Home » I Bought Suzuki’s Amazing Failed Rotary-Powered Motorcycle Experiment And It’s A Dream Come True

I Bought Suzuki’s Amazing Failed Rotary-Powered Motorcycle Experiment And It’s A Dream Come True

Retro Rotary Ts
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Back in the mid-1970s, Suzuki hit the road with what it thought was going to be the future of motorcycling. The Suzuki RE-5 married the thrill of riding with the then-still novel rotary engine. It promised buttery-smooth operation, long touring legs, and advanced technology. Yet, few people were willing to pay the high price for the future. Suzuki called it quits after just two years and the failed project was so expensive it reportedly nearly bankrupted the company. Legend has it, Suzuki was so embarrassed that it dumped spares into the ocean.

Over 47 years later, I just bought one of these weirdos of the motorcycling world and it’s a dream come true. The Suzuki RE-5 may have failed Suzuki, but it is bringing me happiness. Here’s why I bought it.

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Vidframe Min Bottom

Back in the spring of 2018, I got my endorsement for a newfound obsession. Motorcycles offered a different kind of motoring bliss that I hadn’t experienced before. It wasn’t long before the denizens of Opposite-Lock started influencing me with weird, fast, and affordable motorcycles. I had long been drawn to the style of a vintage motorcycle and now I was able to ride one. It didn’t take a long time for me to start appreciating the oddballs of motorcycling. After all, by 2018 I owned four cars and all of them were Smart Fortwos. My first motorcycle? That was a Buell Blast.

Early on, I grew an affinity for the Japanese motorcycles of the 1950s through the 1980s. Japan’s advancement of the two-wheeler through that period is just as impressive as the country’s contribution to vehicles on four wheels.

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Honda

In 1958, Honda launched the Super Cub, a small, practical, and affordable motorcycle that captured riders around the world of all ages, genders, and riding skills. The Super Cub was the subject of the iconic “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” advertising campaign and continues to be the most-produced vehicle in the world with well over 100 million built. In later years, Honda would experiment with adding power through cylinders as well as power through forced induction.

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Honda wasn’t alone, either. Yamaha also experimented with turbocharging. When the EPA announced stricter emissions rules in 1977, Yamaha developed a system that reduced fuel consumption by speeding up the processes of intake charge and combustion while upping combustion efficiency.

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Over at Suzuki, speed was the name of the game with the wicked-fast RD350. Meanwhile, the GT750 “Water Buffalo” made motorcycling history when it became the first Japanese production bike to feature water-cooling. The RE-5 was just another experiment into advancing motorcycles.

Rotaries Were Supposed To Be A Big Deal

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Audi

None of this really explains how Suzuki ended up with a rotary bike. For that, let’s go back to the 1970s. As the American Motorcyclist Association’s American Motorcyclist magazine writes, Felix Wankel patented his engine in 1929 before later joining the Nazi Party’s Aeronautical Research Establishment during World War II. Wankel would join NSU in 1959, where he would create a working prototype, creating more patents along the way.

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Car and motorcycle producers around the world were captivated by this new type of engine and allured by its promises. Wankel engines have far fewer moving parts than an equivalent piston engine. In theory, this means a rotary is a simpler engine that should be more reliable. On top of this, rotary engines are compact and are nearly turbine engine-smooth. More advantages come from a good power-to-weight ratio and, as builders and tuners have found out, these are small engines that can make big power.

And they did it without pistons. Instead, you got a spinning Dorito inside of a chamber. Look at Wankel’s patent for NSU:

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United States Patent and Trademark Office

A number of companies have all experimented with the rotary engine using licenses from NSU. General Motors wanted to stick a rotary in the Vega, and there was a chance that we could have had a mid-engine rotary-powered Corvette in the 1970s. Then, General Motors scrapped its rotary developments entirely after the Wankel failed, as the New York Times reported, to “demonstrate the potential for low emissions levels and fuel economy equal to those of current reciprocating piston engines.”

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AMC, Norton, Citroën, Daimler-Benz, Honda, Kawasaki, AvtoVAZ, Ford, Yamaha, and Van Veen. All of these are companies that have experimented with rotaries. Many of these experiments never reached production and some did, but once the disadvantages of rotary power couldn’t be overcome, those companies pulled out. Only Mazda was brave enough to keep rotaries in production cars and even that was paused after the RX-8 ended sales in 2012. However, Mazda is trying once again with vehicles like the MX-30 R-EV.

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Suzuki was another company with its rotary experiment, and it produced the motorcycle I now own today.

The RE-5

Suzuki

In the 1970s, Suzuki was looking for a way to set itself apart from its rivals. As I said before, the Japanese motorcycle industry was in a period of looking for the next big thing. Motorcycle manufacturers wanted to draw buyers to their fare by having the latest cutting-edge motorcycles. Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha all began looking into a possible future of rotary power. Suzuki’s development started after it bought a license to the NSU Wankel engine and by 1973, the firm had its first 497cc single-rotor prototype built.

