While the return of the rotary to Mazda’s US lineup is great news for the engine’s fans, it’s worth pointing out that it’s not the only automaker to use it. And cars aren’t the only motor vehicles to feature the ‘spinning Dorito.’ A small handful of motorcycles used rotary engines in the past. And recently, Jay Leno took a look at one of the most divisive: the Suzuki RE5.
The Suzuki RE5: the only Japanese motorcycle with a rotary and Giugiaro styling
Back in the 1970s, the rotary engine was enjoying a popularity boom in both the automotive and motorcycling worlds, Hagerty reports. True, the rotary has its downsides, CarThrottle explains. However, some of its upsides—namely small size, large power-to-weight ratio, and extremely smooth high-RPM capability—sound perfect for bikes. Suzuki, which at the time needed to wean itself off of two-stroke models, certainly thought so, Motorcyclist reports.
To be sure, the resulting 1974 Suzuki RE5 isn’t the only rotary-powered motorcycle, RideApart reports. Famed British brand Vincent also dabbled in the Doritos, Cycle World reports. So did Norton and Dutch company Van Veen, Rider reports. There was also a rotary model from Germany, the Hercules W2000, Silodrome reports. However, the Suzuki RE5 is the only rotary bike made in Japan, Museums Victoria reports.
But the engine isn’t the only distinctive part of the Suzuki RE5. The bike’s styling has earned it a certain reputation, Cycle World reports, in part because of its unusual canister-shaped dashboard. Unfortunately, motorcyclists didn’t like it, so Suzuki ditched it in 1976, Motorcycle Classics reports.
However, while the visual appeal is always a matter of personal taste, the RE5’s design has some significant provenance. Famed designer Giorgetto Giugiaro penned the Suzuki RE5, Bennetts reports, making him the only Italian designer to work on a Japanese bike. The later Katana’s styling was only inspired by contemporary Italian bikes.
But enough about the looks—how does it ride?
Riding a 1975 Suzuki RE5 is “very addictive,” Jay Leno says
The 1975 Suzuki RE5 has a 497cc liquid-cooled engine rated at 62 hp and 55 lb-ft linked to a 5-speed transmission, RideApart reports. That’s a decent output for the time. However, at 507 pounds, the RE5 is also rather heavy for the time, Motorcycle Classics reports. It’s also rather complicated.
The Suzuki RE5 has two ignition systems—a kickstarter and an electric starter. It also has two oiling systems and two cooling systems: one for oil, and one for liquid. And the RE5 needs all that cooling due to the amount of heat the rotary engine puts out, Mecum reports. It’s also why Suzuki fitted the RE5 with a double-wall muffler, a passenger heat shield, and air intakes for the exhaust pipes.
However, for all that, the 1975 Suzuki RE5 is an enjoyable bike to ride, Jay Leno reports. The engine is incredibly smooth even at high RPMs. And contemporary reviews praised the RE5’s handling. Though it has a rear drum, which was normal at the time, it has twin hydraulic front disc brakes. Plus, while the bike is a bit heavy, it also accelerates strongly, Rider reports. And that “turbine-like” smoothness is “very addictive,” Jay Leno reports.
Additionally, regardless of what you think about the styling, the fact that the dash glass flips open when you twist the key is a neat little touch. There’s even a digital gear indicator mounted there, a rarity for the time.
Getting one of your own
Unfortunately, technological innovation and futuristic styling didn’t help the Suzuki RE5 sell. In fact, the styling may have actually hurt sales somewhat. But the bigger problems the bike faced revolved around its rotary.
Rotary engines consume more oil and fuel, which isn’t a good thing when there’s a gas crisis. This also explains why the RE5 has three oil tanks. Plus, rotaries produce more emissions. And despite Suzuki’s best efforts, there were some teething issues, Classic Bike Guide reports.
Combined with a high purchase price, different maintenance requirements, and the bike’s overall complexity, sales were poor. Between 1974 and 1976 Suzuki only sold about 6500 RE5s, nearly bankrupting itself in the process, RideApart reports.
But today, the RE5’s styling and unusual powertrain make it an intriguing classic bike, if not necessarily the easiest to live with. And examples are fairly affordable. True, a 2-mile (not a typo) model sold on Bring a Trailer for $14,250. But a good-to-excellent-condition RE5 typically goes for $5000-$8000, Hagerty reports.
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