Living in the Past
Jul 12, 2010 (Updated Feb 19, 2011)
Review by Andrew F
Rated a Very Helpful Review
I am what most would call a "re-entry rider", though I think "passionate motorcycle-fanatic" is a better description. Anyone who has read my car reviews would know that I'm a certified (or certifiable?) car nut, but that doesn't even come close to the enthusiasm I feel for motorcycling. Its been 17-years since I owned a motorcycle, a sentence imposed by the warden my wife, but now that I'm on marital parole my bikelessness had to be rectified.
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Why a 30-year-old Suzuki? This isn't where I started. I spent months test-riding a myriad of bikes new and used. I rode Harley, Honda, Victory, Ducati, Moto Guzzi, Kawasaki, Suzuki, BMW, Yahama and even a massive on-off road KTM adventure bike. Some were nicer than others, but none pressed all of the right buttons. There were holdover year bikes as low as $4,500 and exotic iron over $30,000, but nothing that I just had to have.
What was the problem? Me. The last time I had owned a motorcycle was 1993, a café racerized 1982 Suzuki GS850L that I'd bought used in 1991 after I was rear-ended on my 1990 Kawasaki Vulcan 750. Before that it was a 1985 Honda 650 Nighthawk, and before that a 1981 Honda CX500 Custom. I'd enjoyed them all, but the Suzi was the one that really touched me.
As I tried more and more bikes I realized that I was comparing everything I rode to that 1982 Suzuki, and so I turned to Craigslist, eBay and Cycle Trader to try my luck at finding something similar. It didn't take long. I paced an add in the Bakersfield and Los Angeles Craigslist describing what I wanted, which was vague indeed.
"Universal Japanese Motorcycle (UJM) over 500cc, Shaft Drive Preferred, No Project-Bikes"
I didn't particularly care if it was a Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha or Suzuki, so long as it fit the basic ULM pattern, which is to say a clone of the original 1969 Honda CB750. Air-cooled inline 4-cylinder engine, 4 carburetors and an upright seating position. When I was contacted by a gentleman in Ventura with a 1980 Suzuki GS850G in "near mint" condition, I was hooked.
Now compared to a modern motorcycle, the GS850G is a very poor performing beast. It is heavy at approximately 600lbs wet. Its only makes 70 HP, so its no rocketship. The 32 inch seat height is quite a stretch with my 31 inch inseam, while those triple slotted disk brakes look super-powerful, they are gripped by small, single piston calipers that are nowhere near the stopping power of even today's budget bikes. Skinny tires limit handling and the high center-of-gravity makes the bike intimidating at low speeds. Why on Earth would I want such a thing?
Despite the limitations, there is much to like in UJM-land. A certain honesty of style, a lack of plastic and the obvious attention by real riders at the design stage show that these bikes were meant to be ridden, and ridden, and ridden. There is even a nationwide club called GSResources, a group of riders extremely passionate about their 1976~1985 Suzuki motorcycles, an great place to learn why those old UJMs remain desireable motorcycles.
Okay, enough backstory, on to the bike. Mine is a 1980 model, which was the second year they were sold in the United States. The 1979 differs with solid (unslotted) brake disks, a kickstarter (as a backup to the electric) and a more primitive breaker-point ignition system. 1980 deleted the kickstarter, added the slotted disks and moved to more modern electronic ignition. 1981 saw only color changes, while 1982 brought a slightly lower seat height and slightly revised styling. From then until the bike was discontinued in 1985 the only changes were colors and a black-finished engine from 1983. From 1980 onwards, the bike came in two versions, the standard "G" model with an upright seating position, 5.8 gallon tank, flat seat and a high, though fairly straight handlebar, and the "L" cruiser model, with a stepped (king and queen) seat, 3.4 gallon teardrop shaped gas tank, pullback handlebars and more chrome. The "L" models had a slightly different frame design that was cut down at the rider's seat allowing a 30 inch seat height.
Magazine tests of the time praised the bikes for handling as well as some sport bikes, having the comfort of a touring bike and for their extreme reliability. Generally the bike magazines hated the compromises to riding position on the "L" models, and the "Customs", "Specials" and "LTDs" that followed the same cruiser theme by the other Japanese bike makers, but loved the standard and supersport UJMs. The GS850G was no exception.
