Rotary Barn Find: 1975 Suzuki RE5

UPDATE 6/10/2019 – This awesome Suzuki has been relisted here on eBay, this time with a BIN of $4,500. Is it a fair deal or overpriced?

FROM 5/30/2019 – For the lover of unusual and somewhat, or at least sometimes, scary rides, comes this 1975 Suzuki RE5 rotary. These things are absolutely crazy cool when they’re in perfect condition – one of the most unique designs out there, in my opinion. This project rotary can be found here on eBay in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin and the current bid price is not quite $1,700 but of course, the reserve isn’t met yet.

For any of you Mazda rotary folks, you have to follow up your collection with a rotary motorcycle. The Hercules W2000 comes to mind but if you’re somewhat on a budget, check out the Suzuki RE5. I have to admit that I have never owned a rotary-powered vehicle so I can’t personally attest to the reliability of them, but from what I hear they aren’t exactly the Honda 90 of the motorcycle world. But then again, life is too short to drive or ride a vehicle just because it’s 100% reliable.

The seller of this RE5 says that it’s a barn find and it’s believed to be a one-owner bike, which means that they don’t actually know for sure. Every piece is here which is nice and with 9,290 miles, it should have much more life left in it once the next owner gets it running again. Yes, it hasn’t been started in about a decade. But, this thing is cool!

Details like the cylinder-shaped gauge cluster with the flip-up cover and the round turn signals are fantastic. A few manufacturers jumped on the rotary bandwagon in the 1970s and there were several motorcycle makers who have made rotary bikes over the years, including Norton, Hercules, and Van Veen. Suzuki dabbled with the RE5 from 1974 to 1976.

Here’s the heart of the beast, a 497 cc rotary engine with 62 hp and cooling was very important on these engines so they came with that big radiator to help out. There aren’t many of them out there and finding a skilled mechanic who knows how to work on them may be harder than normal. This one turns over manually but they haven’t started it. Hagerty is at about $5,000 for a #4 fair condition RE5 so this one has a long way to go to meet the reserve I’m guessing. Have any of you owned a rotary-powered motorcycle?

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Comments

  1. SMS

    Okay, this was the weirdest riding bike I have ever been on. Zero torque and yet fast. Let go the throttle and it didn’t slow down. Gulped down gas. Sounded like a cartoon. Every time I rode it I giggled and laughed it was such a blast.

    Don’t start it. Pull it apart and check the seals and surfaces for ridges.

    Will have to tear it down every few thousand miles.

    Very fun, strange, and well worth having for a while.

    6
    • r s

      Some of these were said to have run for many tens of thousands of miles without dying but I’d say that was the exception. Wankel engines just are not happy to be engines. One side of the block (or ‘stator’) has the heat of combustion and the other side had the cooling of intake air, so there is always this terrific tension in thermal expansion which then plays havoc with the seals, especially on the stator and the sides of the rotor.

      These engines got terrible MPG, like 25-30, and the RE5 topped out at a measly 105 mph (while the Honda 750 could do 125). It had a two-stage carburetor, kinda like a four barrel with only one primary and one secondary, and some crazy amount of cables coming off the hand throttle – to control the throttle, the secondary opening, the oil injection, maybe something else. The exhaust was so hot on these things that it had a double shell with air inlets at the front of the bike to cool down the pipes from lethal temperature levels.

      I’m glad I can say I owned one but I’m also glad I sold it and got a GS1000, a far better bike.

      4
  2. geomechs geomechs Member

    I remember seeing one of these on the showroom floor at the Suzuki dealer back in the day. It sat there for half the riding season then it was gone, never to be seen again. I remember an article in one of the bike magazines about a guy who put a Wankel engine in a 250 BMW. He did a good enough job although I would’ve kept the original engine.

    Those rotary engines go and go until suddenly they quit, and it’s Game Over. I knew a guy with a Mazda R100. He drove it and drove it until its color scheme changed to Rust with some blue trim. One day he stalled at a stop light, and that was it for the engine. I think it only had 51K miles at the time.

    1
  3. TonyWa

    Just an FYI – They do sound really strange….. Parts availability is a serious issue for these.

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    • r s

      They DO sound strange, sort of like a single cylinder two stroke outboard motor with the exhaust underwater. “Popcorn farts” is how my friend described it. I had the bike on the center stand and he stood on the kick starter and jumped and could barely make it move.

      Lots of RE5 parts on Ebay but I think many of them are very corroded and ratty looking. The shame is that many of these bikes went from crate to crusher – they’d have made beautiful display pieces if they’d been saved.

