Motorcycle Classics

1978 Suzuki GS1000

1978 Suzuki GS1000
Years produced:
Claimed power: 74.5hp @ 8,000rpm (period test)
Top speed: 135mph (period test)
Engine type: 997.4cc DOHC, air-cooled four
Weight: (w/oil) 550lbs
Price then: $2,749
Price now: $1,000-$3,000
MPG: 45-50mpg

The Suzuki GS1000 traces its history back to 1976 when Suzuki launched its GS line of 4-cylinder, 4-stroke bikes. These classic Suzuki motorcycles have often been hailed as the first Japanese motorcycles that actually handled well. Tom Murphy was introduced to a GS on the back roads of Japan and he’s never owned anything but.

“I bought my first GS model — a GS750 — when I was stationed in Japan,” Tom says, “and I’ve been hooked on GSs ever since. I toured Mt. Fuji on that bike. The countryside was beautiful, and the roads and I got along fine. The only problem was the speed limit was 40kph — about 30mph — and I got a very hefty speeding ticket.”

When his term of service in Japan was over, Tom was transferred back to the U.S., but he had to sell his Japanese-spec GS before he left. Once settled in the U.S., he immediately purchased another GS750, but it was stolen shortly after he bought it. He reluctantly gave up motorcycling to raise a family.

The years rolled by, and about the time Tom’s daughter went to college, gas prices had really started to rise. “I mentioned to my wife that commuting by motorcycle would save a lot of money,” Tom explains. “She surprised me — she said yes. I didn’t have to argue or anything!”

Not believing his good luck, Tom immediately started searching and found a 1980 Suzuki GS1100. This bike is still his daily ride. “I was afraid it would be too big for me, but it rode and felt as good as the 750s I remembered.” It was also the start of Tom’s GS collection, which is beginning to fill the garage.

Suzuki’s past
The GS was Suzuki’s first large 4-stroke, and it was in many ways a typical Suzuki: a dependable bike with excellent riding manners. Since the start of motorcycle production in the early Fifties, Suzuki always emphasized engineering. The factory built sturdy, reliable motorcycles during its first three decades, but a string of Grand Prix and offroad victories during the same time period proved that reliable did not necessarily mean slow.

Suzuki’s first large road-going twin, a 500, appeared in 1967. Like previous Suzukis, it was a 2-stroke, very reliable, but not particularly stylish. It was followed in 1971 by the water-cooled Suzuki GT750 2-stroke triple. This popular machine, which soon gained the nickname of “Water Buffalo” in the United States and “Kettle” in England, was powerful, reliable and a good daily rider.

At this point, Suzuki decided to try a very expensive experiment. The development of the rotary engine ignited huge excitement among manufacturers around the world, and Suzuki decided to license the technology for Wankel rotary engines, resulting in the 500cc rotary-engined Suzuki RE-5. Unveiled in 1974 to great fanfare, it was a flop. It looked strange, and the engine characteristics — lots of rpms, lots of heat and a weird exhaust note — took some getting used to. It didn’t help that it guzzled gasoline at a time when fuel was becoming increasingly expensive, and used up expensive spark plugs ($31.75 today!) at an astounding rate. In late 1976, Suzuki stopped production of the RE-5 and ate its losses, which were in the tens of millions.

Before Suzuki ended the RE-5 experiment, the company realized it needed a backup plan. Thanks to market pressures and encroaching environmental concerns, 2-strokes, up until then Suzuki’s mainstay, were heading the way of the dinosaur. The logical choice was to build a 4-stroke, but the challenge was building one that would stand out in an increasingly competitive market. Suzuki decided to build a bike that was not only fast and reliable, but one that also handled well, like the bikes built by its European competitors.

GS beginnings
The Suzuki engineers went to work, and came up with the Suzuki GS750, which first appeared in public view in October 1976. It was a well-built, reliable motorcycle, capable of comfortable, fast back road touring. Although its styling wasn’t particularly exciting, its solid performance made it a big seller and it revived the company’s fortunes at a very difficult time.

Building on the 750’s success, the Suzuki GS1000 appeared in late 1977. The combination of air-assisted front forks, a stiff chassis and adjustable dual Kayaba rear shocks made for an above-average ride around the tightest of twisties, despite a longish 59.3-inch wheelbase. By comparison, a same year Moto Guzzi 850 stretched 58 inches.

