Suzuki GS1000 – 997cc, five-speed, chain. 11.89 @113-mph. 540-lb, 133-mph
Many are those who believe Suzuki’s GS1000 was Japan’s best Superbike to date. I won’t argue, but there’s a point to make. As Cycle’s editors explained it in March of 1978, Suzuki’s balanced approach gave riders an option to the “engine first” construct prevalent on the Eleven and CBX. That’s nonsense, because 1) The European’s already offered that, and 2) Suzuki’s own 4v, 1100cc speed king was just two-years away. Facts matter, so I maintain the GS1000 outgunned its 1978 rivals by following the European blueprint where chassis integrity is a priority. There was no other pattern available. Penning the RE5 and GS750, engineer Hisashi Morikawa gets the credit for Suzuki’s GS1000. Serious about eliminating flex-induced wobble, Morikawa boxed the steering head then cross-braced the upper cradle no less than five times between stem and seat edge. Rollers and Timkin bearings fit in the pivots and the Suzuki’s air-adjustable, 38mm fork and burly swingarm were yards better than anything from Japan. Ideal spring rates and dampening. Cherished by racers due to its tough roller bearing crank (supported by six-main bearings) the assembly weighs 2.2-lb less than GS750 unit. The cases are more compact too, and four 26mm Mikuni’s fit on the 2v head. Described as ‘ordinary’ by some, the GS1000 now comes across as elegantly simple and clean.
What they said then: “Points ignition aside, the GS1000 is damn near perfect – and perfect for a range of riders far broader than the Z1-R, CBX, and the Eleven will appeal to. It does everything well, which makes it unique, and it doesn’t cost much money, which makes it a charm. It’s docile, economical (about 40-mph, with a range of just under 200 miles) and potent. Only the CBX is significantly faster, which ranks the 1000 and XS-Eleven as the second-fastest land vehicles known to humankind”. (Cycle Magazine, March 1978)
Desmos in the Wind: Ducati 900 Super Sport
Getting my first ride on one back in 2005, the 900SS I tested was a bullet. Long, low and narrow there really isn’t much to it; fuel on, find the kick starter, move the key to ‘R’ then come down after a couple of twists. Narrow enough to plant both feet the rider slots between to reach…and reach some more for the Desmo’s grips. I did nothing more than endure the experience of threading the SS through traffic or Interstate travel, but things improve when the road starts to climb. Finding its stride the Desmo seduces with honest steering, a smooth, willing engine and by being utterly trustworthy and effortlessly composed. The road seems wider, and you feel its texture through the grips. It all makes sense. It does as Ducati built it to do.
A veteran engineer in Italy once explained a member of his staff purchased a GS 750 new in 1976, then offered him the chance to examine it. “I could tell by the construction it was a different breed, this new 750. It looked like something we would build.” Indeed, but just because the Suzuki handles, that doesn’t mean it handles like a Ducati. As with Guzzi and BMW the narrow 864cc twin lays its mass low, and with 28-degrees rake and weighing in just over 450-lb, the 900SS was tops for 1978. Even with 40mm carbs and Conti exhausts it won’t sprint like the four, but both are capable of meeting near the 140-mph neighborhood. You might be surprised what gets there quicker. As a kick-only, high maintenance throwback it’s nothing like the plush Suzuki, yet both the GS and SS earn high marks in the pursuit of excellence.
Kawasaki Z1-R TC – 1015cc, five speed, chain. 10.84 @ 130-mph. 550-lb. 137-mph.
If any doubts existed about Kawasaki’s pride as a performance icon, the Z1-R TC of mid-1978 erased it. Based on the almost new 1015cc Z1-R, Kawasaki’s newest Zed entered the new year a perennial favorite, but was quickly vanquished by the Eleven. Narrow, long and covered in a shimmering silver blue, Kawasaki could have squeezed more thrust from its iconic DOHC, but adding the ATP Turbo would allow no-doubt to what was 1978’s fastest motorcycle. Restoration specialist and TC owner TJ Jackson was wrenching at a Kawasaki dealership when the Z1-R Turbo was released – some in the striking black ‘Molly Graphics’ trim. “I burnt through a piston trying out a new, unsold TC,” Jackson remembers. “My boss made fix it before I could go home.” Making upwards to 130-hp on RayJay boost, peak power could overwhelm the Z1’s chassis. “Even today, when it hits the TC feels like nothing else,” says TJ. “There’s just such a rush of power. Kawasaki made better motorcycles, but none as anti-social or one dimensional. For that reason alone its worth having.”
What they said then: “No warranty, the potential for owner improvements, less mid-range, cold blooded, and the turbo lag which makes going fast down a twisty road particularity challenging. Here’s the real question: Do you want to go as fast as the TC is capable of going? If the answer is yes, the Turbo is the only bike that will be satisfactory. If the answer is no, stay as far away from the Kawasaki as you can get”. (Cycle Magazine, August 1978)
Parallel Lines: BMW R100RS Turbo
Starting in the early 20s, Germany’s BMW was and still is a master engine builder. Finished like jewelry, its latest pre-war models were absolutely oil tight and reliable, existing in an era when paved roads were rare. Like the Japanese, new things developed for Germany after WWII, but BMW’s dedication to excellence remained as before. By the swingin’ 60s BMW scrambled to attract the Mods, wrapping flashy flower-power around what was basically a 1930s motorcycle. Mostly black. An absolutely sublime machine in construction and line, the faithful Slash-Two gave way to the /5, then modernized annually until development peaked at 1000cc in 1976.
Born to contend with Japan’s fours, by 1978 BMW’s flagship R100RS was the focus of many aftermarket tuners, some with brilliant results. Beefy trees, braced frames and swingarms tightened the handling, and more speed from the time honored practice of hotter camshafts, hi-comp pistons, bigger carbs, open exhausts and ignition solutions for reliable thrust. Like any combustion engine, the 980cc, 2v pushrod twin surged in power with more mixture, so ramming compressed charges into the BMW’s combustion chamber via turbo charging -literally- dropped fuel on the fire. In time many grew weary of the plumbing, heat and fuss, concluding (as is also the case for the Z1-R) that no-turbo might actually make a better motorcycle. Still, the RS Turbo made its point, and a skilled rider could run with (or away from) almost anything…except a Z1-R TC.
Conclusion: Now marketed as personal machines and not transportation, by 1978 nearly every maker/importer expanded production to include at least one 1000cc model. Much more was to come, yet the real gains coming from that one incredible year was the realization that horsepower alone is not enough. Of the Japanese bikes I’d tag the Suzuki simply because the GS1000 exposed its rapid Asian competitors. Still, I can’t stop looking at the CBX. Mission accomplished Honda. History shows the leaps in chassis technology during the 80s, along with other critical concepts like streamlining and tire technology. As an enthusiast who savors cross country runs and long sweepers, that interest is compounded knowing every member of 1978’s superbike class can be ridden as intended today. Could the same be said of 40-year old bikes then? Nolan Woodbury.
Special frame models from 1978
Bimota – SB2 (Suzuki 750) KB1 (Kawasaki z900)
Fritz W. Egli – Egli Honda (CB750 SOHC)
Rickman CR (Kawasaki 900)
Photos: Cycle, Cycle Guide, Motorrad, MC Specs, Paul/Proper Bikes