The GSX-R 750 was a revolutionary motorcycle when Suzuki introduced Japan’s first race replica in 1985. It was lightweight, air-oil cooled and fast as hell. And unlike Italian counterparts of the era, it was reliable. The conservative, upright Universal Japanese Motorcycle’s era was ending and this full-fairing sportbike looked like the future.
When the aluminum-framed GSX-R 750 reached U.S. shores the next year, it weighed in at just 388 pounds dry. That was about 70 pounds less than competing 750s like the Kawasaki Ninja or the Yamaha FZ750. At 10,500 RPMs, the Suzuki churned out 106 horsepower. And it just oozed race bike coolness. For a kid in the 1980s, a poster of the GSX-R was the two-wheeled bedroom wall rival to the Lamborghini Countach—hung in a rakish diagonal manner, naturally.
But if you’re old enough to have had one of those posters, you might be hoping to make childhood dreams a reality. And since you probably can’t afford the Lamborghini, now’s a good time to start looking for an early GSX-R.
The first generation of these bikes were flogged hard and, yes, crashed. And most owners were thinking less about preserving their bikes as future classics than about tearing up the track or their favorite back road.
I went to visit Chris Perkins, who has owned about 200 GSX-Rs, to learn more about what makes these bikes great, why you need one in your garage and how to get one there.
Perkins, whose GSX-R Only shop is located near Clermont in central Florida, was inspired to start working on the bikes after a spirited day of hard riding and stoppies left him with leaking front forks.
He was riding home when he spotted a cop, hit the brakes and lost control of the bike.
“I was laying there and cop’s telling me, ‘Don’t go anywhere.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t think I’m going anywhere right now,’” Perkins said. “The bike was all mangled, and he had the common courtesy of dropping the ticket right on my chest in the emergency room.”
Recovering from that 1990 wreck, Perkins decided to make a change.
“I figured out that I was on the wrong side of the counter,” he said. “I just started buying basically everything oil cooled.”
(This Q&A with Chris Perkins has been edited for length and clarity.)
JALOPNIK: What’s the appeal of working on Suzukis?
CHRIS PERKINS: To me Suzuki is the Chevy of motorcycles. And I’m not a Chevy guy, I’m a Mopar guy. For the guys who do the Chevys, everything mixes and matches. Same thing with the Suzukis. You don’t have to weld anything. All my tricks are basically with Suzuki parts. I’m not an engineer, I don’t have an R&D department. I might take some liberties that might put me in the slower-than-stock class with no air box and shit like that. But you’ve got to do what you go to do.
J: What’s the process when you get one in the shop?
CP: I take them down to the bare frame. I always get the forks done, I always get the fork seals done. From that crash, that was the lesson. We learn a lesson in everything we do.
J: Why are prices going up?
CP: They’re coming [up] because they’re gone. We’re seeing them starting to bring some money. A lot of them are being snapped up. There’s not many of them out there – they were raced. If that thing tips over, I can tell you what’s going to happen to it: The lowers will crack. The upper, that wind thing, that cracks and you usually get the left side of the tank. Just from a tip-over. That’s why the inventor of those sliders made a fortune because it saves all that bodywork. Thank God I plastic weld. There’s no aftermarket.
J: What parts are especially hard to come by?
CP: The tanks get dented they don’t want them back on the market, so they crush them and get rid of them. That tank was $749 new. Try to find one now. It’s just impossible. A lot of the mechanicals are still there, but the fairings are the tough part. And headlights, when those headlights fall, all those little parts on the back break.
J: Do you take the bikes out for rides once they’re done?
CP: They’re built to ride, but for me it’s a discipline not to. Because it’s an investment for me to build and sell these things. I’d love to have more money than God, and go out and flog the shit out of these things. Though I wouldn’t abuse them. I learned you can only have so much. If I’m burning up tires and chains on these, then I won’t have the money to finish other projects. I think that’s what happens when people go down the wrong road.
J: Do you take restoration assignments or do you just build and sell what suits you?
CP: I don’t work for too many customers because I have my own way of doing things. And one of those things is the fork issue. Carburetors are coming off. I tried working for somebody that had a CBR1100XX, and the solution was an expensive solution, and he said, no, just do this. … When I want to do something, I want to do it right. So it’s very difficult for me to work for someone else.
J: How do you get the bikes to get the right look?
CP: I try to keep as many of the stickers as possible, but you’ve got to paint it because there’s no way to match the color. You have to paint it to make it look good. I started teaching myself how to paint after many, many failed promises. Just out of the necessity after I went through all the trials and tribulations, I learned it’s all about the prep of the materials. There’s no shortcut to quality.
