Observations from the Road – Trading Up

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I knew Rodney Dickinson (name changed to protect the guilty), we had gone to church together for years and to be honest I had always thought he was a bit of a tool. Now he was at my door, hat in hand, asking about an old AMC Javelin I had in the driveway. No, he didn’t have any money but he had an old motorcycle. Would I be interested in a trade?

Despite my initial inclination to send his ass packing, I decided I had nothing to lose by listening. I had bought the old car on a foolish whim. Freshly returned from the sea, my pockets flush with the kind of cash that only a sailor can make, I had spotted the root beer brown Javelin at the back of a seedy little car lot on the outskirts of town and had purchased it in a fit of nostalgia. Less than three weeks later I had picked up another ship and headed to the far side of the world where I became embroiled in something that would eventually be called Operation Desert Storm and, when I returned several months later, I found the car sitting in my parents’ driveway on deflated tires looking for all the world like some sort of bad one-night stand who refuses to understand what you had was a short-term thing. I knew right away that the old car had to go and had put out the word.

Rodney was the first person to show up and, to be honest, I wasn’t really sure what to make of his offer. I already had a newer and very nice Kawasaki 550 Spectre in my garage, so I was against the idea of a bike trade. The truth was that I didn’t have much interest in owning more than one. Still, I realized his offer had merit. At the very least an ugly old bike could be hidden in a garden shed while an ugly old car could not. I looked out the door over his shoulder at the ugly brown lump in my driveway and, the more he talked, the more interested I became.

The bike, he told me, was an old touring rig, a 1978 Suzuki GS850G outfitted with a Vetter Windjammer fairing, a steel cargo rack and some other accessories. He said he had purchased it with the idea of accompanying his father, who rode a full-dress Harley-Davidson, on long road trips. New to motorcycles, however, Rodney soon found that the bike was too big and too heavy for him and he had promptly crashed it. It wasn’t a bad accident, but having been thrown from the horse, he found that he had no desire to get back onto it. He wanted out of the bike almost as badly as I wanted out of the car and so I agreed to take a look.

That afternoon, I took a trip into town where Rodney’s mother was more than willing to let me into the garage to examine the old bike. It was as it had been had described, a massive old Suzuki that had certainly seen better days and, compared to the almost new full dress Harley that it shared the space with, looked like a whipped dog. The Vetter faring had obviously taken the brunt of the crash and, in addition to a couple of missing pieces, it showed a patch of road rash along the side where it had kissed the pavement. A set of crash bars had sacrificed themselves to protect the fragile aluminum engine cases, and the steel cargo rack affixed to the bike’s tail had taken damage while the hard plastic piece beneath it escaped unharmed. It was hard to tell what else might be wrong, but the bike’s forks looked straight and it seemed to run well when I took it on a short test ride, so I decided to take a chance.

Working on a bike

Pvt. Pile gets to work on his new old GS850. He knew some day he’d be teaching his Gunny a lesson.

The next day, Rodney and I completed the paperwork and swapped our sets of keys. The old car was thankfully removed from my parents’ driveway and I retrieved the big Suzuki with my dad’s pick-up truck. Back in my own shop I gave the bike a thorough once over and decided to pull the damaged parts. With the Windjammer cast off and lying on the garage floor, I found that the bike was not as large as I had thought, big to be sure but not enormous, and as I had suspected it was in generally good condition. In fact, the more I worked, the better it looked, and over the next couple of days, I pulled off the old crash bars and the cargo rack before going on a parts buying binge.

I began by purchasing a long, flat handlebar that put me up and over the controls where I could muscle the big bike into and out of the corners with relative ease and followed that up by restoring all the lights to their original condition. I added a new seat skin to replace the ratty, old one that had been on the bike since it was new and decided to replace the old pitted twin exhaust pipes with a nice, new four-into-one Jardine header that fed into a period-correct megaphone muffler. The final addition was a pair of sticky new Metzelers.

Today, you might call the bike a “resto-mod,” an old bike with modern parts that essentially mimics the classic look of an older bike while allowing for more modern performance.

GS850 mid-restoration

Mid-restoration, the old GS850 begins to look like a proper ’70s Japanese “Superbike”.

Although it was heavy to push around the garage, I found that big Suzuki was well balanced and easy to ride at speed. On the backroads, the new tires combined with the old frame geometry and allowed the bike to hold virtually any line I demanded, and thanks to the big handle bars, very little muscle was required to tip the bike into a corner or lever it back out.

Though it took a few weeks to get the set-up just right, the bike I ended up putting together suited me so well that I kept it for almost a decade. Not bad for a whipped dog.

Rodney, it turns out, got a good deal as well. The old car cleaned up quite nicely and although several hundred dollars in repairs were required, once they were made the old Javelin turned into a stylish and reliable old ride. He used the car for a couple of years and I never heard a bad word said about the deal we reached.

If there is any truth to be found in this story, it’s that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Others may not have been able to look past the scarred fairing and the ground away crash bars to find the truly special bike that lay hidden beneath. I know that Rodney couldn’t see it any more than I could see it in the car, and I think about that every time I see some battered old bike on the street. Not all of them will find the special person who can bring them back to their former glory, but they all deserve it. Any one of us could be that guy. Don’t be afraid to try.


About the Author: Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for nine years, Jamaica for two and spent almost five years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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  • Steven Holmes

    I found one. a very nice ’81 Suzuki GN400tx (with the alloy wheels, not the spokes). Purrs like a kitten every time i kick over (literally) her single cylinder power plant. This First bike of mine is both my learner, and a restoration project.

    Couldn’t be happier.