My bike is essentially stock, with the only component change since 1980 being a set of modern tires. I do plan on modifying the bike slightly to tame the late 70s (my bike was built in November 1979) handling and braking foibles. Progressive Suspension fork springs and rear shocks (in retro chrome, of course) should clean up the 30-year-old suspension without altering the appearance of the bike, while braided steel brakelines should improve braking response, though the old single-piston calipers are still a limiting factor. Finally, I plan on having the masters at Corbin or Bill Mayer re-foam and re-upholster the once magnificent but now spongy stock seat. A small widscreen, a tank bag and a set of soft saddlebags and the GS850G will be ready to ride anywhere, anytime.
Even without the modifications, the GS850G is a joy to ride and I've already put over 1,000 miles on the bike in the month that I've owned it. While it doesn't go, stop or turn as well as a modern 550, it is still just as fast, stable and comfortable as it was back in 1980 and still will leave all but the most exotic sports cars in the dust at a stoplight. It still makes all of those terrific four cylinder noises (mine still has the stock pipes in perfect condition) and still has a more natural riding position than just about any motorcycle made before or since. The combination of 42 MPG, a 5.8 gallon tank and smooth riding shaft drive make this just as good of a touring bike today as it was 30-years-ago.
Touring, in fact, is the type of riding that I prefer. The GS850G is a very different experience than you will get on a modern touring bike, but that is, in my opinion, a good thing. You hear and feel the engine, with it getting a bit buzzy over 80 MPH. The primitive suspension does a decent job absorbing road imperfections, but is ponderous compared to modern sportbikes and twitchy compared to modern cruisers. What no modern bike can match, however, is that absolutely perfect relationship of seat, bar and pegs that just never gets tiring. The conventional tubular handlebar makes it easy to change the bar height and angle if you are longer or shorter than average in arm and torso, though the pegs are no so easily moved and the seat, unless dished, is up there.
The GS850G is also, unlike many vintage bikes, quite a luxurious ride. All of the modern conveniences are here except for fuel injection, but the choke knob is right at the center of the handlebar and the bike warms quickly. Luxurious is the correct word to describe this bike, even today. It has self-cancelling turn signals, a fairly accurate fuel gage (a bit pessimistic, but linear), a very bright headlight and even a row of indicators to tell you what gear you are in. About the only functional reminder that this is not a modern bike is the silly 85MPH speedometer, showing that this bike was sold during the height of the 55-era.
Older Suzukis, like most bikes, have their common trouble spots. In the case of the GS series, it's the electrical system. Miraculously, the stator and regulator/rectifier (the parts that typically fail) are both original on my bike, though the wiring is newer, heavy-gage copper and properly grounded, which was NOT the case from the factory. CHECK THE ELECTRICS BEFORE YOU RIDE!
Finally, even at 30-years-of age, this is a very reliable bike. My GS850G has 32,500 miles on it, and it looks and feels new. Of course the secret to that longevity is religious maintenance, and the previous owners (one for 30 years, the other for 5 months) clearly kept up on the maintenance. The owners manual is filled with entries for service, including oil every two thousand miles and all of the other consumables at their proper intervals. The drive shaft uses hypoid gear oil while the engine and transmission share conventional 10W40, though I run 20W50 because I live in a hot climate. I used to run sythetic oil in my bikes, though I'm reluctant to switch on this particular bike due to the age of some of the gaskets and seals.
One more thing you should know if you want to own an 80s UJM, and that is that if it is a clean example, everyone will look at it. I recently stopped at a small café and a group of Harley Davidson riders pulled in a few seconds behind me. A tattooed and bearded fellow in his 60s said "I don't usually like Ricers, but that's a really nice bike". That is always the reaction. Park the GS850G, a very ordinary cookie-cutter motorcycle back in 1980, and people on much more exotic machines will almost always come over and admire it. The same applies for an old Honda, Kawasaki or Yamaha as those old bikes had simple and clean lines that really stand out in this day of plastic bodywork and abundant chrome.
