SHEENE’S SEELEY SUZUKI
What Terry Williams thought was a box of bits and a rusty rolling chassis turned out to be an ex-sheene Seeley Suzuki
‘Ridden by Barry who?’ – the amazing tale of buying and restoring Sheene’s TR500 race bike
The tale of Terry Williams’ Seeley Suzuki starts out a familiar one. Father and son from classic bike-mad family decide they’d like to restore a bike. Son fancies a go at classic racing, so they decide to look for a race bike project. On the day son is successfully completing his ACU racing licence course, dad goes to look at an old race bike an old acquaintance has had lying around in his workshop for years. After a fair bit of deliberation, they decide to buy the stripped-down Seeley Suzuki. But then things start to get really interesting, as Terry explains.
“I’d known the bike existed for ages,” he says. “A guy I knew, Arnie, had it salted away for years. I’d seen the engine on the floor in his workshop dozens of times. The story was that it was the bike he’d raced as a youngster and kept when he packed up racing. He was always going to restore it one day, but never got round to it. When I mentioned Toby [Terry’s son] was planning to go racing and we were looking for a bike to restore, he said to come and have a look at his old Seeley Suzuki. I didn’t even know what one was, but Toby checked it out online and reckoned it would make a good project. So we agreed a price and I arranged to go and collect it.”
As they loaded the boxes of bits into Terry’s van, Arnie dropped the bombshell. “He casually mentioned that Barry Sheene had ridden the bike,” Terry recalls. “And that he’d met Sheene at a race meeting at Brands Hatch in 1981, where Barry had looked at the bike and confirmed that, not only was it one of his old race bikes, but it was also the machine on which he’d first finished ahead of his racing hero, Giacomo Agostini, at Silverstone in August 1973. I was amazed and resolved to thoroughly research the bike’s history.”
That was the start of around two years of hard graft and painstaking research. The results are a superbly restored race bike with a sensational history. Not only did the bike turn out to be one of Sheene’s first factory rides, but it’s also quite possible that Barry won more races on this bike than any other single machine he rode during his celebrated career.
What’s beyond doubt is that 1973 was a big year for Barry Sheene – apart from his championship-winning years of 1976/77, it might have been the most important year of his career, as he rose from the privateer ranks to become a fully-fledged Suzuki works rider. Sheene had experience with Suzukis, having ridden a privately entered, ex-works 125cc twin to second in the world championship in ’71 and campaigned a Seeley TR500 with an ex-malcolm Uphill engine that year as well. A season on Yamahas followed in ’72, before the step up to the big time as a full factory rider – courtesy of this Seeley TR500 and a TR750 run by Suzuki GB – in ’73.
For 1973, Suzuki had gone direct to frame-building wizard Colin Seeley to produce frames for both of Sheene’s works racers. And we’ve got Colin on hand at Brands Hatch to confirm the authenticity of Terry’s machine and to give us a little background on the ’73 works Suzukis. “I’ve checked the bike and it’s the real thing,” Colin smiles. “I delivered the rolling chassis to Suzuki at Beddington Lane on February 24, 1973 after Suzuki asked me to build two: one for the TR500 engine and one for the new TR750. Barry had already said the Seeley-framed TR500 he rode in ’71 was the best handling bike he’d ridden up to then, so they must have thought my frames were alright.”
Suzuki’s faith in Colin’s design expertise and workmanship was amply repaid. According to Terry’s research, over the 15 UK meetings Barry contested on the Seeley TR500 in 1973, he recorded either first or second-place finishes – often several per meeting – at all bar the season opener at Mallory Park where he suffered mechanical problems, and the King of Brands meeting in May where a puncture ended his day. In addition to a total of 16 race wins and four second places in UK races, Sheene and the TR500 finished second behind Tepi Lansivouri in the F750 race at Hämeenlinna, Finland on August 1, and a few days previously had been in fourth place at the Finnish GP until the crank broke. He also set lap records at Oulton Park, Oliver’s Mount and Cadwell Park, plus class lap records at Mallory Park and Snetterton. Some year!
