There's a motorcycle in there…somewhere!
It was September of 2016. I was perusing FaceBook when this jumped out at me: “1978 Suzuki GS550E. Free with clean title. Has been disassembled for over 10 years, stored, 90% complete. Hoped to restore it but no time.…Orange Park, FL…”
I watched the ad and was surprised when I saw no one take up the offer. I knew “free” is often not really free when it comes to old bikes; many times the cost of resurrecting them is more than the cost of buying a running one. But I had been riding my Triumph to most of the VJMC events I was covering and often felt out of place. I did have a1968 Honda CB350, and even had ridden it on long distance rides sometimes to events, but those rides could in no way be considered “comfortable.”
A Japanese 550cc machine would allow me to ride to events further away much more easily than the Honda and would help me fit in better with all the other vintage bikes at those rallies. I read up on the GS model and found it to be considered a rock-solid bike and comfortable as well. With my Bonnie ready for extended adventures and my Honda available for closer events, I would not have to be in a hurry to get the bike assembled and running, and I could take my time and do what I could when time and money allowed. And Orange Park was not far, just southwest of Jacksonville.
I kept watching the ad, and still no one was snatching it up. I decided. I picked up the phone and called and the number in the ad.
“Yes, the bike is still available, yes, it has a clear title.”
“I’ll be there next Saturday to pick it up.”
Saturday, my brother and I set out in my dad’s pickup truck, bound for Jacksonville, which was the start of a “running-on-empty” kind of story full of mishaps and our possible demise, but that’s another story…
Arriving in the owner’s driveway we were faced not by the meticulously organized parts of an old bike, but by an empty frame on two loosely connected wheels and bars, the core of a motor, two rusty and dented tanks, the wiring harness looking like a spine ripped from some kind of beast, another set of forks, and seven or so boxes of parts, filled hastily in no particular order. Not only were the parts randomly distributed among the boxes, but the boxes contained, randomly distributed of course among the 550 parts, a multitude of parts from other model GSes, Yamahas, Hondas, and even a Volkswagen Rabbit I was told. The task would be daunting, but I could take all the time I wanted. There was not an urgent need to get it on the road. Money was tight (and would become even tighter as time went on) but I could spend when I could and not when I couldn’t. It would take a long time, but that was not an issue.
I was handed the Florida title, already signed over by the previous owner to the one I was picking it up from. We loaded the frame and parts into the back of the little S-10 and drove away.
Close-Ups like this of Matt's bike really helped when assembling the bike
Back at home, I slid all the boxes and parts into the garage and looked over what I had. I took the valve cover off and looked inside the top end; everything looked like new and the motor would turn over; I was a bit more enthusiastic. As luck would have it, I was soon at Hap’s Open House in Sarasota, where the VJMC was participating in the bike show. There, to my surprise, was a same-year GS550e, owned by Matt Celender, who is now our Display Ad Director. Matt was very accommodating and took stuff off so I could photograph the bike and all its part actually together properly. Those photos would be a big help identifying what went with the bike and what belonged to something else.
Slowly, I sorted out all the stuff I was sure did not belong to the GS and deposited it all in another box. This bike was going to be my rider, not a show bike, so after thinking about the cost of powder coating the frame and other bits, I easily convinced myself that rattle-can paint would do. I sandblasted the worst off the frame and primed and painted it black. Next came getting the motor back in and all its carbs, which luckily were all there and in good shape, requiring only a thorough cleaning and gaskets.
Not everything was there; I was missing a regulator, a good front fender (although I had one to…something), battery, left side cover, kickstand (there but broken), emblems, correct mirrors, and surprisingly not much more. Luckily, much of the OEM stuff was still available from Suzuki and just as cheap as eBay (or less), and I could budget me expenditures when finances allowed and would not put a strain on the family finances.
Little by little, week after week and month after month, the bike started coming together and began to look like a motorcycle. The engine went it easily enough, after studying the photos I had taken of Matt’s bike, and only required removing a couple mounts and swapping their positions. In went the airbox (I had two, but luckily, they were identical, so I chose the one in best condition). I cleaned the carbs thoroughly, despite their already appearing clean, and replaced rubber parts and float bowl gaskets. Then I struggled to get the bank of four in between the intakes and airbox—something that was probably pretty easy when the bike was new and all the rubber was soft and pliable as it was assembled in the factory, but which now became a Herculean task of pinched fingers, levers, and cuss words. Finally, the “pop” was felt as each carb seated into their intake boots and everything was tightened up.
The engine fired right up instantly upon thumbing the starter button on August of 2017. My friend, Toby, came over with carb balancing gauges and got everything running perfectly, while I watched and learned. I did all the stuff one normally does: rebuilt brake cylinders and calipers, installed new tires, new chain, front sprocket, recovered seat, and installed new cables. It was a pain finding the correct fasteners in literally a pile of mixed fasteners, but eventually it all got done.
