As we look in awe at today’s spectacular superbikes that are essentially “race bikes with turn signals,” it’s easy to forget that just over 30 years ago, the idea of the super sport motorcycle didn’t even exist! That is, of course, until the Suzuki GSX-R came along and revolutionized the industry, popularizing a whole new category of motorcycle in the process.
In 1984, super sport motorcycles weren’t even” a thing.”
These days, of course, we know of supersports immediately as their own category of motorcycles – fully faired, light, compact, and sexy bikes purpose built for high performance on a racetrack. But in the early 80s – the era of “UJMs” – the only bikes that even closely resembled today’s sport motorcycles were factory race bikes, highly modified versions of the powerful sport standards of the day that, by the time they were prepped for racing by the factory, looked nothing like the models sitting on the floor of the showroom. There was a gap in between what you watched racing on TV and what you could actually buy – a gap that was waiting to be filled by an all-new type of motorcycle.
The order that came from the top at Suzuki for that new bike was a challenging one – 100 horsepower, and a dry weight of under 394 pounds. “I had never even seen or heard such demanding targets” remarked Etsuo Yokouchi, the head engineer on the project that would become known as the GSX-R750, released to the world in 1985. The GSX-R750 was truly revolutionary, because it was built from the factory in a way that no other bike had been before.
The 1985 Suzuki GSX-R750
Rather than taking their best performing street bike and modifying it for racing – as was the norm at the time – Suzuki instead took a factory-built race bike, and made a street legal version. The GSX-R750 was based on the factory GS1000R race bike that Suzuki ran in AMA Superbike and Endurance racing, and featured triple-digit horsepower for the first time ever in sport bike, an all-aluminum frame, and a revolutionary air-oil cooling system that was effective yet light and compact.
This was a paradigm shift in motorcycle manufacturing, as the public had never before had access to a machine like the protoypes raced by factory teams, and the light, fast, fully-faired machine gave rise to the term “race bike with headlights.” The GSXR-750 was impressive on the racetrack, immediately winning the 24 Hours at Lemans right after its introduction, and the Production Class TT in the same year. Within just a few years it was able to dethrone dominant Honda racing their own V-4 powered machines, winning the AMA Superbike championship in 1989.
In addition – and perhaps more importantly – the Suzuki quickly became the bike of choice for innumerable privateer teams in club racing. Purpose built for racing from the factory, the GSX-R required none of the extensive modification its rivals from Honda or Yamaha did, and the inline-four cylinder, overhead cam construction was easy to work on compared to Honda’s V4 VFR motor or the 5-valve-per-cylinder engine in the Yamaha FZ750. This, along with its popularity as the ultimate street bike, quickly earned the GSX-R750 the unofficial title of “the people’s superbike.”
Kevin Schwantz riding the first generation Suzuki GSX-R750 to victory in the Daytona 200, an event that showed the world that the GSX-R was a force to be reckoned with.
The 1985 GSX-R750 was an impressive machine, but it quickly placed a target on its own back that its competitors wasted no time pursuing. By 1988, Honda had introduced the impressive homologation special RC30, and Suzuki was forced to evolve to stay ahead of the rapidly gaining competition, which it achieved with an overhaul including engine upgrades, larger valves, new carbs, and a new exhaust that bumped power up to 112HP, along with improved suspension, brakes, and a switch to 17” wheels in place of the 18” hoops used previously. These improvements came with a price though – the new model was now 20 pounds heavier.
In 1990, another round of updates took place, adding inverted forks, a new motor, new exhaust, and a revised gearbox, and in 1992, another major upgrade took place – water-cooling, in place of the air-oil cooled design of the original, bumping power up to 118HP. But the GSX-R750 had also gained some weight during the modernization process, and was still riding on the tired original chassis and with an engine that, despite numerous updates, was still an old design. The GSX-R that was once such a fast, sexy machine was now totally outclassed by competitors in the category it had invented, and it was overdue for an update.
