Motorcycles fail for many reasons. Research and development can be lacking, production facilities inadequate or the launch of the bike poorly executed. Rarely, very rarely indeed, a manufacturer can do everything right and still have a sales disaster on its hands. The Suzuki RE-5 Wankel is such a motorcycle – a catastrophe of such epic proportions that it actually threatened the very existence of the Suzuki factory.
The biggest problem with the RE-5 is that the engineers actually did believe their own press releases and, worse than this, they convinced Suzuki management that all their equations, graphs and computer analyses were going to lead to a sales bonanza – the likes of which Suzuki had never seen in its, then, 50-year history. They were wrong.
The problems began at first base – and then grew exponentially. The Suzuki RE-5 has a swept volume of 497cc – an archetypal capacity for a BSA Goldstar, Manx Norton or any other traditional British super sports single. Except that Suzuki sold the RE-5 as a 1000cc sports tourer twin, when its actual capacity was 1491cc. Or maybe not…
Merely working out just what they were buying was the first of many, many problems facing the very few customers who jumped into the Wankel engine maelstrom in 1974.
However, before discussing the motorcycle it needs placement in a social and historical context because without this background the RE-5 makes no sense whatsoever.
Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki all withdrew from Grand Prix racing at the end of the 1968 season. In that decade, the Japanese had proven themselves masters of technological innovation with everything from Honda’s iconic, six cylinder 250cc and 297cc jewels to the wondrous, but unraced, three cylinder 50 produced by Suzuki. Yamaha were also well in the frame with their four cylinder 125 and 250 World championship winning two-strokes.
So, except for MV – and MZ to a far lesser extent – if the rider of the day thought about state-of-the-art technology his default position was Japanese.
With the end of Japanese GP participation, brought about entirely by the stupidity and narcissism of the FIM – but that’s another story – the Japanese lacked a showcase for their skills.
At precisely the same time, the world was an exciting place for engineers. In 1969, both Concorde and Boeing’s 747 made their first flights. Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20th the same year – changing history forever.
As an aside, I missed Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix and The Who because, at the time, I was penniless and so had to be a surrogate hippy and comb my shoulder length hair in a Council house bedroom on the wrong side of the railway tracks – not much of a substitute for joining my 500,000 fellow hippies in upstate New York.
Now, back to the story. In this febrile, can-do-anything atmosphere engineers in all the Japanese factories became very excited and the thing which enthused them most of all was the Holy Grail of the internal combustion engine – a power plant with, theoretically at least, virtually no moving parts or friction. Enter center stage the Wankel engine.
Engineers really do love Wankel engines because they appeal to their inner purity. Talk to any engineer about what excites him, and increasingly her, and they will radiate joy at things that work wonderfully well and have supreme simplicity. On paper, the Wankel engine is just such a creation.
The idea is that a rotor, shaped rather like a three-sided wedge of cheese, spins round inside an oval shaped chamber. A shaft is mounted eccentrically through the cheese wedge, rather like the camshaft on a four-stroke engine. The volume of each chamber changes as the rotor spins round so the fuel/air charge can be sucked in through a port in the wall of the oval chamber, in the manner of a two-stroke. In the second part of the chamber, the charge is ignited and finally it exhausts through a port, again two-stroke style.
As the engine burns the air/fuel mix then it turns the shaft and power is produced: truly elegant engineering.
Wankel advocates play some interesting political games with a rotary engine’s size. When it suits them, they will claim that the internal volume of one of the rotors’ segments represents the capacity of a Wankel. In the case of the RE-5, this is 497cc. However, no one was ever going to pay big bike money for a 497cc engine so Suzuki claimed that the RE-5 was actually a 1000cc multi. I could never quite follow this logic, even if some regulatory authorities demanded it. If the capacity of the whole engine was to be measured, then surely it should have been a 1491cc Triple rather than a 994cc Twin.
I think the reason that it wasn’t so branded was purely a marketing one. A 1500cc bike producing only 67 hp, and a feeble 54.9 ft-lb of torque, was a guaranteed sales failure before it ever reached the showroom.
Why then not sell it as a hot performing 497cc single? The problem here was the price point. At $2475, the RE-5 was almost one-third more expensive than the stunning Kawasaki Z1B selling at $1895 – a bike that would slaughter the RE-5 in every single department.
