Live Auctions

Stored 40 Years: 1975 Suzuki RE5 Rotary

You’ll have to help me think of a more unique motorcycle than this 1975 Suzuki RE5 rotary. Between a Japanese company, an engine with German heritage, and an Italian designer, they threw almost everything at this bike. The seller has this example listed here on eBay in Prospect, Connecticut and the current bid price is just $2,025. I’d crawl over broken glass to get this bike for two grand, but there are still eight days left on the auction.

NSU had been experimenting with rotary engines since the 1950s and Suzuki had their hand in rotary engines since the 1960s. This groundbreaking engine type was invented by Felix Wankel in 1954 and in 1967, NSU came out with their NSU Ro80 sedan and won Germany’s very first car of the year award in 1968. Many manufacturers had licensing agreements with Wankel to develop rotary engines, not the least of which was Suzuki.

If you have a spare 18:45 minutes, check out this video here on YouTube where Jay Leno shows a beautiful Suzuki RE5 and rides it at the end. As long as we’re bouncing around a bit, if you really want a unique rotary-powered motorcycle, the Hercules W-2000 may be the ultimate. We saw one over six years ago here on Barn Finds and I haven’t seen one for sale since then. By the way, we’ve seen three other Suzuki RE5s here on Barn Finds over the last seven years or so.

Suzuki made the RE5 for three short years, 1974 through 1976, and reviewers at the time loved them, riders loved them, and almost everyone loved them. But for some reason, they never caught on. The details are hard to beat here, having been designed by famous Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. The “can” gauge cluster is legendary and the similarly-shaped tail light is also cool. The spherical turn signals put it over the top for me. This motorcycle looks almost perfect to me, it would be fun to just clean it up and tinker with it to at least try to get it going again.

But, the real star of the show is the rotary engine, complete with a “Suzuki 750 water-buffalo-like” radiator. Very cool. This one has the equivalent of 497 cc and would have put out around 62 horsepower. Sadly, this one hasn’t been started or ridden since 1982 it sounds like, and that’s a long time for a technically-tricky rotary engine to be idle. They say that it turns over but they haven’t tried to start it. For garage art alone this is a no-brainer for its current bid price but who knows what the final price will be. Have any of you owned or ridden a rotary-powered motorcycle? If so, please share your thoughts on how it performed.

Comments

  1. Howard A Member

    Ooooh, “crawl over broken glass”,,I was thinking walk over hot coals, but broken glass,,That certainly makes a statement. Most the peanut gallery here knows, when a post like this shows up, you can bet who wrote it up. This site is darn lucky to have him,,just an added flair to the “usual” posts,,
    The author is too nice, but anyone familiar with these knows, they were remarkable machines,,when they ran, that is. Suzuki was kind of the “AMC” of bikes. Going out on a limb with different ideas, usually with poor results. Some may remember, someone GAVE me a rotary powered Johnson snowmobile. Had like 42 miles on it, like new, but never got it going. The guy I got it from even gave me a can of special “rotary oil”, never opened.
    The rotary was touted as the “engine of the future”,( not to us stout “reciprocating types”) and the bikes design reflects what Suzuki designers thought a “future” bike might look like. I don’t have to tell you what my hometown Harley crowd, that hadn’t felt the sting of Asian bikes in ’75 quite yet, thought of this, you can guess.
    I, like the author, think it’s really cool, whether I’d crawl over broken glass for one( still chuckling about that), probably not, and for the same reason this will be a tough sell, they are incredibly complex, even for a natural born gearhead like me, and probably best as a museum piece.
    Now, a ’75 Kaw Z1B, THAT I’d crawl over glass for,,

    Like 7
  2. RayT Member

    Nice writeup, Scotty! I’m left wondering, however, if these suffered from the same ills as early automotive rotaries (e.g. seal failures), as my Mazda RX-3 did….

    For sheer uniqueness, I’d vote for another bike, the Munch Mammut. That one had its NSU roots, too, using a 1200cc “four” from an NSU TTS passenger car. I’ve always wanted one, ever since Floyd Clymer (remember him?) first started importing them.

    Had a chance to ride one, once upon a time, and declined. The thing looked way too scary when compared to my Honda 160!

