Best bets on tomorrow's classics
Years produced: 1968-1975
Total production: N/A
Claimed power: 46hp @ 6,000rpm (1975)
Top speed: 105mph
Engine type: 492cc, air-cooled two stroke parallel twin
Weight (dry): 187kg (412lb)
Price then: N/A
Price now: $500-$1,750
Cobras are quick, venomous snakes, renowned for striking fast and for striking fear in the heart of anyone unlucky enough to cross their path. In Greek mythology, the Titans were the children of Uranus and Gaea, supreme rulers of the universe until Zeus came along and took over.
We’re not quite sure what Suzuki was reaching for when they pulled the Cobra and, subsequently, Titan names into their lineup, but if they were aiming for a lethal strike at the competition or market supremacy, they fell short of the mark.
Largely overlooked today, the T500 was a unique proposition when Suzuki rolled it out to an increasingly power-hungry market in 1968. Granted, 46hp wasn’t exactly mind-bending, but as the largest production two-stroke twin since pre-war England’s water-cooled Scott, the T500 defied conventional wisdom by pursuing a different direction in motorcycle development.
In 1968, everyone knew the only good parallel twins came out of England. And four-stroke engines powered all of these. Two-strokes, the conventional thinking went, were noisy, smelly and high-strung.
With its big-bore T500, Suzuki meant to change all that.
Originally marketed as the Cobra, the first T500s garnered more fame for their extreme thirst for fuel than for their obvious merits: clean lines, good handling and, unlike most two-strokes, a smooth (at least at low rpms) low-revving engine.
At 412lb (187kg) they weren’t exactly light, but considering that a comparably sized Triumph Tiger weighed a few pounds more but put out a few horses less, they were a tempting option to the British mounts.
Early Japanese bikes were — and are — often faulted for their mediocre handling, but from the beginning the T500 drew praise for its good road manners, and was a winner on the track as well as the street. A T500 won the 500cc class at the Isle of Man in 1970 and 1972.
Even so, as much as the T500 was admired for its low-rpm pull, testers panned the engine’s performance at high revs. As one tester noted: “To use the 500 to full rpm is an unrewarding experience, as one’s foot can be firmly but steadily shaken off the footrest.”
The T500’s front brake, a twin-leading shoe affair, also drew criticism, prompting one tester to quip, “It is difficult to be enthusiastic about it, as it simply works.”
In 1969 the T500 Cobra gave way to the T500 Titan, with altered porting to help quench the bike’s thirsty nature. Period testers applauded the bike’s improved economy, but its front brake — maintained to the end — still drew criticism.
Engine porting aside, Suzuki changed very little on the T500 during its seven year run. The gas tank and seat changed for 1969, but after that changes were limited to color options and minor upgrades in switchgear and hardware. When Suzuki stopped selling the bike in 1975, it was hard to tell a new T500 from a five-year-old model.
Living life to the “T”A newcomer to vintage motorcycling, 24-year-old Adam Shallenberg bought his 1975 T500 a few years ago. Last registered in 1998, it belonged to Adam’s roommate, who’d taken it apart and lost interest; the engine was in a box, but the bike was mostly complete, save for missing turn signals and a bent triple clamp.
Getting it back together wasn’t without its problems: Adam admits to putting the pistons in backwards during his first go at the engine. “I pretty much did everything wrong you could. And I had no experience at all with tuning carbs and setting timing.” But back together it went, and in short order. Within a month the T500 was running, but getting the bike to the shape shown here has taken the better part of two years.
Although the red paint isn’t correct (metallic blue was the stock color for 1975, Adam simply likes red), Adam’s been slowly buying up the new-old-stock parts he needs to make the bike 100 percent original. The chrome’s original, and the T500’s only racked up a bit south of 6,000 miles, which, given the T500 engine’s reputation for reliability, means it’s got many more good miles to come.
While fuel economy isn’t the bike’s strong suit (Adam logs 30-35mpg), by Adam’s measure it’s otherwise a solid performer. “I like it because it feels so connected to the road,” Adam says. “You can feel the engine. I like the noise of the exhaust and the intake howl — and it’s more unique than anything you see on the road these days.”
In the end, the T500 failed to inflict much damage on its competition, proving neither particularly venomous nor threatening. But it was, and is, a competent and reliable motorcycle, displaying excellent road manners and capable of running two-up for miles on end. Prices are still reasonable, and the survival rate seems good, a testimony to the T500’s high build quality. “The bike is bullet-proof,” Adam says. “It can take a lot of abuse, and it’s very well engineered.”
Two-stroke alternatives to Suzuki’s T500
1976-1979 Yamaha RD400- 35hp @ 7,500rpm/95mph
- Air-cooled, two-stroke parallel twin
- Single disc brake front and rear
- 375lb (dry)
- 40-50 MPG
Coming in toward the end of the U.S. market for two-stroke road bikes, the RD400 was the evolution of the RD350, which Yamaha introduced to much success in 1973. Although it gained a few pounds over the RD350, the 400 is still the lightest of this trio.
Yes, it also carries the lowest horsepower rating, but don’t make the mistake of thinking this bike is anything but fast. While top speed may not compare to the T500 or the Mach III, the 400’s sub-six second 0-60 time is nothing to sneeze at. That, and the RD400 is arguably the best handling bike of the bunch. It even makes a comfortable long-range touring machine, something you certainly can’t say for the Mach III.
Contemporary testers noted the bike’s propensity for popping wheelies, a cheap thrill that hasn’t changed in the 30 years since the bike’s introduction. Like the Mach III, these were popular bikes, and Yamaha sold every one they could make. The survival rate has been good, so it’s fairly easy to find a nice example.
1969-1975 Kawasaki 500 H1 Mach III
- 60hp @ 8,000rpm/
- Air-cooled, two-stroke parallel triple
- Drum brakes front and rear (front disc starting in 1972)
- 407lb (dry)
- 30-40 MPG
Introduced one year after Suzuki’s T500, the Mach III was Kawasaki’s in-your-face response to the escalating horsepower wars of the late Sixties. With 60hp on tap it was much faster than the T500 — or anything else on the road for that matter. Heralded as the “quickest production motorcycle ever offered,” the Mach III immediately established a reputation as a racing machine for the street. As one tester noted upon the bike’s launch: “Kawasaki … has thrown together from the ground up one of the most devastating two-wheelers ever to happen on the scene.”
The Mach III was an immediate hit, and production of the two-stroke triple ran for six years and spawned four companion machines ranging from a diminutive 250 triple up to the 750cc Mach IV, a bike with a particularly nasty reputation for poor handling (Motorcycle Classics, July/August 2006).
Powerful, light, fast and thirsty, it’s surprising how many Mach IIIs have survived. Prices are reasonable, although parts can be expensive and hard to find.