Wednesday, 19 October 2016
The battered and bruised 82000 mile, Suzuki GSX500F stood up against the garage wall, the stands long since chucked. The vendor had explained, when l telephoned him, that it was in a bit of a state. It had spent more time on the race-track than the road. Been dropped a few times, he helpfully added. but was basically straight and easy to fix with some cosmetic attention.
The only thing that had got me down to the wastelands of East London was the £675 price tag, which even in the depressed nineties had to be good going for a late 1988 example. It still ran, whined beautifully out oi the 4—1 and open carbs, and tracked around the bends with sufficient precision to convince me that the square section frame was still straight.
The rest of it was pure rat. The copious GRP being cracked where it wasn't patched to the extent that the only way ot ascertaining the original colour was to look in the registration document. Chrome, alloy and paint were all in a state that would only be acceptable in a twenty year old hack!
How many times the engine had been rebuilt was an open question. Thrashed relentlessly on the race track it had obviously led a very hard life. The clutch was jerky, the gearbox imprecise and the power delivery below 4000 revs full of flat spots, probably a function of the ill-matched carbs and exhaust, which itself looked like it was about to fall off. The consumables were all in need of replacement.
I offered 500 sovs. there were too many ways things could go seriously wrong to spend any more. The reaction was the kind of scowl that would stop a Doberman in its tracks. I added that i had the money in my pocket, we could do the deal right there and then. He reluctantly accepted, growling that if any problems emerged I‘d better not come back complaining.
It was dark by then. I had checked the lights over with the engine switched off. I soon found my first problem - the mill refused to run cleanly below 5000rpm. If I used the brakes, when the stop-lamp came on, the engine stopped dead. The solution was to ride home on the parking lights, the route was well lit so I survived the 30 miles without causing any accidents.
Next day, I pulled the plastic off to find that the battery was some pathetic 4 amp job and the rectifier/regulator unit was a homemade mess of electronic components and wires. The GSX isn't as prone to electrical problems as the earlier series, so I was able to pick up replacements for £50 in the local breakers. Next problem was that all the wiring was non-standard, so I had to guess which went where, but it all seemed to work OK.
The state the bike was in, it would be a natural target for the porkers. so after some pleasant fast riding to make sure I wasn't going to waste my time, I went to work on the GRP, leaving it in situ. A long weekend with the GRP kit, grinder and spray gun saw the swine emerge in bright white, with red transfers hiding the worst of the carnage. Some skilful welding on the exhaust plus a lot of spit and polish on the rest of the chassis made the machine look more its age. The breaker was raided for stands, pads, tyres, chain and sprockets. Total cost of the renovation about £250.
It was obvious to me that the bike deserved a long, hard thrash. Thus we hit the M4 at seven o'clock Sunday morning. Within minutes i had found out that top speed was 135mph and that the bike weaved persistently above 95mph. By the time the top speed was approached the weave had turned into wild wobble that came close to wrenching the bars out of my hands.
In deference to this, plus hidden police cameras and helicopters, I kept speed in the 75 to 90mph range, which the chassis could handle but the motor put out such an amount of secondary vibes that I suspected it was on its last legs. It was also very revvy, making me want to change up two gears even when in sixth.
By nine o'clock I was in Cardiff city centre. where they have the decency to have a lot of bike parking spaces. Getting off the Suzuki l was astounded to see a huge crack running down the side of the fairing between two mounting holes.
There was also a fast forming puddle of oil. The sump was half empty or half full, depending on your state of mind — I was pretty far gone by then.
Oil and some bungee cords were not difficult to buy, but I managed to spill about a litre overthe engine and the bungees were not totally effective in stopping the GRP from flapping around.
It was pretty obvious I'd be taking the A-roads home. On the A48 the Suzi revealed an independent nature, not wanting to follow my chosen route through the curves. instead liking to run wide. Rolling off the throttle caused the back end to twitch violently.
