One upon a time, ro­tary mo­tors were go­ing to rev­o­lu­tionise the two-wheeled world. Frank Melling re­calls why Suzuki’s at­tempt was less than suc­cess­ful

Real Classic - - Contents - Words by Frank Melling Pho­tos by Carol and Frank Melling / Paul Miles / RC RChive / Bon­hams auc­tion­eers

One upon a time, ro­tary mo­tors were go­ing to rev­o­lu­tionise the two-wheeled world. Frank Melling re­calls why Suzuki’s at­tempt was less than suc­cess­ful

Mo­tor­cy­cles fail for many rea­sons. Re­search and de­vel­op­ment can be lack­ing, pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties in­ad­e­quate or the launch of the bike poorly ex­e­cuted. Rarely, very rarely in­deed, a man­u­fac­turer can do ev­ery­thing right and still have a sales dis­as­ter on its hands. The Suzuki RE-5 Wankel is such a mo­tor­cy­cle – a catas­tro­phe of such epic pro­por­tions that it gen­uinely threat­ened the very ex­is­tence of the Suzuki fac­tory. The big­gest prob­lem with the RE-5 is that the en­gi­neers ac­tu­ally be­lieved their own PR. Worse than this, they con­vinced Suzuki man­age­ment that all their equa­tions, graphs and com­puter analy­ses would bring about a sales bo­nanza the like of which Suzuki had never seen in its fifty year his­tory. They were wrong. When Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki with­drew from Grand Prix racing at the end of 1968, the Ja­panese lacked a show­case for their skills. Dur­ing that decade, the Ja­panese had proven them­selves masters of tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion with ev­ery­thing from Honda’s iconic, six cylin­der 250s to the won­drous, three cylin­der 50 pro­duced by Suzuki. If the rider of the day thought about state of the art tech­nol­ogy his de­fault po­si­tion was Ja­panese. Mean­while, Con­corde and Boe­ing’s 747 made their first flights, and Neil Arm­strong set foot on the moon. In this febrile, can-do-any­thing at­mos­phere, en­gi­neers in all the Ja­panese fac­to­ries be­came very ex­cited. They were most en­thused with the Holy Grail of the in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine – the ti f wer plant with vir­tu­ally no mov­ing tion. En­ter cen­tre stage the Wankel ngi­neers re­ally do love Wankel en­gines e they ap­peal to their in­ner pu­rity. any en­gi­neer about what ex­cites or her, and they will ra­di­ate joy at ngs which work won­der­fully well and ve supreme sim­plic­ity. On pa­per, the Wankel en­gine is just such a cre­ation. The idea is that a ro­tor, shaped ather like a three sided wedge of cheese, spins round in­side an oval shaped cham­ber. A shaft is mounted ec­cen­tri­cally through the cheese wedge, rather like the camshaft on a four-stroke en­gine. The vol­ume of ach cham­ber changes as the ro­tor pins round so the fuel/air charge can sucked in through a port in the wall he oval cham­ber, in the man­ner of o-stroke. In the sec­ond part of the ber, the charge is ig­nited and fi­nally sts through a port, again two-stroke e en­gine burns the air/fuel mix then haft and power is pro­duced: truly eering.

