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Suzuki's GSX-R: the full history

A look at the most revolutionary sportsbike, in all its forms...

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Submitted by Alan Dowds - editor on Mon, 09/07/2018 - 10:26

Suzuki's GSX-R: the full history

PLENTY OF machines can lay claim to influencing modern superbike design. Some will argue that the Honda CB750 laid the groundwork in 1969. Others might say that the Yamaha R1 of 1998 defines the genre. But the Suzuki GSX-R – in various iterations – has always been at the forefront.

Ever since the name first appeared in 1984, the GSX-R – a moniker that’s been used on bikes from 50cc to 1100cc – has been in the mix for anyone out shopping for a sportsbike. Here's our look at every one that Suzuki's built.

 

 

GSX-R history

1984 GSX-R

Everyone has heard the story of the 1985 GSX-R750 and how its combination of a four-cylinder engine, full fairing and aluminium frame created the pattern that modern superbikes still stick to. But a year before that machine went on sale Suzuki was already flogging a GSX-R in Japan.

Simply called the Suzuki GSX-R – no number was needed here, as there were no other iterations at the time – the very first bike was actually a four-cylinder 400cc (well, 398cc to be precise) sports bike. It was this Japan-only model that truly pioneered the alloy-frame, four-cylinder layout that the GSX-R750 would bring to a worldwide audience a year later.

The slab-sided styling was there, too, as were the twin headlights on a bluff snout, and the use of Suzuki’s trademark cradle-style aluminium frame meant it was far lighter than its similar-capacity, steel-framed rivals. How light? Dry, it was 152kg, which still sounds good today.

Unlike other early GSX-Rs, the original 400 was water-cooled rather than air and oil cooled. Strangely, while other bikes were moving from air to water cooling in the 1980s, the GSX-R400 would go in the other direction…

 

GSX-R history

1985 GSX-R750

It might not actually be the first GSX-R, but the 1985 GSX-R750 is the bike that brought the line to the world’s attention. An alloy frame, the oil-cooled (SACS – Suzuki Advanced Cooling System) engine and slabby styling are a combination that makes those early GSX-R750s true collectables today. With 106hp and weighing just 176kg (dry), the early bikes were something of a revelation compared to the flabby steel-framed ‘superbikes’ others were offering.

For 1986, a GSX-R750R homologation-special version joined the line, with a single seat and improved suspension and brakes. In 1987, the suspension mods filtered down to the base model, which also gained a larger fuel tank.

 

GSX-R history

1986 GSX-R400

Soon after its launch the Japanese 400cc GSX-R gained the ‘400’ in its name to distinguish it from the larger models, and in 1986 a completely new, second-generation version appeared. The cradle frame was gone, replaced with a cutting-edge aluminium beam frame (long pre-dating the same move for larger GSX-Rs) and a new engine featured ‘SATCS’ (Suzuki Advanced Three-Way Cooling System) that used air, water and oil – separately, not combined – to take the heat away. On the styling front, the 86 bike gained a new body and for one year only had a rectangular headlight. Suzuki saw the error of its ways and returned to twin round lights in a minor update for 1987, which also included new wheels and a redesigned exhaust.

 

GSX-R history

1986 GSX-R1100

Back in 1986, the GSX-R1100 was the sort of bike that kids spoke of in hushed voices. Its oil-cooled, 1052cc four made a then-astounding 128hp and the dry weight of 197kg seemed perfectly reasonable. A GSX-R750-style aluminium frame helped there, although the 1100 was always a big bike – hence the short-lived tuning fad of slotting 1100 engines into the smaller 750’s chassis.

 

GSX-R history

1986 GSX-R50

When is a GSX-R not a GSX-R? When it’s the Suzuki RB50 GAG. The jokey little 50cc single used GSX-R-alike bodywork on a paddock bike style frame and sported GSX-R stickers even though its official title was RB50. Quite sought-after these days, usually as the perfect garage-mate of a first-gen slab-sided GSX-R750 or 1100.

 

GSX-R history

1987 GSX-R250

A year after launching the biggest GSX-R, Suzuki revealed the smallest four-cylinder GSX-R it would ever make – the jewel-like GSX-R250. The only four-cylinder GSX-R to use a steel frame, it still managed to be a 138kg lightweight, packing a screaming 45hp 248cc, 16v, DOHC motor. 

 

 

GSX-R history

1988 GSX-R400

Another year, another new GSX-R400. For 1988 the baby Gixxer got a second-generation beam frame – one that still looks brutally beautiful even now, rather like some early Bimota beam frames did – and yet another cosmetic reworking to go with it. It was losing is slabby sides and gaining some curves, and the overall effect remains one of the best-looking machines ever to wear the GSX-R badge. Suzuki also introduced the SP model with a close ratio transmission and adjustable suspension. All 1988 models were a fraction heavier thanks to that bulky frame, but at 160kg still weren’t heifers.

In 1989, the GSX-R400 became the GSX-R400R, with tweaks including a new swingarm. The 1989 GSX-R400R SP is perhaps the ultimate GSX-R400, complete with the beefy beam frame, the ‘R’ swingarm, the ‘SP’ suspension and transmission, plus a unique single-seat bodywork style.

 

GSX-R history

1988 GSX-R750

Goodbye slab-sides, hello curves; the second-generation ‘Slingshot’ (named after its carburettor design) GSX-R750 appeared in 1988 with a new frame, new styling and heavily reworked engine with a shorter stroke and bigger bore than before. Power rose to 112hp but weight also increased to 195kg (dry). Incremental improvements came in 1989, a year that also saw the introduction of the homologation GSX-R750R, with a tuned engine which reverted to the earlier model’s longer-stroke, giving 120hp. It also added a single-seat tail, close-ratio transmission and aluminium fuel tank. A rare beast both then and now.