    Like 5
    • Ricardo Ventura

      Floyd Clymer. Today I went to find out who that person was.
      I thought I was just a journalist.
      In the 60’s I read a lot of car tests that he published in Popular Mechanics magazine.
      I had a lot of admiration for his work. Now I have so much more.

      Like 4
    • Rj

      I’m curious if the headlight housing might have been the inspiration for the goggles on those little yellow Minions. Munch’s Mammut Motorcycle should be the official ride for Minions everywhere.

      Like 1
  3. alphasud Member

    Great article and I remember the Suzuki dealer near my place of work had one in the showroom back in the early 90’s. Thinking about all the articles I have read over the years about the Wankel engine and how it captivated just about every manufacturer in the 60’s and early 70’s. The Wankel bankrupted the NSU company and almost bankrupted AMC after designing the Pacer to receive the Wankel. Then there was Citroen who designed the CX and BX to receive a Wankel engine. The engine was so plagued with issues Citroen bought back all the BX Birotor models. This costly mistake probably drove the company to bankruptcy as well. GM invested heavily only to cancel the project when emissions and reliability targets could not be met. The only company that succeeded was Mazda and even with its best efforts it never matched the reciprocating engine in longevity, low oil consumption, and clean emissions.
    It’s almost like nobody wanted to be left behind kind of like todays push for electrification. The electric car industry revolves around the Li-Ion battery which has many drawbacks. I always thought the hydrogen path was a better solution but that seems to be loosing ground. One thing for sure I won’t be buying one.

    Like 6
    • Bwana

      Yeah, but hydrogen makes big boom noises when it gets hit, at least sometimes. I do agree, that Hydrogen is encouraging as far as emissions, but where does the energy come from to make it? Is it less than filling up a battery? No one seems to want to answer these questions. The left wing because they are embarrassed? The right because they are beholding to fossil fuels? Just once, I would like a clear set of truths told to me so I can make proper choices.

      Like 2
      • Big C

        Just remember. There’s a reason that the internal combustion engine has been the go to, for over a century. Can you believe that captains of industry, who were always looking for the best return on investment, didn’t look at all the different power alternatives? They had over 100 years to try. Fossil fuels have always been the best, most plentiful, and cheapest way to power the world.

        Like 2
      • Bwana

        Big C, all true, but after a hundred years in the biz, the industry leaders have gotten so rich and powerful, they will not allow any alternatives to be looked into. The status quo is fine with them. Who knows if there is or there is not a cheaper and better way, because the powers that be have stifled any competition.

        Like 3
      • Gary

        Petro is the cheapest, most abundant form of vehicle fuel. We have enough under the US to last 200-300 years. Mining the lithium and processing it is worse on the environment the fossil fuels. The only reason EV is getting pushed is everyone is getting rich off the scam.

        Like 8
      • Bwana

        Gary, you are right, the mining does seem to be problematic, but if lithium batteries are a scam, what is the intent of the scam? I will add that in the past 20 years gas powered cars (not diesels) are quite clean. Is there even more tech that could make them closer enough to a battery to make the difference in emissions negligible? That would seem to be the best of both worlds. Unlimited range vs battery, and an existing infrastructure to provide petrol. I really think the bug fossil fuel problem these days is not America, it is China, India, and the third world. They need to clean up their acts, though we have the most cars, so keeping up with new clean tech should also be a priority, just not one that bankrupts us.

        Like 5
      • Brad460 Member

        It’s not that people or industry are beholden to big oil, etc., it’s that they are just the most cost efficient. For people who want electric vehicles, feel free! Tesla seems to be doing well making them and selling to those that want them. My bugaboo is that it is obvious that there is an official push to drive the price of fossil fuels so high that people will be forced to go electric. I think we’ve all learned over the last 30 years that toyota and honda are pretty good business people and make excellent products.

        If electric is so good then, why have those 2 companies in particular been slow to move to electric. I think they know the economics aren’t there yet for electric. That day may come and if it comes due to natural market forces, and real consumer demand, then I’m fine with it.

        I do a lot of long haul towing and hauling and as of the current BEV vehicle lineup, there isn’t one made that will meet my needs. Range is an issue even if a person isn’t towing. One of the online vehicle reviewers recently did a test towing a relatively small trailer with a Rivian pickup, and they made it just a bit over 100 miles and were down to very little range left. Mind you this was in good weather. Now throw in snow, mountains, hills, wind, and below 0 temps in the winter and electric is only really feasible for passenger vehicles. Simply put, current battery technology does not have enough energy density to compete. I’m beholden to technology that works at the lowest possible price. If that’s fossil fuels, then so be it.