Suzuki’s team didn’t just toss a licensed engine into a motorcycle frame. Instead, it sought to solve the issues of the NSU rotary engine design. Rotaries tend to run hot, so Suzuki applied its water-cooling technology to the engine. Suzuki also wanted to solve high wear on the rotor housing’s inner surface. This was solved by partnering up with Platecraft of America, Inc., which developed a surface-treatment technology to reduce wear. Other wear-reducing technology comes from Suzuki’s use of a mix of cast-iron alloy and titanium to make the engine’s apex seals.

Suzuki even baked in a design to reduce carbon build-up. Also included in the RE-5 design are two oiling systems, a primary for lubricating internal bearings and a total-loss oiling system to lubricate the rotor tips. So, the RE-5 operates somewhat like a two-stroke!

Suzuki

Suzuki even made a special double-barrel carburetor and three ports on the engine to provide power at high revs while allowing familiar rideability at low revs. The RE-5’s engineers went as far as to give the motorcycle a special exhaust system to combat the rotary’s super-heated exhaust gases. The exhaust pipes are double-walled with heat shields. Functional intakes up at the front are meant to draw in cool exhaust gases. The other benefit is that the exhausts look like the intakes of a fighter jet.

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The cool styling didn’t end there. Suzuki went with a circular theme and had Giorgetto Giugiaro design the motorcycle’s lighting and instrument cluster. Early RE-5s have a unique cylindrical instrument cluster, a cylindrical brake light, and fantastic spherical lights. Later models like mine have turn signals that look like lanterns, but the cluster and brake light are very normal.

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Production began in 1974 and honestly, it was impressive that Suzuki decided to follow through. Remember, the 1970s were a time of oil crises and people started paying attention to the environment. Yamaha built a fast rotary-powered RZ201, but pulled out of the idea of putting it into production after considering the poor fuel economy and emissions associated with a rotary. Yamaha also reportedly thought a rotary bike would look ugly.

Suzuki pushed forward, burning millions on development including the construction of production facilities, training dealers on the bewildering machine, and getting the press to swing a leg over RE-5s.

The Suzuki RE-5 comes with a 497cc single-rotor Wankel making 62 HP and 54.9 lb-ft of torque. This horsepower comes on high in the rev range at 6,500 RPM, which is roughly 500 RPM before you have to shift again.

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Suzuki Re5 Rotary Engine Cutaway
Suzuki

Reportedly, the motorcycle press was impressed with the RE-5’s smoothness, handling, and comfort, but other parts were a letdown. Cycle World compared the RE-5 against a Kawasaki Z1B and a BMW R90/6. While the BMW won the test, Cycle World was fascinated by the Suzuki. It was both problematic, but also presented some interesting quirks. Check out these paragraphs:

During our initiation run in the desert we had experienced some cooling problems with a few of the rotarys. Suzuki’s mechanics diagnosed the problem as foreign material in the fuel, which plugged the fuel filters, creating a lean condition and the eventual heat problems. But in our recent road testing evaluation, our test machine again got extremely warm on a medium hot day; the cooling fan had to work overtime to keep things on the happy side of trouble. Some coolant was lost out through the overflow tube, which dumps directly in front of the rear tire! That certainly could prove interesting at the wrong moment!

[…]

Where the Suzuki makes up for the clunk is in the level of engine vibration. Of course, this is what people proclaim to be the prime virtue of the rotary engine. It makes no difference to the RE whether it’s turning 1500 or 7000 rpm. Buttery smooth remains the constant. When the rider can see clearly in > the rear view mirrors at 100 mph, that’s revolutionary.

[…]

Cruising along at freeway speeds, the Suzuki has a sound all its own. Surprisingly enough, the engine runs quieter at higher speeds than at lower ones. When riding in the company of the BMW and Zl, in fact—particularly at traffic speeds near parked cars-the RE5’s noise level is on the objectionable side. We don’t care what the db meters read, the RE will furrow a brow or two.

Bring a Trailer Seller

Sadly, the RE-5 failed to make a splash. The problem was, there wasn’t much of a reason to buy an RE-5 outside of the engine’s smoothness. The RE-5 weighed around 577 pounds wet and so long as you aren’t hammering the throttle, your fuel economy will be about 30 mpg. That’s not great for a motorcycle of this size. Add in the loud noise at lower RPM and the pollution and it wasn’t really a motorcycle that made sense for the 1970s. Perhaps the worst part was the price. A Suzuki RE-5 sold for $2,500, or $16,472 in today’s money. Consider that at the same time, you could buy a Honda CB750 for $1,495, or $9,850 today. The Honda was faster, lighter, more reliable, cheaper, and more fuel-efficient.

Suzuki made around 6,000 RE-5s and sold them between 1974 and 1976. It’s often reported that Suzuki spent so much money on developing the RE-5 that its commercial failure brought it near the brink of bankruptcy.

Thankfully, Suzuki had other irons in the fire and was able to recover. There’s long been a legend that Suzuki was so embarrassed by the failure of the RE-5 that it dumped spare parts into the ocean.

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This has never been confirmed and I have reached out to Suzuki to see if anyone there knows about the end of the RE-5 program.

