It is generally accepted that a motorcycle becomes a classic after twenty-five years. Purists would argue the motorcycle’s age is irrelevant; it is the individual machine that must represent something special, a classic amongst its contemporaries.
For any given period in the history of motorcycles, there will be certain machines that are considered classics. Taking the twenty-five-year rule as a yardstick, and the purists criterion, two motorcycles from the middle 80s stand out: the RG500 Suzuki and the RZ500 Yamaha.
For many manufacturers, the 80s were a time of adjustment, adjustment to a changing marketplace. Most countries were implementing stricter emission and noise legislation and the inevitable consequence was the demise of the 2-stroke engined bikes. But before the total demise of the large capacity 2-strokes Suzuki and Yamaha produced two bikes that were considered the ultimate development of the 2-stroke.
The Suzuki RG500 Gamma is based on the factory racing machines, first introduced in 1974 and eventually winning seven world 500 Grand Prix titles, firstly with Barry Sheene, and lastly with Kenny Roberts Jr. in 2000. The street version was introduced in 1986 (the G model) and was well received but considered somewhat impractical and more of a racer replica than a straight street bike, something that was reflected in limited sales.
The performance of the Suzuki was excellent, albeit they were somewhat heavy on fuel (40 + around 70 mph, but substantially less if the revs /speed were increased). Interestingly, the last of the street RG500s (the H model) had almost the same power output as the original works racers!
The RG had a power to weight ratio of 95 hp:340 lb’s (dry) which ensured rapid acceleration and a top speed of around 150 mph. The handling matched the engine’s performance with a single shock rear mounted to Suzuki’s full floating suspension system. The forks had adjustable pre-load and a sophisticated Anti-dive system that reduced dive but would be instantly bypassed (via special valves) should the bike suddenly hit a bump.
The RG has a number of qualities, namely the handling, power and brakes, all things that make up a performance-orientated motorcycle.
Two good kicks generally had the RG firing up cleanly. If the cokes had been used (cold morning starts, for instance) it was important to switch them off as soon as possible to stop the 2-stroke engine from loading up.
The first thing a rider notices is the light weight and smooth power delivery. The design of the engine (a square four with a diagonal firing order) ensures near-perfect primary balance. So good is the balance that Suzuki did not fit a counter balance shaft to this engine which of course helps to keep the overall weight down. And this light weight and low center of gravity is very noticeable when the bike is first cornered.
Cornering the RG is reminiscent of the TZ Yamaha racers being light and responsive and easy to flick from side to side. The street bike may not be as nimble as a pure race bike, but it’s very close.
With performance like this, the Suzuki needed good brakes and it has them. The front brakes are twin Deca four piston units operating on twin rotors. These brakes are excellent and will stand the bike on its nose with if applied hard enough.
The Anti-dive front fork system is a bonus to the handling of the Suzuki. When many other manufacturers (and all race teams) had given up on this idea, Suzuki developed a system that seemed to work. The big plus with the Suzuki system is the bypass valves that negate the dive restrictions when the bike encounters a bump under hard braking, for instance. The result is a front end whose geometry remains stable but can still handle bumps.
The riding position is a reasonable compromise between a racing crouch and a sit up touring position but it does favor smaller (less than 6 feet tall) riders.
Prices for these machines vary considerably. However, expect to pay around $15,000 for a pristine example.