        Lastly I get into quite a few discussions online with folks that are really pushing electric vehicles,…. hard. My question to them is this. If they are so great, and definitely the future, how come people haven’t invested their own time and money to start some kind of business related to EVs. It’s much easier to use the political process to force everyone into electrics, rather than capitalize on the electric tech.,…. if it’s as good as some of these folks claim.

        Like 4
    • Russell

      Do you know who is the largest producer of Hydrogen … the petroleum world. See the Saudis plans to become the next market leader in Hydrogen.

  4. TBAU Member

    Cool as…. I saw /heard one about 6 months ago and was surprised that they aren’t as loud as a two-stroke from the same era.
    They have a pipe-inside-a-pipe in the exhaust due to the extreme heat of the used gases. Note the holes at the front after the downpipes, they’re there to allow some air through to cool the inner pipe so as to not roast the rider’s feet.

    Like 4
  5. Luckylugnut

    The 70’s were definitely a period where the saying- whatever you can do, I can do better… was the battle cry of the Japanese motorcycle industry.
    Both Suzuki and Honda pushed the engineering envelope to capture every square inch of the market. Kawasaki pretty much stayed with their line of triples and fours.
    Moto Guzzi had their transverse V twin, Honda came out with the CX
    Benelli came out with their six cylinder Sei, Honda came out with the CBX
    Hercules came out with a rotary, Suzuki came out with the RE5
    I don’t think we’ll ever see an era like that again. Pity

  6. Jim Trook

    I was in the position of working on Suzuki motorcycles when this RE5 came out, so got to learn quite a bit about them. The bike was a pretty bike as I recall, except for the engine, but it had it’s good points too. It had power & felt to me like it was capable of climbing most any hill in high gear. The engine itself was troublesome, tho, & I don’t remember all the problems it was capable of. As I recall, the bike handled well & was rather fun to ride. IIRC, it had both electric & kick start & kick starting felt like pushing through constant compression. I always had to revert to electric starting.

    Like 1
  7. David Laker Member

    Floyd Clymer was older than Tom McCahill but Tom wrote for Mechanix Illustrated in the ’40’s through the ’70’s. Tom was not mechanically inclined but loved cars and had a unique perspective on certain aspects such as the “swallow strainers” found on Imperials or the ’59 Thunderbird that “went over like a keg of brandy in a prison camp.” Check out a bio at
    https://www.eastvalleytribune.com/article_345899a2-7af5-5908-bca0-ef485856da24.html

    Like 1
    • Karl

      Thank heavens some of us still remember “Uncle Tom”.
      I thought it was shameful the magazine never acknowledged he died. They just went on with “A Tom McCahill Report, Prepared by Brooks Bender” who was his Step Son.
      So much for respect.

      Like 1
  8. AnalogMan

    I think this is the very same bike I originally bought new. Not just the same model, but the exact bike.

    I was a college student in upstate New York back in 1977, looking to buy another motorcycle. A dealer in Newburgh has a leftover 1975 RE5, in metallic blue. Back then even when new they were not well loved, though the magazine reviews were glowing. The dealer sold it to me for $1000 and made it crystal clear he never wanted to see me again with that bike. It was the only RE5 he took new and couldn’t move it for two years (until I came along). He explicitly said if I had any problems, needed any work on it, to not bring it to him. He had no manuals, no replacement parts, and refused to work on it. Even though new, it was ‘as is’, no warranty expressed or implied. That was OK by me. I thought I was getting a cool new bike for a bargain price.

    I owned it for about a year. It was a blast to drive. After having had a few conventional bikes beforehand (three Hondas), what struck me most was how incredibly smooooth the RE5 was. The Wankel engine lived up to its reputation. No vibration whatsoever. It attracted attention wherever I went and other bikers saw it. The attention was neither complimentary nor derogatory, just ‘what the heck is that’?

    The sound was distinctive, like a jet turbine spooling up for takeoff. It was quick, but like any Wankel, little torque down low. Also like any Wankel, gas mileage was abysmal. It got 25 mpg, all the time. Regardless of whether riding it hard, around town, highway, always 25 mpg (plus about a quart per 500 miles of oil consumption from the oil injection system). Handling was fabulous (for a mid 1970’s bike), though it was heavier than it looked (about 500 lbs).