I'm hoping to take a 1-week, 2,000 miles tour of the Pacific Northwest when the weather cools a bit in September. I have no doubt my 30-year-old Suzuki will make the trip in grand style with a minimum of fuss.
***July 30, 2010 Update***
In the 6 weeks I've had the bike I've put on 2000 miles. I have made some minor upgrades.
First the standard stuff. Thicker fork oil and slightly more than specified, but no air in the air forks resulted in a slightly stiffer front end, the way I like it. I adapted a set of rubber gators from a 1960s Triumph to cover and protect the fork seals.
A National Cycle Deflector Screen in light tint takes the wind off of my chest, but doesn't otherwise take away from the feeling of riding a naked bike, which again is my preference over larger fairings that provide more isolation than I like.
Soft luggage easily converts the bike from a naked standard into a rather capable touring machine, with a medium tankbag and tailpack and a pair of soft saddlebags giving plenty of space for a week or two on the road.
Finally, and most importantly, I took the stock seat over to Bill Mayer Saddles in Ojai, CA and had his staff perform their magic. The seat lost its vintage look (flat as a board) and now looks more like a proper touring seat, but they did preserve the chrome trim rails and the grab handle, which maintain the bike's lines and keep the bike looking classic. Of course, brand new, custom shaped and fitted foam with a higher-quality vinyl cover made the seat MUCH more comfortable. The seating position was also adjusted TO ME, taking away many aches and pains on longer rides.
This may be a 30-year-old classic Japanese motorcycle, but it is also a touring machine and one that I like to ride, A LOT.
***October 12, 2010 Update***
My GS850G has been in the shop for the last two weeks, mostly waiting for parts. Yes, the famous Achilles Heal of the GS series, the charging system decided to go completely South.
Fortunately, a friend (who owns a truck) was with me on his Triumph, and after an hour at the side of the road, he returned with the truck, avoiding an expensive tow. I should have it back this weekend or early next week with a new stator, new regulator/rectifier, and new rear tire.
Since I bought the bike in June, I've put a total of 5,000 miles on it, and until the charging system died, which was all original 1980 and a known weak point on these bikes, I had absolutely ZERO issues.
Fuel economy was consistently between 38 and 42 MPG and oil consumption (no leaks) about a quart per 1,000 miles, a bit more in hot weather, and nothing at all in the cold. Not counting the charging system rebuild, I doubt many modern bikes could match the reliability and economy of riding and maintaining even a 30-year-old GS850.
In those 5,000 miles, I took the GS850 on two medium length tours, the longest of which was a pair of 400 mile days on mostly back roads. With the Bill Mayer custom seat, small windshield and the excellent stock handlebar position the ride was always comfortable and fun. The bike is smooth, comfortable, powerful if you rev it above 6000 RPM, and economical if you don't.
The more I ride this bike, the happier I am with my purchase.
*** Update 2/18/11 ***Up to 7,000 miles since purchase (38,500 on the odo) and I just keep falling in love with this motorcycle.
Last weekend a friend and I did a little carb-ectomy, filing off a tiny plastic nub that leaned the mix too much at certain RPMs, all in in the interest of late 1970s EPA nonsense. With the nub removed, the engine is now smoother and more willing in the 4000 to 6000 RPM range and has better throttle response, at the cost of about 1 MPG at a steady 75 MPH (my normal cruising speed).
There remain a few electrical glitches, as apparently the rewire job the previous owner did wasn't as good as I had hoped, but bit-by-bit it is being sorted out. Currently, there is a drain somewhere in the charging system even after the stator and R/R replacement, though it puts out enough juice to charge the battery, so I'm still on the road.
Replaced the rear tire with the same low-cost Shinko tire the previous owner had installed. Shinko tires took over the motorcycle division of Yokohama tires a number of years ago, and essentially sells 5 or 10-year-old Japanese tire designs at low Korean prices. Sport bikers scoff at Shinko tires, but I find them an excellent match for the handling capabilities of the GS850G, far better than anything that was available 18-years-ago when I used to ride. The tires also wear well, with the front still at about 60% after close to 8,000 miles, and the rear still at about 30%, and only replaced because of a big nail I picked up (no leaking) slightly off-center.
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Amount Paid (US$): 2250
Model Year: 1980
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