Which One?

1986 Kawasaki GPz1000R -vs- 1982 Suzuki GS1100E

It was a cool, clear Friday night in Las Vegas when Alex and I decide to bolt for the exit. After pounding the halls at Mecum’s 2017 vintage auction all day, our pounding feet had just enough left for a pass through the shower enroute to any one of the South Point’s fine dining stops. Led through the ‘No Sale’ corral while following the faint aroma of steak and eggs, I spot this pair of former superbike luminaries side-by-side. Each on my mental bucket list of long admired but never owned favorites, the idea for this story rolled through my mind as we began snapping again. For this digital exercise the game is easy: Pick one. and leave the other. Easy decision? It will be for some but for the rest of us? Read on.

(Both bikes are in exceptional cosmetic condition. A steal at $2500, the Kawasaki cost five-thousand dollars less than the low-mileage GS1100E)

The Suzuki
Simply put, there wasn’t a better production motorcycle than the GS1100E when new, and that’s truly saying a lot. Recalling the roster of super bike hotshots gunning for the Suzuki’s open class title in 1982 gives considerable pause, as every single one are worth owning today. Mainly due to its weight, bias and brakes the 1100 didn’t deliver the elemental, pure sports experience offered by Europe’s masters, nevertheless, the big Suzuki’s fundamental balance and speed made it a world class rival. Plainly the best of Japan’s sports fours, and durable by design. Keep in mind that Kawasaki, Honda and Yamaha were all doing their best work (to date) during this era, yet between 1980-84 Suzuki’s 4v DOHC 1100 repeatedly seized top honors. Truly a legendary model, yet somehow still underrated.  

(Suzuki style: Broad radius mix with faint angular touches. Note offset cap. 1075cc, 4v engine is owner-friendly, profile is classic dropsweep.)  

Rooted in 1976’s 750cc four, Suzuki had advanced its four-stroke considerably by 1982. Yet, it is how the machine was originally developed that proved critical to its success. As a clean sheet design, it was the Suzuki’s expertly crafted tube frame that came first; a fundamental rethink that changed company course and grew Suzuki’s fortunes. In 1980 a substantial reinvestment followed and saw a new, DOHC 16-valve four slotted into Suzuki’s tested chassis, now with more bracing and a twinshock alloy swingarm. Two years on the Lunchbox was redone as a more rounded roadster, using new bodywork, rear-set pegs and a dominating 200mm headlamp. Mechanical updates were nil, save for a new airbox, rejetting and welds on the pressed up crankshaft to eliminate slippage. Average 1/4-mile clocking is 11.4 seconds and a top speed of 135-mph. Plenty fast, yes, but what’s lost on many is the Suzuki’s great engine isn’t its greatest feature. Offering complete performance, the GS1100 earned its fame.  

(Nicely proportioned, Suzuki’s GS1100E is a roomy, compliant roadburner with a super fast engine and all day legs. Very easy to own.)

The Kawasaki
Many were surprised when the popular ‘Top Gun’ GPz900 wasn’t updated to full liter-spec after 1986 rolled in. Then again, history shows it was wise to leave the 900 alone. Slotted between that top-selling Ninja and the furiously fast (alloy-frame) ZX10, Kawasaki’s ZX1000R is a production oddball. Offered in 1986-7 and largely bypassed in favor of its little brother, demand for the steel frame Ninja 1000 slipped away in a tidal wave of speed and techno-marketing. Described by some as a heavyweight puncher that’s unhappy at the edge, the GPz demands respect for its size and thrust. Ironically, it is those very attributes that define the bike’s character and role. Rare on the ground, the big Zed’s menacing stance and power delivery might someday make it collectible, but they often sell for pennies on the dollar. After being discontinued, much of the 1000R continued on as the Concours 1000; a motorcycle so well received and admired it lives among the elite in Kawasaki lore.

(Monocoque styling inspired by UK/Euro design. A hint of Bol D’Or and here with a trimmed rear fender. Deep-set cockpit offsets smooth upper-clamp. with bolted-risers. Sold in other markets as the 1000RX, the big Zed is one badass bike.)

Full coverage had become le régulier by 1986, and with predicable aerodynamic benefits. Long, low and stout, note how its down force panels integrate into the GPz’s body lines. Swinging over, those jutting wings and a quartet of remote clocks come into view, giving the bike a spaceship feel. Some motorcycles pose better than others and here, the camera hides the ZX’s best parts in a one-dimensional view. Under that ABS and steel is a purpose-built perimeter frame that hangs a liquid-cooled, DOHC inline as a stressed member. Slightly bored and stroked to 77 x 58mm, the engine comes from the GPz900 with its distinctive left-side cam drive. Displacement went from 906 to 997cc with the larger bike getting 10.2 pistons and four 36mm Keihin carbs. Producing an under-stressed 125-hp through close-ratio six-cog box and able to pour on speed like no Kawasaki before it, the big ZX1000R’s rigid steel frame and strong chassis bits increase stability, but add poundage. 560-lb wet. 159-mph.