Wankel ad­vo­cates play some in­ter­est­ing po­lit­i­cal games with a ro­tary en­gine’s size. When it suits them, they will claim that the ca­pac­ity of a Wankel is rep­re­sented by the in­ter­nal vol­ume of one of the ro­tor’s seg­ments. In the case of the RE-5, this is 497cc. How­ever, no-one was ever go­ing to pay big bike money for a 497cc en­gine so Suzuki claimed that the RE-5 was ac­tu­ally a 1000cc multi. I could never quite fol­low this logic, even if it was de­manded by some reg­u­la­tory au­thor­i­ties. If the ca­pac­ity of the whole en­gine was to be mea­sured then surely it should have been a 1491cc triple rather than a 994cc twin? I think the rea­son that it wasn’t so branded was purely a mar­ket­ing one. A 1500cc bike pro­duc­ing only 67bhp and a fee­ble 55ft/lb of torque was a guar­an­teed sales fail­ure be­fore it ever reached the show­room. Why then not sell it as a hot-per­form­ing 497cc sin­gle? The prob­lem here was the price point. In the cru­cial Amer­i­can mar­ket, at $2475 the RE-5 was al­most 30% more ex­pen­sive than the stun­ning Kawasaki Z1B selling at $1895 – a bike which would slaugh­ter the RE-5 in every sin­gle de­part­ment. Honda’s won­der­ful CB750K3, a some­what closer com­peti­tor in terms of per­for­mance, was a thou­sand dol­lars cheaper at only $1495. So be­fore any­one had even rid­den an RE-5, Suzuki were boxed into a real ‘cost ver­sus per­ceived value’ cor­ner. Like a lot of in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gines, the Wankel’s ori­gins are Ger­man. In 1919, the 17 year old Felix Wankel was pon­der­ing how to make a sim­pler and more ef­fi­cient en­gine than the bur­geon­ing two- and four-strokes which were ap­pear­ing ev­ery­where. The prob­lem was that the young Felix’s dreams were far ahead of the avail­able tech­nol­ogy. Re­gard­less, he ob­tained his ini­tial patent in 1929, but it was 28 years later, in 1957, that a prac­ti­cal ro­tary en­gine was first pro­duced by the Ger­man NSU con­cern. On pa­per, the en­gine is a de­light. There are no four-stroke valves boing­ing up and down and a com­plete ab­sence of two-stroke disc-valves whirring round and round. In fact, with only one mov­ing part, the Wankel en­gine is a won­der of sim­plic­ity and en­gi­neer­ing el­e­gance.

Ex­cept that it isn’t. The prob­lems are man­i­fold and se­ri­ous too.

First, the tips of the ro­tors have to seal per­fectly on the com­bus­tion cham­ber – and at high speeds too. To achieve this seal, there is a spring-loaded tip on the end of each arm of the ro­tor. These tips have to make per­fect con­tact with the com­bus­tion cham­ber and so have to be ex­tremely hard and durable. Clearly, the com­bus­tion cham­ber’s sur­face has to be hard too and this is dif­fi­cult to achieve. In Suzuki’s case, the so­lu­tion was to pur­chase the coat­ing tech­nol­ogy from the US firm Plate­craft – and this wasn’t cheap.

De­spite the ap­par­ent sim­plic­ity of the ro­tary en­gine, it’s not ef­fi­cient – par­tic­u­larly at lower rpm. To get the RE-5 to make rea­son­able torque, Suzuki de­signed a com­bus­tion cham­ber with mul­ti­ple ports to mimic the boost ports which they knew all too well from the two-stroke tech­nol­ogy they had ‘bor­rowed’ from MZ in 1961. How­ever, boost ports weren’t suf­fi­cient on their own and Mikuni were com­mis­sioned to pro­duce a unique two-stage car­bu­ret­tor which choked the avail­able fuel at low rpm and then made more avail­able as the revs in­creased. Sim­ple en­gines? No, not re­ally.

Then there was the ma­jor is­sue of the heat gen­er­ated dur­ing the Wankel cy­cle. Ro­tary

en­gines run hot – in­cred­i­bly so – which is why the RE-5 was made to be wa­ter- and oil-cooled from the out­set. A fur­ther is­sue with wa­ter cool­ing a mo­tor­cy­cle en­gine and then putting it into an un­faired bike is that, aes­thet­i­cally, it looks like a gen­er­a­tor or car pow­er­plant.

Not that the chal­lenges fin­ished there. The ex­haust gases pro­duced by the RE-5 were so hot that a dou­ble skinned ex­haust had to be used – and even then this had to be force fed with air, via two ducts at the front of the bike.

As the en­gine got nearer to pro­duc­tion, Suzuki in­creas­ingly found that Wankel sim­plic­ity did not equate to con­ven­tional en­gi­neer­ing sim­plic­ity. Three sep­a­rate oil­ing sys­tems were needed to make the en­gine re­li­able. One was to­tal loss, for the ro­tor tips, and this was an im­me­di­ate cause for con­cern be­cause the first glim­mers of the ris­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact sun were start­ing to be seen on the hori­zon. A sec­ond, com­pletely sep­a­rate, lubri­ca­tion sys­tem looked af­ter the main bear­ings while a third lubed the gear­box. In or­der to op­er­ate the dual stage car­bu­ret­tor and the lubri­ca­tion sys­tem, a to­tal of five sep­a­rate ca­bles had to be opened and closed by the throt­tle. How sim­ple do you want sim­ple to be?

The fi­nal re­sult of the en­gi­neer­ing was a hugely com­plex mo­tor­cy­cle which was ex­pen­sive to pro­duce and didn’t stack up in terms of per­for­mance. Could things get any worse? Ac­tu­ally, yes they could.

