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Bike Profile - Posted 20th July 2009

Turbo-Powered Motorcycles
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Dean Fountain considers the Suzuki XN85, Kawasaki 750 Turbo, Yamaha XJ Turbo and Honda CX Turbo, and remembers a remarkable moment of motorcycling...

In the early 1980 we had yuppies with mobile phones the size of a brick, Maggie still popular after securing some islands we'd never heard of from a bunch of generals no one had ever heard of, and the big four Japanese motorcycle producers all heading up what we all now know was the dead-end that was the turbo-charged motorcycle.

Into the fray strode Suzuki's turbo contender, the XN85. The Suzuki had a radical look which no doubt owed something to the Target-designed Katana which had been revealed to an open-mouthed bike buying public three years earlier. Nowhere near as beautiful as the iconic big Kat, the XN85 was none the less the first production bike to feature a 16-inch front wheel, the stuff of race bikes until this time. It also debuted Suzuki's full-floater rear end which was soon to become synonymous with the GSX and GSX-R series.

'85' but not 850... Suzuki XN85

Based on the GS650G engine, the 85 of the title designation denoted the horsepower of the turbo-charged engine. Other advanced features included forced oil spray to the back of the pistons and electronic fuel injection, a real plus on a turbo-charged engine where fuelling must be exact.

The Suzuki is the rarest of the factory turbos with only 1153 machines produced and it was a pure sports bike, unlike the offerings of Honda and Yamaha. Yet while its handling was a class apart the XN's speed was frankly underwhelming, a serious drawback on a bike which wore its turbo badges with gusto.

Italian electrics are not standard... Honda CX500 Turbo

Honda, never known to shy away from any technical challenge, threw their hat in the ring with the CX500 Turbo. Their bike was the first to reach production and premiered a Japanese factory-fitted turbo charger and fuel injection system capable of doubling the off boost power. Only in production for the 1982 model year, the 540 or so produced were superseded by the CX650T with a much simpler fuel injection system. The catchy styling of the middleweight sports-tourer was highlighted with bold badges on the fairing and pipe. It's fair to say that you either love the look or think it's like looking at an ice cream van while on acid, but a seriously strong and dedicated owners club probably make this the one to have today. Alas this model too was deleted after only one season.

Turbo Tourer? Yamaha XJ650 Turbo

Yamaha's blower equipped contender was the XJ650 Turbo Seca, another middleweight contender claiming litre performance. Interestingly the Seca had pressurised carbs instead of injection and exhausted through only one silencer, the other only functioned as an exit for the waste gate. In keeping with its brethren a two year production run was all Yamaha deemed fit, probably because it made barely any more power than a standard XJ650, although to be fair it delivered it in style by comparison.

Last but Best? Kawasaki 750 Turbo

Last, and many would say best was Kawasaki's entry: the ZX750. Strangely this was only badged as a GPz on the engine covers, yet despite its physical resemblance to its Firecracker Red siblings, the factory never prominently referred to it as a GPz.

The 750 was probably the best sorted of the four, good-looking, with genuine litre bike performance and practical as an everyday ride (I understand RC's Rowena campaigned one as an everyday mount*).

Capable of a top speed in excess of 140mph and covering the all important quarter mile in a little over 11 seconds, the 750's turbo unit was fitted up close against the header pipes, slashing the turbo lag in the process.

But all too soon the appearance of the GPZ900R and the GSX-R750 would put their turbo'd brothers to bed forever. Never again would we see the big four Japanese factories go the forced induction route; it was goodbye to what would become curios rather than icons.

Turbo bikes for sale on today:

Too complicated, too expensive, too thirsty and outshone by normally aspirated bikes not handicapped by turbo lag. They all slipped into oblivion and the turbo-charged bike returned to the realm of the specials builder.


*More than one, actually. Wrote both of them off in the usual 'more speed than sense' manner by sudden impact with immovable object… but before I destroydified them, they were bloomin' great. The boost display was really fun. And may have caused the accidents, now I come to think about it

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