We look at one man’s superb example of Suzuki’s large two-stroke that shows they are as useable as any other bike.
Words by Oli Hulme, Photos by James Archibald
IT was A lovely bike. “Best of the night, to be honest. Have you come far?” I asked. When Martin turned up at the local pub bike meet on his Suzuki T500J, it was so spotless that I assumed it was one of those ‘I live just round the corner’ bikes that only come out on sunny days. “Oh, just up from Weymouth,” he replied, instantly banishing my preconceptions into dust. Weymouth is a three-hour, 100-mile round trip across country; quite the journey, even on a sunny Wednesday evening. It’s a long way to come for a pint.
The very least that should have happened to the immaculate T500 was the appearance of a drip of oil or a speck of dirt somewhere. But not this one, which looks better than it must have when it rolled out of the showroom 50 years ago. It had to be checked out, photographed, and featured – and right away.
We met up in Bridport a week later, at the town’s very groovy vintage market on the same day as the Bridport Folk Festival. This meant a lot of dodging of Morris dancers, and a lot of hanging around waiting for the passing searchers-after-vintage-bargains to get out of the way as they drooled and exulted over the beauty of the 1972 Suzuki, all the while failing to notice photographer James and his kit.
Over an exotic (and vintage) artisan coffee, Martin talked me through the history of his T500. “I had my first T500 back in 1976 but that’s long gone. This is a 1972 T500J, a US import I bought from Oxford Classic Honda 14 years ago, and I used it as it came for many years. It was in reasonable condition when I got it, though the chrome was getting a little thin in places. There were some gearbox issues, caused by the sump not having enough capacity, so I managed to pick up a second-hand gearbox and at the same time I had the engine rebuilt by Hollygrove Motorcycles in Verwood. When it came back and it was all shiny, I did think, ‘oh, that looks a bit good now’, so I thought I’d better do something about the rest of it.
“I cleaned out the petrol tank, done by reverse electrolysis with a large metal anode inside the tank that was filled with a soda solution and connected up to a battery charger. It took three weeks to get all the rust out. I had it blasted back to bare metal, which revealed some pinholes in the bottom. John Gill at Peach Engineering welded it all up again.
“It was painted and hand-pinstriped. I sent the wheels off for new rims and when I got them back, they’d polished the hub, which did make me wonder how I was going to keep it clean, but I manage it with chopsticks and alcohol wipes.”
It was at this point that the bike became Martin’s advent calendar: “It was Christmas and my wife had bought the kid’s calendars. I asked where mine was and she said I hadn’t got one, so I got the Suzuki’s frame out and stuck in on the coffee table, saying ‘that’s my advent calendar’. I hung different new parts on it every day. It was a very enjoyable Christmas.”
Tracking down the parts needed to complete the restoration was made a lot easier by Crooks Suzuki. “Martin Crooks is cracking bloke,” said Martin. “He didn’t treat me like an idiot, even though I was, so I wasn’t scared of asking for help.”
The chroming was done by Doug Taylor’s Metal Finishing of Banwell, though it took a while as the Covid-19 pandemic delayed the process. Martin kept costs down here, too. “I just took all the bits to Taylors that needed attention and fixed myself a budget of £1500. I handed bits over the counter and tallied up the cost until I reached that target – and that’s why the brake pedal, kickstart, and rear light carrier didn’t get fresh chrome... it would have blown my budget.
“There’s a new wiring harness on there too, and new old stock cables with the correct grey finish on them. My best find was a 1976 NOS rear sprocket I had bought and never fitted to my original T500 in 1976. I’d sold the T500 to buy a brand-new Suzuki GS550.”
Clutches were another issue. “I had two spare clutches but, to be honest, they were crap. I paid £340 for a new clutch from Nova Racing, which is a mixture of Suzuki and Honda clutch plates and a new clutch basket machined from billet aluminium.”
Exhausts came from a supplier in Holland and cost £500 for the pair, while the rear light with the rear reflectors, known as the ‘dogbone’ light, may be from a later model. There’s been a lot of attention to detail, including finding the correct rubber ties for the cables and the right rubber-tipped brake and clutch levers.
All the work was done in a spare room in Martin’s place in Weymouth. Once completed, there was the unforeseen problem of getting the thing outside. That meant rolling it down two flights of concrete stairs, so an elaborate ramp using long wooden panels was set up and ropes attached to the back of the bike, with Martin guiding the front as his 16-year-old son hung onto the other end.
