no less) the tale was a familiar one. Edwards recalls: “It was such a grunty thing and handled surprising­ly well. But if you found yourself facing a series of events; accelerati­ng hard out of a corner, a little leant over and making the front go light, it would tank-slap like you wouldn’t believe. I had three, life-threatenin­g, lock stop to lock stop moments on it with smoke coming off the front tyre. Mark Forsyth, PB’S editor at the time and a handy rider, just laughed and shot off on it. He soon came back looking equally ashen faced.”

Mark takes up the story. “We were dead excited about riding the TL in France. We’d had it on the dyno before we set off and it made a load more power than the 916. Mike had come back saying how dangerous it was. Then we all rode it along the same stretch of road and it did exactly the same thing. It would do it under load along bumpy roads when the rear was squatted and the front was light. We printed exactly what had happened in the mag and got a load of response from readers who’d had it happen to them. Then it all got a bit legal with Suzuki because of lawyers picking up on what we’d said in the test.”

The legal bods were representi­ng riders injured in crashes allegedly caused by the TL’S instabilit­y issues. One UK rider – Simon Carolan-evans – was killed after suffering a high-side off his TL. It’s said no cases actually got to court, with Suzuki settling claims out of court.

Suspension firm Maxton became involved with the issue, also being asked to represent clients who’d fallen from their TLS. Maxton’s Richard Adams remembers the events. “We spent a lot of time with the TLS and were asked for our profession­al opinion by legal people after two fatal accidents, one in the US and one in the UK. The design of the rotary damper’s wrong and is definitely a contributo­ry factor to the tank-slapping. It’s too heavily damped when it’s cold, making it feel quite stiff and harsh. The spring’s too soft a match; it’s more for a 9-10 stone rider. Under hard accelerati­on the rear end squats and stays there, unloading the front and contributi­ng to instabilit­y. Then when the small amount of oil in the rotary damper overheats it loses all of its damping and starts to pogo. Fitting a steering damper only masks the problem. The rotary damper has to be replaced for the bike to work.”

Suzuki couldn’t admit defeat though, and the novel arrangemen­t remained in place, with the 1998 model coming with a steering damper fitted as standard. Existing bikes were recalled for the same mod, though dealers were also given a different ECU to fit, which softened the engine’s midrange rush and reduced peak power by 10bhp. It’s said unless they returned the original ECU to Suzuki to dispose of, they wouldn’t be paid for the job. These later bikes lack the character of the original version and are virtually impossible to find.

The S was joined by the racier TL1000R in 1998. With its full fairing, slightly higher revving and more powerful 135bhp, twin-injector engine, it also came with a rotary damper. But any criticism of that was negated by the standard-fitment steering damper, which controlled any possible flightines­s. The S model continued until 2001 by which time, despite being stable, its bad boy reputation had developed all the more, arguably helping it to become the cult bike it is today. It might be hard to find a good one, but it’s arguably worth the search.

The ride

I very much doubt my first experience on this TL could’ve been any better. The very bike built entirely by hand from brand new spares at the NEC Bike Show in 2014, the Suzuki’s essentiall­y as good an example as you’re ever going to get these days. But it wasn’t just the bike’s near ‘box freshness’ that made life aboard feel so good, the chance to ride it along some wonderfull­y winding Belgian roads in near perfect weather completed the joy, as did subsequent laps of the iconic Spa Francorcha­mps circuit on it.

My TL adoration grew even stronger during the couple of weeks I rode it back in the UK later on, even with British weather: either way, what a bloody great bike it is. I still hugely enjoy all the TL’S got to offer. Obviously helped by its newness and immaculate condition, the semi-naked big V-twin really does look and sound the part. Quite rounded and bulky in appearance, it’s got a unique, eye-catching, barecheste­d style like no other. And though the engine music’s muffled a fair bit by the decibel-killing standard cans, there’s still enough of a boom from those pipes to please the lugholes and draw a grin.

