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Bike Profile - Posted 1st July 2009

Suzuki GSX550E
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Over in Canada, Roger Prosper's first big bike was hardly a classic; more like disposable excellence...

An early to mid-1980's aircooled middleweight sport bike is probably nobody's idea of a classic motorcycle. It is the sad fate of any sport motorcycle, especially the last examples of the aircooled, steel-framed variety, to fall rapidly and irretrievably from grace once eclipsed by the newer, faster, sexier models already on the drawing board before they even are offered up for sale. Like the celebrity bombshell who's committed the crime of getting a wrinkle, old sportsbikes are dropped like a bad habit, never again enjoying the admiration and respect they once engendered amongst the sweaty-palmed purists constantly seeking the ultimate in style and performance.

But hold on a minute. If you compare what you get with most any past its prime sporting motorcycle to the silly money some sad types are willing to spend on utterly deficient machines due to some esoteric quirk (Ooooh! That's the one with the sandcasted alternator cover!), you will soon find that there is a LOT of biking goodness available for chump change if you know where to look.

In 1994, and fresh out of my motorcycle training course, I was looking for a decent, not too big sporty type motorcycle to carry me through my first season of riding. It had to be cheap (naturally) and have at least a modicum of style and performance. My budget was limited to a three-digit price tag, something I still strive to achieve even if there is really no longer any need to do so. I figured something in the 550-650cc range would suit me fine. I remember poring over Honda brochures years earlier, and thought a nice 650 Nighthawk would be a suitable mount, but they were still a bit out of my price range.

Trips to the local dealers showed that I was in for a bit of a hard time to find anything worth buying under a grand. A CB550 from the mid 70s turned up for $900, but the seat had been recovered with some sort of horrible shag carpet effect fabric, and the performance was a bit tame, even by my very low standards. I must also admit a slight bias against Honda, as they had so flooded the market in the town I had grown up in, they now seemed a bit Brand X to me. I had acquired a certain Kawasaki/Suzuki appreciation over the years, and I almost bit on a tidy, and wonderfully green KZ650, but it just didn't quite do it for me somehow, and at $1300, it was a bit pricey for what you got. I had to accept the fact that I might not be riding that summer.

ES model had the frame mounted fairing... 1983 Suzuki GSX550ES

Late into the Canadian autumn, I was perusing the free classifieds when I saw a short ad for a 1983 Suzuki GS550E for $700. I knew I wouldn't be riding that year, but it fit into my idea of what I was looking for, so I decided to head round for a look. I arrived in a pleasant part of town and greeted the owner, who wheeled the bike out of his garage. As soon as I saw that classic Suzuki blue/white/black paint scheme I knew I wanted it. He let me take a short spin around the neighbourhood. It felt very good, despite the fist-sized hole in the left muffler, and a fairing that showed it had been down at least once. I didn't hesitate, and said I'd buy it right there. He agreed to ride it to the shop where I worked, and I drove home happy, despite the fact I was still waiting for my danglers to drop back down after being subjected to a vinyl motorcycle seat in Edmonton in late October.

Close inspection of the bike revealed that it was in quite good shape, despite the fairing and muffler. The clearcoat was peeling badly off the top of the tank, but love is blind, and there is no bike like your first bike, is there? Spring couldn't come fast enough! I replaced the worn tires, and had a blast scouring the local breakers for pipes. It worried me somewhat that I could identify which motorcycle most of the parts were off of simply by sight. Had I been wasting my life all these years? Nah! I found a pristine set for a mere $100. It smartened up the look of the bike immensely, so much so that it looked almost brand new. Before installing them, I ran the bike pipe-less for a bit inside the shop, just to revel in the unmuffled howl of the gemlike 16-valve four cylinder motor. It sounded like an old F1 car at full chat, but my co-worker warned that burnt valves were in my very near future if I kept it up, so I cut the fun short. The exhaust valves were glowing a little... ok, a lot.

