Forgotten Fours

Neither the CBX750 Honda or GS850 Suzuki sold that well in their day. Nor do they stir the emotions of many classic bike enthusiasts. However. they both have their good points and demand similar prices. So which of these forgotten fours should you go for?

Neil Murray investigates.

Some bikes just never make it. If you think of a Honda across-the-frame four you tend to think of the classic sohc CB750. Think dohc Suzuki aircooled four stroke and your mind turns to the GS750 or GS1000. Brows furrow at the mention of the CBX750, though someone might say: “They’re all right, I suppose.”

Let slip you’ve got a GS850 and as sure as eggs is eggs another soul will comment on how heavy the brute is and in the next breath add: “Nice engine though.”

Both bikes have a small but significant following among a hard core of enthusiasts who recognise that the virtues of these machines far outweigh their faults. Neither bike sold in vast numbers, so the shortish secondhand supply ensures that prices are kept reasonably high. For a nice CBX750 or GS850, you’re still looking at £1500.

You had to feel sorry for Honda when the CBX appeared. The VF750 had just ruined the company’s reputation for reliability and, all of a sudden in 1984, this strange slim bike appeared with the letters CBX that didn’t so much hark back to the classic six, but recalled memories of the recent 550 and its appetite for camchain tensioners.

People looked at it, yawned slightly, perused the price tag, which was £500 more than a GPz750 (£2880 versus £2399) and headed for the Kawasaki dealer.

Those who fancied a four with a few more flashy bits bought the new Suzuki GSX750EF, which had a full fairing, square section frame tubes (at least, the bits you could see were square) and brilliant suspension. At £2749 it was pricier than the Kawasaki but still cheaper than the Honda.

Shame, really, because the Honda had a lot going for it. Its hydraulic tappets meant a maintenance free top end, and with 80 odd horsepower going through the rear wheel it was every bit as fast as the GPz. As time went by it didn’t break. Some bikes needed a mod to the alternator drive chain (the alternator sits behind the block, piggy back style), but that was about it. Still, nobody bought them and two years later the model was dropped.

But then the engine appeared in the 750 Nighthawk sold in the States and in the CB750 sold here. And those didn’t break either. And people noticed that CBX750s with 50,000 miles on the clock were still whizzing around while the Kawasakis had all been stuffed into hedges and the Suzukis were in breakers with terminally fritzed ignition and charging systems. And they started buying them again.

People ignored the GS850 when it appeared in 1979, but for different reasons. The GS750 was sportier; the GS1000 sportier still. At 120mph plus the GS850 was no slouch, but it was no quicker than the GS750. The extra weight of the 850 told against it – with a gallon of fuel on board, it weighed 5801bs making it heavier than the GS1000.

So why buy it? Well, the shaft drive was excellent and the 4.8 galIon tank gave a decent range, even with the Suzuki’s voracious thirst (35mpg; 40 if you were lucky). And it was super-comfortable. The extra torque of the 850 engine made it exceptionally easy to ride. As a tourer, it had a lot going for it.

Trouble was, so did many other bikes. Yamaha’s XS750 and 850 also had shaft drive and were, on paper, better bikes (the reality of the XS’s mechanical defects had yet to sink in).

BMW’s R80 was only slightly slower and a far better bike -but BMWs were out of reach for most motorcyclists then. For a few extra quid there was the new Kawasaki Z1000ST: another tank, but a fast one. And then there was the Honda CX500 – only a 500, but probably even better as a touring bike than the Suzuki.

Time passed, and Suzuki changed the carbs from slide to CV, but otherwise didn’t update the GS850 at all. They dropped the 850 from the range in the early 1980s, only to bring it back in 1985 as a bargain – basement option.

The later model shed a few pounds (though nobody knows where from, except that the kick-start vanished) and got a very subtle restyle on the panels, plus other minor changes like drilled discs (maybe a few ounces shed there as well?). Hardly anybody bought it in 1985 either, and a couple of years later Suzuki kissed goodbye to the GS850 for good.

Except that, like the CBX750, word had got around that the GS850 was unbreakable. Sure, it was a huge heavy beast, but tales of riders clocking up 60, 70-thousand or even 100,000 miles abounded. Long-distance couriers bought the GS850. Other customers included people whose build was on the, er, generous size. Just like the Honda CBX750, what had once been a bike that nobody wanted became a bike that was in demand among the cognoscenti.

Peter works for an electrical wholesaler and is fairly new to motorcycling. He passed his test in 1996, and then ran around on a Honda CB250RS (brilliant bike…) before buying a nice clean Honda CB750FA (not so brilliant…) that got nicked. With the insurance pay-out he bought this immaculate 23,000-mile CBX750 for £1500.

I have to say that the CBX750 didn’t really move me. It’s commendably narrow, but the riding position is a bit perched-on-top (it suits Peter, but then he’s six feet two). You’re leaning nicely forward and the footrests are well placed, although the rubber safety tang on the side stand is irritatingly close to the gear lever.

What left me cold was the engine. You really have to rev the hell out of it. There’s precious little power below 7000rpm so you need the six-speed box (the Kawasaki GPz750 made do with five). The general feeling is just, well, I reckon you’d call it gutless low down the rev range and antiseptic higher up.