Considering Sheene’s priority that season was the new European-based FIM F750 series, the number of wins he compiled on the Seeley TR500 seems all the more impressive. This was partially down to the fact that he wanted to preserve the fast
‘IT WAS THE BIKE ON WHICH HE’D FIRST FINISHED AHEAD OF GIACOMO AGOSTINI’
but fragile engine of the TR750 and used the 500 in quite a few domestic F750 and 1000cc races. The engines for Sheene’s F750 mount were supplied by Suzuki America and they had apparently been stripped of many of the latest works internals. In any event, the TR750 wasn’t available to Sheene until April, so the Seeley TR500 was Sheene’s only bike for the start of the season, save for one abortive outing on the Seeley monocoque at the first meeting of the season at Mallory Park. And, unlike the troublesome 750 unit, the engine Sheene used in the Seeley-framed 500 was one he had spent many hours preparing himself at Suzuki GB’S Beddington Lane HQ in Croydon. Slotted into the proven Seeley chassis, it proved a formidable race bike.
Quite what happened to Barry’s first works Suzuki between 1973 and Arnie acquiring it in 1977 is unclear. Of course, the new-for-1974 Suzuki RG500 square-four meant the faithful Seeley was surplus to requirements as far as Barry Sheene was concerned. It’s likely that it was sold off to continue plying its trade at a slightly lower level. Whatever, Terry knows exactly where it’s been since ’77. “Arnie told me he went with a mate to Surrey to look at it and his mate bought it originally,” he explains. “Later that year, the mate crashed it, fell out of love with it and sold it on to Arnie.”
Arnie raced the bike for years – and was still using it when he bumped into Barry Sheene at that Brands meeting back in 1981. But eventually the bike got pensioned off and sat in Arnie’s workshop for years until Terry came along two years ago. And once he had confirmed the bike’s provenance through Colin Seeley, the grand obsession could begin.
“I started to gather any information I could about the bike,” says Terry. “A mate of mine, Matt Hassock, took a keen interest in what I was doing and he offered to help too. Between us, we scoured the internet for photographs, race reports, programmes – anything that would help restore the bike to the condition it was in when Sheene campaigned it in 1973. I’ve got programmes for every UK race the bike completed in 1973, most complete with results. Luckily, when Barry raced the bike, budgets were pretty tight and it was a case of make do and mend. That meant that the bike finished the season substantially as it started it, with all the major components still present. And, although Arnie changed a few things, he still had most of the original parts.”
Because of that, Terry has carried out a painstakingly sympathetic restoration, saving every part it was possible to save. “The only major parts that aren’t the originals are the seat (which had been swapped for one from Pat Hennen’s Grand Prix bike), the fairing and the ignition,” he confirms. “Just about everything else has been restored and reused.”
Through his research, Terry had contacted Graham Saunders, who ran the Suzuki technical school at Beddington Lane, worked for Suzuki from 1968-1978 and knew Sheene well. “I persuaded Graham to rebuild the engine for me,” Terry says. “He knows the TR500 engine inside out. I stripped the engine and got the crank rebuilt by Pete O’dell at The Motorcycle Works (themotorcycleworks.co.uk) in Peterborough. I Cleanz Machines (icmhome.org.uk) vapour-blasted all the engine cases before I handed the lot over to Graham for rebuilding. Oddly, the crankcases are T500. Sheene engraved the crankcases ‘Barry 1’ when he built the engine – a fact he confirmed to Arnie when he looked over the bike in 1981, so I know it’s the original engine – but the rest of the engine, including the barrels and all the internals are TR500, according to Graham. He’s fitted new bearings and seals throughout and new rings, but the bores and pistons were OK. The gearbox has all the correct TR500 ratios and the crank has the genuine TR500 stuffers on the flywheels.”
Returning the rolling chassis to ‘as raced by Sheene’ condition called for a considerable amount of detective work. It also took all of Terry’s considerable sheet metalworking and welding skills – in
‘WE WANTED TO RESTORE THE BIKE TO THE CONDITION IT WAS IN WHEN SHEENE CAMPAIGNED IT IN 1973’
his day job he designs and fabricates bespoke architectural fittings and furnishings. “I got hold of every contemporary photograph of the bike I could find and enlarged them as much as possible,” he recalls. “Colin Seeley kindly arranged for me to go down to the Sammy Miller Museum to photograph and measure up a period Seeley chassis on one of the museum exhibits, and my notes and photos have helped me restore numerous damaged parts including the footrests, clip-ons and swingarm.
“Someone had extended the swingarm by about three inches, so I had to cut the extended tubing back and fabricate new ends and Seeley replica chain adjusters before inserting a piece of bar inside the tubing and TIG welding the arm back up. I cleaned the frame and swingarm up with wire brushes in a drill and got it painted in two-pack by a local guy who specialises in bicycle frames. There’s a knack to painting tubular frames and I didn’t want it powder coated. I had to repair one clip-on and remanufacture the other one using the original as a pattern. I made a jig so I got the angles spot-on and brazed it up like the Seeley original.”