Pros and Cons
Illustrating a point made in ‘Forgotten Hondas’, the leap in technology seems far greater than the four-years that separate these motorcycles. That isn’t always a good thing, as the Kawasaki’s superior integration is mainly carried out by rows of hoses, lines and wiring, all tightly packed under yards of vintage plastic. The only common complaint against the GS is a history of ignition/charging component failure, most of which were worked out by the time this GS was built. More complex and heavier, the ZX1000R’s limited production makes used spares (inside the engine and out) harder to find, and fewer overlap with other models. Far more popular and supported the GS1100 owner can maintain his ride using any number of aftermarket sources, and parts overlap is extensive. Clean and handsome, the Suzuki’s valves can be set via screw/locknut and there’s no old water rotting inside. Speaking of inside, that’s where the ZX owner will go when (not if) the starter-clutch dies, and pricing for repairs and service can often exceed value. Now you know why the Kawasaki is cheap, but that doesn’t explain why the Suzuki still is.


If it seems the scales are tipping towards the GS you’re reading this right. It is more valuable and probably always will be, but there’s more to biking than service work. Having the opportunity to ride various examples of both over these last decades, I’d long decided Suzuki’s GS was the Japanese four I’d missed in my youth…then I sampled the Ninja. While the GS pulls with big torque the Kawasaki mixes in quick-snapping muscle, yet the Zed’s x-factor is harder to describe. One can *feel* the engine growl through its grips…not vibration, but an instinctive mechanical uplink to the brain that seems unique to Kawasaki. No wonder owners rode these hard, as it adores more throttle. Both over-qualified for the cross-country tour the GS fits very well, but I’d go farther on the more sophisticated ZX1000R. Your opinion might differ, but if you’re like me and place great value on how a motorcycle comes across after hours in the saddle, you’ll understand why the Zed wins this part. Both have mainstands and the ZX’s concentric chain adjusters are an upscale feature.

Originally the plan was a quick write and post, but running the story idea down the back alleys of social media returned some surprising replies. Equally admired but for different reasons I wavered, but deep down I know it would be the Suzuki. Nearly two dozen replies saw the GS win the vote 60/40, and that’s closer than I’d guess. Easy to keep, the Suzuki fits my life better but Kawasaki’s Zed stirs more passion. Remembering these decisions often come down to condition, the enthusiast-owned machine will always be the bike to shoot for. That’s made harder in this case by both being equally solid, according to the seller. “Fill with gas, check pressures then ride anywhere,” he summarized, with the usual disclaimers. Now days one might pay $3500 for this ZX, or add $1500 to bring the GS home. Either way, the draw is getting mucho moto for the money…a fact known well by the (mostly) silent underground of riders who search them out. My decision? Spend $2500 for the Kawasaki 1000, find a parts bike, ring some buddies and start planning my next vintage road trip. There’s still more deals than money to buy them, and that’s  good news for us. Nolan Woodbury (Photographs: Alexander D. Woodbury)

Kawasaki ZX1000R (1986. $2500-$5000 est)

Engine: DOHC, 4v liquid-cooled transverse four
Bore x stroke: 74 x 58mm (997cc)
Pistons: 10.2:1
Intake: 4 x Keihin CV36
Ignition: TCI/transistor
110-HP (wheel)
Transmission: 6-speed
Primary/final: Wet clutch/gear primary/chain
Chassis: Steel twin spar frame
Forks: 40mm tele with anti-dive control
Rear: Alloy beam Uni Trak monoshock
Brakes: 2 x 280 / 1 x 260mm rear (1p)
Wheels/tires: 120/80-16 (f) 150/80 16 (r)
Weight: 580 (wet)
10.7 1/4-mile

Suzuki GS1100E (1982. $2500-$6000 est)

Engine: DOHC, 4v air-cooled transverse four
Bore x stroke: 72 x 66mm (1075cc)
Pistons: 9.5:1
Intake: 4 x Mikuni 34
Ignition: Transistor
87-HP (wheel)
Transmission: 5-speed
Primary/final: Wet clutch/gear primary/chain
Chassis: Braced steel cradle frame
Forks: 37mm Kayaba tele with anti-dive control
Rear: Alloy beam twinshock
Brakes: 3 x 275mm 2p
Wheels/tires: 3.5″x19 (f) 4.5″x17 (r)
Weight: 540 (wet)
11.4 1/4-mile

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