People deal with stress in different ways. Some eat their feelings away when they get too big. Others drink too much or engage in increasingly risky behaviors. Me? I buy junk motorcycles off the internet (I also eat my feelings, but this ain’t CookApart, so…). You see where this is going, right? Of course you do.
Last week was a particularly stressful week both here at RideApart HQ and at Small Bike Rescue. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that by Friday I was trawling Facebook Marketplace for a
strong dopamine hit great motorcycle deal. Nothing was really catching my eye (or my wallet) until I stumbled on the most unbelievable bargain—a strikingly clean 1982 Suzuki GS1100GLZ for only $300 American dollars that had only been online for five minutes.
Now, I know precisely dick about 80s-era Suzukis and I'd just bought that gnarly CB550 the previous week, but that didn't stop me. I needed that GS1100. I needed it bad. So, because I'm that guy and have zero impulse control, I immediately called the seller up, offered him what he was asking for it, and I was the owner of a new (to me) GS1100.
A Brief History Of The Suzuki GS Series
Back in the mid-to-late-70s, Suzuki was lagging behind the rest of the Big Four in the UJM department. Honda had the market locked up with the CB550 and 750, the so-so CB650, the smash hit CB900, and the completely bonkers CBX. Kawasaki was hot on Honda's heels with the Z line, which featured some fantastic bikes ranging from the Z650 to the legendary Z1/Z1000. Yamaha was struggling along in third with the XS-series 750s and 850s (yes, I consider the XS triples UJMs despite not having inline fours. If you don't like it, tough cookies.), and poor Suzuki was dead last.
It's not that Suzuki wasn't cranking out good bikes, it's that they were cranking out the wrong bikes. While the other kids were out there with their shiny new four-stroke engines, Suzuki was content to dick around with and perfect its two-stroke offerings. These were fantastic bikes, don't get me wrong, but in 1975 Suzuki's two best offerings were the bloated, smoky GT750 Water Buffalo (a bike that I frankly and unironically love) and the ill-advised, rotary-powered RE-5. Good bikes overall, but neither is a CB750 nor even yet a Z650.
In the eyes of company bigwigs, this was an untenable situation. People were buying four-strokes, so Suzuki would have to build four-strokes. So, in 1976—in an effort to get some of that sweet, sweet UJM money—Suzuki fired a shot across Honda and Kawasaki's bows with the revolutionary (for Suzuki) GS series.
Team Suzuki came out swinging with the tiny, mighty GS400 and the very competent GS750. They were excellent, if somewhat derivative, bikes with DOHC, air-cooled, inline fours with five-speed transmissions, chain final drives, great fit and finish and eye-catching design. These bikes were soon followed by the budget GS550 and the powerful, intimidating GS1000. Handling, especially in the hot-rod GS1100 (which eventually evolved into the Katana), was sketchy at best since frame and suspension technology still hadn't caught up with engine technology in 1976. That said, the big-bore GS1000 still handled better than Yamaha's XS1100 (a bike that handles like a puppy on freshly-waxed linoleum) and Kawasaki's extremely wobbly Z1300.
For some reason, probably a very Japanese reason, Suzuki developed a spin-off of the GS series called the "G" models. These were basically just regular old GS-series bikes with a drive shaft and an extra G tacked on to the end of their designations. These bikes were aimed squarely at the burgeoning sport-touring market and were wildly popular in Europe. The G models had bulletproof engines, ultra-reliable final drives, and when fitted with aftermarket touring accessories could go tens of thousands of miles with little to no effort. It's from this line that my new bike—the US-only, neo-cruiser GS1100GLZ—descended.
All That Glitters...
I learned all that stuff last Friday as I waited and waited for quitting time so I could pick up my new bike. By 4:30 I was on pins and needles, and by 5:00 I was at my local U-Haul place picking up a trailer. At 7:00 sharp I pulled through an open cattle gate and rattled down a rutted dirt path to a construction site in the middle of a thick copse of trees a stone's throw from Detroit Metro Airport. There it was, my new GS1100 sitting proudly in the doorway of the seller's half-built garage. See, he was a new dad, living in his in-law's house while building a new house for his new family, and he needed to move this old bike. It was given to him by his brother-in-law, and ran when parked, but he couldn't get it running despite having the ancient battery on a charger.
I didn't care, it was love at first sight. The seller's voice took on the quality of a grown-up in a Charlie Brown cartoon while I admired the GS's muscular, square-shouldered good looks. Even sitting there covered in dust with its seat off and a busted rear turn signal (it fell over in the garage a few weeks ago), the GS had a palpable presence. The seller, his wife, and I talked for a while, I handed over $300, he handed over the title, and just like that I was a Suzuki owner. I loaded it up on the trailer and headed for home.
By the time I got back to headquarters, it was pretty late. I'd had a long day after a long week and I had some very important video game playing and whiskey drinking to do, so I stuffed the GS into the SBR garage and said goodnight. Little did I know what horrors were lurking under the GS's lovely surface. I'd find out soon enough, though.
The Shocking Truth
When I woke up Saturday, I woke up with a mission—I would ride the GS1100 by nightfall. With visions of power cruising rolling around in my head, I returned the trailer and hit up my friendly local Suzuki dealer for a battery, some plugs, an oil filter, and other sundries to perform a basic tune-up. Back at headquarters, after seeing my wife and kids off to an afternoon pool party, I dug right into the GS, and at first glance I was impressed.