GS550e in original colors with "patina"
Seven-inch headlight lens, ready for a LED replacement for a H-4 bulb
Along the way, I made some upgrades. I ordered a set of stainless brake lines from Moto-Services. Knowing how pitiful old Japanese headlight beams were and how little output was to be had from vintage alternators, I also ordered a seven-inch headlight lens, but instead of a halogen bulb, installed a LED H-4 replacement bulb for less draw and a much brighter beam. But the best improvement I made by far was in the rear suspension. With the original shocks the bike’s handling was springy and disconcerting and squirrelly in curves. I installed modern Ikon shocks, and the difference was night and day. The ride was firmer but still comfortable, and when taking curves, the bike felt planted and inspired confidence. The bike proved later to be a great mountain riding bike. At the time, I could not afford anything more than the economy models, but they delivered, and I can only imagine what the step up to the premium shocks would have done. The upgrade convinced me to replace the fork springs with progressives, also from Ikon, in the future. One other future “upgrade” I want to make is replacing the fixed footpegs that is standard on the e model with a set of folding pegs from the n model.
Ikon shocks next to original
Finally, I began the tank work. There were two tanks, but luckily, the one with the rusted interior was wrong and I turned to the other. Inside it looked good, but I used Evapo Rust to make sure all the rust was gone, then removed all the paint, knocked out the dents as best I could, puttied the rest, and sprayed on primer then paint, followed by a clear coat. It was all Rustoleum rattle-can, so I knew it would not hold up to gas if spilled on it, but I’d just have to be careful, and besides, this bike would be a rider. The tank work was much more difficult due to a recent eye injury (my son sent a baseball line drive directly into my eye socket, breaking the bones around it and impacting the eye before I could even blink—but what a hit! It would have made it to the fence if I had not stupidly got in its way!), leaving me blind, at least temporarily, in one eye. I didn’t know at the time I was not supposed to lean over or do anything strenuous, like run a sander for hours, but I got it done. As each coat went on the tank, so did the same for the other painted parts. I chose a metallic black for the color.
Tank ready for paint
By October, I was far enough along to warrant moving the title to my name and registering the bike for the road, and by December the GS was ready to ride.
I started out with little rides nearby home of a hundred miles or less. When those went well, I rode it to Eustis for its first VJMC event in March 2018. Next, was a little farther to do a group vintage bike ride out of Crystal River in April. By then, I had confidence in my GS and was ready to tackle something bigger. (see Part Two)
GS to Canada
In June, I climbed onboard my 1978 GS550e and headed north from Florida, bound for southern Indiana and the VJMC National Rally at Spring Mill State Park.
The first day the bike performed flawlessly, providing much more comfort than my little CB350 would have. I landed at my friend’s house west of Valdosta, some 260 miles from home. The fuel mileage proved about the same as my modern Bonneville, at around 45 MPG. Frequent checks proved nothing to worry about and my confidence grew with every mile.
I next made my way to Lafayette, Georgia, where a fellow ADVRider offered me a place to stay above his shop. From there, was a long slog northwest to the rally through Tennessee and Kentucky with rain dogging me all the way to my crossing of the Ohio River. Arriving at the rally, I set up my tent and joined the fun at the inn for the rest of the day.
The rain returned the next day, and I was offered a cancelled room at the inn. I left my tent where it was and moved my stuff to a dry room. I got busy working and joined the activities and some of the group rides. The warm camaraderie of my fellow members didn’t seem at all dampened by the weather. Sunday morning, I returned to my tent, packed, and headed out. Another VJMC event, The Hagerty Ride, was set for the 28th in the northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula, so I had a few days before heading there to do some more photography. I headed north to the South Bend area, finally in clear weather, to meet up with old high school friends and spend a couple relaxed days in the area in which II had grown up. Again, the GS ran flawlessly through the green corn fields of Indiana.
The GS parked in front of my old high school, Brandywine, in Niles, Michigan
On the 27th, I headed north into Michigan and towards Caberfae Peaks, where the VJMC group would be. It was such a pleasure to be riding in Michigan again after so many years. The Hagerty Ride was great fun, and we had the added bonus of an air show by the Blue Angels while downtown at the Hagerty headquarters.
Downtown Traverse City, Michigan, with overhead visitors at the Hagerty headquarters
After the event, I headed a little further north to Boyne Falls, where my high school Spanish teacher was living, having finished the working part of my ride. It was only a hundred miles away so I couldn’t resist catching up with the woman who had given me a three-year introduction to the Spanish language and had always been one of my favorite teachers. At Thumb Lake, I spent a wonderful day with Joan and her beautiful family, taking a boat ride on the Lake and enjoying wine and conversation through the evening.