  4. r s

    I owned one of these when I was 19. I went to the local motorcycle dealer to see if I could get a leftover Kaw KZ900 but the last one of those was gone so the dealer said ‘how about one of these?’ Being a dumb kid I bought it. have these thoughts:
    1. The only Wankel engine with a kick starter perhaps? And near impossible to kick.
    2. Good friend of mine described the exhaust sound as ‘popcorn farts’.
    3. Cost half again as much as a reliable, much faster, much better looking Honda 750… not a recipe for success.
    4. The engine doesn’t have that beauty of chrome and shape you get with other engines. It looks like some kind of ingot with plumbing.
    5. Suzuki sent over this version (in the BF listing) one year and had a hard time selling them. Sent many of them back to Japan, changed the instruments and lights to make them less Flash Gordon, painted them black, and sent them back to the US where they still didn’t do very well. Eventually the last ones were sent back to Japan, never sold or uncrated, and went to the crusher.
    6. Jay Leno has one of these.
    7. The engine had one spark plug with a tiny electrode that easily fouled.
    8. You had a crankcase with oil and a filter plus a separate oil injection tank to keep track of with a different kind of oil.
    9. The Wankel engine has so many challenges, it’s more of a ‘see I told you we could make it run’ than any real advance… too many seals, conflicting temperatures, etc. etc. The Wankel was just not the advance people were told it was.
    This is definitely a piece of motorcycling history, but if you compare the cost, looks, and performance against what else was available then, it’s clear it was doomed to fail. I paid $1600 for mine new, sold it a couple years later in utterly mint condition for $1300, then bought a brand new GS1000 which was 100 times as good a bike.

    3
    • r s

      By the way, I think the original prices of these RE5’s was more on the order of $2400, much higher than a 750 Honda. My getting it for $1600 was obviously a ‘got to get rid of it’ price. Likely Suzuki was doing something to help cover the dealer on these as nobody was buying them at original price.

      1
  5. Terry Bowman

    So true, what is said here. I had a Mazda R2 and R3 back in the 70’s. They were fast and none. No in between. Heat was their big downfall. I’m sure these RE5 are no different. Still would look COOL in a Suzuki showroom as a display.

  6. Mr.BZ

    I rode my 78 GT750 Suzuki to the Japanese bike parts store in Phoenix one day, and there out front sat an RE-5. I loved my water buffalo for being different, as well as loud, obnoxious and reliable! But WTF was this?? As I looked it over, the RE-5 owner came out and we talked about our bikes (mostly his) for a while. When he started it up, it was the most bizarre sound I had ever heard from an ICE. I left there with a new part for the WB, and the realization that my GT would be considered mainstream by many.

    2
    • SMS

      @Mr.BZ That is a great story. Love the idea of a water buffalo seeming mainstream after one of these

      1
  7. Ross W. Lovell

    Greetings All,

    When these were introduced, the dealers were told in no uncertain terms that should one come in, the motor was coming out and crated to be sent out and evaluated.

    There were some in-house repairs but they were trying to get some data on these and the apex seals, which were worrisome.

    A friend has one, still, it gets exercised regularly, so far, no issues, but his instrument cluster has a new cover.

    Riding reminded me of an electric motor, not a lot of grunt but respectable for a 500. Funny, I always thought these were 750’s like his “Water Buffalo”.

  8. v

    i owned 2 mazda RX3 wagons 1973 and 1974 with wankel engines. the 74 was given to me just to get it out of the owners yard. he literally stopped me in my 73 on the highway in florida and said if i wanted it i can have it. it was a smoker on start up but ran well after it warmed up. my 1973 mazda rx3 wagon automatic i drove from florida to pennsylvania. they both were great cars . these engines would wind out 5500 rpm and were a blast to drive. they both got great gas mileage and quite frankly i wish i had kept them both. neither 1 ever left me stranded. compared to cars today i would take a wankel over practically any import built today. unless they made a newer wankel.

  9. AnalogMan

    r s, I also owned one of these when I was 19! I echo your comments.

    It was 1977. I found a dealer with a leftover 1975 RE5. It was the only one they received, and they couldn’t sell it – until I came along. I paid $1,000 for it, a fraction of what a new Honda 750 cost (which I couldn’t afford).

    I was drawn to the bike both for its futuristic Star Wars sci-fi looks, and the iconoclastic rotary engine, which, as others have said, was much better in theory than practice.

    The bike was great fun to ride. The sound was unique, similar to a Wankel car (not surprisingly). I think the ‘popcorn farting’ analogy is too harsh. I thought it sounded like a jet engine spooling up for take off (though more whiny). As expected, it was very smooth, totally vibration-free. Like all Wankels, it had plenty of hp but little torque down low, which didn’t matter as much on a bike that revved so quickly. It was plenty fast, much faster than it looked. The lack of engine braking was a little disconcerting, and took getting used to.

    The gas mileage was abominable. I consistently got 25 mpg with it, whether gently causing down the highway or playing on winding roads.

    It was thoroughly impractical as a ‘daily driver’, both due to complex maintenance and poor reliability/longevity. But it did feel very special to ride. As a purely collectible and occasional use toy now, it could be a lot of fun – you likely won’t see another one at any bike gathering. Though, I suspect most of the parts are now unobtanium. It would probably be almost impossible to get one into running condition, or to keep it that way. Might be better as a static display.

    2
  10. TimM

    All I can say is this thing is cool as heck!! I would love to own this thing especially considering I helped a friend of my son build a rotary out of a Mazda this passed winter!! It was a complete learning experience for me!!!

  11. Richard Raymond

    I had one for over 40 years. There was a company called Rotary Recycle where you could get all the parts including nos parts. After my motorcycle accident, I gave mine away to a friend with a trailer for free.

    1

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