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Dinosaur soup

(Travels with Guido series #309, by Guy 'Guido, Allen)

Suzuki gsx1100e

Is there a another GSX1100 destined for the shed?


A quick scan of the headline story in Motorcycle Trader mag some time ago had me feeling deeply jealous. It was about a seriously well-hotted-up 1980s Suzuki GSX1100 ‘sleeper’, the sort of bike most of us would have given a vital organ to own 20 or 30 years ago. Come to think of it, I’d seriously consider a spare kidney even today.

It’s easy enough from a safe distance to get all misty-eyed about these dinosaurs of the past – how terrifyingly fast they were and how they could leap entire states in a single bound. Many of them just weren’t that good. I own an early CB750-four Honda and, while it was revolutionary for its day (mostly by starting reliably!), it handles like a wheelbarrow full of wet cement. I also have a mid-seventies T160 Triumph. It handles better but, as on the Japanese bike, the brakes are seriously suspect.

In the greater scheme of things those machines were pretty good and the pick of what was available. In among the dross (and there really was plenty) you really did get the occasional gem.

By today’s standards a GSX1100E is no great shakes in the handling department and the power easily overwhelms the brakes. Oh, and there’s lots of quicker stuff to be found in your average showroom, even in the 600 aisle.

That said, the bike did win a Castrol 6 Hour in 1981, then one of the most fiercely-contested production races on the planet. And they really were production races. If you ignore the odd bit of creativity in the pits, the bikes were generally just well-fettled examples of what you could buy and register the next day, right down to the tyres.  Having the talent and gonads to arm-wrestle the monster at race pace was a whole other matter.

I’ve owned two of these things: the first around 1990 and the second just a few years ago. Grendel the first got a bit of work – not in the engine but in the chassis department. Reworked damper tubes up front and a set of Konis (now Ikon) on the rear, plus some set-up on the brakes and a fresh set of steering head bearings, went a long way towards improving its road manners.

The then 10-year-old bike was a pretty tidy thing on the road. They only ever claimed 100 horses, but a healthy example had every one of them. I remember taking it on a backroads ride with the Lemmings Motorcycle Club one day – okay it may have been an impromptu race – and the old dear galloped along pretty well. As I recall, Spannerman (Suzuki T500) was dicing with Morley (Honda CB400-four) and Beattie (Harley Lowrider). It was an unbelievably close-run thing despite the wildly different specifications of the machines (and riders!).

All three of their long-suffering mounts were 1970s vintage and it was the funniest and probably most pathetic road race ever witnessed. I watched from behind for a while, eventually worked out the chaos in front could only end in tears and decided to crank up the throttle and whistle off into the distance.

So long as you didn’t aim for ten-tenths, the GSX was a damned good road companion. More than quick enough to fry your licence, very comfortable (in a day when motorcycle seats resembled lounge chairs), and entirely predictable.

It was those good memories that prompted the purchase of Grendel II many years later. This one was a rougher example and a severe dose of stupidity (didn’t check the oil properly) meant I toasted the engine. That was replaced and the bike, though not as well sorted as my first, was regularly used as the default runabout for several years. It was a constant reminder of just how versatile a big friendly naked bike can be.

Riding these toys is often a case of mind over matter. They’re not the tidiest thing through a set of bumpy turns, but they’ll put on a very respectable turn of speed if you know when to back off a tad and let it settle and when to press on.

Heaven knows what the headline machine handles like when the owner cranks up its much-boosted powerplant, but I wouldn’t mind finding out. Can’t help thinking a Grendel III might be a good idea…

See more Travels with Guido columns here




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