1981 Suzuki GSX1100E
It was a sunny day and we were way out in the country about 400km from home, enjoying the gently curving roads when a worrying ‘takketa’ noise made its presence felt.
Hmmm, not good. Vary the revs, still there.
Pretty quickly, an all too familiar ‘haggeda haggeda’ sound kicked in – it was an engine in rapid, terminal decline. Damn it. Think fast.
We were a long way from home, but there was a friendly pub just up the road, so keep going rather than stop and risk the bike not starting again.
Whatever was happening inside those cases, it was clearly going to be expensive and probably terminal, no matter what we did.
The damage was done.
Reaching the pub, I pulled up the old GSX1100, with riding mate Simon (on my Blackbird) hauling up alongside. “That’s not good,” he announced as I shut down the old Suzuki. Me, I was already wondering how many thousands this was going to cost.
To cut short a long and painful story, it was out of oil.
That’s a tiny bit embarrassing when you’ve been riding for nearly 40 years – really should know better by now. And I know exactly how it happened.
Like a lot of machines of the era, these old Suzis have an oil level check window on the right-hand side of the cases. It’s a great idea: flick the bike upright and a quick look confirms if it needs attention. No messing round with rags and dipsticks.
It works brilliantly until the bike develops some age, as the sight glass can stain on the inside over time, so it can be difficult to see well enough to get an accurate idea of what’s going on. The previous day, in my rush to get two bikes out and get away, I’d glanced at the window, saw what I thought was a decent level and thought no more about it.
Some weeks later, having towed the bike home, it was time to work out what to do. With the top popped off, it was quickly apparent that the cams were stuffed. However indications were that the pistons/bores weren’t too bad (a freshen up was certainly possible) and the bottom end seemed fine. The latter is a famously rugged set-up, which is one reason why these motors became so popular with the drag race fraternity.
The big problem with these old GSX engines is the cam journals are cast as part of the head and they’re damn near impossible to find in good condition. There’s no problem getting later model and aftermarket cams, while piston kits are plentiful, but the head is a drama. With time and money it would be possible to have them rebuilt, but the cost – particularly when added to an overall top-end freshen-up – would be prohibitive.
In fact, Simon suggested it might be time to sell the bike “as is” and walk away. He had a point. Financially it might be the smartest thing to do. However my pig-headed streak kicked in and I decided to hunt down a replacement powerplant.
It didn’t take long to establish there were none to be had in the southern hemisphere. They were all worn out, and/or heavily modified for competition. Then one popped up for sale in the UK, claiming to be sound.
Yep, this is a big risk – buying an engine from the other side of the world, on a promise from someone you’ve never met that it’s okay. Even with the best will in the world, they could be wrong.
Having spoken to the vendor on the phone, I decided to take a punt. The end result was a transport note and a $2200 invoice, including shipping. So far so good. It was coming by sea (it’s easy to track the individual ship’s progress via the web, if you can find out what it is), which took about eight weeks. Then the real fun started.
What I hadn’t anticipated was the fuss involved in getting the wooden crate through the docks. The shipper was more used to dealing with Europe, where customs controls are much more loose. In our relatively disease-free end of the planet, it’s a whole different story.
The crate and contents had to be checked thoroughly, particularly since not all the required paperwork (again, unique to this end of the planet) had been provided. Of course the tax man also took an interest.
In the end, it was simpler and easier (if not cheaper) to hire a customs agent to sort out all the issues, including getting the 100-odd kilo package loaded on a truck and sent to my local workshop. All up, it added another 50 per cent to the bill.
Doing an engine swap is not rocket science, so long as it’s like for like. I suspect this, in fact, was a slightly earlier variant than the one that was in the bike, but key items such as engine mounts, manifolds, carburettors and ignition were all the same.
Really, it’s a matter of dropping the chain, the exhaust system, carbs, unplugging the wiring, undoing the engine bolts and you’re ready to swap. In many cases. Some models, such as early Honda CB750 Fours, are notoriously fiddly. In that case you have to remove the cam cap and find the perfect angle, which is not easy, to remove the powerplant from an ultra-tight-fitting frame.
Despite the apparent ease, and the fact I’ve tackled engine swaps before, I sent this one to a workshop. Why? Mostly because of the sheer size and weight of that engine. To swap it over safely was going to require three people and access to good workshop equipment. Sure, a slab and a few mates might have fixed it, but I was getting visions of ambulances and long-term physio bills. Not worth it.
In any case, the workshop got the lumps swapped over with comparative ease and had it all hooked up and running in short order.
A nice surprise was the old engine was quickly sold for a few hundred bucks, which went a long way towards covering the workshop costs.
The moment of truth was hitting the starter (after checking the oil level!) You could have sliced the relief and sold it in kilo lots – the UK engine turned out to be an absolute peach. It’s clearly not done many miles, runs quietly and has that typical GSX willingness. So, the old dinosaur gets to fight another day.
If you ever come for a ride, forgive me if I take what seems like an inordinate amount of time to check the oil.
KNOW YOUR SUZUKI GSX1100E
• Suzuki’s GSX1100E was the company’s king hit in the superbike class and claimed to be, when launched in 1980, the fastest naked production bike in the world.
• It backed up the claim with a win in Australia’s Castrol Six-Hour production race in 1981, with a
• The 16-valve engine was claimed to produce a modest 75kW (100hp), which was widely believed to be an understatement.
• Several versions were built, with the most valuable being the early ‘small tank’ model, some of which came with wire wheels and did not sell in all markets.
• Early versions, up to GSX1100EX in 1982, when the EZ took over, are the most desirable. Suzukicycles.org is a good place to look up the lineage.
1981 Suzuki GSX1100E
Type: Air-cooled, DOHC, four-valves-per-cylinder, inline four
Bore & stroke: 72 x 66mm
Compression ratio: 9.5:1
Fuel system: Mikuni 34mm CV x 4
Type: Five-speed, constant-mesh,
Final drive: Chain
CHASSIS & RUNNING GEAR:
Frame type: Steel, twin-downtube cradle
Front suspension: Conventional 37mm Kayaba fork with spring and damping adjustment.
Rear suspension: Preload and damping-adjustable shocks, 89.5mm travel
Front brake: 275mm discs with single-piston calipers
Rear brake: 275mm disc with single-piston caliper
DIMENSIONS & CAPACITIES:
Seat height: 806mm
Wet weight: 259kg
Fuel capacity: 24L (19L in small-tank model)
WHEELS & TYRES:
Front: 19 x 3.5-inch cast alloy
Rear: 17 x 4.5-inch cast alloy
Power: 75kW (100hp) at 8700rpm
Torque: 85Nm (63lb-ft) at 6500rpm
Top speed: 227km/h