It’s easy to forget that behind the injuries, 70s glamour and cheeky quips was a stellar racing talent. This is the story of Barry Sheene’s historic first 500cc world title and the bike that took him there...
The Sheene machine
he name of Barry Sheene is synonymous with Suzuki’s RG500. He helped develop it, spent most of his career riding it (1974-1979 and 1983-1984) and won 18 GPs and two 500cc world championships on it.
The RG500 was raced for 13 years before being replaced by the RGV500 in 1987. It won four riders’ world titles, seven constructors’ titles, and 49 individual Grands Prix.
Sheene signed for Suzuki in 1973 so was heavily involved in the development of the RG500. He debuted the bike during the 1974 season and won his first 500cc GP at Assen on it the following year. By 1976 the fast-but-fickle RG500 was well and truly sorted, to the point where nine out of the top 10 placings in the championship were Suzukis.
Sheene was a brilliant rider but he also needed a brilliant bike in order to win his first 500cc world championship. This is his 1976 Suzuki RG500 in detail.
Barry Sheene’s 1976 Suzuki RG500 XR14
||Water-cooled, rotary-valve two-stroke square four
||495cc (54 x 54mm)
||103bhp @ 11,250rpm
As Suzuki’s number one rider, Sheene was the only man to run the RG with ‘square’ cylinders which had the same 54mm bore and stroke. Sheene claimed the this set-up ‘offered better low-speed torque.’
The bike weighed just 134.7kg – that’s 8.1kg lighter than the bikes of his team-mates, John Williams and John Newbold. Sheene tried hard to keep his weight down to 10 stone to maximise this advantage.
Sheene was the only rider in the Suzuki team who had telescopic gas forks. He said: “The gas seemed to help make the forks take the bumps more easily as it made the suspension more progressive.”
The rear disc was cast iron while the twin front discs were made of steel. Sheene’s bike featured factory-made calipers – just one of the tricks that helped make his Suzuki so much lighter than the others.
5. Rear suspension
Wheel travel had been increased an inch by positioning the lugs for the suspension struts further in along the swingarm. Sheene says this allowed him to ‘slam on the brakes’ later than most other riders.
Early RG500s were prone to gearbox and engine seizures. Sheene came close to quitting the sport when close friend Gary Nixon suffered serious injuries after a prototype RG500 seized on him.
Words: Stuart Barker Photos: Bauer Archive