Motorcycle Classics

1981 Suzuki RG500 Restored Twice

Follow the restoration life of a racing 1981 Suzuki RG500 bike.

In October 1973 I uncrated a brand new 1974 Yamaha TZ250 production road racer and loaded it into my pickup for the drive home.

rg500 cockpit

By the following weekend at least four major stock components — including the front end, brakes, and rear suspension — and a number of minor ones had been swapped out for upgraded parts. I raced it for a few years, making more changes along the way, then sold it. Now, many years later, I find myself wondering this: If I somehow found the bike, how hard would it be to restore it to its original condition, with factory parts in place of the ones I added? Based on the experiences of two top-notch bike restorers, both of whom worked on the same 1981 Suzuki RG500 you see here at different times, it wouldn’t be easy.

Restoration No. 1

The first restorer was Bob Allen, who started racing in 1954 and competed in road racing, motocross, trials, and even sidecars before retiring. “I restore bikes because I can no longer race,” he said when I spoke with him several years ago. “It’s a passion for me to find and secure these old race bikes for posterity. Well, a passion and a savings plan. I don’t especially do them for customers. I work on them at my own pace at home.”

engine close up

Allen’s home includes a small machine shop that came in handy when a call to a vast network of like-minded restorers failed to come up with a needed part. Allen did all his own painting, too. Today his bikes reside in private collections and motorcycle museums in England, Spain, the Netherlands, and Japan.

A tip from a friend led Allen to a 1981 Suzuki RG500 production racer that had been slumbering in a basement in New York for at least 20 years. The original owner was Uri Bergbaum, who bought it from Heron, the U.K. Suzuki distributor, and then brought in to the U.S. He raced it in the Daytona 200 in 1983 and 1984, finishing 16th and 17th respectively. Bergbaum’s ex-wife had the bike now, and she sold it to Allen. Along with the bike came a big supply of spares. “There were enough spares for probably a couple of years of racing,” Allen said, except a right-side rotary-valve disc cover that Allen had to get from Heron at no small expense.

engine close up

Allen wanted to restore the bike to its original trim, but how do you tell exactly what’s original on an old race bike? “You research the history as much as you can,” Allen said. “You find every publication that was available at the time. The Japanese ones are wonderful. Some of the specialty race magazines they put together had lots of photos and specs about the original bikes.”

The actual restoration began with breaking the bike down to its component parts and cataloging them. “These bikes must have been very expensive to make,” he said after seeing what was inside. “Every fastener in the engine is titanium, and the cases are magnesium. It’s a work of art, the most fun I’ve ever had restoring an engine.”

wheel and tire on motorcycle

The gas tank turned out to be less fun. “It had been mashed in at some point and covered up with Bondo. They drilled holes to pull out the dents, then put a sealer on the holes. When we cut the tank all the way open, there were eight sealed plastic pint bottles inside. They were crammed in there to cut down on the fuel capacity to meet AMA rules.”

With the mechanical details sorted out, Allen went into the paint booth and repainted the bike in Heron colors. In time he got an offer from a proposed motorcycle museum in Seattle and sold the RG. “I’m still kicking myself in the butt for letting it go,” he said. “I enjoyed that restoration more than any of my other bikes.”

Restoration No. 2

The museum project turned out to be a scam to buy up restored classic bikes and resell them at a profit. In January 2012 the second restorer to get his hands on the RG500, Philip Koenen, was at a Bonham’s auction in Las Vegas with a client who was a collector. The Suzuki caught his eye. The bike’s $50,000 reserve price wasn’t met, the seller dropped it to $25,000, and when the bidding was over Koenen and his client left Las Vegas with a piece of racing history for $26,000 — roughly the price of a new Gold Wing.

red yellow racing motorcycle

By that time the RG needed another complete teardown and restoration. “It wasn’t in the greatest of shape because it had been handled by a couple of guys who didn’t take care of it,” said Koenen. “Although I knew the original restorer, Bob Allen, and I trusted his work, I didn’t trust the two guys that owned it after Bob sold it. I took the whole bike apart, checked everything, fixed a lot of the cosmetic issues that were wrong with it, and then put it back together.”

Koenen gave Allen a lot of credit for the original restoration. “Bob did the majority of the hard work because when he got it, it had been sitting for 20-some years.” But mechanical problems had crept in since then. “The rear hub wasn’t correctly put together. It had been apart since Bob did it. The front brakes were frozen, and the gearshift lever was stuck in gear for some reason so I had to take the transmission apart.”

twin disc breaksTwin discs slow things up front.

Koenen was the kind of guy who, if he sent you an email that said, “Come over right away, you’ll want to see this,” you dropped whatever you were doing and went. That’s how I found myself in his spotless shop, slowly walking around an RG500 that looked like it had just rolled out of a time machine set to 1981. Race bikes have a stark beauty that arises from simplicity and functionality geared toward a single purpose — to go fast. The RG was one of those bikes. The detail work was remarkable, from the throttle-cable housing with four separate cables, one for each carb, to the flawless gold paint on the Campagnolo magnesium wheels, to the winglets on the Heron-themed fairing. I wouldn’t have been surprised to turn around to see Barry Sheene walking toward it pulling on his gloves.

red yellow racing motorcycleThe restored racer is painted in Heron Team livery.

Koenen never told me his client’s name, only that he lived in the mountains of British Columbia in a big house partially furnished with restored classic motorcycles, some on the floor and others hanging on the walls. I’ll always regret missing Koenen’s call to come back to his shop to hear him fire up the rotary-valve square four before rolling it into a trailer to go to its new home. And I’ll always envy the anonymous client who paid him to polish up the world’s best living room accessory. MC

Suzuki Motorcycles: The Classic Two-Stroke Era

Researched and written in Japan with the full co-operation of the factory, here in definitive detail is the story of the two-stroke Suzuki bikes — a series of models that put the company on the map, helping it to survive a difficult era that saw hundreds of Japanese motorcycle makers reduced to just the big four. The series has now been all but killed off, but Suzuki Motorcycles: The Classic Two-stroke Era helps celebrate a time when the two-stroke was king. Focusing on the 1950s through to the late-1970s, experience the two-stroke models that defended Suzuki’s honor on the tracks as well as in the showrooms. This title is available at the Motorcycle Classics Store or by calling 800-880-7567. Item #10918.

  • Published on Oct 1, 2021
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