I made it home in one piece. Oil consumption, I later learnt, only became vicious if more than 80mph was sustained for any length of time. More cracks in the GRP, looking like it'd fall apart at any moment. The vibes also blew the front bulb, an all too regular occurrence. I had great fun repairing the wafer thin plastic but after two weeks had the GSX back on the road.
I decided it was an ideal hack to commute to work on. This was fine, except for the length, weight and mass when sharp turns in narrow gaps were needed, for the first couple of weeks until it started to rain. The Avon tyres let the bike skid all over the road, whilst the front discs became diabolical. They became vicious on-off devices until. after two weeks. the calipers seized up. The combination of dodgy tyres and brakes meant I'd slid along the road three times, further adding to the battered appearance.
The calipers proved beyond help, another enriching day for the breaker. I'd done less than 3000 miles, which had left the half worn secondhand pads down to the metal. The replacement calipers were no better in the wet, so it was just as well that the next two months were mostly dry. That put another 2500 miles on the clock, enough to have the tyres down
to 1mm. The chassis didn't like that lack of tread one bit, feeling very twitchy indeed.
With nearly 88000 miles on the clock, the engine still knocked out the goods. Vivid bursts of acceleration with more than 6000mm on the tacho, although the gearbox was so lacking in slickness that it was remarkably easy to throw the box into a false neutral when trying to burn off some rival biker. The wretched appearance made all kinds of lowly mounted scum think they could better us, but they rarely did.
I occasionally did a longish run at high speeds, but it was the exception rather than the rule when nothing went wrong. The worst occurrence was when half the silencer fell off, leaving me with a motor that only ran at 5000 to 6000rpm. The engine so overheated that it ended up stuck in third gear for about seventy miles. I had to replace the clutch plates as well as the exhaust (with another ratty 4-1). There are enough 600Fs in breakers to make such repairs a relatively inexpensive hobby.
Another time, the front wheel bearings went, making the bars twitch like there was no tomorrow; took five hours to do 80 miles, leaving me a nervous wreck. After I took the wheel out I discovered some hairline cracks around the hub (I had ridden up pavements a few times) so the bearing failure was a timely warning.
The breaker had a 2000 mile front end for £125, which solved both the rotten braking and suspension problems. l was rather amazed at the way the GSX would scream up to 130mph with only the mildest of back wheel weaves, down to the shot shock or worn Full Floater bearings.
Thus encouraged, I did make it through the tour winter months, doing about 7000 miles in all, mostly hard-core commuting, the weather too cold for pleasure riding; the fairing useless at protecting my body from the wind or rain. As spring came there was over 95000 miles on the clock, the motor still able to whirr into life on the starter with the same enthusiasm as when I bought the machine.
Another round of consumable replacement and dismantling of the back suspension occurred as soon as the weather improved. I had to get into the hammer and chisel routine to remove the linkages and swinging arm shaft. Years of crud covered the shock to the extent that l was surprised it still worked - well, it didn't actually work. The breaker came up with replacement bits for £75.
My motorcycling mates were all going on holiday, so I had no option but to tag along. This involved trying to keep the speedo above the ton for the maximum length of time. Oil consumption was running at about two litres every petrol stop (about 35mpg at those kinds of speed) which my friends found highly amusing. After a week of this madness I was nearly bald and had hands that turned a pint of beer to froth.
Something had to give. The GSX engine, with 98 thou up, warned me that it was going to die by putting out vicious vibes. I ignored them for as long as I could, then said goodbye to my mates, rode the 340 miles home in a day at a pace that wouldn't have had a C50 rider worried. The bike, to its eternal credit, didn‘t seize up solid until it was yards from my house when I'd given it a burst of revs in celebration. When I looked there was hardly any oil left in the sump, which had a crack running through it!
The breaker was willing to give me £250 for what was left of the wreck, or I could bung him 600 notes for a nearly new engine. By any sane account the GSX should've been scrapped, god knows it looked ratty enough to inspire no love. But somehow the creature had got into my heart and l consoled myself that there was not much else that I could buy for the money.
