From the archive: Made in Japan – Music to the ears! Suzuki’s GT550 triple

Steve Cooper fondly remembers Suzuki’s largest air-cooled two-stroke triple – the excellent but often overlooked GT550.

In recent discussion with one of this column’s readers, I was asked why on earth we hadn’t done a feature on probably the most overlooked Japanese classic of the 1970s – and the guy had a point, for how often do you read anything serious about Suzuki’s GT550?

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It’s generally one of those bikes that either gets overlooked or marginalised, and often for all the wrong reasons. It’s effectively eclipsed by its big brother, the GT750, and often perceived as a poor man’s version of it; or alternatively, simply because it isn’t a fire-breathing Kawasaki H1 Mach III, it’s somehow a lesser and significantly duller machine.

Knowing that the bikes sold well enough back in the day is good reason to take up the cudgels and argue the case for the forgotten triple.

Launched as part of the all new GT range back in 1972, the GT550 was, and remained, the largest of the air-cooled two-stroke triples from the Hamamatsu factory. From the outset it was obvious that Suzuki’s new middleweight hadn’t been conceived as a direct threat to the frankly berserk Kawasaki of similar capacity.

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A grand tourer in the real sense of the word, the Suzuki GT550 was aimed at a completely different market from the Kawasaki H1 triple.Suzuki GT550

The bike was physically taller than many of its peers, with the engine mounted relatively high in the chassis for ground clearance, but the choice of silencing delivered a real compromise.

Knowing the asymmetric 2+1 system was a Kawasaki trademark left Suzuki with little option but to run four pipes. The upper unit on each side was dedicated to their respective outer pots, whereas the smaller, lower, pair dealt with the output from the centre pot alone.

The reality of this unusual system was that it worked well enough, offered a unique rear end view and effectively gave the bike (and its siblings) the same bragging rights as for many a Honda, but unfortunately it also added a lot of low-slung width to the machine, further exacerbated by a centre stand that had to be commensurately wide in order to be accessible. With the latter hanging so far below the lower exhausts, grounding was always on the cards.

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Yet for the many fans the bike garnered over its life, this was never really an issue because the riding experience was so unlike that on little else of comparable capacity.

The bike delivered a very creditable 40ft/lb of torque at a lowly 6000 rpm, delivering creamy power with little if any genuine need to rev the bike. Likewise, the claimed 50bhp maximum power was delivered just 500rpm later, some 3000 revs fewer than in the case of Honda’s equivalent 500 Four.

Suzuki had set out to differentiate its middleweight from the opposition’s and, just like a well known DIY product, it did exactly what it said on the tin. The bike was a GT, a Grand Tourer with few if any overt sporting aspirations. It also majored on comfort, with a decently supportive saddle, reasonable handlebars and sensible foot pegs, all in tune with the GT image.

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To complete the ensemble of considered opulence, the GT550 was graced with an electric starter to give it a luxurious edge over its supposed marketplace rival.

To this day, the most controversial element of the GT550 has been its Ram-Air cylinder-head cowling that became the primary identifier of the entire air-cooled GT range. In essence it was nothing more than a lump of fancy pressed metal, but its alleged purpose was to funnel air across the cylinders’ heads, especially the centre one.

Debate continues to this day as to whether Suzuki’s ‘Ram Air System’ actually made any difference to the cylinder-head cooling.

The fact that equivalent Kawasakis didn’t have such a fitment was generally taken to mean that the alloy scoop was a styling affectation, yet there is also evidence to the contrary.

Several private tuners tried their own versions of the Ram-Air on other strokers and, perhaps surprisingly, got an extra safe 200rpm out of the engine which equated to some 5mph extra. Whether the unit was really necessary on a road bike was debatable, but it certainly made the GT550 stand out from the crowd.

In terms of appearance, the bike followed Suzuki’s corporate styling cues throughout its life, morphing from overt early 1970s faux-gauche chic through to restrained blandness in its old age.

Visually, the bike’s dotage delivered a middleweight whose appearance did little for sales figures, and only the cognoscenti really got it; you had to want and need a half-litre, multi-pot, middle-of-the-road, stroker by then.

Yet the earlier examples, offered in striking candy colour schemes with eye-catching graphics genuinely made the bike attractive.

Enthusiasts have often argued that Suzuki’s stylists were at the top of their game in the early-to-mid 1970s, and the GT550 is the perfect exemplar of their art.

The refined (by comparison) Suzuki GT550 poses with its much more berserk rival, Kawasaki’s H1 Mach III.

Aztec Gold, Redondo Blue, Candy Turquoise, Marble Scarlet and Star Dust Silver were all colour schemes that enhanced the bike’s wow factor. Flat blacks or mid blues, even with gold pinstripes, never had the same effect.

Unique to the 1972 J model was a curious restrained gunmetal grey paint scheme applied to the Ram-Air cowling and the outer engine cases.

This was dropped for the 1973 K models, which also adopted a single front disc brake. Suzuki had initially fitted a four-leading-shoe drum to both the 1972 J model GT750 and GT550.

On the 550 it worked acceptably well, but on the 750 it was simply overwhelmed by the bike’s mass. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that discs were both more efficient and substantially cheaper to manufacture.

Even when the writing was on the wall for two-strokes, Suzuki was still passionate about its middleweight triple.

For the late 1974 models, the company went out on a limb and fitted chrome-plated barrels. Fancifully calling the development SCEM, or Suzuki Composite Electro-Chemical Material, the company had opted to use a system last seen on series production machines such as Bridgestone’s lauded 350 twins around 1969.

The use of the system was odd to say the least, yet perhaps there was some logic to it, because the company had been investing heavily in chemical and electro-plating for its ill-fated RE5 Wankel-engined bike and perhaps genuinely saw advantages in plated cylinders and had spare capacity?

By the time the axe fell on the GT550 in 1977 though, it had become a slightly moribund middleweight with no real future for further purposeful development. Two-strokes were environmental pariahs, and Suzuki had a fleet of air-cooled four-strokes in the wings.

For many the later restrained styling of the GT550 wasn’t as appealing as those early candy colour schemes had been.

Four decades on, the GT550 provides an alternative view to larger-capacity two-stroke multis. It isn’t as fast or hairy as its most obvious rival, yet it’s arguably a better all-round machine because of that.

More reliable than Yamaha’s contemporary TX500, and less bland than Honda’s CB500/4, the GT550 can still provide huge grins.

The unique exhaust note is something to savour in a Euro-harmonised society, and from any angle the bike is drop-dead gorgeous.

Oh, and if you are happy to ride it with a 1970s mindset, it still provides exactly what its makers intended – easily accessible Grand Tourer capability.

Suzuki GT550, overshadowed or underrated: discuss!

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