Riding the icons: Suzuki RG500

By Michael Neeves -

General news

 04 July 2014 09:30

This Suzuki RG500 is in superb condition. It’s bog-stock, like the bike then-MCN road tester Mat Oxley would’ve raved about back in 1985.

Like the rest of the biking world, Oxley was in awe of this road-going 500cc GP replica, saying in the September 25 1985 issue of MCN: “In its powerband the RG500 is a vicious motorcycle that’s more at home on the track than on the road.”

Reading those edgy words, seeing it do the business on the track, and the very fact it was a 500 was enough to cement the Suzuki’s fearsome reputation in this 15-year-old’s imagination.

The alluring scent of two-stroke in the morning is enough to entice me all the way to the rolling hills of Tuscany to ride this beautiful 21,200km 1986 model, finished in European-spec cream, red and orange.

It now stands on slightly wider Metzeler Lazertec rubber, 120/80-16 front, 140/80-17 rear. Back in 1985 it would’ve had impossibly thin (by today’s standards) 120 rear and 110 front M48/A48 Michelins.

You can ride it too, if you like, along with a whole fleet of other iconic two-strokes in the stunning Tuscan scenery, but more on that later...

Now I’m the MCN road tester, and the biking landscape has changed beyond recognition. Of course, modern day sportsbikes are now more powerful, accelerate harder and are packed with more electronics than the actual 500cc GP bikes of the day, let alone this old road-going replica.

So despite my love and awe for what the Suzuki was then, there’s every danger this 28-year-old RG500 is going to feel a bit rubbish.

There’s no denying it still looks great. There’s still something special about those four iconic GP-style exhausts sticking out the back, the tall side-walled tyres, rear brake torque arm, and its ‘low back/high front’ stance that are all classic 80s sportsbike.

Suzuki launched its RG500 road bike 11 years after the RG500 racer hit the Grand Prix trail with Barry Sheene in 1974. Over the next ten years the RG took four world titles and 50 Grand Prix victories.

It was a remarkable machine – arguably the first modern GP bike – and once Suzuki started selling production versions of the factory racers it became the only choice for privateers, both in GPs and in national-level racing.

In 1978 all but seven of the 40 riders who scored points in the 500 World Championship rode RGs. In 1979 you could buy an RG for £12,000 (£60,000 in today’s money) and, with a little judicious fettling, finish on a GP podium.

In 1981 Dutchman Jack Middelburg rode his production RG to victory at the British GP at Silverstone, overcoming King Kenny Roberts’ factory Yamaha on the last lap. That was the last time a privateer machine won a premier-class GP. Imagine that now.

What was the RG’s secret? Possibly its square-four configuration which centralised mass to create a more balanced motorcycle. At the time of the RG’s arrival both Yamaha and MV used inline fours. In 1981 Yamaha built a square four RG replica, before moving onto the V4 format that dominated GPs until the end of the 500 era.

Whatever it was, it’s a bike that’s lost nothing of its appeal with age.

Settle into the road bike’s narrow but amply-padded seat, grab the high clip-ons, and the riding position is modern-day sportstourer. Huge square mirrors blur at tickover, but with every blip of the throttle they come into sharp focus and vividly show the view behind, awash with blue two-stroke smoke.

Where modern bikes have gone backwards from 1985 is weight. Frames crammed with sound-proofing, cat-laden exhausts and cheaper steel components are all to blame. With fewer moving parts inside the RG’s two-stroke engine, the lump is far lighter than a more complex four-stroke, too.

Weighing a claimed 154kg dry, it’s actually one kilo lighter than the titanium, magnesium and carbon fibre-packed £54,000 Ducati Superleggera. Honda's NS400R was actually 6kg heavier, and the Yamaha RD500 – which never quite stole riders’ affections like the RG – was a porky 178kg.

Prod the kickstart and this newly refreshed square-four 500cc Suzuki burbles quietly into life. Flick the throttle between your finger and thumb and the exhaust and induction roar hardens as four 125cc cylinders rev-up in an instant.

The RG is still fresh, crisp – snarly. Much more than I was expecting from such an old bike.

