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The dominance of two-stroke technology in motorcycle Grand Prix racing during the 1960s sparked a revolution that lasted for over four decades. These engines were not only lightweight, simple, and affordable to produce but also delivered more power than their four-stroke counterparts. However, their high emissions and environmental impact became a concern. Despite modern advancements in fuel injection systems, the era of two-stroke road bikes seems to be fading away.
The 1969 Kawasaki H1 Mach III 500cc model was already considered wild, with one road test claiming it was only safe when turned off. Kawasaki took the madness a step further with the 1971 H2 Mach IV, featuring a 750cc three-cylinder two-stroke engine that produced 74 horsepower while weighing 452 pounds. Though it offered better handling than the infamous "Widow Maker" Mach III, the H2 Mach IV remained a challenge to control, especially outside of straight lines where keeping the front wheel down was difficult. Its arrival further signaled the decline of the British motorcycle industry, which still focused on parallel twin engines while Kawasaki pushed boundaries
While most two-stroke engines with four cylinders adopted a V4 or square four configuration, Yamaha took a unique approach with its TZ750. Introduced in 1974, this inline four-cylinder two-stroke engine initially produced 89 horsepower, which later increased to 120 horsepower by 1979. The popularity of Formula 750 racing in the 1970s led to fierce competition among Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha, all producing fire-breathing two-stroke bikes. Yamaha's TZ750 stood out because it was purpose-built for the racing series. Its aggressive power and tire-devouring nature made waves, and Kenny Roberts even transformed one into a flat track racer, winning the 1975 Indy Mile event. The bike's raw power eventually led to it being banned, with Roberts playing a crucial role in that decision.
Building on the lessons learned from the TZ750, Yamaha developed the RD350LC with advancements like water cooling and a monoshock rear end. Collaborating with Yamaha Europe, the company had an advantage when it launched the RD350LC, which became a massive success, particularly in England. This bike could compete with 750cc four-stroke inline fours, offering improved handling over the Kawasaki H1 and H2. Its popularity was further fueled by a highly successful one-make racing series, endorsed by none other than the legendary Barry Sheene. The RD350LC won the prestigious Bike of the Year award twice in the UK and was notoriously prone to theft, solidifying its status as a legendary and sought-after motorcycle.
Off-road motorcycling has always been a stronghold of two-stroke engines, even in modern times, owing to their lightweight and immense power. When manufacturers began equipping their MX and Enduro bikes with 500cc two-stroke singles, fireworks were guaranteed. Honda's 1985 CR500 was one of the most explosive examples, boasting 60 horsepower in a 238-pound package. It required skill to tame, but once mastered, it proved unbeatable, winning the 500cc MX class for eight consecutive years. Despite Honda's initial resistance to two-stroke technology, its relenting led to total domination.
Suzuki RGV250 in a sleek blue color against a white background. In the late 1980s, manufacturers and customers still appreciated the advantages of lightweight, small-displacement sport bikes. The result was bikes like the RGV250. With its 249cc two-stroke V-Twin engine generating 60 horsepower, it was more than sufficient for a chassis weighing just 282 pounds dry. While its power band was narrow, requiring precise control between 8,000 and 11,000rpm, the RGV250's exceptional chassis compensated for any shortcomings. A skillfully ridden RGV250 could outperform 750cc and 1000cc sports bikes on the track. Sadly, the era of two-stroke road bikes was coming to an end, and a new generation of 400cc four-strokes emerged, offering greater reliability, reduced maintenance, and easier handling. Nevertheless, the RGV250 served as a magnificent swan song for two-stroke road motorcycles.
There was a time when anyone could purchase a factory 500cc Grand Prix bike and go racing alongside the stars of the era—an unimaginable concept today. The Suzuki RG500 was also available as a road-legal bike, equipped with a 95-horsepower, four-cylinder, twin-crank square four two-stroke engine. This bike was light and swift, as long as you kept the engine revving above 5000rpm. Below that threshold, power was lacking, but surpassing it demanded a firm grip. Few bikes of that time, regardless of engine size, could match the RG500's acceleration. At a time when sports bikes were typically heavy and uninspiring, the RG500 offered the experience of a Grand Prix machine on the road.
Yamaha RD500LC featuring a V4 two-stroke engine in a vibrant red and white color scheme. You might assume that the RD500LC was simply a 500cc version of the successful RD350LC. However, Yamaha had something more intriguing in mind. In the 1980s, manufacturers sought to capitalize on racing success by offering road-legal versions of their Grand Prix bikes to the public. Following Suzuki's RG500 and Honda's NSR400, Yamaha introduced the RD500LC, featuring a 500cc V4 two-stroke engine integrated into a lightweight frame and bodywork. Although the engine was significantly detuned compared to its racing counterparts, the RD500LC still delivered 90 horsepower of thrilling two-stroke power. Even though Japanese manufacturers had improved frame construction, moving away from flimsy steel tubes, riding the RD500LC remained an exhilarating experience.
The 1980s witnessed a surge in race replica motorcycles, with models from Suzuki, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Honda. Among them, the Honda NSR250 stood out. With "only" 45 horsepower and weighing 328 pounds, it might not have seemed like the fastest road bike, but it was enough to raise concerns among insurance companies. What truly thrilled every aspiring Grand Prix rider was the fact that the NSR250 resembled the bikes dominating the 250cc Grand Prix World Championship. It featured the iconic Rothmans sponsorship paint job and a single-sided swing arm. Truly, those were the good old days.
Suter MMX 500
Many enthusiasts fervently wish that Grand Prix racing had not abandoned two-strokes in favor of four-strokes in 2001. While the 125cc and 250cc classes continued with two-stroke technology for several more years, the era of blisteringly fast two-stroke 500cc bikes had passed. But what if two-strokes had remained the power unit of choice? That's precisely what Suter pondered before creating the MMX 500. Suter is well-regarded in GP circles for producing some of the finest chassis. However, in 2017, they went a step further and developed a complete bike, not for racing purposes, but for sheer enjoyment. The MMX 500 boasted a 576cc twin-crank V4 engine, claiming an astounding 195 horsepower! With a weight of 280 pounds, one can only imagine the extraordinary performance this machine delivered.
Langen Two-Stroke Langen
Two-Stroke showcased in an exquisite gold and silver color scheme. Today, two-stroke engines are primarily found in MX and Enduro bikes, as the era of road-going two-strokes has long faded away. However, there is an exception. In a small workshop in Northern England, a company called Langen meticulously hand-builds stunning and exclusive motorcycles equipped with a 250cc V-Twin two-stroke engine. Pushing out 75 horsepower while weighing a mere 251 pounds, this masterpiece boasts an impressive power-to-weight ratio of 660 horsepower per tonne! It features top-of-the-line suspension, braking components, and utilizes lightweight carbon fiber, aluminum, and titanium construction. Although a resurgence of two-stroke motorcycles from major manufacturers seems unlikely, the Langen Two-Stroke certainly ignites the passion of motorcycle enthusiasts.
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