(first posted 7/12/2012) Prior to 1968, everyone knew you shouldn’t build a two-stroke bike bigger than about 350cc. Anything larger would create power that couldn’t be managed due to the narrow power band, overheating, and drink as much gas as a car. But soon after Suzuki unveiled its 500 Cobra, the naysayers not only shut up, but quickly began singing its praises.
In the Suzuki T500’s first year, the naysayers had reason to believe they were at least partially right. In 1969, however, Suzuki modified the engine’s piston ports, which made it act (and sip gas) very much like a four-stroke. The bike became a consistently outstanding performer both on the street and on the track. Of all the bikes I didn’t own back then, this is the one I wish I hadn’t missed; after all, not only was it a good bike but, to my knowledge anyway, the only one that owes its existence to cold war espionage and political defection.
Here’s how the world’s political climate played a part in its production: In the thick of the cold war, Ernst Degner was a rider and engineer on the racing team of the East German MZ factory. It didn’t take much to convince him to go to work for Suzuki. Of course, getting there was another story. Degner taught Suzuki how to get more power and speed from their two-strokes, for which Suzuki, according to some stories, paid him $10,000. The technology that he imparted bled over to Suzuki’s street bikes.
Degner (above) gave Suzuki its first world title. Actually, he’d have won the title the year he defected from MZ if the factory hadn’t accused him (probably rightfully) of industrial espionage, which caused the title to be withheld.
Thanks to Degner, Suzuki developed a 250cc machine known as the X6 Hustler. It was a great bike that developed a solid reputation for speed and dependability. Less than two years later, they developed the T500, using the Hustler as the starting point.
Honda had already come out with their CB450 “Black Bomber”; now, Suzuki had a 500. I won’t pretend that it received anything close to the publicity of the CB450, since it was created without nearly the fanfare; however, it equaled the Honda on the “That’s Japanese?” scale. Based on my own riding impressions, I think it was the better bike. Certainly, the racing world thought so: Suzukis were now in the thick of 500cc competition, and even a four-stroke 650 had serious trouble when pitted against a Suzuki 500.
Still, Suzuki had problems. One of the biggest was buyer perception, which associated two-strokes with high rpm and high maintenance. This one was different, though. First, it was fairly heavy, due in part to a crank over-engineered to prevent failure. It also was a large bike overall, as big or even bigger than the Brit 650s. Much as I’d like to say the engine was bulletproof, it took a couple years’ worth of engine development to make such a statement true.
But bulletproof is what it soon enough became: Renamed Titan 500, it developed a rep as an eminently reliable bike. Overshadowed by the Honda 750 and Kawasaki’s wild but wooly 500 triple, perhaps it was also the most underrated bike of its time. However, the Suzuki was a totally different animal than the Kawasaki, one much more suited to general cruising and touring. The T500 was the cheapest genuine touring-capable bike one could buy. In 1970, it cost $899 — almost half the price of the Honda 750 four — which made it a real bargain.
The XS650 I rode got about 50 mpg, something I was amazed to find possible with the T500. Although mileage reports vary greatly, the consensus is that the second-year change in the piston port design greatly improved fuel economy. In fact, you had to really flog it to drop below 40 mpg. This 500cc two-stroke bike weighed eight pounds more than the none-too svelte 450 Honda, and was substantially longer and heavier than the classic Triumph 650. You can guess what that meant on the street: It went faster with the extra power, but its eight-inch drums stopped slower than the disc-brake equipped Honda.
The bulletproof 500cc motor needed a frame to match, and Suzuki’s version of the Norton Featherbed frame worked quite well indeed. Unlike the “center-hinge” Kawasaki 500; the T500 had a rep for capable and predictable handling.
In 1970, pistons were fitted from Suzuki’s new water-cooled GT750 triple. This followed a disastrous road test and comparison conducted by a major magazine, in which the T500’s engine froze after numerous drag strip runs. Suzuki constantly found the T500 being judged against the Honda 750.
Overall, it was competitive with the 750. To my certainty, it won Cycle magazine’s “Best bang for the buck” contest several times. These contests always compared motorcycles across displacement and price categories, and the Titan was always in the running.
Suzuki pioneered the big two-stroke, but Kawasaki got the glory for going bigger and badder with their two-stroke triples. The Kawasakis acted like the two-strokes they were, with a peaky power band and the thirst of a Samurai.
Speaking of badder, Suzuki upped the ante too, with a 750 triple–and water-cooled, no less. Like the 500, it acted much like a four-stroke. Nicknamed “the water buffalo,” it was competitive in AMA racing. And the last and final evolution of the big two-stroke street bike.
All the street-bike 500s were called Titans; the racing bikes were known as TR500’s. In 1968, this TR500 bike could pull 135 mph, and 147 the following year.
The T500 was such a complete package that it soon became a favorite with production road racers. In 1970 an Aussie named Frank Whitaway (pictured above) won the 500cc TT at the Isle of Man. In 1972, Stan Woods did it again. These bikes were not far from stock.
Perhaps the most modified bike I saw while preparing for this article was the special owned by Jack Findlay (shown above, sans fairing).
Cyril John Findlay (5 February 1935 – 19 May 2007) was an Australian former Grand Prix motorcycle road racer. He is noted for having one of the longest racing careers in Grand Prix history spanning 20 years. He competed at the highest level despite racing as a privateer – that is, not as a contracted member of a factory team – through most of his racing career.
In 1971 Findlay won his first race for Suzuki at the Ulster Grand Prix; it was Suzuki’s first 500cc Grand Prix victory. In 1973, after years of trying, he won the Senior TT on his bike, which he had named Jada.
I do find some meanings for Jada as a name but they don’t make sense. If it’s an inside Aussie joke, someone please share.
In 1973, Suzuki developed water cooling for their racers. They were actually able to pull 160 mph, which was pretty fast at the time. The bike seen above, without fairing, is a reasonably well known type. Its Seeley frame was well known for providing light weight and good handling.
After winning some races, it was replaced by the RG500, designed for Grand Prix racing. It was the GT 500 when production finally stopped, thus making it difficult to determine which bike did what in terms of records. Most records simply don’t specify which bike was involved, the TR500 or RG500. This bike was competitive with privateers. The T500 had been relegated to street duty, which it performed until 1975.
During that time, street 500s faced various problems. While they were able to keep up with the big four-strokes, they couldn’t keep up with congress and increasingly strict smog laws.
Suzuki had no choice but to switch to four-stroke technology. Those of us who waited weren’t disappointed. This GS750 showed they could make the change (if you see a resemblance to the CB750, you’re not alone).
Any of us who grabbed a handful of throttle will tell you that throughout their model run, GS1100s confirm the old saying that nothing clarifies the mind like impending death. Although that quote is attributed to a Brit named Samuel Johnson, it could have come from anyone who rode this bad boy.
Obviously, this narrative is stopping BH (before Hayabusa). I am way short on courage with this one.
Although the T500 was a link in the evolutionary chain leading to the superbikes we have today, mostly it is forgotten about. Although not by all, as this recent cafe racer shows. But today, we remember it.