As smoke billows from the exhausts, choking the air with intoxicating noxiousness, my head clouds with 500cc GP racing hallucinations.

Around town the Suzuki is easy to manage. Being so light it doesn’t need a lot of power down low, but there’s enough oomph to get about swiftly.

As the first chance to get going opens in front of me, I pin the throttle to the stop and wait… and wait. The yellow needle wades lazily through the tacho’s low numbers, and then at 7000rpm the magic starts to happen.

The needle picks up pace, the noise turns up to 11, and the engine vibrations abate. The RG flexes its muscles and the chassis can barely contain the violent transformation from David Banner to Incredible Hulk.

All 95 claimed horses stampede at once in a cacophony of two-stroke excess, and accelerating from 7500rpm to 9500rpm is pure double-drop 500cc ecstasy.

Feed in the next gear, and another, to keep the two-stroke high going until the arrival of the next bend, then haul on the brakes, chuck it in and the Suzuki simply glides into the apex, unruffled and unhindered by lumpy four-stroke engine braking. Crack the throttle again and you’re off in a haze of glory.

There’s no getting away from the sense of occasion riding this RG500, but let’s bring this record to a screeching stop for a moment and temper the scene with a slice of reality.

If you were following me right now you’d be able to blast past on something as ordinary as a Yamaha MT-07. Then you’d disappear into the distance with your superior handling, grunt, brakes, and more linear, fuel-injected throttle response.

The RG500 forces a constant flurry of gear changes to keep the needle floating in the tacho’s happy zone. It’s good fun at first, but soon becomes tiring.

The odd whiff of two-stroke sends most of us weak at the knees, but spend a day in the wake of a four-cylinder two-stroke blowing its guts out and you’re left with stinky clothes, streaming eyes and the headache from hell.

Today’s solid-framed sportsbikes don’t move when you climb over them in corners, but the RG500’s skinny tyres have little grip, and the chassis feels so bendy that hanging-off just upsets it.

I get my knee down through one corner and the weight transfer from rear tyre to knee is enough to get its Metzeler slewing sideways. You need to ride Hailwood-style to keep the lightweight Suzuki in line. The brakes are rubbish, too.

But there’s something about the 28-year-old RG500. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t go and handle like a modern machine because the emotive experience simply papers over the Suzuki’s 1985 cracks.

And once you’re used to the wafer-thin powerband, gripless tyres, bendy chassis and day-long headaches, you’ll be scouring the classifieds to get your hands on an RG500 of your own.

You can do it too

2 Stroke Tours offers the unique chance to hire iconic strokers like the RG500, and ride them in idyllic surroundings. The company also runs a Yamaha RD500, Honda NS400R and Bimota V-Due.

Touring with a difference
This tour is pure heaven for two-stroke fans. It’s the beginning of May and already in the mid-20s and sunny.

We start our morning’s tour in the sleepy village of Montisi, up in the hills of Tuscany, the home of the jammiest tour guide on the planet and owner of 
2 Stroke Tours, Michele Cazzini.

The choice of bikes is dizzying  and it's hard to decide which icon to jump on first, but we’ve got all day and there’s plenty of chance to indulge in each machine as every one is special in its own way.

And, as if riding these bikes through twisty, tree-lined Tuscan hills in perfect weather with Michele as our guide and regular espresso stops in charming old cafés wasn’t enough – there’s the incredible food...

Rustic, homemade pasta dishes, local cheese, ham and olive oils, fresh meat and fish all taste better in the sunshine, especially when you're overlooking an RG500 parked outside the restaurant. 

The packages
2 Stroke Tours offers a range of packages. The Basic Weekend Tour at £400 offers two days riding plus tour guide, fuel and oil. For an extra £130 you can add two nights' B&B accommodation to this.

The grandest package on offer is the Rental Tour Plus costing £3050 and includes four days riding, a stay in a 4/5 star hotel, all meals, a sweatshirt, taxi service to Florence and access to the company's entire fleet - including the exotic Bimota V-Due.

For full details visit the tour website: www.2stroketour.com