Retrospective: Suzuki GSX1100G: 1991-1993
It was big at 1,100cc, good for 130-plus mph, and comfortable. You could spend all day on this bike, easily racking up a few hundred miles. And it was cheap—or at least relatively so at $6,000 in 1991 dollars.
But who was the intended buyer for this Gixx-Gee? Not the sport rider, who would opt for the GSX-R1100 gixxer. Nor the cruiser minded, who were probably looking at Intruder models. Touring types? Maybe, but that would require a bit of dressing. An all-rounder? That’s it! A UJM updated a few years from Suzuki’s last big all-rounder, the 1983 GS1100G.
But this was the age of specialization—with the exception of a few mid-size standards. What was Suzuki doing with a big UJM? Therein lies a tale of bean counters and perhaps a touch of desperation. And the American market’s lust for more power.
Back in the late 1980s, the motorcycle companies were coping with lousy sales and were wondering how to create new product without spending too much money. R&D cost a lot, and building entirely new engines and chassis involved time and lots more money. The engineers appealed to the suits by handing in some pretty drawings of a motorcycle that used an already proven engine, from the GSX-R1100, tucked into an old-fashioned tubular frame that would not cost much to build. Add some conventional sheet metal, put on a long saddle…bingo!
There was background for this notion. At the request of American Suzuki, the factory had made secondary use of the Intruder 750 V-twin drivetrain by taking it out of the cruiser chassis and putting it in a “standard” frame, resulting in the very pleasant VX800. To improve handling, the steering rake was pulled back from a lazy 36 degrees to 31 degrees, and the driveshaft was lengthened to help reduce the jacking effect common to most shaft drives of the era. And the VX price? A rock bottom $4,600 when it appeared.
Those boys at Hamamatsu (Suzuki’s headquarters in Japan) had been building solid, shaft-driven UJM all-rounders since the GS850G of 1980, ending temporarily with the aforementioned GS1100G. The G after the number was Suzuki’s way of indicating shaft-drive on one of those in-line fours, all of which had begun with chain drive. These were all big, fast and comfortable—the last of a series of 8-valve engines that had begun on the GS750 back in 1977.
After 1985, the company focused its larger models on sportbikes and cruisers, and the uninspired Cavalcade touring bike in 1986, which languished and disappeared after four short years. A lot of money was spent on that failure, a ground-up creation, with the suits blaming the Americans for having misread the market.
The most successful engine was that powering the GSX-R1100. In 1989, the in-line 4 was distinctly oversquare in design with a 78mm bore and 69mm stroke, for a total of 1,127cc, putting out 108 rear-wheel horses at 9,500 rpm. It had air- and oil-cooling, two overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and blessed threaded valve adjusters, much loved by home mechanics. With a few mods this version could be turned into a tractable everyday motor.
First mod was major, inserting a counterbalancing shaft to keep those pesky vibrations away from the highway rider. Just to make sure there would be no complaints, the engine also had elastic motor mounts. Second mod was the camshafts, redesigned to give more low- and midrange power, with the overall result being that the dyno showed about 10 percent fewer ponies in the herd, 98 at 7,500 rpm. Not that this mattered much, as the bike could still reach 140 mph…on a straight, smooth road please, as it was not into knee-down cornering. The 5-speed gearbox was OK, but the engineers grafted on the shaft drive from the Cavalcade.
The GSX-G had an entirely new chassis. From an aluminum perimeter frame, the new model went to a steel, tube-type full cradle. The GSX-R had a wheelbase of 56.7 inches, with a front fork raked out a modest 24.6 degrees; trail, 3.9 inches. The GSX-G, on the other hand, had almost six inches more wheelbase (62.2 inches), and a quasi-cruiseresque 33 degrees of rake, with 6.1 inches of trail. This was going to be a heavy, slow steerer, but really comfortable and stable on the straights. The Gixxer had 17-inch wheels on both ends, the Gixx-Gee, a 17 on the back, an 18 on the front carrying a relatively skinny 3.00 tire.
The GSX-R also had a fully adjustable suspension fore and aft, and while the GSX-G had a fully adjustable shock, the front end had no adjustments. The two front discs on the R had four-piston calipers, while the G’s disc used only two-piston squeezers. All this added up in weight—with the G’s 615 wet pounds being almost a hundred pounds more than the R’s 530. But cost, the real key, was at $5,999, almost 20 percent less than the R’s $7,300.
And it was 100-percent more comfortable. That was a great selling point—good saddle, good seating position, and if you didn’t like the handlebars (they were a bit tall) a new set could easily be bolted on. A 5.3-gallon tank meant that you had close to a 200-mile range. Curiously, the tank had an electric pump, since the bottom of the tank was under the carburetors. And a recommendation that the petcock be turned to OFF when parked—shades of the old Brit bikes. A fuel gauge between the instruments did give an approximation of where the fuel level was, but old reliable was the RES position on the petcock.
Many riders saw the GSX1100G as a under-equipped touring bike, though the ads did state, “An optional fairing, windscreen and saddlebags are available as perfect sport-touring complements.”
The price was good, the bike was good—the economy was in the dumps. From over 700,000 new motorcycles sold in the U.S. in 1985, less than 300,000 were sold in ’91, ’92 and ’93. It was a bad time. At the end of ’93, Suzuki decided to cut the GSX1100G as well as the VX800. The price of the G had crept up to $6,500, while the ’93 GSX-R, with a new liquid-cooled engine and revised frame, cost a hefty $8,200—and was selling in reasonable quantities.
Maybe the moral of that story is that the Everyman motorcyclist looks to essentials when times get tough, while the Gottahave Rider will pawn his wedding ring to buy what he must have.
(This Retrospective article was published in the December 2013 issue of Rider magazine.)