20 years ago in the late 1990s the motorcycle consumer was very different to today. Across Britain and Europe the sportsbike was king, and a mad horsepower war was being waged across all categories, from learner-friendly 125 race replicas to the one-litre class. Then in 1997 Suzuki launched the TL1000S, one of the most extreme and unexpected motorcycles of that era, it became profoundly influential, though not in the way Suzuki hoped.
The ’90s were a transitional period in the motorcycle industry. Japanese brands were only just beginning to witness serious competition from European names. Triumph and BMW had reinvented themselves and began clawing upwards. On the dirt, KTM was starting to win big, while on track Ducati was dominating the World Superbike Championship and stealing prestige from the Japanese brands.
Suzuki were selling lots of GSX-R models, but tastes were changing. Thanks to it’s deep baritone sound and thumping sensation on the throttle, Ducati V-twins became desirable and aspirational, compared to the smooth wail of the inline four cylinder Japanese bikes, which suddenly seemed boring.
Suzuki decided to try a new recipe, mixing together decades of experience in state-of-the-art chassis design with an all new, high performance V-twin. What came from that experiment was not only one of my personal all-time favourite sportsbikes, but a motor that would provide the world with some of the most popular and game-changing motorcycles of the past 15 years.
The most surprising thing about the TL1000 was that it was totally unexpected. In 1995, Ducati was taken over by new American owners who began an aggressive international marketing campaign which would make the Italian brand and it’s V-twin superbikes a household name. Exploiting the 33% displacement advantage that World Superbike rules allowed for two cylinder motorcycles, they publicly humiliated the much bigger and better funded Japanese establishment.
Honda had made it known that it was working on it’s own 1000cc V-twin superbike, unveiling it in August of 1997 as the VTR Firestorm (Super Hawk in the US). A racing homologation special, the VTR SP1 (RC-51 in the US) was to follow and challenge Ducati domination on the track. What no one saw coming was Suzuki’s stunning entry into the V-twin superbike fray. Launched literally weeks after the Honda, the TL1000S represented a total break from Suzuki tradition, a company that had made it’s GSX-R line the standard for four cylinder sport motorcycling.
Like the Ducati 916, the Suzuki TL had a 1000cc, liquid-cooled V-twin engine suspended from a multi-tubular trellis frame, but that was where the similarities ended. The Suzuki frame was made of oversized lightweight aluminum. The rear wheel featured a slipper clutch, a first for a mass-market production motorcycle. To save space and keep the wheelbase short like an inline four, Suzuki used a rotary valve damper and small coil spring on the rear suspension.
But at the centre was the masterpiece, a digitally fuel-injected, twin cam motor that was physically smaller than the Ducati lump but put out more power and torque than all but the race replica 916 SPS, which cost a whopping three times as much.
First road tests were filled with accolades. Sport Rider called it the best new motorcycle of the year. Bike magazine blasted the Honda VTR as utterly forgettable in comparison and declared that Ducati was now on the back foot. The TL1000S was affordable and delivered the visceral and (then) exotic punch of high performance V-twin superbiking to the masses. Most of all, the pundits lauded the machine for its light and nimble handling, “…turning so fast it makes your eyes fart,” according to Superbike.
But the celebrations were short lived. Within a year reports of wild tank slappers and uneasy handling in real world conditions began to plague the TL1000S. Bike magazine later published an investigation in which a number of experts asserted that the motorcycle was unsafe, under-developed and alluded that it may have been responsible for two fatalities in Britain. Other publications jumped on the Suzuki TL hate wagon and similarly condemned it. The witch hunt was difficult to watch unfold.
The public had demanded and fawned over similarly extreme sport models, starting with the original 1993 Honda CBR900RR Fireblade, with the same press regularly repeating the line that conventional Japanese production sportsbikes lacked the edgy handling of their European counterparts. That they were too safe. A large cottage industry existed to upgrade stock suspension of most sportsbikes to provide them with the trigger-hair handling of racing machines.
No death was ever attributed to the product failure. A loud coterie of media testers and suspension companies crowed about “under-development” in language that came close to claiming negligence, but didn’t. Suzuki voluntarily recalled all TL1000 models, fitting a steering damper to calm the twitchy front end, but the damage was done. A brilliant motorcycle was tarnished with a black reputation from which it would never recover. The Suzuki TL program was an abject market failure, with production petering out after only five years. But this is where the real story starts to get interesting.
Suzuki developed a family of cheaper and less extreme variants of the TL’s motor and frame into the first SV650 and SV1000. These bikes would become the best selling middleweight models of the new millennium across much of Europe and North America, and were directly responsible for creating the 650cc twin cylinder market. Whereas the TL was famous for being demanding, the SV quickly developed a reputation for forgiving handling and character, becoming the darlings of amateur racers, commuters, and the sport touring set.
The SV family wiped out sales of Yamaha’s Fazer, and was the only bike that could dethrone the Honda CB600F Hornet in the European market. The motors were so good at combining reliability and usability, that they were later dropped into the all-singing, all-dancing V-Strom adventure tourer, from which Suzuki would glean massive worldwide sales at the expense of Honda and Yamaha, both of whom had let their adventure segment lapse. The tale of the Suzuki TL engine does not end there.
When up and coming Korean motorcycle manufacturer Hyosung began expanding into the middle displacement market in the early 2000s, Suzuki sold them a simplified, carbureted variant to build under licence for their GT650. Meanwhile in Italy Claudio Castiglioni found the engines desirable enough to design and build the Cagiva Raptor 650 and 1000 around them. The Raptors, designed by Miguel Galuzzi, were Cagiva’s ultra exotic answer to the Ducati Monster. A reborn Laverda even ordered the TL motors to power the proposed Lynx 650, another Italian roadster presented at the 1999 Milan motorcycle show.
The TL is now long gone, a forgotten footnote in a bygone race to build the world’s best V-twin superbike. Honda’s VTR family went on to win thousands of fans, make lots of money, and became the Japanese V-twin that finally defeated Ducati on the racetrack. Suzuki’s TL failed individually as a stand alone model, but it transformed the large displacement motorcycle market in a way that few other motorcycles have. It is deeply ironic that the V-Strom, with its fanatical following, and slightly vanilla reputation as a play-it-safe and easy-going motorcycle, owes its principle character to of one of the
edgiest and most daring sport motorcycles produced in the modern era.