The fairing was by then so comprehensively wrecked, that after installing the motor, it proved impossible to put back on. The motor, being oil and air cooled, looks quite butch, so it took not much thought to work out that l should dump the plastic. Just removing the fairing brackets must've saved 20Ibs. After adapting some headlamp brackets, repainting the frame and fitting yet another dubious 4-1 exhaust, l was all set up for the summer.
The new motor went like stink, putting 140mph on the clock, the gearbox was amazingly slick and everything felt like silk after the old vibratory mill, which sulked in a corner of my garage. I later found little that was salvageable, suspected that it had gone around the clock more than once, the speedo not needing to be connected for racing.
The new turn of speed did show up some handling defects, the back tyre stepping out in bends under harsh acceleration and the bars twitching, just the once, in my hands when fervently backing off the throttle after finding myself suddenly going 25mph faster than i expected. Overall, though the bike felt transformed — considering that I replaced most of the parts, it wasn't that surprising!
The next six months were not trouble free. The fuel tank sprang a leak, soaked the engine in petrol and caused a minor panic in Central London when it caught alight. I lost my leather as I used it to damp out the flames, whilst a couple of peds went into screaming fits, figuring there was a terrorist incident going down. I saved the machine but had a lot of hassle from the plod, who came tearing out of nowhere; if there had not been so many people around they would probably have given me a vicious beating.
The other major problem was the drive chain calling it a day at about 75mph. Admittedly, l was down to removing a link every week, but the damn chains are eaten up in as little as 5000 miles. The chain threw itself off the sprockets, wrecking the chainguard and back of the engine casing. At least the back wheel had not locked up and thrown me off. By then I'd gotten wise enough to join the AA, who eventually took me home.
The engine I fixed with Plastic Metal, obviously a somewhat dubious repair that did not encourage me to do long distance trips but made sure I checked the oil level after every journey. I had never had to bother doing the valves on the old engine, but this one needed attention every 3000 miles; perhaps all the components hadn't worn into each other yet.
All things told, as the summer came to an end I was a bit pissed with the GSX, felt it didn't have much more to offer. Decided that after the winter I'd tart the rolling rat up and see what kind of price I could get, either as a straight sale privately or as a trade-in.
Autumn was a horror show. I fell off four times for no apparent reason. Two times it was just a bit of gravel rash, one time I twisted my ankle, the other burnt a hole in my thigh. The worst damage to the Suzuki was a bent pair of forks, which I had straightened. l started riding the bike like it was an accident looking for somewhere to happen, which was less than fun.
Come October I went wild, bought a new set of tyres for the first time. Metz's which gave a lovely secure feel even in the wet when the GSX was at its most treacherous. Didn't have any more accidents, but the engine kept cutting out in the more thunderous rainstorms. WD40 didn't make any difference. After nearly killing myself several times, I finally figured out that it was the kill switch shorting out.
Winter was no fun, again, even colder than before on the naked bike. One journey, my hands froze solid, lost all feel, messing up my clutch and throttle coordination. I either launched into massive wheelies or stalled the engine dead. Either way, it took years off my life. Two pairs of gloves helped but meant I couldn't operate any of the switches, even those not worn beyond their service limits.
Of course. the calipers seized up again and the tyres wore so rapidly that their secure feel was dissipated by the lack of tread remaining by the time February came around. l was so disenchanted with the Suzuki that l was tempted not to bother cleaning it up, but the sad state of my finances put paid to that apathy. Mid March, I was happy to see the last of the bike, selling it for £950 in a private sale, courtesy of MCN classifieds.
Don't be put off GSX600F's by this tirade. I bought mine in a bad state and most of the problems were down to that. The engine's undoubtedly tough, the handling's fine with newish suspension and the rapid consumable demise is par for the course in the 6000c superbike league. Fast it may be, but it is a little bland, lacking the edge of a CBR or FZR600 but for less than 2000 notes it's possible to buy a nice one.