Contemporary journalists praised the GS’s comfortable seat, excellent power delivery and handling, and its good brakes. Suzuki clearly had racing in mind when it designed the GS1000, which migrated to the track shortly after it was introduced. The best fit for the liter-size bike in mid-Seventies racing was the new Superbike class, and a young racer named Wes Cooley turned both Superbike racing and the GS1000 into major attractions. Wes popped wheelies, smoked tires and flamboyantly won races aboard a GS tuned by the legendary “Pops” Yoshimura.

With the benefit of success, Suzuki started building offshoots of the GS line, including a shaft-driven version that sold well to touring-oriented riders, especially in Europe. Profits from the GS probably enabled Suzuki to climb out of the hole it had dug itself into with the RE-5. As testimony to the engine’s solid design, the GS series soldiered on until 1986, gaining oil then liquid cooling along the way before finally being phased out.

Tom’s 1978 Suzuki GS1000
Tom found the bike featured here on Craigslist. “It was not only good looking, but also restorable,” Tom remembers. “Most of the original equipment was there. There was a custom seat, and custom headers on the bike, but the owner had saved the original pipes. He had put British emblems on it and braided steel brake lines.” One attraction to this find was its low serial number. “It was one of the first GS1000s Suzuki made, built December 1977,” Tom says. “I bought the bike and started going to work.”

Tom was also working on a customized hot rod GS1000 at the same time, and once he found a stock seat, the custom seat went on the hot rod. The exhaust was a problem, but then Tom found a set of stock pipes and mufflers on eBay. “They were beautiful — and I paid premium,” he says. The resulting empty pockets were only temporary, as Tom turned around and sold all the extra parts, enabling him to make back a lot of his outlay. At this point, the only non-stock parts on this GS are the braided steel brake lines.

Although Tom prizes his GSs, he admits they have a few quirks. The valves need occasional adjusting, which is done with shims that aren’t always available from the local dealer, but they are available by mail order with a little searching. Synching the four carburetors is a bit of a chore, but once done right, Tom says, they stay synched.

Tom adds that his Suzuki GS1000 is cold blooded, and takes a while to warm up. “I start the bike, and leave it on half choke while I put my helmet and gloves on,” he explains. “By the time I hit the second light, it’s warm. I put modern tires on the bike — they are reminiscent of the era, but they stick to the road.”

When it comes to power, Tom has no complaints. “This bike is amazing. It has plenty of power, and I can zip in and out of traffic. On the freeway, it’s running 75-80mph at 5,000rpm and loafing — it’s got plenty more to give at those speeds.”

Unlike most Japanese fours of this era, the Suzuki is enjoyable in the turns. “I can dance on the bike,” says Tom. “It loves the twisties, this bike handles so well. We just love the hills.” And it stops pretty well, too. “The brakes are effective, but the single front disc takes some getting used to,” Tom adds.

“I first fell in love with Suzukis in the Seventies,” Tom explains. “They fit me. Suzukis have never let me down. I sometimes look at my bike and think, how many have survived the last 30 years, how many are out there? I’m proud to have a survivor.” MC 

Press reports
“Suzuki wins The Common Sense Award for boosting the displacement up, keeping the weight down and remembering that superbikes with super engines should also be super handlers.” — Cycle Guide, February 1978

“During hard, fast cornering, the GS1000 is sheer brilliance for a 1000cc, transverse-engined, four-cylinder, 83hp brute: mostly because it feels lighter and nimbler than the other 1000cc fours.” — Cycle Guide, February 1978

“Pitch it down, flop it, twitch it, swoop it – the GS1000 does exactly what it’s told without any wobble or wallow.” — Cycle World, February 1978

“The GS1000 is damn near perfect. It does everything well, which makes it unique, and it doesn’t cost much money, which makes it a charm.” — Cycle, March 1978

“The Suzuki GS1000 is so quick, so precise, so forgiving and so predictable that it’s hard to understand how we ever survived the Neolithic machines of our youth.” — Cycle World, March 1978

“Technologically, the GS1000 is a landmark motorcycle. It represents the first time … that an existing Japanese motorcycle has been successfully re-engineered with two important factors uppermost on the priority sheet: handling and light weight.” — Cycle Guide, March 1978

The GS Resources
Bike Bandit 
Z1 Enterprises

Read more about the motorcycle mentioned in this article:
Suzuki GT750 LeMans
The Suzuki RE-5 Rotary Motorcycle
1977 Suzuki GS750
1976 Moto Guzzi 850 LeMans Mk I

  • Published on Feb 3, 2009
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