The 1992 Suzuki GSX-R750
That update came in 1996, when after 11 years of updates, Suzuki finally introduced an all-new GSX-R750. This new bike was based on the RGV500 factory race bike piloted by Suzuki icon Kevin Schwantz, and featured a new short-stroke engine, revolutionary ram-air induction system, a new twin-spar chassis, and a fully adjustable suspension both front and rear. The new GSX-R sported the most advanced racing technology of the time, but the best news was a dramatic drop in weight – for the first time since 1985, the GSX-R was back to it’s slim original weight of only 394 pounds! The all-new GSX-R was ready to reclaim its spot at the front of the pack, and in 1999 Matt Mladin won the AMA championship, starting an impressive winning streak that continued in 2000 and 2001.
But perhaps even more exciting was the birth of the GSX-R750s little brother in 1997, the GSX-R600, which was created to take advantage of new super sport racing series’. The GSX-R600 used all the advanced performance technology of the flagship GSX-R750, but with a smaller displacement engine. Having all that advanced technology in a junior class allowed the little 600 to dominate at the race track, and it immediately won back-to-back World Super Sport titles in both 1998 and 1999.
The 1997 Suzuki GSX-R600
In life, it’s not uncommon for an only child, accustomed to getting all the attention, to have a little sibling come along and steal away some of the thunder. What rarely happens, however, is for an OLDER sibling to appear, taking away all of the thunder – but that’s what happened to the GSX-R750 in 2001, when the GSX-R1000 was introduced, immediately stealing the spotlight as Suzuki’s new flagship superbike.
With all the advanced technology that had been developed for the excellent 750 platform but with an even larger, more powerful engine, the GSX-R1000 immediately stole the show. “The GSX-R1000 was about the same size as the 750, so it had tremendous dynamics” explains Suzuki Chief Engineer Hiroshi Iio. “In terms of running, turning, and stopping performance, it was outstanding – an extremely well-balanced machine.” Much as the original GSX-R750 was a revolution in super sport machinery, the GSX-R1000 was as well, taking the sport bike power war to a new level.
From then on, the liter-bike would be the one to receive all the new racing developments and top-tier technology, which would trickle down to the 600, with the 750 getting only a slightly larger engine in what was otherwise the same bike as a GSX-R600. The first-gen GSX-R1000 was an impressive machine that won over the hearts of superbike fans – but it was the second-generation GSX-R where Suzuki really went full-force in an attempt to dominate the superbike class in decisive fashion.
The 2005 Suzuki GSX-R1000 was an absolute beast. Externally, it sported a bold, angular, aggressive new look (which looked so good, it set the tone for every GSX-R model since), and under the aerodynamic new fairings was a new 999cc engine with twin injectors and titanium valves. The new Suzuki superbike wasted no time winning championships once again, with victories in World Superbike, AMA, and World Endurance. Overall, Suzuki was riding high in the early and mid-2000s, and on the race track and on the streets, it seemed like you saw that iconic GSX-R logo everywhere you looked.
The 2005 Suzuki GSX-R1000
Then something happened that shook not just Suzuki, but the entire motorcycle industry – the Great Recession. The recession swatted down the disposable income that so many had used throughout the 2000s to buy “toys” like the race-built GSX-Rs, and from 2009 on, development on the GSX-R platform slowed to a halt. The Suzukis were still strong sellers in the segment, but a dramatic drop in overall sales took the bottom out of the super sport market, and for years, the platforms saw minimal changes.
The 2017 Suzuki GSX-R125
But in the last few years, as the middleweight super sport market has declined, there has been a resurgence in the two extreme ends of the market – top-tier superbikes, and affordable small-displacement sport bikes. As a result, while development on the 600 and 750 platforms has been minimal, Suzuki has recently introduced two exciting new models. First, an impressive all-new flagship GSX-R1000, with MotoGP technology like Variable Valve Timing, a 6-axis inertial measurement unit linked to a comprehensive electronics suite, launch control, traction control, and a new Showa suspension – then at the other end of the spectrum, a new GSX-R125/150 for developing markets and young riders in countries with tiered licensing systems.
The 2017 Suzuki GSX-R1000
One way or another, the GSX-R line has lived on, longer than any other line in the super sport category, and continues to go strong by evolving to remain competitive on the track while always meeting the demands of the customers. Suzuki started the line in 1985 as the “people’s superbike,” and over 30 years later, with excellent performance, accessible control, and affordable pricing, it would still not be inaccurate to call today’s GSX’Rs the same name. May the people’s superbike live on!