BARRY SHEENE’S RG500
As far as Suzuki are aware, no journalist has ever tested Barry Sheene’s championship-winning Grand Prix bikes. Until now...
We test the Suzuki RG500S that won the world title, plus the history of Suzuki’s 500cc racers and last-in-line RGV ridden
It’s a noise that’s always going to draw an audience. Tearing, crackling, fingers-inears-loud, each rapid rise of revs is accompanied by swirls of sweet-smelling two-stroke smoke which momentarily swallow the three-deep crowd before drifting away on the Lincolnshire air. This heady mix of sound and aroma is being emitted by the Suzuki RG500 XR14 on which Barry Sheene won the 1976 500cc Grand Prix title. The bloke working the throttle and fussing over the bike is Martin Ogborne, who was Barry’s technician; he’s warming the bike, getting it ready to lap Cadwell Park. And I’m going to ride it.
I remember going to Donington Park as a nipper and my dad pointing Sheene out. He was a hero when I was growing up, and there’s more than a little Heron Suzuki influence in my helmet paint scheme. Being allowed to ride the actual title-winning bike brings more than a few nerves. It’s not helped when Suzuki GB’S Tim Davies mentions that, although folk like Steve Parrish and Barry’s son Freddie have ridden it, as far as they’re aware the bike’s never been tested by a journalist. No pressure, then.
Martin’s already been through the RG500 – it’s a rightfoot gear shift, the brakes aren’t great, don’t let the revs die – but shouts last-moment reiterations as I climb wideeyed onto the surprisingly low seat. “You’ll need to slip the clutch out of lots of corners or it’ll bog down. Don’t go steady – ride it. The engine really starts to go at 9200rpm. It’ll rev to 12,000rpm, but the power’s all over by 10,800 and the CDI ignition starts to retard itself. Don’t let it get above 70°C as it loses power.”
Through the paddock in a barrage of clutch slip and revs, down the pitlane exit and onto the famous track. Blimey. This is happening.
This might be a 42-year-old motorcycle, but it’s still a works 500 Grand Prix bike. So it’s fast. Very fast. Onto the start/finish straight in second gear and the 494.7cc square four explodes forward, front wheel levitating as power comes in ridiculously hard and the tacho needle skips from 9000 to 11,000rpm in a split nanosecond. Third, fourth and fifth snick in with a light downward tap of the gearlever, yet there’s no let-up in the streaking rush of acceleration.
Back a gear and a touch of brake for the uphill left-hand sweep of Coppice, and the motor drops out of the power. However, as the RG banks over and the rolling radius of the tyre reduces, the revs rise and it climbs back into the power, hurling itself forward again. The sensation as it scorches up the rise is breath-taking. Onto the back straight and the experience becomes even richer. Connection between twistgrip and engine is fabulous; however, tucked and cocooned inside the bubble of the ample fairing, the only things that matter are the tacho needle flicking away inches from my face and the glorious wail of a factory stroker on song.
I’m riding in the two-stroke session on a Classic Suzuki track day, so I’m sharing the track with RGV250S, tuned RG500 road bikes and a selection of other classic Suzuki racers. The way Sheene’s bike batters past anything and everything is hilarious.
Having a tachometer that doesn’t start until 5000rpm is a good hint at what the engine’s like at lower revs, however. Let the engine speed fall much below 8000 and Sheene’s RG transforms from intoxicating missile to bogging, flat and unresponsive. The engine uses disc-valve induction – there are thin steel discs on the outboard end of the cranks that have a slot in them to meter fuel flow from the Mikuni carburettors. It’s a fixed opening, unlike the variability of later reed-valve induction, and at low revs a wide-open throttle just fills the engine with more fuel than it can deal with.
Keeping the square four on song requires clutch slip out of Park and Mansfield. It even needs a dab when exiting the bus stop chicane in the tall first gear – at which point the top yoke tries to smash my visor and I find myself catapulted towards the Mountain. It’s reasonable to expect a highlytuned two-stroke to be peaky, but the on/off delivery of the factory RG brings even more respect for the men who extracted every ounce of performance from these things. The power goes nothing, nothing, nothing… everything. It’s like being smashed on the forehead with a cricket bat. It needs concentration on a sunny day; how they rode fast in the wet without highsiding into the crowd at every corner is beyond me.