In 1990, the normal GSX-R gained the R’s long-stroke engine, detuned a fraction at 115hp, and added upside-down forks. But that sweet spot in the GSX-R lineage would last only a year before a heavily revised 1991 machine appeared. It got new fairing, similar to the 1990 GSX-R400’s with dual headlights behind a single clear panel, and somewhat inexplicably weighs 15kg more than the 1990 bike at 208kg (dry). This was a transition model, though, as a completely new 750 was coming in 1992. 

 

GSX-R history

1989 GSX-R1100

The first big change to the GSX-R1100 since its 1986 introduction, the 1989 bike got a new frame, a bigger 1127cc engine and the same sort of rounded-edge styling that emerged on the GSX-R750 and 400 machines a year earlier. Like the 750, it gained ‘Slingshot’ carbs, along with the capacity hike pushing power to 142hp, but also gained weight – up to 210kg dry. It was well enough received, but in a fast-changing superbike landscape, the new Yamaha FZR1000 EXUP that debuted the same year shaded the GSX-R1100, offering more power, less weight and sharper handling. From 89 on, the 1100 was regularly tweaked – getting change to the geometry in 1990 and new plastics in 1991.

 

GSX-R history

1989 GSX-R250R

In 1989 the tiny GSX-R250 joined the aluminium frame gang, with a beam frame rather than the cradles Suzuki seemed so keen on elsewhere in its range. The change, along with new styling and a braced swingarm, made the bike sporty enough to gain an extra ‘R’ on the end of its name. There was also a higher-spec GSX-R250R SP, with adjustable suspension. Surprisingly, the R’s changes added weight rather than removing it, upping the bike from 138kg to 143kg. Power stayed at 45hp. The GSX-R250 was dropped a couple of years later, but we hear Suzuki is bringing a GSX-R250 (and a European market GSX-R300) back into the range next year, using a parallel twin engine.

 

GSX-R history

1990 GSX-R400

The 1990 GSX-R400 was an odd machine that discarded the GP-style beam frame of its predecessor for a somewhat more old-fashioned-looking cradle frame reminiscent of the original 1984 version. On the plus side, it was the first GSX-R400 to get upside-down forks, and power was up a fraction, but the 1990 bike was heavier again – 167kg. The styling now put both headlights behind a single Perspex panel. This was really the beginning of the end for the 400cc class, and the GSX-R400 – which had gone through four complete model changes between 1984 and 1990 – would never be significantly updated again, despite remaining in production until 1995.

 

GSX-R history

1992 GSX-R750/GSX-R600

While the 1992 GSX-R750W looks much like the 1991 machine, which introduced a similar headlight design, it’s a very different beast. The key here is the ‘W’ at the end of its name. It stands for Water – as in ‘water-cooled’. There was a new frame to carry that new engine, of course, although it looks very similar to its predecessor, and the bodywork is all new as well.

But by now the GSX-R was looking like a rather big, fat machine (208kg dry), going the way of Elvis while newer, younger stars were emerging. In 1992, of course, Honda started selling the lighter, faster and bigger-engined FireBlade…

A revamp in 1994 included changes to the engine, frame and styling, cutting 10kg off the bike’s weight and improving its performance and handling. But something much more significant was just around the corner.

Throughout this period, Suzuki also offered a 599cc version of the same bike – the GSX-R600 – with less power (106hp).

 

GSX-R history

1993 GSX-R1100

Come 1993, the GSX-R1100 was a bit of a dinosaur, but it still got the biggest revamp in its life. A new engine, water-cooled rather than air/oil-cooled, increased power to 155hp, and the chassis was redesigned for more rigidity. It was cripplingly heavy, though – 231kg dry– which sat at odds with the emerging fashion, led by Honda’s FireBlade, for ever-lighter sports bikes. In 1995 a new swingarm showed Suzuki was still improving on the GSX-R1100, helping claw weight back down to ‘only’ 224kg dry. By that stage, though, the 1100 was a sports-tourer, rivalling the Kawasaki ZZ-R1100 rather than any superbike. It lived on until 1998, when the launch of the GSX1300R Hayabusa (notably a ‘GSX’ rather than a ‘GSX-R’) finally knocked the GSX-R1100 into its grave.

 

GSX-R history

1996 GSX-R750/GSX-R600

There’s no question that by 1995 the Suzuki GSX-R750 – which had set the superbike benchmark a decade earlier – was a distant also-ran in a class that included alternatives like the wonderful Yamaha YZF750, not to mention the up-engined FireBlade. But in 1996 Suzuki came back with a vengeance by introducing the bike that many think of as the SRAD. 

That was actually just its intake system – Suzuki Ram Air Direct – but the real key to the new machine was a GP-inspired alloy beam frame, wrapped around a new short-stroke, 128hp engine and clad in wind-tunnel-sculpted styling. Weight dropped by nearly 20kg to 179kg dry (just two years earlier, a GSX-R750 was 208kg!). Suddenly, Suzuki was back at the top of the class.

An update in 1998 saw fuel injection added, increasing power to 135hp, but other than that the GSX-R750 SRAD remained largely unaltered until its replacement arrived in 2000.

Once again, throughout the SRAD period the GSX-R600 mirrored the 750cc machine, albeit with lower spec suspension and brakes.

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