This turned out to be easier said than done. The ramps were so steep that it was impossible to let the Suzuki proceed gently to the bottom of the stairs.... Martin at the front hanging onto the brake lever on and his son holding the rope were very nearly not strong enough to stop the T500 from careering out of control. Martin experienced an anxious few seconds as his beautiful creation bumped down to the street, thankfully unscathed.
Going out onto the open road showed just why Martin loves his T500 so much. The exhaust has a lovely crackle, and when the throttle is opened there’s just a puff of blue smoke as it pulls away and then it absolutely flies along. Anyone who thinks these old Jap classics don’t handle should try out one of these.
Martin also rides a 2004 1200GS but always knew he had to have another big two-stroke. “It’s just a lovely bike to ride,” he said. “I’ve put 12,000 miles on it – 1970s brakes and 1970s handling and all.”
The T500 Suzuki
Until the late 1960s, the two-stroke engine was, mostly, used to power small, cheap motorcycles. There had been a handful of bigger two-strokes, such as the Scott, and the two-stroke engine was used for racing both for road and scramblers. And enormous Deltic locomotive engines were two-strokes as well, sort of.
For road bikes, in the UK at least, two-strokes were mostly temperamental, primitive and slow. BSA Bantams and Francis-Barnetts were the producers of blue smoke, in the UK at least. It was East German designer Ernst Degner who changed the way the world looked at the two-stroke ‘stinkwheel’. He designed the engines for MZ racers, then famously defected and went to work for Suzuki, where his two-stroke engine concept was given the development it deserved.
Suzuki used Ernst’s track genius to build a formidable racing team, but prior to 1968 a two-stroke bike bigger than about 350cc wasn’t a mass-market option. The narrow powerband two-strokes offered power that couldn’t be managed by the average rider, as buyers of Kawasaki triples were soon to discover. Big two-strokes were expected to overheat and were very thirsty indeed.
In 1968 Suzuki built its biggest bike yet, the short-lived T500 Five, a two-cylinder 500cc in a frame that was too short and had questionable handling. A T500 Five avoided the overheating issue by making the barrels much bigger with larger fins. Look at the engine and compare it with a Yamaha 350 twin of the same era to compare the size. It was rapidly replaced by the T500 Cobra, which wasn’t exactly a sharp handler itself, but with a longer wheelbase it was a lot easier for the average motorcyclist to ride.
Middleweight two-stroke twins between 350cc and 500cc quickly became the ride of choice for those wanting something a bit less sensible than Honda’s 450 Black Bomber and a lot more advanced and better equipped than British 500 twins. Indeed, the T500 Cobra was easily as quick as the British 650 flagship models which were being left behind, with their only advantages being that they handled better and people knew how to fix them by the side of the road.
The power delivery on the Cobra was not what you might expect from a two-stroke twin; it had more in common with a two-stroke diesel. In 1969 Suzuki modified the engine’s piston ports and reduced the size of the carbs, which made it perform very much like a four-stroke, with a much more flexible power delivery and reduced fuel consumption.
It remained a classic two-stroke with conventional piston porting; there were no disc valves, reed valves or the like. There was a pressed-up crankshaft running on three ball bearings with a gear drive to the clutch basket.
The T500 Cobra could do many things and as the years passed it became an unexpectedly good all-rounder. It sprinted away from the lights like a racer, cruised at 4000rpm and 70mph, and was clean and sensible enough to commute on without getting Duckhams on your brogues. It could take a rider, pillion, and luggage on tour. You could fit a nose fairing if you wanted it to look sporty, or a bigger Rickman touring fairing to keep the weather off. It did vibrate a fair bit, a problem intensified by the firmly mounted handlebars, though when Suzuki rubber mounted the bars on later models the handling was criticised for being wobbly. Cycle Magazine in the US recommended that riders wore footwear with thick cushioned soles, which, in the days of platform boots, were probably easy to find.
It was also simple. There were twin slide carbs with twin cables that got the fuel in and were faultless. It had an unusual left-foot kickstart and a swappable gear shift/rear brake pedal so you could select left or right foot shift. There were two sets of points, which was also a simple set-up with the necessary timing marks – revolutionary stuff for 1968 when most people were used to using timing discs.
