South African TR500

South African TR500



This SUZUKI racing motorcycle was one of (2) two bikes supplied to sponsored riders in South Africa in 1972 and arrived by ship at Durban harbour on the 19 th of December. The sponsored riders who were allocated the bikes were Jon Ekerold and Les van Breda, Jon Ekerold of course eventually would become 350cc World Champion a few years later on a Yamaha. This particular machine was the bike used by Les van Breda, who had won the South African Championship on an earlier XR05 model in 1971.

The bike’s first outing was at a race meeting in Lourenço Marques , Mozambique (now Maputo), on the 27th of December 1972. The first race did not start well as the bike seized at the end of the main straight resulting in considerable damage to the machine and fractured ribs for its unfortunate rider, Les van Breda. The machine was then repaired and raced at the Killarney Circuit in Cape Town in early January in the first round of the South African Championships in 1973 .

Les had finished 2nd overall to Kork Ballington on an ex- Gillie Cruise TR500 in the previous 1972 season, Kork was another South African rider who was to leave for Europe early in 1973 and of course later to become a double World Champion in 1978 and 1979 on the Kawasaki Tandem Twin.

During the 1973 season the standard Fontana 4-leading shoe front brake was swapped for the Ceriani unit from the earlier machine which Les still had in his possession, and the standard Suzuki PEI ignition was replaced with a Spanish Femsatronic System to improve reliability.

In 1973 many well known international riders were invited to contest certain prestigious events in South Africa.

The first of the South African T.T. series was held at the Roy Hesketh Circuit outside Pietermaritzburg, Natal, where Les riding the TR500 finished second to John Cooper – BSA 750cc, Derek Chatterton was 3rd with Giacomo Agostini 4th having slowed on the M.V. Agusta with machine problems.

The second race in the series was held at the Kylami G.P. circuit in Johannesburg, where Les was the quickest local rider passing Tony Jeffries – Triumph 750cc, Barry Sheene – Seeley Suzuki TR500 and Agostini on the MV Agusta to take the lead which he held for most of the race. A few laps from the end, holes began appearing on the expansion chamber of Les’s TR500 due to scraping on the road in an attempt to defend his lead from Agostini who came past 2 laps from the end of the race as the Suzuki lost power. Les was awarded the Dickie Dale Trophy for his efforts in this International series as best local rider, and went on to claim the South African Championship on his bike in 1973.

In 1974 Les was given the new more powerful water cooled TR500 and this air cooled machine was sold to another local rider Roy Hill in 1974 and then re-sold to Van Rooyen Motors a well known motorcycle dealer in Bulawayo, Rhodesia, where a local rider named John Warburton won the Rhodesian Championship in 1975 and 1976.

In 1978 the bike and its rider officially retired due to the escalating war in Rhodesia. All racing was suspended, the bike was then stored in a garage in Bulawayo until 1982 by which time white Rhodesians were leaving the country in large numbers as the economy and lifestyle deteriorated under the new government. John and his family loaded all the possessions they could carry onto a trailer and headed for Botswana, the Suzuki now in a very dilapidated state was stored with household goods on the trailer and towed thousands of kilometers across Africa to Botswana.

I first heard rumours of an old Suzuki racing machine lying under a cover in a dusty corner of a garage in Gaberone, Botswana, from a friend who was a traveling salesman. At first I thought it was just a modified T500 production machine similar to the one which I had ridden in Classic racing events from 1987 to 1990, but from the description I was given I felt sure this might the real thing. I negotiated for the bike and bought it without actually having seen it, and it was subsequently smuggled across the border back into South Africa and delivered to my Johannesburg home in June 1992, on returning from a trip to the Isle of Man TT races, I found the bike in my yard awaiting my arrival in a rather sad and neglected state , but at least it was complete and mostly original , the bike even came with the original spare barrels, heads , pistons, clutch plates and factory parts list .

Les van Breda who is still a Suzuki Dealer in South Africa was able to provide me with the detailed history of this bike , during our conversation he mentioned the fact that the top frame rail was actually broken in the high speed crash in Luanda at his first outing on a racetrack , and that the frame had been “fixed ” in the pits by brazing on a piece of conduit tube obtained from a local contractor . I inspected the bike on my return home to find that the chrome moly frame was still being held together with that piece of conduit tube , in spite of the fact that the bike had changed hands on 3 occasions . that repair, and the fact that it had the Ceriani front brake confirmed that this was indeed his original bike .