It’s funny, the Suzuki might well have had me ashen faced all those years ago, but here in 2019 it was hard to believe it could have been that nasty. With its steering damper keeping the front wheel headed where I chose to point it, all feels safe and well. The security’s also aided by the Suzuki’s surprising­ly fairly tame overall feel. That’s not to say it can’t boogie and get a move on when you want it to. But the potency of that big V-twin motor, especially in the context of some of the very latest sportsbike motors, can’t raise my eyebrows like it once very much did. No doubt controlled by one of the second generation ECUS, restrictin­g it to a max of around 110bhp, though the engine is admirable,

it’s rarely scary. There’s always some good, solid drive to rely on when you feed it with more fuel. Accelerati­on doesn’t need to be prompted by down-changes (slick though they are to execute) to send the tacho needle further round its dial.

More diesel-like with its low rpm and midrange strength, its easy-going, laid-back, low-revving nature makes the ride feel all the more relaxing. Tall gearing only adds to the long-legged character. It might be the first production Suzuki to feature fuel-injection, but the arrangemen­t’s clean and glitch-free, further boosting the motor’s usability. It’s a great engine and has a real influence on your enjoyment of the bike.

Less easy to get the best from, though by no means warranting any real criticism, is the TL’S chassis. Incapable of generating the negative comments it did back in the day, the Suzuki’s handling naturally has a dated feel. The bike feels long and, dare I say it, pretty planted. Changing direction needs more planning than it does on more modern sportsbike­s. Once you’ve picked a line on the TL, you’re just not in a position to re-route instantly. Those manners give it a heavier, more lethargic feel until you’re used to it, but overall I’d still give the bike a good score in this respect.

Similar allowances have to be made with the suspension and brakes. Though they’re generally effective enough, both the fork and controvers­ial rear damper have a pretty crude and harsh action in the way they cope with the worst bumps. And even if slowing down is straightfo­rward, there’s still a wooden feel to the brakes. You need to give the lever quite a squeeze if you want to pull up more urgently.

Without any modern riding aids, the TL is more of a rider’s bike, and one that makes it more rewarding to ride. Overall, the TL really has got some real personalit­y and presence. I’d love to have one in my garage.

Buying and owning

If you want a good TL1000S, you’re going to have to be patient. The TL wasn’t a massive seller, and being over 20 years old means lots have fallen by the wayside. Very few remain in standard trim, even less in good order. As well as patience, you’ll need to be bloody careful not to end up getting stung financiall­y. Looked after, the Suzuki can crack 50,000 miles or more reliably. Neglected, they can fail way earlier than that, and end up costing a small fortune to sort.

Get a good feel for the bike’s history. The finish on Suzukis of this vintage wasn’t especially tough so its overall condition will reveal much about its life.

The basic rule is to go for younger models. Updated subtly, but in several areas during its life, by 1999 it was pretty much at its best. All the recalls (fuel tank, steering damper, engine breather, frame cracking) and updates (clutch, gearbox output shaft bearing and crankcase, cylinder head ports, ECU, coolant temperatur­e sender position, frames) had been completed by then with both the ride and reliabilit­y being improved as a result. Even so, if you can find a very good example of an early one, then don’t hold back.

Look first at the mounts for the rotary damper. If the Suzuki’s been ridden hard on bumpy roads, the damper itself not serviced, or its securing bolts left to come loose, then there’s a chance the mounts will crack. They can be TIG welded, re-ground and re-drilled to bring them back to as-new condition. But it involves a lot of disassembl­y costing time and funds. The action of the rotary damper remain at its best if it’s serviced with new oil and gas, and the mounting bolts kept tight. Alternativ­ely you can just fit a more convention­al Ohlins or Maxton shock as they don’t use all the mounts. They’ll give a more controlled ride, too. Another option is to fit a Bitubo

shock, which replaces both the rotary damper and separate ‘spring on a stick’ arrangemen­t behind the right-hand frame trellis. The standard Suzuki spring’s locating eyes can corrode and wear, leading to slack and even possible failure. Be wary of botched fitment of shocks designed for other bikes with rising rate systems. Also look for frame cracking around the headstock on early bikes. Look carefully from underneath on the left-hand side and it’ll be obvious if it’s starting to go. The frame never breaks.

