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Bike Review - Posted 18th February 2013
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Suzuki G550, GS650, GS750 and GS850

Continuing our theme of buying beefy Japanese classics on a budget, we consider what £2000 might secure in the shape of Suzuki's old air-cooled fours...

It would be something of a struggle to find a nice GS1000 or GSX1100 for a couple of grand these days; you may get a ratty one for that money, but the GS750 still looks like the best compromise between performance and price.

Don't tell Z1 owners, but a twin-cam GS750 offers many of the same engineering attributes as the Big Zed at a fraction of the price. And it'll do 125mph, making good use of its 68bhp at 8500rpm. OK, so the Suzi is down on power and prestige, but it has the benefit of a superior rolling chassis with decently damped front end, a stiff swinging arm, and half a chance of surviving the first set of bends you encounter. By modern standards the GS can feel top heavy, broad in the beam and slow to turn, but it is considerably more practical than most superbikes of the Seventies.

Twin discs, cast wheels - later model GS750... Suzuki GS750

One roadtester reckoned; 'the steering and balance are as carefree as the control are smooth and light, and the machine feels no heavier than the smaller GT380 two-stroke.' That seems a little unlikely in the light of experience, but his summary probably isn't far off the mark: 'it makes the GS750 a joy to ride - unlike many Japanese heavyweights.'

Regular maintenance and even full rebuilds are relatively simple (although seldom required), and Suzuki's electrical Achilles' heel is easier to address than, say, Honda's top end troubles, especially given the range of replacement electrical components available today.

Early 750s came with a single front disc and spoked wheels, so many riders now prefer the later editions with alloy wheels and twin discs. The brakes weren't considered to be particularly effective back when the GS was new; the rear was insensitive and would overheat, and both front and back stainless steel discs were afflicted by lag in the wet.

550 Suzukis on

Stopping wasn't so great, but going was superb. During speed testing in the 1970s the GS750 clutch proved to be remarkably robust; light and smooth and slip free (some owners of older examples feel the need to swap to heavy duty clutch springs which invariably increases the effort required at the lever but does nothing to reduce any slip.) Against the clock, the GS was outright the fastest 750 of its time and on the road it would 'out-accelerate just about anything up to the legal limit.'

Bored out to become the shaft-drive 850, the GS gained CV carbs, a bigger petrol tank and a sofa-like saddle but it went no faster and lost some manoeuvrability (and GS fours were never nimble to start with). Even so, the 850 is a better bet than the later, bloated and higher priced 1000 and 1100 versions. Pay a grand for a GS850 in ready to ride condition with a new MoT; half that for a fixer-upper which runs but needs TLC. GS750s sell for more money than 850s because they are undoubtedly the better bike, but you might just grab a decent one for £1500.

Sit up and beg... Beg for some lower bars, perhaps? ... Suzuki GS550 in US trim

Indestructible but uninspiring, the GS550 shares its bigger sibling's competent chassis and dependable DOHC engine. So the 550 has roadholding and steering which outperforms its contemporary competition, but it's also high, wide and heavy with only 48bhp at 9000rpm to propel its 200kg (the GS Thou weighs 34kg more but benefits from a monster 40bhp bonus). Six gears aid performance on the 550 but mean you're never quite in the right ratio and spend half your life swapping cogs (and wondering if the gear indicator light is broken).

The 673cc version, sold as the GS650, is rather more relaxed with 73bhp and a five-speed gearbox. Custom (L) models are cheapest; you'll get a good condition GS550E with a full T&T for under a grand. Katana styling adds a couple of hundred quid to the price, and the GS650 typically costs 20% more than the 550.

Red HT leads not shown... Suzuki GS560 Katana

The shaft-drive 650, either in Katana or GT format, is the best of the bunch despite its extra mass but will also be the most expensive of the 550/650 set. That has something to do with the fact that the shaft-drive 650s used the bottom end from the next generation of GSX machines, along with an early 'swirly' combustion chamber. In many ways the shaft-drive GS650 models were the ultimate development of Suzuki's two-valve air-cooled fours, capable of 125mph and with an extremely accomplished shaft drive for the era. And in Katana form, they came with red HT leads too…

Tank badges laser-etched by man with no legs... Suzuki GS560 Katana Brochure

With any GS, you should be sceptical about the 'it just needs a new battery' story from sellers. The chances are that the battery is fine but it won't charge because the reg/reg has died, so budget accordingly for a modern replacement unit.


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