SMOKIN’: SUZUKI XR05 | LOOKING BACK
Fifty years ago the two-stroke scored its first premier-class GP victory. In the summer of 1971, Suzuki made history with an Aussie rider, and it put Barry Sheene on the path to 500cc glory
Words Mat Oxley Photography A Herl Archive, Dave Friedman & Chippy Wood
There’s never been a premier-class world championship quite like it. During the 1971 500cc grand prix season MV Agusta’s three-cylinder four-stroke fought with Suzuki’s XR05 two-stroke twin, and Matchless four-stroke singles battled with Kawasaki’s two-stroke triple. The noise must’ve been ecstatic!
Out of these clamorous battles came history – the two-stroke’s first 500cc grand prix victory and the single-cylinder four-stroke’s final podiums. Thus 1971 was the year of the great pivot – the two-stroke beginning was the end for four-stroke singles and the beginning of the end for all four-strokes.
The motorcycle at the vanguard of a quarter of a century of two-stroke domination was a very unremarkable machine – a piston-port 70 x 64mm roadbike engine in a rudimentary racing chassis.
The Suzuki TR500 (codenamed XR05) was built around the engine taken from the company’s first large-capacity road bike, the T500, also known as the Titan, Cobra and 500/Five. The factory launched the T500 in 1968 and was very excited about it – this was the machine designed to establish the brand’s big-bike cred.
“A hot 46 horsepower at a cool 7000rpm and a top-speed range of 110 to 120mph – that’s performance most 750cc bikes can’t muster,” cooed Suzuki’s advertising blurb.
Of course the T500 wasn’t the only motorcycle wooing road riders looking for a new kind of horsepower. Kawasaki’s H1 was also launched in 1968, both bikes retailing for around the same money. Some grand prix privateers transplanted engines from the H1 to create the first fully competitive two-stroke 500cc GP bikes, others took them from the T500.
By the end of the 1970 season veteran Aussie privateer Jack Findlay knew the time had come to go two-stroke. Findlay had just ridden a Seeley-framed Matchless G50 to eighth place in the 500cc world championship, during which he grew sick of watching two-stroke pioneers hurtle past, enjoying a good six or seven kay-an-hour advantage.
Findlay chose the T500 engine instead of the H1 because it was smaller and lighter. At first he planned to wrap the parallel-twin in a Seeley chassis – London Suzuki dealer Eddie Crooks sold complete Seeley chassis – but he ended up building his own, with help from Italian engineer Daniele Fontana of Fontana brakes.
At the same time Suzuki announced its first official participation in the 500cc world championship. The company supplied semi-official XR05 machinery to its importers in Italy, the Netherlands and New Zealand. Suzuki Italia supported Findlay, Nimag Suzuki in Utrecht chose Dutchman Rob Bron, and Colemans Suzuki in Wanganui chose Kiwi Keith Turner. But this was a bikes-and-bits only deal – no Japanese engineers attended GPs in 1971.
The XR05 marked another first for Suzuki. This was the first machine to use the model designation still used by Suzuki’s race department today – last year’s MotoGP-winning GSX-RR was the XRH8. The XR prefix stands for eXperimental Racer, even though the XR05 was nowhere near as innovative as the 50cc RM (for Racer Mini) and 125cc RT (Racer Twin cylinder) GP bikes that had won Suzuki 13 riders and constructors world championships between 1962 and 1967.
Suzuki knew the XR05 had some promise as a GP bike, because it had already done great things in the USA and New Zealand.
Suzuki had withdrawn from grand prix racing at the end of 1967, allowing the company to shift focus from Europe to the States, where it wanted a slice of the huge American market. In March 1968, the first XR05s were unleashed at Daytona. The engines were mostly standard apart from ported barrels, racing pistons, high-compression heads and 34mm Mikuni carbs. Peak power was 63 horsepower at 8000rpm.