    My time with it came to an end about a year and about 2,500 miles later. One day, riding in the rain on the Taconic Parkway in upstate New York, rounding a curve at about 65(ish) mph, I hit some oil in the road, and down I went. I plasma-planed for about 300 feet, until an exit sign conveniently stopped my slide.

    The pseudo-crash bars (there more to protect the radiator) prevented any real damage to the bike, though the left side directional lights were ground off. The biggest damage was to my ego. I also ground a lot of gravel into my left side.

    The bike was still running, so I picked it up, rode to a gas station, used their hose to wash off as much of the blood and dirt (and gravel) as I could, and drove myself to the Vassar Hospital emergency room in Poughkeepsie NY. There they removed about 75 pieces of gravel from my left side.

    They missed two. To this day I still have two pieces of gravel in me, just under the skin, one in my left shin, the other my left shoulder. I can see and feel them. I kept them as reminders of my joyous biking experiences. Plus whenever anyone has asked me, ‘Do you have a chip on your shoulder?’, I honestly replied, ‘Why yes, as a matter of fact I do, would you like to see it’?

    The accident took place on the same day, exactly one year later, as an earlier, much more serious motorcycle accident that nearly killed me and landed me in the hospital for a couple of weeks and required some non-trivial surgery. I took it as a sign from the motorcycle gods than maybe I wasn’t meant for mechanized two-wheel transport. So I repaired the bike and sold it.

    I remember selling it to a guy who lived in Connecticut. He told me he was going to replace the stock seat with a ‘touring saddle’ like this bike has. The bigger hint that this might be my old bike is the kick starter. The bike didn’t have a kick starter when I bought it (the dealer told me they didn’t come with one from the factory), though it had the knurled fitting on the engine for one. I bought a kick starter for a Suzuki 750 and installed it. The lever was very long, it extended up to the air cleaner housing and almost touching the tank – just like this one.

    It might be a coincidence. But given how few of these were sold, this one being the same year and color as mine, with the same jury-rigged kick-start level I put on, with the seat the buyer said he was putting on, and being in Connecticut, what are the odds?

    I’d love to own it again (even though I’m now a decrepit 60-something with arthritis and not a limber college teenager). If it’s not running I suspect most parts would be impossible to come by. It was rumored Suzuki was so frustrated by the bike’s commercial failure that they dumped all the unsold machines and spare parts into the ocean off Japan. Parts were unobtanium in the 1970’s, I don’t imagine it’s any easier now. But then…

    Who says you can’t go home again?

    • Terrry

      Those bikes did come with a kick starter, though it was extremely hard to kick one over. I know, I had one (’76)!

  9. AnalogMan

    I think this might be the very same bike I originally bought new. Not just the same model, but the exact bike.

    I was a college student in upstate New York back in 1977, looking to buy another motorcycle. A dealer in Newburgh has a leftover 1975 RE5, in metallic blue. Back then even when new they were not well loved, though the magazine reviews were glowing. The dealer sold it to me for $1000 and made it painfully clear he never wanted to see me again with that bike. It was the only RE5 he took new and couldn’t move it for two years (until I came along). He explicitly said if I had any problems, needed any work on it, to not bring it to him. He had no manuals, no replacement parts, and refused to work on it. Even though new, it was ‘as is’, no warranty expressed or implied. That was OK by me. I thought I was getting a cool new bike for a bargain price.

    I owned it for about a year. It was a blast to ride. After having had a few conventional bikes beforehand (three Hondas), what struck me most was how incredibly smooooth the RE5 was. The Wankel engine lived up to its reputation. No vibration whatsoever. It attracted attention wherever I went and other bikers saw it. The attention was neither complimentary nor derogatory, just ‘what the heck is that’?

    The sound was distinctive, like a jet turbine spooling up for takeoff. It was quick, but like any Wankel, little torque down low. Also like any Wankel, gas mileage was abysmal. It got 25 mpg, all the time. Regardless of whether riding it hard, around town, highway, always 25 mpg (plus about a quart per 500 miles of oil consumption from the oil injection system). Handling was fabulous (for a mid 1970’s bike), though it was heavier than it looked.