E model had the smaller nose fairing... 1983 Suzuki GSX550E

Spring arrived none too soon. The bike cooperated and started immediately. I took a nervous ride around the industrial estate where I worked, before deciding it was time to finally go live with my biking career. The GS proved to be an almost perfect mount for a beginner. Though heavy and underpowered by today's standards, I acquired a deep appreciation for the quick handling, comfort and good brakes. Though cursed (blessed?) with a 16-inch front wheel, it never hinted at the slightest bit of instability. The six speed transmission was typical Suzuki, smooth and precise, with only an annoying pop out of second every once in awhile to remind you it wasn't a new machine.

Indeed, with just over 30,000km on it, it might have been used up by now if it had led a hard life, but the little 550 was watch like in its utter smoothness of operation. Someone had cared for it. The gear indicator built into the instruments was useful for about a week, until you had acquired the sense of what gear you were in from feel, then it seemed a bit cartoonish. The mirrors were the usual semi-useless Japanese setup, with stereo elbows the only view. The bike was well laid out though, and comfortable even for a six-footer like me.

What it didn't like was my bulk. At 225lb, the plastic seat pan was overtaxed, the result of which was that it was wilting at the outer edges and riding on the seat lock. Somewhere along the line it cried uncle, and split off from the frame. The sidecover lost a mounting peg, and forever after, I was sliding it back into place during a ride, and releasing the seat by feeling for the end of the cable and pulling it straight down. Such are the wages of sin and doughnuts.

'It was acceptable in the Eighties...'

Naturally, no bike is perfect, and the GS had its faults. One annoying habit the bike had was shedding one of its motor mounting bolts. The resultant reduction in frame stiffness revealed itself in headshake, but only when severely provoked by going downhill under heavy engine braking, with both hands off the bars. Yes, such a riding style will no doubt come in handy someday... at least for revealing the loss of engine bolts if nothing else. I remember replacing that bolt at least three times. I guess the differential expansion rates of steel and aluminium were to blame. Some call it character...

GSX Suzukis on

The 550 also had a habit of chewing through one of the self-centring bearings in the rear suspension linkage. No doubt highly stressed by the bulk it was forced to carry around, the inner brass liner of the bearing would wear out and actually begin to extrude itself out of its steel ring. The squeak when you bounced up and down on the seat was a dead giveaway. Judicious lubrication of the bearing was necessary, but as it required just as much disassembly as replacing it, I just pressed in a new one when the old one was shot.

The bike was also a bit ambivalent when it came to top speed runs. If you ever look at a road map of Alberta, you will see a series of rather straight lines, almost like looking at a sheet of graph paper. Unless you live in the boreal forest region of the north of the province, or in the extreme west where the Rocky Mountains begin, you were pretty much stuck with endless prairie for scenery. Though beautiful in its own right, the flatness of the prairie encouraged the building of VERY straight and flat roads, and the scenery didn't change much, so on long rides you had to make your own fun.

Nobody who has owned a bike can resist the temptation to see just how fast the machine will go, and I was on a mission to make it break 200kph. It had come tantalising close a few times, but it always seemed to enter into some sort of death rattle, slowing down and sputtering like it was out of gas, before regaining its composure and carrying on like nothing had happened. My theory was that all the wide open throttle robbed the petcock of the engine vacuum it needed to stay open, thereby emptying the float bowls. It seems now that the petcock simply didn't flow enough for that sort of silliness to carry on for very long. I can only imagine the sort of ticket I would have gotten for being caught doing 100kph over the limit.

For the record, I did manage to get it to 210kph, which is right around 130mph, if you trust Mr. Nippondenso not to lie to you. The motor complained not one bit about this type of behaviour. Adjusting the valves with the ever so easy screw and locknut arrangement revealed only one out of spec, and loose at that. One other check two years later revealed all in perfect adjustment.

The worst mechanical trauma I suffered during my three years of ownership was the dreaded snap crackle and pop of the regulator/rectifier unit. Suzukis of this vintage have acquired a reputation of having electrical systems that made the worst Lucas set-up look positively brilliant in comparison. Like most legends, it sounds a lot worse than it is. Yes, there is a truly weird mixture of DC and AC, and the whole thing is unnecessarily complex and finicky, but the fix is easy and durable. Substituting in a Honda regulator solves the problems for good.