The bikes were already fast, too fast, if anything, because they wobbled like hell and broke pistons and cranks with alarming regularity. Suzuki’s first 500cc factory riders – 50cc TT winner Mitsuo Itoh and locals Dick Hammer and Ron Grant – hardly knew what terrified them the most on the Daytona banking; a crankshaft seizure or a lock-to-lock tank-slapper.
The first XR05s weren’t only scary, they were also tricky things – the 900rpm powerband and five-speed gearbox required riders to slip the clutch at every upshift.
Hammer was so shellshocked by the end of practice that he parked his XR05 and raced a friend’s Triumph twin instead. A few days later he was sacked. Meanwhile Grant and Ito finished fifth and ninth.
After that respectable debut, development was rapid. The following year Grant fought for Daytona victory with Harley’s Cal Rayborn. Six months later, teammate Art Baumann made history at Sears Point, riding his XR05 to the first AMA national win by a two-stroke.
At the same time the XR05 was making a reputation for Suzuki in New Zealand. This was thanks to Rod Coleman, winner of the 1954 Isle of Man Junior TT, who was building the brand in New Zealand.
The Suzuki factory was heavily involved in its US racing programme, but in New Zealand Coleman made everything happen himself, with locals tuning the engines and building chassis. Coleman chose Turner to ride his XR05 in the 1971 500cc world championship because the youngster already had grand prix experience.
Turner scored a podium first time out on the Coleman XR05 in Europe, chasing home Ago at the Salzburgring.
Turner didn’t win a grand prix on the Coleman XR but he gave Agostini a run for his money once or twice, which must’ve come as a shock to the Italian, who hadn’t had any real competition since Honda and Mike Hailwood quit GPs at the end of 1967. Turner shared the podium with Ago on three occasions and ended the year an impressive second overall, with Bron third and Findlay fifth. Three XRs in the top five – not bad for a first effort.
“I liked the handling of the bike,” Turner says. “When I raced singles I preferred the G50’s handling to the Manx Norton’s because the G50 frame used to flex, whereas I didn’t like solid bikes like the Norton. The Suzuki also tended to flex, so you could feel what was going on.”
He had previously ridden a Linto four-stroke twin in 500 GPs, so he also knew two-strokes were the way to go.
“The Suzuki had more power than the Linto and accelerated a lot faster,” adds Turner.
“It would leave the singles standing and although Ago still had a good speed advantage over us, it was better than the 30 miles an hour he had over the singles. And by 1971 the Suzuki engine had a pretty wide powerband, so I found it quite easy to ride. It was pretty reliable too.”
Coleman had Turner’s XR05 engine prepared by Dick Lawton, a tuning genius based in Wellington.
“Dick knew what he was doing,” adds Turner. “Suzuki supplied the barrels without liners, so we could do what we wanted with the porting. Dick used a lot of Araldite – he built up the ports with Araldite to get the shape he wanted. I used to stand there in his workshop watching him do all the clever stuff. He always drank gin and tonic while he was working.”
The best 1971 XR05 engines made over 70 horsepower at 8000rpm, thanks to improved porting and ignition, which made the bikes good for 250km/h. Ago’s MV could nudge 275km/h, while a well-prepared single might just make it
Suzuki built its own chassis for the XR05, but both Findlay and Turner used homemade chassis because the factory unit was dodgy at best. Coleman had Turner’s chassis built by Steve Roberts, a talented fabricator who had moved to New Zealand after Aston Martin made him redundant.
“It was the ideal time for the backyarders like our lot to get involved in grand prix racing – we thought the Suzukis would replace the Manx Norton and they sure did,” remembers Roberts, who’s best known for the monocoque GS1000 TTF1 bike he built in 1982.
“I told Rod we needed something to copy for the XR05 engine. He had a damaged factory XR05 frame someone had crashed in Malaysia, so we straightened it, copied it and modified it. We put tapered bearings in the steering heads, needle rollers in the swingarm and the bike started winning races at home straight away. We got a lot of orders for chassis from all over the world, including the UK and the States.
