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suzuki gsx1100

Our bikes – Suzuki GSX1100ET

Words: Guy 'Guido' Allen; Pics: Ellen Dewar, GA

suzuki gsx1100

Heart transplant

A dumb mistake leads to an international search for a powerplant

It was a sunny day and we were way out in the country, up around the Murray River, about 400km from home, enjoying the gently curving roads when a worrying ‘takketa’ noise made its presence felt. Hmmm, not good. Vary the revs, it was still there.

Pretty quickly, an all too familiar ‘haggeda haggeda’ sound kicked in – it was an engine in rapid terminal decline. Damn it. Think fast. We were a long way from home, but there was a friendly pub just up the road, so keep going rather than stop and risk the bike not starting again. Whatever was happening inside those cases, it was clearly going to be expensive and probably terminal, no matter what we did. The damage was done.

Reaching the pub, I pulled up the old GSX1100, with riding mate Simon (on my Blackbird) hauling up alongside. “That’s not good,” he announced as I shut down the old Suzuki. Me, I was already wondering how many thousands this was going to cost.

To cut short a long and painful story, it was out of oil. That’s a tiny bit embarrassing when you’ve been riding for nearly 40 years – really should know better by now. And I know exactly how it happened.

Like a lot of machines of the era, these old Suzis have an oil level check window on the right side of the cases. It’s a great idea: flick the bike upright and a quick look confirms if it needs attention. No messing round with rags and dipsticks.

It works brilliantly until the bike develops some age, as the windows can stain on the inside over time, so it can be difficult to see well enough to get an accurate idea of what’s going on. The previous day, in my rush to get two bikes out and get away, I’d glanced at the window, saw what I thought was a decent level and thought no more about it.

Some weeks later, having towed the bike back home, it was time to work out what to do. With the top popped off, it was quickly apparent that the cams were stuffed. However indications were that the pistons/bores weren’t too bad (a freshen up was certainly possible) and the bottom end seemed fine. The latter is a famously rugged set-up, which is one reason why these motors became so popular with the drag race fraternity.

The big problem with these old GSX engines is the cam carriers are cast as part of the head and they’re damn near impossible to find in good condition. There’s no problem getting later model and aftermarket cams, while piston kits are plentiful, but the head was a drama. With time and money it would be possible to have it rebuilt, but the cost – particularly when added to an overall top-end freshen-up – would be prohibitive.

In fact, Simon suggested it might be time to sell the bike as is and walk away. He had a point. Financially it might be the smartest thing to do. However my pig-headed streak kicked in and I decided to hunt down a replacement powerplant.

suzuki gsx1100

It didn’t take long to establish there were none to be had in the southern hemisphere. They were all worn out, and/or heavily modified for competition. Then one popped up for sale in the UK, claiming to be sound.

Yep, this is a big risk – buying an engine from the other side of the world, on a promise from someone you’ve never met that it’s okay. Even with the best will in the world, they could be wrong.

Having spoken to the vendor on the phone, I decided to take a punt. The end result was a transport note and a Au$2000 invoice, including shipping. So far so good. It was coming by sea (it’s easy to track the individual ship’s progress via the web, if you can find out what it is), which took about eight weeks. Then the real fun started.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the fuss involved in getting the wooden crate through the docks. The shipper was more used to dealing with Europe, where customs controls are much more loose. In our relatively disease-free end of the planet, it’s a whole different story.

The crate and contents had to be checked thoroughly, particularly since not all the required paperwork (again, unique to this end of the planet) had been provided. Of course the tax man also took an interest. In the end, it was simpler and easier (if not cheaper) to hire a customs agent to sort out all the issues, including getting the 100-odd kilo package loaded on a truck and sent to my local workshop. All up, it added another 50 per cent to the bill.

suzuki gsx1100

Doing an engine swap is not rocket science, so long as it’s like for like. I suspect this in fact was a slightly earlier variant than the one that was in the bike, but key items such as engine mounts, manifolds, carburetors and ignition installation was all the same.

Really, it’s a matter of dropping the chain, the exhaust system, carbs, unplug the wiring, undo the engine bolts and you’re ready to swap. In many cases. Some models, such as early Honda CB750 Fours, are notoriously fiddly. In that case you have to remove the cam cap and find the perfect angle, which is not easy, to remove the powerplant from an ultra-tight-fitting frame.

Despite the apparent ease, and the fact I’ve tackled engine swaps before, I sent this one to my local workshop. Why? Mostly because of the sheer size and weight of that engine. To swap it over safely was going to require three people and access to good workshop equipment. Sure, a slab and a few mates might have fixed it, but I was getting visions of ambulances and long-term physio bills as a result. Not worth it.

In any case, the workshop got the lumps swapped over with comparative ease and had it all hooked up and running in short order. A nice surprise was the old engine was quickly sold for a few hundred bucks, which went a long way towards covering the workshop costs.

The moment of truth was hitting the starter (after checking the oil level!). You could have sliced the relief and sold it in kilo lots – the UK engine turned out to be an absolute peach. It’s clearly not done many miles, runs quietly and has that typical GSX willingness. So, the old dinosaur gets to fight another day.

If we ever go for a ride together, forgive me if I take what seems like an inordinate amount of time to check the oil…


Know your GSX1100E

Suzuki’s GSX1100E was the company’s king hit in the superbike class and claimed to be, when launched in 1980, the fastest naked production bike in the world.

It backed up the claim with a win in Australia’s Castrol Six-Hour production race in 1981, with a one-two result.

The sixteen-valve engine claimed a modest 100 horses, which is widely believed to be an understatement. Top speed is over 220km/h.

Several versions were built over time, with the most valuable being the early ‘small tank’ model, some of which came with wire wheels and did not sell in all markets.

The early versions up to GSX1100EX (to 1982, when the EZ took over) are the most desirable. Suzukicycles.org is a good place to look up the lineage.

Suzuki GSX1100E


TYPE: Air-cooled, four-valves-per-cylinder, inline four
CAPACITY: 1074cc

BORE & STROKE: 72 x 66mm


FUEL SYSTEM: Mikuni 34mm CV x 4


TYPE: Five-speed, constant-mesh, 



FRAME TYPE: Steel twin-tube cradle

FRONT SUSPENSION: Conventional telescopic fork, 37mm Kayaba with spring and damping adjustment.
REAR SUSPENSION: Preload and damping-adjustable twin shocks, 89.5mm travel

FRONT BRAKE: 275mm discs with single-piston caliper

REAR BRAKE: 275mm disc with single-piston caliper



FUEL CAPACITY: 24L (19 in small tank model)

FRONT: 19 x 3.5-inch cast alloy
REAR: 17 x 4.5-inch cast alloy


POWER: 100hp @ 8700rpm
TORQUE: 85Nm (63lb-ft) at 6500rpm
TOP SPEED: 227km/h


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