It’s im­por­tant to stress the so­cial and his­tor­i­cal con­text of Suzuki’s Wankel. When project chief Shigeyasu Kamiya launched the RE-5 pro­gramme, both Honda and Yamaha were also ac­tively de­vel­op­ing Wankels of their own. In fact, Yamaha got as far as pro­duc­ing the first batch of tool­ing for a twin ro­tor de­sign. At the launch, Jit­su­jiro Suzuki, pres­i­dent of the Suzuki Motor Com­pany, had the light truly shin­ing in his eyes when he

said: ‘Our suc­cess in real­is­ing the RE-5 would have not have been pos­si­ble with­out the strong pi­o­neer spirit that has char­ac­terised Suzuki since its es­tab­lish­ment. But just as much, it re­lies on our motto: To Make Prod­ucts of Value.

‘More than an ad­ven­ture in ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy, the Suzuki RE-5 faith­fully re­flects our wish to re­spond to the needs of the user, in terms of op­er­a­tional per­for­mance and com­fort.’

The Suzuki PR staff were just as evan­gel­i­cal. ‘ The RE-5 is con­fir­ma­tion that the sev­eral ad­van­tages of the ro­tary type in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine – smooth­ness in op­er­a­tion, low vi­bra­tion, a small num­ber of mov­ing parts greatly re­duc­ing main­te­nance prob­lems…’

And so the eu­logy went on and on in the way which only true mis­sion­ar­ies can. Oh dear. In Bri­tain, the BSA group had al­ready com­mit­ted to a twin ro­tor Wankel as their saviour for the fu­ture. In every way, the sign­posts were point­ing to­wards a ro­tat­ing fu­ture. For their part, Suzuki put the nec­es­sary mil­lions of dol­lars, in terms of en­gi­neer­ing and cap­i­tal in­vest­ment, to make the RE-5 a suc­cess. A brand-new, unique pro­duc­tion line was built at Ha­ma­matsu. Mr Kamiya then brought in the world-lead­ing Ital­ian stylist Gior­getto Gi­u­giaro to give the high­est of high tech looks to the bike. Gi­u­giaro had the in­stru­ment pan­els cov­ered by a translu­cent, green cover which rolled back, Star Trek style, to re­veal – well, a pair of very or­di­nary ana­logue clocks.

Then cus­tomers got their hands on the bike…

The RE-5 launch was fronted by Amer­i­can as­tro­naut, Ed Mitchell, who ex­tolled the virtues of this cut­ting edge mo­tor­cy­cle. How­ever, en­gine apart, the bike ac­tu­ally wasn’t that ad­vanced. The gear­box was lifted from the Suzuki GT750 triple and was only a five-speeder, and the very con­ven­tional chas­sis strug­gled to deal with the prob­lem of the huge, heavy lump of an en­gine which had to be mounted very high in the frame. Suzuki gave the bike a long, 59” wheel­base to add sta­bil­ity, which it did, but this ac­cen­tu­ated the bike’s al­ready porky size even more.

Suzuki deal­ers world­wide were told to go flat out with their own con­sumer launches. Martin Crooks was then a four­teen year-old who worked af­ter school in his dad’s Crook­sSuzuki deal­er­ship – at the time the big­gest Suzuki fran­chise in Bri­tain. Martin re­mem­bers the launch well. Eddie, his fa­ther, hired the Civic Hall in Bar­row where ‘we showed off the RE-5 which Suzuki told us we had to stock. There was loads of in­ter­est but no-one wanted to part with their own money. Eddie was keen on the RE-5 be­cause he’d al­ready

owned a Wankel-en­gined NSU car, but even with his en­thu­si­asm, he couldn’t con­vince cus­tomers to buy it. Even­tu­ally, we got rid of the one bike and we were glad to see it go.

‘We had a whole board full of Suzuki spe­cial tools which I wish I still had but they all got de­stroyed in a fire, so we re­ally never did make any profit from the RE-5 project.’

De­spite all the glitz and glam­our of a very posh launch, the RE-5 was a sales dis­as­ter. Crooks-Suzuki were not the only ones to hit a con­crete wall in terms of sales. Only 65 RE-5s were sold in the cru­cial Ger­man mar­ket dur­ing 1975 and, as the bike’s rep­u­ta­tion de­vel­oped, this fell to one – as in a sin­gle unit – in 1976.