“Rod had a hotline through to Suzuki, so they supplied engines and parts. Anything good we found out while we were racing at home we relayed back to Japan. Rod also had a hotline to Ceriani who supplied forks, wheels and things. Between a group of guys we put these racers together and Keith Turner was the right guy to ride our bike in Europe – he was a bloody good rider, he really was.”
Turner scored two more podiums, at the Sachsenring and Anderstorp, while Findlay finished third at Spa and Bron made the top three at Hockenheim, Assen and Imatra. Indeed there was at least one Suzuki rider on the podium at the first eight races, all of which were won by Ago.
“The only time I got really, really, really close to him was at Anderstorp, in the wet when we lapped everyone else up to third place,” recalls Turner, who was by now the only survivor of Suzuki’s original 500cc grand prix rider line-up.
“His mechanics put out a pit-board to tell him to hurry up because I was right behind him.”
Round nine, the Ulster GP at Dundrod, was the big one for Suzuki. MV Agusta didn’t turn up, not because Ago had already won the title, but due to the deteriorating political situation in Northern Ireland.
Turner knew this was his biggest chance of a grand prix victory.
“I really enjoyed the circuit, so I thought, this is the one! But an inlet rubber split during the race – the engine started misfiring and cutting out so I had to pull out. That was my chance of winning a GP gone.”
Findlay went on to win the race, beating Bron by almost a minute. The 36-year-old had made history, lots of it: the first two-stroke victory in the class of kings, Suzuki’s first 500cc win and its first one-two. Just six weeks later the two-stroke scored its second 500 GP win when Dave Simmonds won the Spanish GP at Jarama aboard his Sprayson-framed H1R.
The two-stroke’s first 500cc successes followed 259 consecutive four-strokes wins. Between Ulster 1971 and the final 500cc GP at the end of 2001 four-strokes won a further 27 races, while two-strokes won another 360. The four-stroke’s final victory was also Ago’s and MV’s last at the Nürburgring in August 1976.
Although Turner, Findlay and Bron were essentially teammates they kept themselves very much to themselves, each trying to find that crucial advantage from their XR05 engines.
“We all hid away doing our own stuff,” says Turner, who looked after his XR05 alone.
“Jack was very secretive; he had his van there with an awning over the side and you wouldn’t see him.
“I had a [Ford] Transit van, with a caravan. The only way I could afford to go racing was because I spent the winters working as a car mechanic at a garage in Lewisham, London. Then you’d be sat in the paddock and you’d see Ago and Mike Hailwood turn up in their Lamborghinis and Ferraris…”
Turner had another go at the 500cc title the following year. Roberts built him an aluminium monocoque frame, which he raced in Malaysia on his way to Europe. Major overheating problems forced him to abandon the project and things didn’t get much better when the GP season began. Suzuki’s 1972 XR05 engines were so riddled with problems that he didn’t finish a single race, so he quit and went home to New Zealand.
“I’d just had enough of living out of a suitcase and breaking down all the time.”
Suzuki’s top points scorer in 1972 was Findlay, who used a new lightweight frame and rechristened his bike a ‘Jada’, a composite of Jack and Daniele (Fontana).
That same year Suzuki introduced a new rider to the 500cc class. In the autumn of 1971 Suzuki GB sold Barry Sheene a crash-damaged Daytona-spec XR05 for the grand sum of 36 quid. Sheene binned the factory frame and put the engine in a Seeley chassis. [The bike is shown on the opening spread on pages 78-79].
He raced the bike for the first time at the 1972 Mallory Park post-TT event, chasing home winner Agostini, who must’ve been getting fed up with these young punks and their bitza two-strokes.
The following summer Sheene made his 500cc GP debut on the bike at Imatra, holding fourth place until the engine broke. The same year Suzuki introduced a water-cooled XR05 to keep the bike competitive until the square-four RG500 arrived in 1974.