Honda’s wonderful 750K3, a somewhat closer competitor in terms of performance, if only when viewed through the eyes of a Wankel fan, was only $1495 – heading towards half the price of the RE-5.
So, before anyone had even ridden an RE-5, Suzuki were boxed into a real cost vs. perceived value corner.
Like many internal combustion engines, the Wankel origins are German. In 1919, the 17-year-old Felix Wankel was pondering how to make a simpler, and more efficient, engine than the burgeoning two and four strokes which were appearing everywhere. The problem was that young Felix’s dreams were far ahead of the available technology.
Regardless, he obtained his initial patent in 1929 but it was 28 years later, in 1957, that the German NSU concern first produced a practical rotary engine.
On paper, the engine is a delight. There are no four-stroke valves boinging up and down and a complete absence of two-stroke disc-valves whirring round and round. In fact, with only one moving part, the Wankel engine is a wonder of simplicity and engineering elegance. Except that it isn’t. The problems are manifold and serious too.
First, the tips of the rotors have to seal perfectly on the combustion chamber – and at high speeds too. To achieve this seal, there is a spring-loaded tip on the end of each arm of the rotor. These tips have to make perfect contact with the combustion chamber and so have to be extremely hard and durable. Clearly, the combustion chamber has to be hard too and this is difficult to achieve.
In Suzuki’s case, the solution was to purchase the coating technology from the US firm Platecraft – and this wasn’t cheap.
Despite the apparent simplicity of the rotary engine, it’s not efficient – particularly at lower rpm. To get the RE-5 to make reasonable torque, Suzuki designed a combustion chamber with multiple ports to mimic the boost ports which they knew all too well from the two-stroke technology they had stolen from MZ in 1961.
However, boost ports weren’t sufficient on their own and Mikuni were commissioned to produce a unique, two-stage carburetor which choked the available fuel at low rpm and then made more available as the revs increased. Simple engines? No, not really.
Then there was the major issue of the heat generated during the Wankel cycle. Rotary engines run hot – incredibly so – which is why the RE-5 was made to be water and oil cooled from the outset.
A further issue with water cooling a motorcycle engine, and then putting it into an un-faired bike, is that, aesthetically, it looks like a generator or car power plant.
Not that the challenges finished there. The exhaust gases produced by the RE-5 were so hot that a double-skinned exhaust had to be used – and even then, this had to be force fed with air, via two ducts at the front of the bike.
As the engine approached production, Suzuki increasingly found that Wankel simplicity did not equate to conventional engineering simplicity. Three separate oiling systems were needed to make the engine reliable. One was total loss, for the rotor tips, and this was an immediate cause for concern because the first glimmers of the rising, environmental impact sun were starting to shine on the horizon. A second, completely separate, lubrication system looked after the main bearings whilst a third lubed the gearbox.
In order to operate the dual stage carburetor and the lubrication system, five separate cables had to be opened and closed by the throttle. How simple do you want simple to be?
The result of the engineering was a hugely complex motorcycle that was expensive to produce and didn’t stack up in terms of performance.
Could things get any worse? Actually, yes they could.
At this point in the story, it’s important to stress the social and historical context of Suzuki’s Wankel. When Project Chief Shigeyasu Kamiya launched the RE-5 program both Honda and Yamaha were also actively developing Wankels of their own. In fact, Yamaha got as far as producing the first batch of tooling for a twin rotor design.
At the launch, Jitsujiro Suzuki, President of the Suzuki Motor Company, had the light truly shining in his eyes when he said: “Our success in realizing the RE-5 would have not have been possible without the strong pioneer spirit that has characterized Suzuki since its establishment. But just as much, it relies on our motto: ‘To Make Products of Value’.
“More than an adventure in advanced technology, the Suzuki RE-5 faithfully reflects our wish to respond to the needs of the user, in terms of operational performance and comfort.”
The Suzuki PR staff were just as evangelical. “The RE-5 is confirmation that the several advantages of the rotary type internal combustion engine – smoothness in operation, low vibration, a small number of moving parts greatly reducing maintenance problems…”
And so the eulogy went on and on in the way which only true missionaries can.
In Britain, the BSA group had already committed to a twin rotor Wankel as their savior for the future. In every way, the signposts were pointing towards a rotating future.
