Every now and then, racing teams get the pairing of man and machine just right - for a brief period in the mid-seventies Barry Sheene and the Suzuki RG500 were untouchable.
For those familiar with motorcycle racing, Barry Sheene should need little introduction. Described as the sport’s first ‘superstar’, the two-time world champion remains one of Britain’s best loved sporting personalities. From his superhuman ability to recover after injury, to the cigarette-sized hole drilled into the chin of his helmet, Sheene left a lasting impression on the sport and his legions of fans. Often preceded by his playboy persona, Sheene’s antics both on and off the Grand Prix circuit remain the stuff of legend.
Although he began on a Yamaha, Sheene’s name will always be synonymous with Suzuki. One bike in particular would become another part of his identity – the Japanese manufacturer’s legendary RG500.
It was Sheene himself that helped to develop Suzuki’s game changing seventies superbike, at the time one of the most powerful machines on the grid. Thanks to him, the RG500 is still one of the most successful 500cc Grand Prix bikes ever.
Powered by a 498cc two-stroke, water-cooled square four with rotary-valve induction, the RG500 was capable of a maximum speed of 180mph. It would go on to dominate the Grand Prix with Sheene at the helm, winning 18 races and two consecutive world titles in 1976 and 1977.
In 1978, the bike was heavily revised for the new season. The engine was modified with stepped cylinder pairs, with the front cylinders now cited lower than the rears. Twin crankshafts were also installed, with the bike now producing around 125bhp.
It was almost enough for a hat-trick, but it wasn’t to be. Sheene scooped another two victories in Venezuela and Sweden, missing out on a third consecutive World Championship by ten points, second to ‘King Kenny’ Roberts on his Yamaha YZR500. The RG500 XR22A ridden by Sheene that year is the exact bike you see above, an unrestored surviving example which is exactly how it was the last time he rode it.
The XR22A now resides in Suzuki GB’s own heritage collection, with Sheene reportedly being the only person ever to ride it. Recently displayed at the Bicester Heritage January Scramble, the XR22A is just one reminder of a true motorcycling hero, sadly missed by motorcycling enthusiasts across the world.
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