At Joan’s I was so far north and so close to Canada that I decided I would keep going. I headed toward Petoskey and the “Tunnel of Trees,” as MI 119 was called, which wrapped along the shore of Lake Michigan all the way to the Mackinac Bridge. Being the wrong time of the year for the complete tunnel-effect, it was still an entertaining ride twisting past the trees close to the side of the road. After a quick photo op on the south side of the bridge, I rode to Sault Saint Marie and the Canadian border. I followed the north shore of Georgian Bay, between Lakes Superior and Huron, until turning inland on the Tans Canada Highway toward North Bay, where another ADVRider was waiting with a hot meal and a bed for the night.
Photo op at south end of the Mackinac Bridge
The following day it was time to head south, so the I turned toward Niagara Falls. The ride south was pleasant until I caught up with the traffic jammed up on Queen Elizabeth Way between Hamilton and the falls. At Niagara, on the Canadian side and in thick traffic and with apparently no parking spaces left, found myself lucky to be on a motorcycle. I jumped the curb and found a tiny space under a traffic light, steps from the overlook. I negotiated the crowds for some quick photos and was impressed by how un-impressive the falls looked, but upon further inspection I noticed the actually quite large boats negotiating the mist under the falls looking like tiny toys floating below. Back at the bike, I jumped down the curb and into traffic. A ride of only a couple blocks was followed by an unusually painless border crossing back into the States, with a wait behind only one car.
Niagara Falls, Canadian side
I rode south through New York, stopping at a motel in Salamanca. I had been following US 219 all the way from Buffalo and continued on it through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, stopping at another motel at Marlinton, where I spotted other riders relaxing in front of their room. I wandered over and the rest of the evening was spent drinking beer and talking bikes and about the phenomenal twisty riding on 219 in West Virginia we had all used to “round our tires.”
The next day, I followed US 219 south to Bluefield, WV, where I started looking for alternative routes to avoid traffic near Pigeon Forge. I’ve attended two VJMC National Rallies there, and while the riding surrounding it was phenomenal, the traffic in the city was unbearable. I decided on a route east of Gatlinburg, crossed the Smokies on US 441, and rode on to Cleveland, Georgia, where I camped at Serendipity Park. Serendipity is a nudist resort, but if you have the nerve to bare it all, you might find these places, which are dotted all around the country, as handy camping and resting spots. I have always met friendly people at these resorts, and they usually have nice campgrounds and often cabins to rent, pools, hot tubs, nature areas to walk, and on occasion, a restaurant or bar or both. The cost to camp is perhaps $20 more than a regular basic campground as well (grounds fee). They’re not for everybody, but if you have a wild impulse and don’t mind going native, you might really enjoy yourself at one.
On the way down that day the bike had started acting strangely. The turn signals quit working, and eventually, the electric-start failed. I was glad to have a kickstart.
The next day my trouble really began. While the bike ran fine, the same was happening again, until I could hardly even start the bike with the kickstarter. I cursed myself for not checking the water in the battery and probably having ruined it by running it dry. By Gainesville, Georgia, things were getting critical, and of course, it was Sunday. I spied an open Advanced Auto Parts and checked my options. The only battery available that would fit and that was already charged was lithium-ion. I didn’t want to spend that kind of money but had no choice, and consoled myself that when I got home I could use it in the Bonnie. The counter guy loaning me some tools, I slipped the old out and the new in. I thumbed the starter, and the GS came to life and ran like new.
I continued south, stopping for the night at my friend’s place in Valdosta again, having ridden !-75 from Macon to save time. The bike handled the interstate speeds with no trouble, and I arrived early in the afternoon, in time to share steaks and conversation with my friend and her brothers, who also live in the area and who I knew from high school.
I said my goodbyes and pointed the bike toward home, again opting for the interstate most of the way. I pulled into the Good Spot, the local watering hole two miles from home, for a celebratory beer, as is my habit before arriving home after long trips, and called Andrea to meet me there. When I went back out, I hit the starter. Nothing. We ran home, picked up a charger, hooked it up, and came back later. The bike re-awoke, and I rode it the final short ride home.
I rode over 4,440 miles, and the only time the GS had failed me completely was two miles from home. I was lucky. Later I discovered a bad rectifier (maybe shaken to death by the frost heaves on the New York roads?). It was a simple job to fix and inexpensive, and now the GS is back up and running like it should again.
Since the Canadian trip, I’ve ridden the GS to the Barber Vintage Festival in Birmingham, Alabama, (a ride of about a thousand miles) with no more issues. I even had a few laps on the racetrack. They were only parade laps, so I could not pass or roll on the throttle, but the GS was chomping at the bit the entire time for me to give her more, while reveling in the corners, which were fun, even at parade speed, especially as I was riding it in the upper rev ranges, like all these old Japanese bikes were meant to be ridden!
Track time on the Barber track!