Terry was similarly pedantic about the footrest mounts and rearset controls. “I made them using the photographs and measurements I’d taken at Sammy Miller’s,” he says. Likewise, the beautiful alloy seat unit is another of Terry’s creations. “I made a wooden buck, working out the dimensions from photographs,” Terry continues. “Then I hand-beat the alloy sections of the seat before welding them up. There’s no filler in it.”
Terry’s used a modern electronic ignition unit from Electrex World (electrexworld.co.uk), intended for both T500 and TR500. “I searched for ages for a genuine Kokosan ignition for the bike,
but I just couldn’t find one,” he says. “I wasn’t happy with the look of the CDI boxes, though, so I borrowed an original Kokosan unit from Spike Livingstone of Ragged Edge Racing (raggededgeracing. com). He supplied a replica Gus Kuhn pattern fairing as originally used on the bike, made computer drawings of the CDI boxes and got them 3D printed by 3D Alchemy (3d-alchemy.co.uk). The Electrex World CDI boxes fitted inside with 1mm clearance.”
Although grubby, a lot of the bike cleaned up amazingly well. “I had to replace a few fasteners and make some new head bolts,” Terry concedes. “But I’ve kept most of the original bolts. Even the rear shock springs are original though I replaced the shocks with NOS Girlings found on ebay. Hagon (hagon-shocks.co.uk) rebuilt the wheels into the old hubs and rims, using new stainless steel spokes sand blasted to replicate the original zinc-plated finish.”
Terry says the exhausts were the hardest part of the restoration to get right. “I spent hours poring over photos to work out which of the patches and repairs were there when Barry was riding the bike and which were added later,” he admits. “I knew the ‘flats’ on the expansion chambers were done by Sheene’s dad Frank, but I’ve tried to remove any evidence of later repairs. I cut off the silencers that had been added and made new stingers. I even had to bore out the tubing I used to make them to get the correct inside diameter.”
That dedication to detail was even applied to precisely replicating the stickers Sheene applied to the bike for the 1973 season. “My mate Matt and I spent hours checking photographs to get the designs and positioning right. Photographer Jan Burgers supplied some enlargements of his period shots of the bike and we worked out the design and positioning from those and got a local graphics firm to make up new ones,” Terry says.
Whatever could be left original, has been. Terry has welded up a cracked top yoke, cleaned up the forks, repaired the oil tank and even left a dent in the top of the tank. “That’s from Barry flattening himself across it to get that extra mph,” he smiles. Smile he might, but that kind of detail is important to Terry. He’s devoted two years and a lot of work into producing a fitting tribute to Barry Sheene – and preserving a historic and successful part of his career. Looking over the finished bike with a smiling Colin Seeley, I’d have to say he’s succeeded in both aims.
Not surprisingly, the original plan for Terry’s son Toby to go classic racing with the bike has been shelved. “Because it is what it is, I wouldn’t risk racing it.” Terry admits. “Besides, I’m not sure it would be competitive in classic racing in its period-correct form. Toby will still get to ride it; it helps that he’s about the same build as Barry. We want to parade it, show it and let as many people as possible see it – and hear it. Sheene was such a hero to so many people. We’ll just have to build another bike for Toby to race.”
‘I SPENT HOURS CHECKING PHOTOS TO GET THE POSITIONING AND DESIGN OF THE STICKERS RIGHT’
Terry applied his extensive fabricating skills to weld up the cracked top yoke
Terry says the exhausts were the hardest part of the restoration to get right
The TR500 engine featured a two-stroke oil pump like Suzuki’s road-going strokers
Terry Williams with Colin Seeley, who confirmed the bike’s authenticity
Terry bored out the tubing he used to remake the stingers to get correct inside diameter
Terry’s workshop is properly tooled up to deal with such an in-depth restoration
Sheene was becoming the poster boy of British racing in ’73
Barry chasing Yamaha-mounted John Williams at Silverstone in 1973
Barry Sheene hit the big time in 1973, moving up from privateer Yamahas to riding factory Suzukis including this Seeley Suzuki TR500
Meticulous attention to detail has resulted in a superbly restored race bike
Barry on the Seeleyframed Suzuki in the Finnish 500GP at Imatra in 1973