The restoration project was completed by July 1995 and once again another rather special racing motorcycle has been saved for future generations of racing enthusiasts and represents the ultimate engineering technology available in 1972.

I must thank many specialists in South Africa for their help in restoring the bike in those instances where my skills were lacking, and to those people who assisted me in tracing and identifying the bike and it’s colourful history.

(What a pleasure viewing your website, lovely pics, can’t get enough , I though I was alone in the universe with my passion for T500s. I can’t remember if I spoke to you at the NZ race meeting in Pukekoe Auckland in 1998 , but I did have long chat with some Aussie  bloke who was racing a much modified road going T500 who was very knowledgeable on the subject of making them go faster.  

I have two bikes at the moment and am trying to acquire another , a watercooled TR500 machine from friend here in South Africa.  I currently have restored a 1971 TR500 Daytona which has a long and interesting history , briefly, this bike was assigned to Cal Rayborn for the 1971 Daytona I was told , but unfortunately he was killed at Pukekoe raceway in December 1970 , and this bike and one other was shipped to Durban in January 1971 for Jon Ekerold , 350cc world champion in later years. I have documented the entire history of this bike and will e-mail it to you if you are interested.  

My other bike is a modified and  ” very tasty ” T500  Gus Kuhn Cafe Racer  in  production race trim  , I am nearly finished converting the bike for road use and am trying to finish it off before the  Classic Motorcycle club’s annual 1000  Bike show on the 2nd of July 2000 .   I would be happy to share my knowledge of building and preparing this bike over the years and of course I still have some problems, with which I could do with some advice from your circle of friends)    

Regards – Philip de Gruchy  
Johannesburg South Africa

Some more info on this machine………………Thanks Clive…..

I was really interested to read the story of this bike. I can also add a few paragraphs to the story. During 197I I went to the then Rhodesia
(now Zimbabwe) with Les van Breda to a race meeting in Salisbury. Les had started campaigning his new water-cooled TR500, and I was to race the air-cooled model now owned by Philip. In practice the water-cooled bike ran its crank bearings, and Les, myself and Mickey Chalom, a Suzuki dealer from South Africa who went with us on this weekend race trip, fitted a new one at the deserted circuit by the light of our car’s headlights.
 I had never even sat on a racing two stroke, never mind having raced one, but I loved the aircooled TR, and rode it as much as I could during open practice. The Donnybrooke Circuit in Salisbury was brand new and was very abrasive, and I used up the only set of slick tyros we had before the official qualifying practice, so we fitted a set of Dunlop TT100 tyres from van Breda’s production racing Suzuki GT750. To tell the truth I couldn’t really feel the difference between them and the racing slicks, and qualified third behind Les On the water-cooled six speed TR 500 and the Rhodesian Champion at the time, Geoff Downing, on a factory Kawasaki H1R 500. In the race itself I made a complete mess of the start, which was a push start, and by the time the bike fired I was almost a full lap behind. Anyway I had a wonderful time making my way through the field, and finished about fourth or fifth. Les won, and Downing was second. All the local riders were really interested in our two Suzuki’s, and regarded them as factory exotica! About a year later I received a phone call from one of the Rhodesian riders, Roy Hill, who wanted to know if I would find out from van Breda if the aircooled TR was for sale. Les was just to glad to be able to sell it, and a deal was agreed. The big problem was how to get the bike into Rhodesia, which was subject to trade sanctions from the West etc, and also had a very strict import policy. As the country was technically at war, luxury imports were completely banned. I was competing in the South African national motocross championship at the time, so I took it, packed in the back of a caravan, as spare parts for a Honda CR250 Elsinore MX bike. In order to fit the two bikes into the caravan and to convince the customs that I had only one bike in the back I stripped the Elsinore completely and packed it into the caravan cupboards. I them took the Suzuki decals off the TR and replaced them with the Elsinore-Honda winged decal! This plan worked completely, and the buyer Roy Hill, got his TR500. A footnote to this story is that this TR500 has now gone a full circle and has arrived back in SA, I now own the water-cooled TR500, and Roy Hill now lives in South Africa two blocks away from me in a town called Benoni. 

Clive Strugnell South Africa


Author: muzza