J: On your website you have a bike 1992 GSX-R with distinctive neon pink and blue tiger-stripe pattern that was wrecked an hour after the customer took delivery. What happened?
CP: That bodywork was hard to find, because after 1992 came and went, people said I don’t like this neon bodywork, so they would peel that off and repaint it. I finally sourced it and sold it to this guy, a Harley rider. I get a call on it later and he said I put that thing in first gear, did the whiskey throttle, the bike went over, took out the side, got the tank, got the upper. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me, dude?’ It was a 750 and he had 1300 Harley and thought, jeez, this was going to be nothing. He got a lesson.
I said I’d take it back and fix it for you, but it’s gonna be expensive. And he just said, ‘Nah, I’ll just ride it the way it is.’ You can’t get emotionally attached to these things. What you think of them doesn’t really matter, it’s the dude who spends the money and takes it away. Whether he’s going to stunt it or smash the tank down and stand on it, whatever. It’s out of my control.
J: What’s your advice to people buying your bikes?
CP: We always gear up. You’re lying to yourself if you say ‘Oh, I’m only going up the street, I won’t go over 30 mph.’ Bullshit. Second gear, you’re on the fucking back wheel, and you’re going 110 mph, and you’ve got flip-flops on and nylon fucking shorts. Where are you going?
Jalopnik’s Reviews Editor Andrew Collins actually owns a 1991 GSX-R himself (though sadly not in the neon-tiger livery) and had some insights about riding and owning one.
J: Why did you buy an early GSX-R?
ANDREW COLLINS: A friend and I were casually strolling through the offerings at a salvage auction at a sleazy bike dealership, just sightseeing, when I saw this thing. I actually didn’t know what it was. Well, it’s hard to miss the gigantic “GSX-R 750" stickers but I was too young to have appreciated the thing when it was new. But it didn’t matter, it looked like a something a superhero would ride; as soon as I knew it existed it became the quintessential sport bike to me.
I think the roundness, particularly the round headlights, are key to the endurance of this design’s appeal. The thing’s obviously old but unless you have that neon-tiger graphic it really doesn’t look “dated.” Well, at least from the front quarter.
Of course, the one in that salvage yard was pretty bent and janky under its casually shined-up plastics. Most of which were bent and cracked. The thing had a salvage title, high mileage, and had obviously been seriously wrecked at least once. It wasn’t a good bike to buy. I totally didn’t care.
This was 2011, I had just graduated college and was living with my mom again. I actually hid it from her for weeks in a friend’s garage. She’ll be stoked to hear my investment might pay off if these things really are getting valuable!
J: What’s it like to ride?
AC: It’s extremely aggressive. With a good carb cleaning and fresh lube the thing will explode under hard throttle. The kind of speed that makes your eyes water. Twist hard and the thing just rips, everything goes blurry, because your eyeballs are being vibrated, and your guts get left behind at the last stoplight.
The seating position it low and far forward. You sit in the thing, not on it, with a lot of your body weight ending up on your hands. The ergonomics are excellent for hard-charging and pretty miserable for long hauls.
About one to two hours, if you take a break in between, is a good GSX-R ride. Much longer than that and your hands start hurting so bad you start dreading every clutch pull. I rode mine from Boston to New York once. One of the most physically brutal motorcycling experiences I’ve had. And I’ve ridden all the way across Australia three times.
J: How reliable has it been?
AC: Mine’s not really a great example of a well-maintained machine, hell it was the embodiment of “cautionary tale” when I picked it up. So I’ve had weird issues. It used to hate starting, but going through the carburetors sorted that out. One time it literally just shut down at 60 mph and I never figured out why. After getting towed home I jiggled and contact-cleanered every electronic connection and eventually... it just came back to life. You can see I run a real precise scientific method in my garage.
J: Any advice to someone looking to buy one?
AC: It’s really fun to ride hard, looks cool, and is mechanically simplistic, so yeah, it makes sense that the value of these are creeping up. I’ll be honest and say I bought mine in 2011, spent two seasons tinkering with it, had two really great riding seasons and then kind of lost interest in riding it.
It’s just that going slow on it is kind of painful, physically and emotionally, and I can’t afford speeding tickets so riding it’s a bit of a tease. It’s really not that fun to ride at 30 mph, you live for the moments you can snap to the speed limit.
That said, this article is rekindling my love for the thing. I haven’t ridden it in over a year, it’s been in semi-permanent winterization mode in my grandma’s garage in New York since I moved to LA. I was just going to mount it on my wall eventually, but now I might have to rebuild it properly and give it the second, or third, lease on life it deserves.