Peter says it feels a hell of a lot quicker than his old CB750FA and I suppose it must be (never ridden that one, I’m afraid), but like so many Hondas of those days, it’s all a bit clinical. There’s little mechanical noise and no nice rasp from the exhaust like you get on a Kawasaki of the same era. Even the GS850 has more character in its sound: a sort of whizzy jangly sound.

The CBX stonks up to 110mph easily enough and the little screen gives more protection than you’d think. The 16-inch front wheel is one of those ideas which wasn’t as good as it sounds. It works well enough on the CBX because the bike was designed for it, and the steering is very light, if (like the engine) rather remote.

There’s an insubstantial feel about the fairing and instrument panel. The facia looks cheap and the volt-meter and fuel gauge bounce around a bit. The layout is beyond reproach though; rev counter right in front of you and a neat array of warning lights. It closely resembles the console fitted to the VF750F.

You can’t complain about the brakes – tandem pistons on the front pull you up very smartish.

Overall, if you want dead reliable day-in day-out transport, this could be the bike for you. Some bikes had a few problems with the drive chain to the generator and clutch slip isn’t unknown (Honda fitted one of those anti-lock-up one-way clutch thingies and had to drop a couple of plates to fit it in) but generally, they’re utterly safe used buys. Unlikely ever to get the blood fizzing through the veins, though.

Now the Suzuki. Well, first off, there was no way this one could be caned, even for a short distance, because the clutch called it a day at 6000rpm. Interestingly, the same thing happened to Bike’s test GS850 in May 1979 and again later that year when a journalist took a GS850 to Ireland, so it obviously isn’t an isolated fault. The huge weight of the 850 is presumably to blame.

I have to confess I like GS850s. That seat is wonderful, and as long as you fit some sort of weather protection you can ride them all day. Back in 1985 I rode one from London to Glasgow for a long weekend and had a stiff neck for 48 hours afterwards. The engine isn’t rubber mounted and doesn’t have any fancy balancer shafts, so it’s a bit… well, jangly, as I said. Curiously, it doesn’t feel harsh. You just know that down there there’s an engine doing whatever it is engines do. For that reason, the GS has character.

Mechanically, it’s basically a GS750 that’s been bored out (the stroke is the same at 56.4mm). The bit of the gearbox that turns the drive round for the shaft actually runs in its own oil bath, like Yamaha’s XS triples, rather than being lubricated by the sump oil. The shaft coupling is a Hookes type rather than the more common UJ. And that’s it.

It’s also amazingly torquey and will pull from 20mph in top. If there’s one bike that doesn’t need a digital gear indicator (but has one all the same) it’s the 850. The GS’s flexibility is brilliant. It doesn’t accelerate as hard as you might like because it’s lugging around so much weight.

Handling – ah, well, there’s the rub. It doesn’t, basically. The owner has fitted a Micron fork brace to the one we are looking at here, and although he swears it isn’t binding, it felt as if it was to me. GSs have too much weight, too high up, to go round fast corners. Not that this matters that much, because the bike’s home territory is motorway, with the destination 500 miles away at the other end of it.

The brakes aren’t up to the standard of the Honda’s either. Stainless steel hoses would help, but whereas the Honda has tandem-piston calipers the Suzuki just has single- piston sliding jobbies, and you have to live with them.

The owner, bought his GS850 in March 1999, having sold a Kawasaki ZX9 to buy it. I know. Well, not everyone likes plastic rockets, do they? He had bikes in his youth, having passed his test on a BSA C11 in 1958, and then after a 32-year layoff, made a comeback with a lovely little Guzzi V50, a Matchless G3, a Honda VF1000F2 and a Honda CB750F2 (the new one, not the old sohc model) before he bought the ZX9.

The GS was basically in sound nick, but all the alloy had corroded slightly. He stripped off the lacquer and polished it up. Mechanical faults amounted only to an oil leak from the tacho drive where the cable had been incorrectlv fitted in the cam cover. What looks like an oil cooler is in fact a home-made cover for the horns, and I think it looks naff, but there you go.

In this sort of condition, the GS is worth maybe £1800 on a good day. Chris thinks more, but I disagree. I wouldn’t pay two grand for it because there are a lot of other bikes around at that price point. But it’s held its value well, considering it sold for £1795 when it was introduced.

So which would I go for? Let’s bear in mind that I have plenty of knowledge and experience of GS850s and only a brief squirt on a CBX750 for comparison.

For all that, it wouldn’t be the Honda. Sure, it’s got a brilliant reputation for solidity and it out-performs, out-handles and out-brakes the Suzuki, but it didn’t stir my red corpuscles at all. Even if I needed a bike simply for dependable transport plus some weekend use I couldn’t buy one. Sorry, but there it is. It’s a very efficient consumer durable, but that’s all it is.

The Suzuki? Well, yes, if I was doing a lot of mileage, I’d consider it. I wouldn’t have one as my only bike. I’d need something smaller and lighter for commuting and town use and ideally I’d have something sporty as well for the occasional loon.

But if I wanted to trundle down to the Bol D’Or, or off to Scotland again for a weekend, it’d be on the short list. It’s a long way from perfect but somehow you respect it for its faults because its good points (big heart, big tank, big seat) stand out so. Nothing really stands out on the Honda which is why I think that, given the test of time, the GS850 has weathered better than the CBX.

Classic & Motorcycle Mechanics – July 1999