You need to change the gearbox oil occasionally, and the earlier models with a 1200cc capacity gearbox had issues with fourth and fifth gear, and most were modified under warranty to take 1400cc of lubricant. When they were new, they didn’t even smoke that much but today ageing and dried-out crank seals are likely to leave a cloud behind. There was ‘Posiforce’ oil injection too, so no messing about peering at the side of a bottle of Castrol 2T to work out just how much oil you needed to add. Oil from the tank was delivered by a gearbox-driven pump by plastic tubing to the outer main bearings and the rear face of the cylinders. The pump also powered the rev counter, and if this stopped working it could mean that the cable had broken – or it could mean the pump had failed.
Oil from the main bearings was collected by a lipped plate on the outer faces of the crankshaft webs and trickled through to the needle-roller big ends. The oil delivery rate was increased by a cable connected to the twistgrip.
Suzuki electrics were pretty good when new, but like most things will have deteriorated a bit by now. The TLS front brake is excellent for the period and easily the equal of the disc fitted to later GT models.
The T500 isn’t a traditional 1970s two-stroke. It is more like a characterful four-stroke twin, and is more than fast enough to keep up with modern traffic – 44bhp is what most 650cc retro-modern middleweights produce and, if anything, the T500 is more flexible. A genuine, practical classic.
What is it?
A deceptively sporty touring two-stroke twin
The performance and character
Spares availability might be tricky
Oily rag runner:
A top-notch T500 will cost about £6000
The T500 became the GT500 in 1976, with more detuning to make it more reliable and to stop it competing with Suzuki’s GT380 and GT550 triples, which were more performance-orientated. The GT used some major parts from the GT750 triple. It had two pistons from the 750 and it used the large petrol tank, too. It had a single stainless steel front disc from the 750 as well. Other upgrades included a revised crank, already a fine bit of engineering – something Suzuki called the Pointless Energy Ignition, and everyone else called Capacitor Discharge Ignition (CDI). The generator charges up a capacitor, which stores the energy for a fraction of a second and then releases it into the coils, and that produces the spark. Well, it’s a bit more complicated, but that’s basically it. The capacitor system meant you could start the bike even if it had a flat battery. The ignition module was mounted on the end of the crank and sadly you can’t just swap it out to fit an earlier model but there are alternative ignition systems available.
By 1978 the GT was still available but had fallen out of fashion and Suzuki sold them off at ridiculously low rates. You could buy a new GT500 for £725, or even less if you went to one of the big discounters or paid an extra £170 for an inappropriately sporting fairing and café racer kit.
Meanwhile, the GS550 four that arrived in 1978 to ultimately replace the 500 twin was £400 more expensive.
What’s in a name?
Suzuki called the first T500 the Cobra. But Ford-Shelby objected to this as it made the Shelby Cobra, so Suzuki changed the name of the T500 to the Charger, but Dodge objected to the use of the name as that was the same as their muscle car, so it became the Titan, which was fine in the US and mainland Europe, but in the UK Titan was a trademark used by Read-Titan for its café racer body kits! Suzuki gave up in the UK and just called it the T500.
Buying some blue smoke glory
Finding a T500 is getting harder. A complete US or Canada-sourced bike in unrestored condition starts at about £3000 to £3500. A good running unrestored but registered model will cost between £4000 and £5000.
The older the bike, the trickier it will be to find missing or replacement parts. Do your research and make sure that the immaculately restored Suzuki twin that has caught your eye isn’t a mix-and-match bitsa.
The cheapest way to get some two-stroke energy is to search for a good GT500 from the end of the production run, which will set you back between £3500 and £5000.
Watch out for rusty mudguards, which are hard to find, and instruments with plastic lenses tend to go yellow and crack. Look out for missing badges and panels and check the exhausts for rot inside.
ENGINE: 492cc air-cooled twin-cylinder two-stroke COMPRESSION RATIO: 6.6:1 POWER: 44bhp @ 7000rpm GEARBOX: Five-speed FINAL DRIVE: Chain FRAME: Steel-tubed double cradle SUSPENSION: Telescopic forks, twin shock rear BRAKES: Twin leading shoe drums front and single leading shoe rear TYRES: 3.25x19 front 3 4.00x18 rear HEIGHT: 43.5in/1105mm WHEELBASE: 57.3in/1455mm dry WEIGHT: 410lb/186kg FUEL CAPACITY: 13.1 gallons/14 litres