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...

Classic Bike (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS: MIKE AR­MITAGE. PHOTOGRAPHY: DOU­BLE RED, MIKE AR­MITAGE

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...

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