PROJECT SUZUKI RG500 PART 1
Our Aussie mate Jeff Ware starts a heart-warming build!
Our Down Under correspondent has a touching story that shows dreams can come true and memories can be kept alive.
Okay, stick with me here, this is a long story so let me grab a beer from my fridge as I’m in the shed and it’s bloody hot. As I write, it was this exact day 25 years ago – Australia Day, January 26, 1993. I was 17 years and eight months old and working as a first year apprentice motorcycle mechanic at Willing Motorcycles (of the brothers Len, Warren and Glen Willing fame). Warren, a multiple Grand Prix champion here, was the Marlboro Roberts 500cc GP Yamaha engineer at the time, Len was my boss and was Australian 500cc champion and a superbike legend and Glen was a production racing and tuning guru. The head mechanic, Dudley Lister, was the ex Mick Doohan mechanic. In short, I was in heaven. I’d been skipping school and hanging around the shop for years, scabbing brochures and stickers, rummaging through the bins, and as soon as I turned 17, Len Willing said to me one day: “Oi, I suppose you want a job you little f***er?” Working there and dreaming about 500cc GP bikes day in day out, while servicing RG500S and RZ500S along the way, had me well hooked on two-strokes. I owned a rough 1987 TZR250 and Australia Day, being a public holiday, was race day up the local hills for us dreamers. With fresh rubber fitted, a new pair of jeans bought after pay day, and no idea what ‘scrubbing in’ was, I headed north to the Old Road, my local famous bike stretch of 30 miles
of tight and challenging corners. I had no mates that rode bikes yet, so when I saw a bunch of riders at a café, I kinda parked up and hung back in the shade (it’s bloody hot in January!) I remember hoping they would notice the extra effort I went to that day cleaning my TZR250, including the chain of course! Eventually they said g’day and asked if I’d like to tag along for a lap of the Old Road. I didn’t give it a second thought. This was my time to show these old 30 and 40-year-old farts how to ride their RG500S, GSX-R750S and 1100s, Fireblades and Ducati 900SS beasts. Off we went, me at the back, and as we approached a long uphill straight I opened up the TZR and overtook every single one of them. I was amazed just how talented and skilled I was compared to these ‘old guys’, in fact, they were even braking while I was still on the pipe! I couldn’t work it out! All those nights watching the Grand Prixs must have been paying off! Suddenly, I had a slight problem on my hands. A 90° off camber uphill right hander, lined with Armco railing. Yes, I was that knob that passed everyone in a straight line then crashed! And the result? Broken ribs, shoulder, ruptured kidney, cracked vertebrae and sadly a snapped bike! As I lay in agony begging these guys not to call my mother or police and to take me to the hospital, a tall man calmly walked over to me, leaned down, opened a cigarette case and in a thick German accent, said, “Would you like a smoke, young man?” His name was Helmut Phillip and from that day on we became great mates, despite a 40-year age gap. In fact, all the guys that were there are still my best mates to this day and I just had a coffee with one of them today plus I’m going riding with another tomorrow. I don’t ride on Australia Day, haven’t for 25 years aside from once at the International Island Classic. Back to Helmut: he was riding a mint RG500 that he bought near brand-new. I thought he was a real legend, riding an RG500 when he was so ‘old’! I spent the next few years riding every Sunday with the guys and always positioned myself near the RG500, so I could hear and smell it. I longed for that bike so badly and had every book and mag with an RG500 in it. But it was Helmut’s bike I really loved… I went off racing and publishing magazines for 20 years, but I still saw the RG regularly until Helmut parked it in 2001 when the clocks turned over 100,000km. He was in his late 60s, so he bought a modern bike with electric start and got the last Kawasaki ZX-9R, which he also did over 100,000km on. The RG500 was stored and no amount of begging would convince Helmut to sell it to me… House, kids, multiple bikes and near bankruptcies came and went and then
one day, out of the blue, my mobile phone rang at an odd time… ‘Helmut’ was displayed on the screen and I was hoping that he’d finally decided to make the call and sell me his RG! Sadly, it wasn’t Helmut’s voice on the other end of the line: “I’m sorry Jeff, this is Peter, Helmut’s son, I have some very sad news.” You can guess the rest. I could not believe it. I put the phone down and just went down to the shed, opened the beer fridge and started drinking. It was a sad night… Helmut had signed off, aged 80. He rode his ZX-9R until a few days before the heart attack claimed him. With no motorcyclists in his family, the RG500 was going to be sold. I was offered first option and I just had to have it. The problem was, I was skint with a busted knee and four kids to feed. The just restored (three years hard labour) 1985 GSX-R750F would have to go... I quickly sold it off and went down the shed and opened the beer fridge and eventually fell on the floor some time after 1am. It was a sad night. A few days later, the RG500 was delivered to my house. This was THE RG500, THE Helmut Phillip RG500. I parked the bike in the shed, where the 1985 GSX-R750F had been and opened the beer fridge. At around 2am, I ran out of beer and I’d burned a hole in the RG500 just staring at it. It was that special a machine to me. That was in January 2017. I just find it hard to make a start. Helmut loved his RG500, it was his main thing after family. He was super fussy and if you look at the photos, you will understand why I’ve found it hard to start stripping the bike. It still has his spirit hovering around it! I’m ready though, we’ve come to an agreement that I’ll just get it back on the road in original nick, not a full resto, therefore it’ll be as Helmut owned it. I really miss the guy, he was a true legend. He escaped from the East to the West, running across the border under gun fire when he was a border guard. Eventually he made his way Down Under, where he settled for a series of Yamaha and Suzuki two-strokes through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. He still had a soft spot for the MZ, of course, and even the RG500 has an MZ badge on the top triple-clamp, which I will leave there for Helmut… This year, I swear, I’m going to get this thing back on the road and head up to the Old Road. The plan is not too complicated. I’ve done an initial strip down and as the bike was so fastidiously maintained I know I have a good example. I want to replace the rotary disc valves and I will rebuild the carburettors. I’ll check and service the top-end as necessary along with the crankshafts, gearbox and clutch but the bike will only be on club papers so used for local runs and so forth. I’m on a super tight budget so can’t do a full rebuild. The shock is stuffed so I will see what I can do there, rebuild the forks, replace the steering head bearings, swingarm and linkage bearings and a few cables here and there. New rubber, brake caliper seals, fluid and possibly lines will be sorted. The fairings need some repairs, but I have decided not to paint the bike. It is a rare colour here, as most dealerships in 1985 painted all the bikes blue/white as these weren’t popular colours. Personally, I love them… Aside from the mechanicals, I’ll spray a lot of the black bits, polish up some alloy here and there without making it look unoriginal, and basically give the bike a full strip, clean and reassemble. I hope the engine is okay: it had a full rebuild at 60,000km. Watch this space!
All pretty standard.
Getting Suzi’s clothes off.
She’s been looked after.
Clocks sum up an era.
Jeff with Helmut’s old RG500.
Helmut Phillip: a proper biker!
Attractive scheme is rare!
Front-end looks clean.
All-in-all it’s not too bad.
Ahhh a kicker!