My RE-5

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You’d think that a bike that was a total failure would be a cheap find in today’s marketplace, but the RE-5 seems to have enchanted collectors. I regularly see these for sale and selling for between $9,000 and $16,000. I’ve found non-running barn finds for $4,500. Because of this, I thought I would never really find one for the cheap sort of prices I like to pay for a vehicle. Admittedly, if I’m spending $16,000 on a motorcycle, I’d first buy a new Indian FTR.

Then I saw it. Just an hour and a half north of me in Milwaukee sat a 1976 RE-5. Sure, it was one of the later models, which meant none of the cool gauges or the sweet lights, but the seller’s asking price was under $4,000. Even better, the seller stated the motorcycle still ran, but it needed some carb cleaning.

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Over the weekend, I arrived at the seller’s location and sure enough, the RE-5 started and idled on choke. The seller told me he bought it in the Pacific Northwest and then brought it over to Wisconsin. He rode it through last year’s season, then let it sit for most of this year. The inside of the tank is clean and it looks like there’s nothing obviously wrong with the bike’s hoses. So, I guessed that maybe the bike isn’t so happy with the old fuel in its tank. Either way, I was happy to part ways with $3,400 and I went home with the biggest smile on my face.

Of course, a $3,400 Suzuki RE-5 isn’t going to be the cleanest machine in the world. I didn’t get the full story on this machine, but I would bet money on it having spent some time idle. Some bits are a bit more crusty and rusty than I’d expect on a machine with just 4,600 original miles. But, if someone more or less abandoned it for some time, I could see it. Thankfully, nothing is too far gone. All of the rust, including the rust on the tank, is of the surface variety. Some elbow grease and paint will make this bike beautiful again. Or, I could seal in that patina and let the bike wear its history with pride.

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I was curious about the mechanical bits, so I tossed some carb cleaner and some fresh fuel into the tank. The motorcycle choked for a bit but started running way better than it did in the seller’s shop. I bet a deeper carb clean and maybe a touch of carb tuning will get this RE-5 back into prime mechanical shape. I did get it running good enough for a ride around my neighborhood.

Even in a state when it isn’t running well, that rotary engine is buttery-smooth. If it weren’t for the sound of a trillion pissed-off bees under my legs, I would say it’s almost as smooth as an electric motorcycle. Oh yeah, that sound is so loud. I don’t know if there’s something wrong with my muffler, but the RE-5 is so loud that I’m fairly sure someone nearly a quarter mile away could hear it buzzing away like a chainsaw from hell. I think what was most surprising from this short ride was how different the RE-5 and its rotary felt to ride.

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After nearly six years of riding, I’ve been able to swing a leg over everything from inline fours and boxers to V-twins, electrics, singles, and even a sole V4. None of them are even comparable to riding a rotary. The lack of a ton of vibration is unique in itself, but the power delivery, even with my choked-out bike, was unlike anything else. I’m going to hold a full review until it’s running properly.

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When I was riding it, I didn’t care about my RE-5’s current issues. I was riding a motorcycle I never thought I would own! Even better, the bike got hot enough to kick on its fan and regulate its own temperature. Everything worked, from the digital gear indicator to the physical odometer. The fork seals didn’t even leak! I’ve had a number of old Japanese bikes where I had no idea about mileage because theirs odometers broke years before I came around.

For now, my plans will be to get the engine back into tip-top shape and then to clean the motorcycle up. I won’t be going for making it so pretty you could enter it into a fancy show, but just clean enough that it doesn’t appear as if it sat in a barn for the past 40 years. Overall, I just want to Live, Laugh, and Love with my Suzuki RE-5.

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(Images: Author, unless otherwise noted.)

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Matthew Skwarczek
Matthew Skwarczek
3 months ago

Congratulations and godspeed as you sing the praises of the Spinning Dorito! Can’t wait to read more about how it goes

Long_Time_Reader_First_Time_Poster
Long_Time_Reader_First_Time_Poster
3 months ago

Congrats! Those are fascinating, rad bikes and I’m going to have to ride one myself someday. I hope you have a lot of fun with it.

Steve Walton
Steve Walton
3 months ago

Thanks to your link, I now know how much HP my 1983 Yamaha Turbo SECA 650 makes, and now I understand why it’s impressive when I twist the throttle at 80 mph and struggle to keep the front wheel down.

Didn’t know they were that rare. Yours for $2500 if you want it. Needs some fiddling to fix a starter that decided not to engage, but otherwise fine. Turbo leaks a little oil, a standard problem. You’d have to come to Cottonwood, Idaho to pick it up, though 😉

Sam I am
Sam I am
3 months ago

She said, “Wankel”.

Sorry..

SoCoFoMoCo
SoCoFoMoCo
3 months ago

The Honda was faster, lighter, more reliable, cheaper, and more fuel-efficient.

It’s a super cool concept, but I guess it ain’t hard to see why it didn’t pan out! Sounds like an awesome project, though!

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
3 months ago

Merry Christmas Mercedes. You have sealed the apex of your collection.

Sklooner
Sklooner
3 months ago

Just have to add a radial engine bike to the mix

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