    My time with it came to an end about a year and about 2,500 miles later. One day, riding in the rain on the Taconic Parkway in upstate New York, rounding a curve at about 65(ish) mph, I hit some oil in the road, and down I went. I plasma-planed for about 300 feet, until an exit sign conveniently stopped my slide.

    The pseudo-crash bars (there more to protect the radiator) prevented any real damage to the bike, though the left side directional lights were ground off. The biggest damage was to my ego. I also ground a lot of gravel into my left side.

    The bike was still running, so I picked it up, rode to a gas station, used their hose to wash off as much of the blood and dirt (and gravel) as I could, and drove myself to the Vassar Hospital emergency room in Poughkeepsie NY. There they removed about 75 pieces of gravel from my left side.

    They missed two. To this day I still have two pieces of gravel in me, just under the skin, one in my left shin, the other my left shoulder. I can see and feel them. I kept them as reminders of my joyous biking experiences. Plus whenever anyone has asked me, ‘Do you have a chip on your shoulder?’, I honestly replied, ‘Why yes, as a matter of fact I do, would you like to see it’?

    The accident took place on the same day, exactly one year later, as an earlier, much more serious motorcycle accident that nearly killed me and landed me in the hospital for a couple of weeks and required some non-trivial surgery. I took it as a sign from the motorcycle gods than maybe I wasn’t meant for mechanized two-wheel transport. So I repaired the bike and sold it.

    I remember selling it to a guy who lived in Connecticut. He told me he was going to replace the stock seat with a ‘touring saddle’ like this bike has. The bigger hint that this might be my old bike is the kick starter. The bike didn’t have a kick starter when I bought it (the dealer told me they didn’t come with one from the factory), though it had the knurled fitting on the engine for one. I bought a kick starter for a Suzuki 750 and installed it. The lever was very long, it extended up to the air cleaner housing and almost touching the tank – just like this one. @Jim Trook is right, kick-starting was hard, there was little resistance through the lever.

    It might be a coincidence. But given how few of these were sold, this one being the same year and color as mine, with the same jury-rigged kick-start lever I put on, with the seat the buyer said he was putting on, and being in Connecticut, what are the odds?

    I’d love to own it again (even though I’m now a decrepit 60-something with arthritis and not a limber college teenager). If it’s not running I suspect most parts would be impossible to come by. It was rumored Suzuki was so frustrated by the bike’s commercial failure that they dumped all the unsold machines and spare parts into the ocean off Japan. Parts were unobtanium in the 1970’s, I don’t imagine it’s any easier now. But then…

    Who says you can’t go home again?

  10. Ron Lofano

    My family owned a Suzuki dealership in the mid 70’s so as a teen I was able ride them all. The RE5 was incredibly smooth and could climb any hill in high fear gear. My father’s favorite too. Definitely made an impression on me. It sat on the show room forever it seemed, only aaw the blue color too

    • Terrry

      They were only marketed in ’75 and ’76. The ’75s came in either blue or a copperish-red. All 76s were black.

  11. Terrry

    What you want to do with this engine is replace the steel oil lines with hoses, like Suzuki did for ’76. And these engines, while somewhat weak in the power department, handled well and were very reliable. Nearly stone solid, as long as you kept oil the oil injection tank. That oil was used to lubricate the seals and surprisingly lot of owners let the tank run dry, with predictable results. The bike also used a regular sump for lubricating the rest of the engine. Overall, a classic that was way ahead of its time.

    Like 1
  12. Karl

    Thank heavens some of us still remember “Uncle Tom”.
    I thought it was shameful the magazine never acknowledged he died. They just went on with “A Tom McCahill Report, Prepared by Brooks Bender” who was his Step Son.
    So much for respect.

    Like 1
  13. Russell

    These photos look very familiar … hasn’t it been posted in BF in the past.

  14. trav66

    Great write-up and comments! I never knew a rotary powered motorcycle existed, now I do! Too bad the concept ended. We had a rotary Mazda station wagon around 1980 and dad was trying to top off the radiator but after a couple of minutes he noticed a puddle of water at his feet. He looked underneath and discovered water coming out of the exhaust, while it was idling! He soon learned how to replace those notorious seals!

    Like 1
  15. Scotty Gilbertson Staff

    Auction update: this one sold for $6,262!

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