Engine oil and filter changes are crucial on the TL. They should be done once a year regardless of mileage and without fail before any lengthy storage periods. Old oil can becomes contaminat­ed and acidic, eating into the big-end bearing shells, causing an expensive, hard-to-remedy issue. Cranks can’t be re-ground, so you need to find and fit a used replacemen­t. Listen to the engine carefully; any knocking from either end indicates the crank has gone already. Fitting new shells as a preventati­ve measure is arguably worthwhile. Noises from the top-end can indicate the cams’ scissor springs have worn. It’s not an issue if you can put up with the ticking. The TL is nicknamed ‘Ticks Loudly’ by some.

Test ride the TL and put third gear under pressure. If it jumps out then the dogs on the locating 4th gear have started to wear. This will only get worse and eventually can lead to break up and catastroph­ic failure. New parts aren’t available so you’ll have to source a used box from a breaker’s. Check the clutch action. The lever should have light resistance (if the cable and worm drive are both clean) and bite predictabl­y, though if the ramps on the centre plate have worn then it can slip and grab. Take care when adjusting the drive chain. It’s all too easy to end up with it being too tight, restrictin­g rear suspension travel and overloadin­g the gearbox output shaft.

If you want more performanc­e, then fitting a Yoshi or M4 full system will give another 6-7bhp. A £900, Sam Matthewman, 1080cc big bore kit (for 99-on bikes only) releases a significan­t power and torque boost, with this increasing markedly again with the freer-flowing exhausts.

Another performanc­e improvemen­t will come from fitting a Power Commander and custom map. Expect to pay around £275 for the PC and £200 for the labour time on the dyno. Cheaper still, fitting a 44 tooth rear sprocket (standard is 39) makes the over-geared engine much more lively and responsive. You could also plonk the TL motor in a 916 chassis – as has been done many times! Service items are more freely available, as are many other bigger parts from any authorised dealer via the Suzuki Vintage Parts Program.


Making an indelible impression in biking history (for all the wrong reasons), the TL1000S emerged from it all to be seen in a much more positive light. Who knows just how much of a winner it could have been, had it handled the way it should have from the word go? Fast, stylish, and with an aggressive attitude to match, the Suzuki had every right to become hugely popular. It’s a real case of ‘what could have been’.

You really do have to question how the hell it got signed off by Suzuki’s testers. It’s a complete mystery why the Japanese didn’t experience the same issues too during testing. Whatever – the TL’S certainly worth a look today. Not only does a good one with a steering damper ride well enough, and one with sorted rear suspension perform even better, its character and notoriety give it an extra dimension and level of appeal.

“The TL1000S made an indelible impact on UK biking for all the wrong reasons. Today a good one (with a steering damper and sorted rear shock) rides well indeed.”

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 ??  ?? BELOW: Red was the main launch colour, but this malevolent black fits the TL perfectly...
BELOW: Red was the main launch colour, but this malevolent black fits the TL perfectly...
 ??  ?? Mossy taming the TL.
Mossy taming the TL.
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 ??  ?? Twin pipes whisper. Fairing stays and steering damper were the order of the day in 1997.
Twin pipes whisper. Fairing stays and steering damper were the order of the day in 1997.
 ??  ?? It's not quite the beast it was in the 1990s: either Mossy or the TL!
It's not quite the beast it was in the 1990s: either Mossy or the TL!
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 ??  ?? BELOW: Mossy bothers anyone: man or beast...
BELOW: Mossy bothers anyone: man or beast...
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