Doubtless the Suzuki’s handling helped. The RG is diminutive and locates its rider ‘in’ rather than ‘on’, with feet tucked up to high footpegs and a reasonable reach to the clip-on ’bars. There’s not a lot of room, and my 6ft 2in frame is a tight fit between the tank and seat unit; I sit where the Suzuki wants me to, rather than where I’d like. Circling the bike in the paddock earlier, I wasn’t sure whether to expect the chassis to feel as long and low as it looks, or to ricochet about with the sort of frantic nervousness only a racer can truly appreciate – I’ve read about early RGS being unstable. In reality the Suzuki sits perfectly between the two – the 500 turns and picks a line effortlessly, yet with a reassuring sense of control and poise, and despite feeling too big the riding position is fine. It’s light and agile, yet stable and inspiring. And there’s not a lot amiss with the brakes, either.
I’m sure the Suzuki felt different for Barry balancing on the edge of grip, rather than for my track day sauntering, but finding the chassis so neutral is still surprising. It’s a doddle to ride briskly.
My 20-minute session is over all too quickly. Leaving the track, it takes a lot of clutch slip to keep the RG running as I thread back into the paddock, before throttle blipping stops and the highly-strung engine falls silent. It’s been an overwhelming experience. They say never meet your heroes, yet Sheene’s bike is all I hoped and more. It feels amazing – and, in the hands of a rider able to exploit its corner speed potential and firepower, could still be devastatingly fast.
This day of privilege isn’t over yet, however. Suzuki have the 1977 bike on which Barry achieved back-to-back world titles is here, and I can ride this one too. Visually more modern with a larger, swoopier seat unit, the ’77
‘THE POWER GOES NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING... EVERYTHING’
bike is based on the previous one. “The ’76 engine was almost exactly the same as 1975, and ’77 was another derivative with different cylinders,” says Martin. “Suzuki favoured Kayaba over Showa, and the ’77 bike also had ‘golden’ shocks. It was air suspension – basically the prototype for the GS1000 road bike. Barry had to test it, and found it a bit uncomfortable. We could have made it better, but very rarely would we book a circuit and test.” Out on track the later bike feels just as sharp, explosive and thoroughly engaging, with a chassis that’s equally as willing to forgive ham-fisted input. Not being blessed with a racer’s sensitivity (or speed), I can’t appreciate any difference in engine performance, nor can I notice whether anything has altered with the air suspension. Maybe it’d be different if I had more riding time, though. In my childlike eagerness to ride I get to the holding area too early, and after Martin’s warning about engine temperature, I let the bike stall as the needle’s climbing towards 70˚C. Then the track opens and I can’t bump-start the bloody thing. There’s an ‘enrichment’ lever on the left clip-on that needs a just-so amount, even with the engine warm, and the throttle needs an equally precise opening – and I just can’t get it right while pushing and bouncing down on the seat. By the time Martin helps the emotional journalist I’ve missed a big chunk of the session. It’s my own fault, but provides another insight into the superhero world of ’70s riders, who rode to the edge on fierce, focused bikes that were only any good for going very fast indeed. And not only did they have to master this full-on machinery while wheel-to-wheel, they also had to push-start these fickle, obstinate weapons while at the head of a packed grid, in front of thousands of fans, championship within reach. I can’t even bump-start a factory Suzuki RG500 on a sunny trackday. Turn over for the story of Suzuki’s 500cc GP bikes
COCOON Large wrap-around fairing and screen let the rider get completely out of the wind – all you hear is the shrieking two-stroke
Mike (centre) listens as Martin Ogborne explains what he’ll do if it gets crashed
Barry on the RG500 XR14 that dominated the 1976 GP season
BARRY’S BITS CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Tacho indicates stroker’s desire for revs; brakes copied from Lockheed; enrichment lever is essential for starting; four barely-silenced expansions sound truly awesome
A handful on a day like this, the wet must have been entertaining...