For their part, Suzuki put the necessary millions of dollars, in terms of engineering and capital investment, to make the RE-5 a success. For example, Suzuki built a brand-new, unique production line at Hammatsu.
Mr. Kamiya then brought in the world leading, Italian stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro to give the highest of high tech looks to the bike. For example, Giugiaro had the instrument panels covered by a translucent, green cover which rolled back, Star Trek style, to reveal – well, a pair of very ordinary analogue clocks.
Then customers got their hands on the bike…
American Astronaut, Ed Mitchell, who extolled the virtues of this cutting-edge motorcycle, fronted the actual RE-5 launch. However, engine apart, the bike actually wasn’t that advanced. The gearbox was lifted from the Suzuki GT750 triple and was only a five speeder, and the very conventional chassis struggled to deal with the problem of the huge, heavy lump of an engine that had to be mounted very high in the frame.
Suzuki then gave the bike a long, 59-inch wheelbase to add stability, which it did, but this accentuated the bike’s already porky size even more.
Suzuki dealers worldwide were told to go flat out with their own consumer launches. Martin Crooks, then a 14-year-old working after school in his Dad’s Crooks-Suzuki dealership – at the time the biggest Suzuki franchise in Britain – remembers the launch well.
“Eddie (Martin’s Dad) hired the Civic Hall in Barrow and we showed off the RE-5 which Suzuki told us we had to stock. There was loads of interest but no one wanted to part with their own money.
“Eddie was keen on the RE-5 because he’d already owned a Wankel engine NSU car, but even with his enthusiasm, he couldn’t convince customers to buy it.
“Eventually, we got rid of the one bike and we were glad to see it go.
“We still had a whole board full of Suzuki special tools which I wish I still had but they all got destroyed in a fire so we really never did make any profit from the RE-5 project.”
So, despite all the glitz and glamour of a very posh launch, the RE-5 was a sales disaster. Crooks-Suzuki were not the only ones to hit a concrete wall in terms of sales. Only 65 RE-5s sold in the crucial German market during 1975 and, as the bike’s reputation developed, this fell to one – as in a single unit – in 1976.
If the RE-5 was a complex beast in the hands of Suzuki development staff, it proved to be plutonium toxic for normal customers. A key problem was the unique NGK A9EFP spark plug. This had a fondness for oiling up, at which point the bike wouldn’t start, and replacement plugs were difficult to obtain and expensive.
Then there was the issue of getting all five cables correctly adjusted and keeping a close eye on the three separate oil reservoirs.
But none of these issues was the deal breaker in the bike’s success or, as things transpired, its failure. I have met a few Wankel engineers over the years and they all make one crucial mistake. It is to assume that whilst rotary engine technology will develop, four-stroke designs will remain static.
Whilst Suzuki were ram raiding their cash reserves for the RE-5 project, they were also developing the truly delightful four cylinder, four-stroke, GS750. This bike produced 72hp compared with the 67hp of the RE-5, made more torque, weighed slightly less and sold at $2195 – almost 10% cheaper than the Wankel.
The GS750 also handled vastly better than the RE-5 and could be ridden ruthlessly, flat out – all day every day without missing a beat. Suzuki dealers were soon queuing up for the new Inline Four, and desperately trying to bury any RE-5s they had in stock by doing ridiculous deals. A chap I knew through racing actually swapped a suit of replica medieval armor, and not a very good one either, for an RE-5 – and then immediately regretted the deal.
It was this armor-generated bike I rode for a couple of hours in 1977 and my overwhelming memory was of wasting a nice afternoon, when I could have been doing something that was much more fun.
The only thing of interest was the very attractive burbling Wankel note – always unmistakable if you have ridden a rotary engine motorcycle. The rest of the experience was memorable for its dullness. There wasn’t much power, and the bike’s owner had given me severe warnings about the dangers of over-revving the motor, whilst the handling continued the theme of utter ordinariness.
Would anyone pay a premium to own a bike like this, even it were the best looking and most reliable motorcycle ever made? The answer was unequivocally in the negative.
Today, the RE-5 continues to attract near fanatical loyalty from its acolytes – in the way that quirky motorcycles tend to do. However, the market place tells the true story. There are any number of RE-5s on offer, for less money than you would pay for a nice 250 BSA or Triumph – and that says it all.