Cult Classic: 1985 Suzuki GS1150E

The 1985 Suzuki GS1150E was strong, reliable and fast, but stock survivors are now rare.

Suzuki GS1150E

1985 Suzuki GS1150E

Photo by Nick Cedar

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1985 Suzuki GS1150E
Engine:
1,135cc air-cooled inline four, 74mm x 66mm bore and stroke, 9.7:1 compression ratio, 119hp @ 8,500rpm
Top speed:
145.86 mph (period test)
Transmission:
5-speed, chain final drive
Weight (full tank):
561lb (254kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG:
5.3gal (20ltr)/34-46 mpg
Price then/now:
$4,399/$2,000-$5,000

With 119 horsepower at 8,500rpm and torque to match — 81 foot-pounds at 6,500rpm — the GS1150E was strong, reliable and fast, and was quickly drafted as the basis for numerous race-winning and record-breaking dragsters. Never built in large numbers, stock survivors are now rare.

This particular bike is doubly rare. It has not only survived in stock condition for the last 31 years, it is completely original except for the tires. Unlike many rarities, it is also practical transportation. All these years later, the GS1150E is still a comfortable long-distance cruiser. “I think what is special about this bike is that it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” says owner Zeki Abed. “It can be ridden as a cruiser or a dragster.”

Saving bacon

Up to the mid-1970s, Suzuki Motors concentrated almost exclusively on 2-strokes — until two events convinced the company to change course: American and European environmental regulation and the Suzuki RE5 Rotary debacle. Suzuki had poured huge resources into the Rotary, only to discover the buying public wasn’t interested. Facing disaster, management quickly pivoted to the 4-cylinder, 4-stroke GS750, which was introduced in late 1976. It was a good decision: Once the buying public discovered that the GS not only handled well, but was reliable and comfortable to ride, it sold like hotcakes — and saved Suzuki’s bacon.

The GS750 set the pattern for Suzuki engines for the next few years, employing a roller bearing crank and using double overhead camshafts operating two valves per cylinder on shim and bucket tappets. It had a nice, stiff, double-cradle frame, twin rear shocks and a disc brake up front. It was soon joined by a 1,000cc big brother that proved to be equally reliable and a little more powerful. Suzuki had hit on a winning combination.

In 1980 Suzuki released the first major mechanical upgrade of the GS since its introduction, replacing the original 2-valve top end with a 4-valve cylinder head. The engine was enlarged to 1,074cc and the combustion chamber was reworked to make it more efficient. For years, hemispherical cylinder combustion chambers — hemi heads — were considered to be the acme of engine efficiency. But more recent research had determined that engine efficiency could be improved by going to four valves per cylinder and using a combustion chamber shaped more like a house roof. Suzuki’s Twin Swirl Combustion chamber design was essentially a modification of this “pent roof” design, to which was added a raised ridge running along the combustion chamber roof parallel to the gas flow of the inlet charge. This was to encourage controlled swirl of the incoming fuel-air charge in order to increase the fuel burn speed through better flame front propagation.

Yet exceptional as the engine was, the GS1100’s plain-vanilla styling was hardly winning hearts, so for 1981 Suzuki went for head-snapping design. At a time when other motorcycle companies were releasing chopper-replica “customs,” Suzuki introduced the then-radical Katana. Penned by Target Design of Germany on the GS1100 platform, the Katana was 180 degrees from bland — enthusiasts either loved or hated the look — and elements of its design have been used in many sport bikes built since.

Market crisis

Suzuki also faced another challenge. In 1982 the U.S. economy went sour, and sales of bikes nosedived. Honda and Yamaha had been fighting each other for U.S. market supremacy, and were selling bikes below cost, trying to make inroads in each other’s customer base. Harley-Davidson, newly liberated from AMF, successfully petitioned Congress to protect its market by putting tariffs on large-bore imported motorcycles, pointing to the below-cost sales as just cause. When the new tariffs went into effect for the 1984 model year, they significantly raised the cost of imported bikes over 700cc.

Suzuki’s response was to slash its 1984 model line to three road bikes and six dirt bikes, and offer discounts on unsold 1982 and 1983 machines. New for 1984 was the GS1150ES, with Katana inspired styling, a monoshock rear suspension, triple disc brakes, a 16-inch front wheel and an anti-dive system for the front forks.

The motorcycle magazines took note, and they all took the new GS through its paces. Motorcyclist magazine recorded a quarter-mile time of 10.47 seconds at 128.02mph on their GS, faster than any previous production bike. Cycle World dismantled and inspected the engine on their test bike, noting its enlarged wristpins and intake ports. They were impressed with its wide powerband, calling it “a tractable rocket.” Demerits were given for a power surge at 60mph, brakes that “lacked feel,” vibration between 60 and 65mph, and the GS’ sheer size and weight. “This isn’t a motorcycle that’s snapped easily into a fast sweeping turn or rifled up a set of S-turns,” the magazine quipped.

Cycle put the new GS through extensive road testing. The editors liked the easy starting, the good running during chilly mornings and the neutral steering. They didn’t like the heavy footing through turns or the vibration, which was found to smooth out around 85mph. That, however, was a speed that “suits the Suzuki well; the engine vibration calms down and the oncoming blast of air provides needed support for the forward leaning pilot,” Cycle said. Law abiding riders could expect over 50 miles per gallon, a figure that dropped to less than 40 under “spirited riding.”

