Suzuki GT750 Le Mans
Years produced: 1972-1977
Total production: 71,000 (est., 1972-77)
Claimed power: 70hp @ 6,500rpm (1976)
Top speed: 108mph (est.)
Engine type: Two-stroke, liquid-cooled, in-line three-cylinder
Weight (dry): 507lbs (1976)
Price then: $2,195 (1976)
Price now: $1,000-$5,000
"For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." — Isaac Newton
It was 1971. Just two years earlier Honda had made the action that gained the attention of the motorcycling world — releasing the four-cylinder Honda CB750. Now defined as the first Superbike, the "big" Honda would turn out to be one of the most important motorcycles ever built, and Honda's rivals scrambled to introduce competitive machines. Suzuki reacted by releasing the Suzuki GT750, a water-cooled, 738cc 2-stroke triple, in late '71 as a '72 model.
An equal reaction it was not, though it was the definition of opposite.
Smooth, quiet, refined and comfortable were all words the motorcycling press used to define the Suzuki GT750. To be honest, the Honda CB750 was also described with the same adjectives. But the key here may be the words the press didn't use to describe the GT: quick, powerful and strong.
Read Lane Pipkin's experience of owning and riding a Suzuki GT750 Le Mans
Basically a Suzuki T500 Titan (a 2-stroke 492cc parallel twin) with another cylinder grafted on, the GT750 was an oddball from the get-go. But the bike's inline-triple engine wasn't the only reason it drew such a curious eye from the general public. Nor were the disco-esque colors it could be ordered in — Candy Lavender, Candy Yellow Ocher and Candy Jackal Blue.
The real difference between this Suzuki and the other motorcycles of the day was it's liquid cooling. The Suzuki GT750 was the first mass production Japanese motorcycle with a liquid-cooled engine, and Suzuki was the first motorcycle company to apply liquid cooling to a serial production bike since the Scott two-strokes of the 1920s and ‘30s.
Known officially as the LeMans in America, the Suzuki GT750 somehow gathered the nickname of the Water Buffalo in the States and a variety of nicknames in other countries. In Britain it was known as the "Kettle," while "Waterbottle" stuck in Australia. Regardless of what you called it and where you lived, it was certainly unexpected.
Created in a time before Honda Valkyries and Triumph Rocket III's, for 1972 the Suzuki GT750J was big in just about every way. It was tall, wide, and at 530lb it weighed nearly 20lb more (dry) than the Honda CB750. All of this probably would have been forgiven had it been faster. Unfortunately for Suzuki, this was not the case.
Despite being lauded by most who rode it as a great touring machine, a unique, plush mount, and a capable high-speed hauler, many riders expected the Suzuki to be a superbike. Though it came close, it wasn't close enough for riders looking for a street-legal racer and an answer to the Honda. Testers routinely cited its lackluster performance, large size and low ground clearance.
It was, however, a fairly powerful bike with good manners — as long as it wasn't pushed too hard. It was really a tourer instead of a Superbike, and its high-speed cruising was praised. Its two-stroke 738cc triple pushed out 67bhp at 6,500rpm, which was identical to the CB750. It's five-speed gearbox was fine, and the unusual three-into-four exhaust added symmetry to what otherwise could have been an even odder looking package. But the lackluster performance of the bike's front brake left many testers scratching their heads.
Despite the fact that most bikes of this caliber were now using twin-disc brakes on their front wheels, the engineers at Suzuki decided to stick with a front drum. Featuring a double-sided, twin-leading shoe affair, the 200mm drum brake was amply sized, but it was still a drum nonetheless. Testers complained so much that for the ‘73 GT750K model, a pair of 295mm discs replaced the front drum. Great in the dry but horrible in the wet, the twin-discs were still an improvement. The second year of production also brought more chrome plating.
The '74 GT750L sported a revised exhaust system with more upsweep for improved ground clearance. The engine was slightly retuned to bump the bike's power output to 70bhp, and the carburetors were upgraded to 32mm Mikuni constant-velocity types instead of the slide/needle carbs of the prior two years. The forks lost the gaiters they'd worn since the bike's inception, and the sides of the air box were now chrome-plated. The radiator got a plastic grill, and the cooling fan became an optional extra. A gear position indicator was also added.
The 1975 GT750M model brought changes in gearing along with bigger, 40mm constant-velocity Mikuni carbs, and gained additional ground clearance thanks to locating the mufflers higher and closer to the frame. The connecting pipe between the left and right exhaust pipes was also deleted. Suzuki raised the gearing (yes, again) for the 1976 GT750A and added a lockable gas cap, along with new paint colors (which they did every model year). The final Buffalo, the 1977 GT750B, had many small appearance changes, but nothing mechanical of note.
In 1977 Suzuki debuted the Suzuki GS750, a four-cylinder, four-stroke motorcycle that would bring about the end of the famed Water Buffalo. Despite the fact that the GT750 was probably the most well mannered two-stroke motorcycle of its day, two-stroke motorcycles in general had gained nasty reputations for being noisy, inefficient, and bad for the environment.
Although it's been nearly 30 years since you could buy one new, the Suzuki GT750 is still prized by riders who own and restore them. And even for riders who have been raised on the fruits of two-stroke power, the big ‘Zook" is still something different.
Paul Franchina, a central-Florida field representative for the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club of North America, Inc., and the owner of the beautiful 1976 GT750A you see here, remembers to this day his impressions of the first "Water Buffalo" he rode.
"My first ride [on a GT750] was in ‘78 or ‘79. I was very impressed with its smoothness and handling. I had a 1972 Kawasaki H2 I purchased new," Franchina says. "I liked the acceleration rush of two strokes, but the Kawi was too much a brute for my now old bones."
Franchina bought his GT750A, which he's nicknamed "Kettie," about three years ago. "I purchased it from a fellow I met at our local ‘Bike Night.' He'd seen me come in on various vintage bikes and approached me with this bike. It actually belonged to his brother and had been brought to Florida from Ohio." Luckily for Franchina the Suzuki was in decent shape when he got it, and Franchina believes he is just the second owner of the bike.
Despite the gorgeous appearance of this Buffalo, it's not a ground-up restoration, as many people have guessed. "The bike was original and complete, except for a tank repaint, when I purchased it," says Franchina. "It was very dirty, but not rusty, " he says. After replacing the front and rear fenders due to minor dings and dents, Franchina also replaced the chain and sprockets, along with one acid-stained muffler. "Beyond that, I've done a whale-sized load of cleaning, polishing and detailing," he says.
Franchina has enjoyed bringing the bike back to its former glory, and the Suzuki draws a good amount of attention at bike shows and gatherings. " It's a great conversation piece and can draw a crowd just parked. The folks that know vintage bikes love it because they know they were unusual when new and are relatively uncommon today," he says. Franchina also mentions that people who aren't familiar with vintage iron are surprised to find out it's as old as it is, not to mention it "sounds so weird when it runs," he says.
The fact that it smokes, like all two-stroke motorcycles do, is also a surprise to some. "I was on a cruiser club ride with it once, and when the ride was over one of the ‘Wing Nuts' that had been following me nudged me and informed me that my bike had been ‘smoking a bit' on the ride. When I got a blank stare on telling him it was a two stroke, I thanked him and moved on," he says.
Maybe what he should have said is "It's a two-stroke thing. You wouldn't understand." MC
Read more about the motorcycles mentioned in this article:
• Honda CB750: A Classic for the Masses
• Suzuki Titan 500
• Kawasaki H2 Mach IV