There seems to be a new craze for carbon fibre frames in motorcycling. Both the Ducati 1299 Superleggera and BMW HP4 Race were recently revealed for us to lust over. And as less weight comes with a hefty price tag, that’s probably all we’re likely to be able to do. Which reminded us of previous carbon frame experiments. For example, the 1984-1986 Skoal Heron Suzuki RG500 XR70RV.
The story of their creation came about after Suzuki decided to pull out of 500cc Grand Prix racing back at the end of 1983. Rather than continue their factory effort, the firm decided to provide works engine and alloy frames to Heron in the UK and Gallina in Italy.
How the Suzuki RG500 XR70RV Gained Carbon Frames:
So the Heron team needed to find a way to make the RG500 more competitive. And one method was to reduce weight by ordering some new prototype carbon fibre frames. These were designed and built by chief designer Nigel Leaper in collaboration with Ciba Giegy. It also featured carbon fibre rim mounted brakes and upside down front forks, which was apparently a first in motorcycle racing. Interestingly, Leaper has gone on to work in Formula 1 with Ferrir, Benetteron/Renault/Lotus, and McLaren. He’s apparently now working with Red Bull on the latest Aston Martin AM-RB 001 hypercar.
Back to the Skoal Heron Suzuki RG500 XR70RV. The first prototypes were ‘white’ with aluminium sheets on honeycomb material supplied by Ciba Geigy, and this led to six more motorcycle frames being produced.
In 1984 they housed the Suzuki XR40 engines, before moving to the XR45 in 1985. And in the final year of 1986, they has the reed valve XR70 motor. Combined with work on the exhausts, heads and air-box, this led to a power output of around 148hp.
Also in 1986, the Heron team switched from an allow swing arm to a carbon fibre version. And the suspension was changed from Suzuki forks to White Power.
Apparently Suzuki weren’t particularly supportive due to the fact that they weren’t going to be making carbon framed production motorcycles in the immediate future. Who knew that a carbon road bike would sell out at £70,000 a pop just 30 years later…
But with Rob McElnea initially riding the carbon Heron Suzuki RG500 in 1984, the team were posting better results than the Italian Gallina outfit, which led to better engines and support for 1985. That year saw Paul Lewis join, and McElnea switch to Yamaha, so in 1986 Lewis was partnered with Niall Mackenzie. And the middle of the season saw the legendary Kevin Schwantz also get one of the carbon frame Suzukis.
In 1984, McElnea finished 11th in the 500cc championship, despite not competing in five rounds, having recorded two fifths as his highest finishes. The following year, he took ninth as the highest place Suzuki. And then in 1986, Paul Lewis was around the top ten, Mackenzie took seventh at the British Grand Prix, and Kevin Schwantz scored for a 10th place on his Suzuki in Belgium.
The challenge for the Skoal Heron Suzuki RG500 XR70RV was that the 184hp and light 110kgs weight were an advantage, but the carbon frame was extremely stiff.
As a result, when Suzuki returned as a factory effort in 1987, it was with the V4 RGV500 XR71 and back to aluminium frames.
What happened to the Heron Suzuki RG500 XR70RVs?
At the end of the 1986 season, a batch of the carbon frame bikes were sold to Gerhard Vogt in Germany. Two more bikes with the XR70RV engines were also sold to the Swiss Frankonia team running Wolfgang von Muralt. They were raced for two more years, before also being shipped to Germany at the end of 1988
We did see some info online that at least one of the Muralt bikes gained a Niko Bakker swing arm similar to the Honda NSR of the same period.
They rarely appear for sale – if you’re looking online you’ll have more luck trawling specialist websites and forums than eBay. One did surface for sale a while ago in Tokyo, Japan.
If you do know more, let us know in the comments!