Against the competition

In a comparison test, Cycle Guide pitted the GS1150ES against the Kawasaki 750 Turbo and Ninja, Honda’s VF1000F Interceptor and V65 Sabre, and the Yamaha FJ1100 in straight line and racetrack speed tests. The Suzuki came in second in the quarter-mile behind the FJ1100, but posted mid-pack in dry lake top speed at 142.62 mph. Rider took the GS and the competition out on the road and concluded that the GS was a little more on the touring end of the spectrum than the competition, which, for Rider, was a good thing. “For many of us, a big, fast, comfortable and relaxed motorcycle is just the ticket for sport touring.”

For 1985, the GS1150E debuted in Suzuki’s lineup, minus the ES’s half fairing (the fairing was available as an option), and with some well-thought-out upgrades. Taller handlebars resulted in a more ergonomic position for many riders. The excessive vibration was gone, possibly due to the deletion of the fairing, and wider wheels and a different tire compound resulted in a more nimble machine that was much more at home on twisty roads than the 1984 version, and with no loss of stability. Demerits were issued for the high effort necessary to work the front brake and an anti-dive system that caused some scary moments on rough roads.

Time and engineering developments stop for no one, and Suzuki kept the big GS around for one more year while rolling out its soon-to-be replacement, the GSX, an air/oil cooled 1100, available in several different configurations from full-tilt street racer to sporty tourer. By 1987, the GS was gone.

Yesterday and today

Over the years, the GS1150E has become something of a cult classic. It’s styling, once considered garish, instantly places it in its Eighties birth era. Considered hard and angular when new, next to some present-day machinery the GS looks positively soft. Like the Airhead BMWs of the same era, 30 years have not erased the GS’s virtues as a sturdy, all-purpose motorcycle, one that will happily and reliably get a rider to work, take a couple on a weeklong vacation and stand up to determined canyon carving.

Zeki Abed has always liked Suzukis and has quite a few. “I have a GT750 Water Buffalo, a GT550 and this GS1150E. The GS is a great bike,” he says. Like most collectors, Zeki loves the chase almost as much as he loves his bikes. “I was buying a Kawasaki KH350, and the seller says, ‘I know someone with a mint Suzuki GT380.’ Well, I looked the guy up, and not only did he have the 380, he had this bike. It had a Yoshimura pipe and Mikuni carburetors, but it was otherwise stock. I said that I would have more interest if the bike was completely stock, since the exhaust system is really hard to find. The next day I get an email with a photo. The stock pipes and carbs were neatly laid out on the floor. Everything was there; it had been stored in a box in a closed container, so it was in mint original condition, as new from the day the owner had removed the pipes and carbs, one year after he had bought the bike,” Zeki says, still amazed at his good luck. The GS had only been owned by one person, and the only reason he was selling it was because he was ill. “I knew this was a rare opportunity, so I picked up all three bikes at the same time.”

The only restoration the GS needed was replacing the non-stock items with the stock parts, and it is now running well. Zeki has a large stable and has just bought this bike, and as a result he has only ridden the GS a couple of times between shining it up and taking it to shows: It won first place in class at the San Jose (California) Clubman show in March 2015.

So far, Zeki’s impressions echo the test bike riders of the 1980s. “You really notice the headlight. It has a headlight the size of a lighthouse beacon. The seat and riding position is one of the most comfortable in my collection. This bike has a lot of top end power, yet it is also pretty good about gas. It gets about 50 miles a gallon. I love lighter bikes, but this is a better outfit for cruising and long distance. It’s also the best bike I own for two-up riding.”

Zeki owns a trouble-free 1987 Suzuki GSXR1100, and expects that the repair frequency and the maintenance on this bike will be very similar to the GSXR’s. “The engine is bulletproof. The only thing you really need to do is ride the bike. I check the fluids and keep the new fuel from clogging the carbs by using fuel stabilizer. I keep the carbs dry if I am not going to use the bike for a while,” Zeki says.

“They used these engines on the drag strips in the Eighties and Nineties, which is why you don’t see a lot of them,” Zeki continues. “It is a really strong engine. The styling was daring in its day, and it’s still unique now, with the trapezoidal instruments and lights and the little design quirks. One especially unique and functional design quirk that really finishes it off is the dual black-striped rubberized plastic tank protectors that Suzuki designers incorporated into the final product.

“I remember this bike back in the day. I always thought of it as the ‘Tron Bike,’ with the angular, futuristic look,” Zeki says. “I didn’t like it at the time, but over time I got into it, and now it appeals a lot to me. Most Japanese bikes of that era had a more traditional and classic styling. Suzuki took a jump in the opposite direction with its trapezoidal instrument clusters and taillight and its angular tanks — ‘Tron-like’ characteristics.

“I find it really appealing. I love this bike because it is so unique in its design. It firmed up Suzuki’s reputation as a builder of powerhouse machinery and set the scene for the GSXR series, which took the motorcycle world by storm in 1986.” MC