The first thing you notice about the GS1100 is its sheer bulk. This is a huge motorcycle, big in every way—big engine, big tank, big wheels, big clocks, big pipes, big personality. I had a hell of a time getting it up on the center stand and I'm used to lugging Yamahas around (Yamaheavy, amirite?). After wrestling the big Suzuki up on the stand I filled the battery and put it on the charger, then started my initial inspection. There was very little rust, even on the pipes and under the fenders. It was clear that the bike had sat for a while though, as evidenced by the green slime and the 2009 Michigan plate. The choke was weirdly stiff, though, and the throttle was stuck. I chalked that up to bad cables and the obviously filthy carbs. Nothing out of the ordinary for a bike that's sat for a while, right?
Here's where things started to get weird. I pulled the tank and saddle and noticed a whole lot of debris on the crankcase and stuffed in between the fins. There was some green, algae-like film around the VIN, on the right-hand fork slider, and on the bottoms of the gauges. This thing had clearly been stored outside, probably somewhere swampy, for an extended period. Eh, I wasn't worried, I'd seen worse. I mean, the chrome wasn't rusted or pitted. The CB450 was in worse shape when I brought it home. It was a solid 7 out of 10 appearance-wise, a solid survivor. What's the worst that could be wrong with it, right?
Gallery: Suzuki GS1100 Rat Trap
The Horror... The Horror...
The wheels came right off—hell, the whole damn train came off the track and crashed into a mountain—once I removed the airbox. It felt strangely heavy and rattled ominously as I wiggled it off the bank of Mikuni carbs. As it pulled away from the far left carb, a shower of debris—stones, dirt, seeds, nuts, leaves, other less identifiable things—fell out on to the crankcase. It looked, for all the world, like potting soil and the airbox was full of it. Not only the airbox, but the carbs as well. In addition to being packed with detritus, the carbs were heavily corroded by what I can only assume was generations of mouse or rat droppings (rodent urine, especially mouse and rat urine, is extremely caustic). This thing must have had hundreds of rodents living in it over the years. It was positively Lovecraftian.
In all my time wrenching on old Japanese iron I've never seen anything this bad, and it kept getting worse. After removing the airbox completely—and putting on some appropriate protection equipment since I didn't fancy getting hantavirus—I pulled the carbs off and the intake side was full of this awful, slightly damp, crystalline corrosion. Again, mouse pee and aluminum. They went straight into the bin, the first time in my life I've ever thrown carbs away. The corrosion had flaked off and covered the insides of the rubber intakes and the head's intake ramps in a crumbly white powder. That's when I knew I was in real trouble.
After a break and a quick consult with some learned mechanics (my man Todd and the guys at a Japanese bike restoration forum I belong to) I started in on the engine. Dreading every second, I removed the rocker cover and the head to see what was going on in the cylinders. Strangely enough, every bolt I touched came off without a struggle. Nothing stripped, nothing broke (although I found a busted-off exhaust stud hidden away by some previous owner. I told you guys, this bike was near mint. I finally got the head off with a minimum of effort, and it was time for a gut check.
Three of the four combustion chambers were fine, but the one over cylinder 3 had a rusted intake valve. Welp. In addition, all the exhaust valves were bone white, overcooked by the extra-lean factory carb jetting and almost 40 years of running hot. Then there were the cylinders. Three of the four were excellent, but cylinder 3 had some surface rust and was full of debris—that white corrosion dust and, of all things, one of those whirligig maple tree seeds. That was it, I was done. Burned out and a little discouraged, I pushed everything back into the garage and went back into the house to drink whiskey in the dark, stare off into nothing, and process what I'd just seen and experienced.
Tomorrow Is Another Day
Sunday, I was sobered but determined. Determined to win, and determined to salvage this seeming disaster if I could. I spent the morning researching GS1100s and crunching numbers to see if spending any more effort (and money) on the bike was worth it. See, I didn't buy this thing for me. Like most SBR bikes, I bought it to fix and sell. Depending on the cost/benefit analysis, it might just be better to part the poor thing out then scrap the rest. Had I bought it for me, I'd have thrown all the money at it and fixed it, but sadly, this was a strictly commercial affair. Luckily for the GS, the numbers came out in its favor so, thoroughly coffeed, I headed back out to the shop to finish what I'd started Saturday.
The first thing I discovered was that the pistons were not, as I feared, seized in the cylinders. I vacuumed the crud out of cylinder three then, again with the merest of efforts, pulled the cylinder block. Cylinders one, two, and four were pristine. This bike only had 10,000 miles on it when it was parked, mind you. That's barely broken in for this particular mill. There was no evidence of rust inside the crankcase or corrosion on the rods, so whatever got into cylinder three (mouse pee) thankfully didn't get past the rings. Once the cylinders were off and all the small parts and fasteners I pulled off the bike were
tossed into a box and stuffed under my bench carefully organized and stored away, I put the head and cylinders in the old parts washer to soak and turned my attention to Project Firebolt for the rest of the day.
So that's how it stands now. I'm calling the bike Project Rat Trap, a name that only just beat out Project Floodland (it was wet a lot, get it?) in an informal poll I held on Facebook. The plan is to hone the cylinders, replace the rings if they need it (they may not), slap everything back together with new gaskets and a new cam chain, and do that tune-up I started Saturday morning. A fellow Japanese bike nerd has offered me a set of recently rebuilt Mikunis for this bike with new intakes for a very reasonable price, so I'll get those and remount the stock airbox. Hopefully, this thing'll be back on the road inside of a month once I get all the parts together. Then I can sell it to buy parts for the CB500 so I can sell that to buy parts for the Beezer and the Yamaha and any other sad, neglected bikes I might come across.