My moment came during a ride one night in the east of the city. Cruising past the local refineries, the bike suddenly lost all electrical power and stopped dead. There was a funny smell that I attributed to whatever foul chemistry was taking place behind the wire link fences, but it never occurred to me that something terminal had taken place. When I checked the bike out the following day, I discovered every single bulb on the bike was blown. I removed the regulator and found a hole blown completely through the epoxy potting material that encrusted the, no doubt cheap and easy to replace components irretrievably encased inside. A no-load alternator test at least confirmed that the windings had not fried, as they commonly do, saving me a large bill. Back to the breakers, and I had another regulator for $20. Stupidly, I bought another Suzuki unit...

Smouldering regulator not shown...

By this time, I had decided that riding the motorcycle without a fairing was no longer acceptable. I had the small bikini fairing plastic welded and painted it back to the stock blue/white/black arrangement. The result was beautiful, at least to me. It was now 13 years old, and all but invisible to other riders. I was now at the point in the ownership of this motorcycle that I figured I had sampled all it had to offer, and I was beginning to hanker for something else. Being unable to afford anything appreciably better, I decided it was time to start riding a little more aggressively. As I was now proficient at everyday riding, and due to subjecting myself to some of the rather more heedless British motorcycle magazines, I decided I needed to begin doing wheelies, standing the bike on its nose and other assorted nonsense.

I managed to only scare myself witless washing out the front tyre, slamming my front wheel down, and levering my front wheel off the ground trying to lean it over to the nth degree. Luckily, the neutral handling of the GS protected me from my own lack of common sense, and the flickability and strong brakes allowed me to recover without incurring any major injuries. It was capable of some quite impressive burnouts though....

The only accident I had on the bike came during a rather eventful weekend on the Victoria Day holiday in 1996. I was travelling west when the clouds opened up and a strong prairie windstorm blew up. I was doing a wobbly 140kph on a 20-degree angle into the sidewind, while bits of hay and trees and rubbish blew towards me through the maelstrom. I managed to find the town my brother lived in, but I was at a loss to actually find his place. I managed to find a trailer park with oiled dirt roads, which lead out onto a highway covered in mud from road work. A light blip of the throttle saw me on the road, watching my bike spinning down the pavement in front of me. The only good thing about bike accidents is that they happen so fast that you don't have time to be scared, which is more than I can say for the young lady who watched it all and thought I was dead.

I managed to rip up my brand new rainsuit, and break a clutch lever, but other than a few new scratches on the pipes, all was well. Pity the weekend didn't turn out so good, as it involved a bit of alcohol poisoning, almost cutting off a finger making firewood, an emergency trip to the hospital for stitches while hung over, and waiting 40 minutes to see the doctor while someone else was getting emergency treatment for an allergic reaction to a wasp sting. The hour long ride home on Sunday was capped off by romantic advances from a retired male nurse while sipping coffee at a cafe and trying to forget the whole weekend. Some days!

My time with the GS was growing short. I wanted something bigger by now, but even as I was contemplating a parting of the ways, I still had to admire its easy going competence. With its six speed transmission, anti-dive forks, triple disks, revvy and tough 16-valve motor, remotely adjustable rear shock, excellent handling and braking, I had to admit, it was a superb little bike, and just about the perfect bike to have learned on. In some ways, it is still the highest spec bike I have ever owned (a damning admission to be sure).

It was economical on gas and consumables, and, electrics aside, absolutely reliable. Ah yes, electrics. I did mention I had replaced the regulator with another Suzuki unit, didn't I? There was one more reminder of the little GS's Achilles' heel to be left with before I said goodbye. Another dead bike. Another long push (80 blocks!). The battery had boiled dry. The regulator wasn't regulating. What could I do but laugh?

I sold the bike in the winter of 97/98. I had put on over 40,000 miles on the Suzuki, running it everywhere, usually pinned to the stop. I sent it off, oil tight, and smoke free. I got a buck a cc, $550. So for three years of riding, I spent $150, outside of running costs. Disposable excellence. It will always rank as a classic, to me anyway. I rather doubt there are a lot left around, but I suspect the current GS500 would fill its role smartly, even if it lacks the 550's outright rev-ability.


What's In A Name?

  • GS550E = Canadian / North American designation
  • GSX550E = UK/ European designation

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