1975 Suzuki RE-5 Rotary Motorcycle

Suzuki bet the farm — and almost lost it — on its revolutionary rotary motorcycle

| May/June 2011

1975 Suzuki RE-5
Claimed power:
62hp @ 6.500rpm
Top speed: 105mph
Engine: 497cc liquid-cooled single rotor Wankel rotary engine
Weight (dry): 507lb (230kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 4.5gal (17ltr)/25-35mpg
Price then/now: $2,475 / $4,000-$7,000

When the Beatles penned their now famous song “Revolution,” you can bet they weren’t thinking about the revolution a Japanese company was hoping to spark in the motorcycle industry.

That company was Suzuki, and by the early 1970s Suzuki was betting millions that rotary-power was the way of the future. Unfortunately, time would prove that the Suzuki RE-5 rotary motorcycle — certainly revolutionary and in fact a very capable motorcycle — was ultimately a failure. Intended as the spark to ignite the flames of change, the RE-5 almost took Suzuki down.

Rotary roots

In the early 1970s, motorcycle technology was advancing rapidly. Machines such as the Honda CB750 and the Kawasaki’s Z1 900 were changing the perspective of the average motorcyclist. Unlike the reigning Brit twins of the past, here were smooth, technologically proficient four-cylinder motorcycles engineered not to leak and to start with the push of a button. “Superbike,” a term coined to describe these high-revving, well-screwed together Japanese bikes that buried the outdated engineering of the past, suddenly became part of the motorcycling vernacular. It was into this market that Suzuki introduced RE-5 rotary motorcycle.

The rotary’s roots go back to 1919 and German engineer Felix Wankel, then a 17-year-old with dreams of a different type of internal combustion engine. Instead of reciprocating pistons and rods pushing down on a crankshaft to create rotating motion, Wankel envisioned an engine that used a rotor to spin a shaft. Wankel got his first patent in 1929, and in 1951, after years of further research, he established a partnership with German motorcycle and car manufacturer NSU. An NSU/Wankel running prototype was ready in 1957, and further development resulted in NSU’s KKM rotary based on the Wankel rotary engine — a power plant that has been dubbed the forerunner of the modern rotary engine.

Car and motorcycle manufacturers alike were drawn to the promise of smooth, simple rotary power. With no valves, camshafts, pistons or connecting rods, it was far simpler than a four-stroke. NSU (which used the engine in its Wankel Spider and Ro 80) licensed the technology to a number of different companies. Mazda in Japan introduced the rotary-powered Mazda Cosmo in 1967, and Hercules in Germany actually beat Suzuki to the punch, using a Sachs rotary (later used by Norton) in the Hercules W2000 in 1974, the world’s first production rotary motorcycle.

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