Underrated: Early Japanese Cruisers Combine Distinctive Style, Major Horsepower

A week ago I gave in to long-suppressed lust for early Japanese cruiser motorcycles and bought a 1982 Suzuki GS1100L from a seller on Craigslist. The bike is one of several big-bore, four-cylinder Special, Custom and Limited models that emerged in the late 1970s and were mostly gone by 1985.

IMG_20171104_1608126Powerful machines like the Suzuki GS and Yamaha XS1100 rolled out in standard versions that often made their way into superbike racing. They also came as low-slung cruisers designed to compete mainly with Harley-Davidson, more for style points than speed. My new-old Suzuki is one of these boulevardiers with a teardrop-shaped tank, two-tone paint, pinstripes and a severely stepped seat with a rear end that kicks up in a flamboyant gesture.

All four of the big Japanese manufacturers sold a version of this bike for years before concluding that successful cruisers must have V-twin engines. Kawasaki had the KZ1100 Spectre and Honda, the CB1100C. At a glance it can be difficult to tell one brand from another. Still, I love the bikes’ disco-era glitz and swagger, and the striking horsepower in their inline-four power plants.

IMG_20171116_1126155Who knows how many of the Suzuki’s 94 factory horses are still kicking inside those cylinders — I haven’t put the bike on a dynamometer and have no plans to do so. But even after 35 years, this is a fast machine even by modern standards. It can accelerate quicker than I would ever ask and on the softer side, it has sweet convenience features like self-canceling turn signals and a lighted display that tells you which gear the bike is in so you won’t forget to shift into fifth on the highway.

People who have bought motorcycles on Craigslist or spent hours window-shopping there know the quirks, questions and anxieties that arise as one sorts though the descriptions and photos to determine a bike’s true condition. Does it run? Are any parts missing? What sort of attention does it need (they all need something). How about the title? My litmus test comes down to whether or not I can ride the bike home.

Years ago I rode a Ducati Paso about 100 miles from a Pennsylvania dealership — a move that seems a bit extreme in hindsight. Later I brought a Honda CL350 home from a seller just two miles away. But that trip was more harrowing than the hundred-miler because the bike was barely roadworthy. Beyond the engine and transmission, almost nothing on the Honda was working properly. The four mile ride with the strong-running Suzuki was trouble-free. If it conked out I could push it the rest of the way, I figured, though at about 540 pounds it might have required the help of a friend or two.

IMG_20171106_1400504 (2)
The factory added Lockhart oil coolers to control the big engine’s temperature.

Best thing about this latest addition is that it is ready to ride — “needs nothing,” as sellers like to say. Of course that isn’t completely true. The four Mikuni carburetors could use a little attention, and there are a few questionable aftermarket parts I will have to deal with at some point.

“What’s with those bars,” my wife asked after spotting the white, dirt-bike handlebar that replaced the original tall, pullback style. They clearly do not belong. While they have a better, racier shape than the factory bars they should be chrome, not white, and without the off-road crossbrace. I’d also prefer the original dual exhaust pipes and airbox to the Vance & Hines 4-into-1 pipe and pod filters on the bike now. But at least those are period-correct modifications. Many riders switched pipes back in ’82. And the Vance & Hines setup gives off a lovely, raspy growl. Besides, have you seen the price of new pipes? Maybe later.

For now I’ll enjoy the old bike’s smooth handling, prompt acceleration and raucous sound while there are still a few reasonably warm days left in the Northeast. It’s really more of a muscle bike than a cruiser, with enough attitude to stand up to Diavels, V-Rods, Street Glides and other macho modern machinery I might encounter on the road. Its throwback styling makes me feel like I’m riding through Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” video, which dates to the same year as the bike.

As 1980s nostalgia gathers momentum, bikes like this are likely to gain respect among vintage-bike enthusiasts that is largely missing today. Like the once-ignored Honda CB750s and Kawasaki Z1s of a decade earlier, power cruisers like the Suzuki will eventually become staples of motorcycle collections.

 

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