If the RE-5 was a com­plex beast in the hands of Suzuki de­vel­op­ment staff, it proved to be plu­to­nium toxic for nor­mal cus­tomers. A key prob­lem was the unique NGK A9EFP spark plug. This had a fond­ness for oil­ing up, at which point the bike wouldn’t start, and re­place­ment plugs were dif­fi­cult to ob­tain and ex­pen­sive. Then there was the is­sue of get­ting all five ca­bles cor­rectly ad­justed and keep­ing a close eye on the three sep­a­rate oil reser­voirs.

But none of these is­sues was the deal breaker in the bike’s suc­cess or, as things tran­spired, its fail­ure. I have met a few Wankel en­gi­neers over the years and they all make one cru­cial mis­take. It is to as­sume that while ro­tary en­gine tech­nol­ogy will de­velop, four-stroke de­signs will re­main static. While Suzuki were ram-raid­ing their cash re­serves for the RE-5 project, they were also de­vel­op­ing the truly de­light­ful four cylin­der, four-stroke GS750. This bike pro­duced 72bhp com­pared with the 67bhp of the RE-5, made more torque, weighed slightly less and sold at $2195 – al­most 10% cheaper than the Wankel.

The GS750 also han­dled vastly bet­ter than the RE-5 and could be rid­den ruth­lessly, flat out, all day every day with­out miss­ing a beat. Suzuki deal­ers were soon queu­ing up for the new in­line four, and des­per­ately try­ing to bury any RE-5s they had in stock by do­ing ridicu­lous deals. A chap I knew ac­tu­ally swapped a suit of replica me­dieval ar­mour, and not a very good one ei­ther, for an RE-5 – and then im­me­di­ately re­gret­ted the deal. I rode his bike for a cou­ple of hours in 1977 and my over­whelm­ing mem­ory was of wast­ing a nice af­ter­noon, when I could have been do­ing some­thing which was much more fun.

The only thing of in­ter­est was the very at­trac­tive bur­bling Wankel note – al­ways un­mis­tak­able if you have rid­den a

ro­tary-en­gined mo­tor­cy­cle. The rest of the ex­pe­ri­ence was mem­o­rable for its dull­ness. There wasn’t much power, and the bike’s owner had given me se­vere warn­ings about the dan­gers of over-revving the motor, while the han­dling con­tin­ued the theme of ut­ter or­di­nar­i­ness.

Would any­one pay a pre­mium to own a bike like this, even it were the best look­ing and most re­li­able mo­tor­cy­cle ever made? The an­swer was un­equiv­o­cally in the neg­a­tive.

Yet to­day, and in the weird way of the clas­sic world, the RE-5 at­tracts near fa­nat­i­cal loy­alty from its acolytes in the way that quirky mo­tor­cy­cles tend to do. For some brave souls, will­ing to ex­per­i­ment with an ex­tended test ride and pre­pared to lav­ish at­ten­tion on its un­usual en­gi­neer­ing, the RE-5 has be­come an en­gag­ing al­ter­na­tive to the usual UJM. They even have a sup­port group, in the shape of the Ro­tary Own­ers’ Club…

This shot from the orig­i­nal press tests says it all re­ally. ‘Is this a mo­tor­cy­cle, or is it an or­na­ment?’

Suzuki built in mas­sive com­plex­ity, thus miss­ing the en­tire point of the su­per-sim­ple prin­ci­ple of the ro­tary en­gine

Suzuki en­gi­neer­ing staff en­thu­si­as­ti­cally em­braced the Wankel con­cept

Above: Heavy metal. Note one of three oil reser­voirs, this one for the main en­gine, which is mounted high up in the ma­chine, not en­tirely to the ben­e­fit of the han­dling Right: The front forks and brakes were lifted from the GT750 and were any­thing but...

Left: Suzuki’s pres­i­dent Jit­su­jiro Suzuki re­ally bought the Wankel sales pitch from his en­gi­neers Above: How it works

Which­ever way you look at it, the RE-5 is un­gainly rather than fu­tur­is­tic

The fea­tured ma­chine is one of the later RE-5s, those with­out the Dan Dare in­stru­ments and rear light. Here’s one on the day of launch, way back in the 1970s (when ev­ery­one was mono­chrome)

The RE-5 was sup­posed to look ul­tra-mod­ern. It fact it ap­peared big and clumsy

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