Home > News > Nation
Sunday September 8, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday September 8, 2013 MYT 8:17:52 AM
by choong en han AND jeannette goon
Raring to go again: The 1968 Suzuki T500, 500cc two-stroke PDRM patrol bikes will be given a new lease of life.
Efforts are being made to tell the story of two Suzuki T500 motorcycles which were once the workhorse of our traffic police.
VERY few, including even our traffic cops, would remember the Suzuki T500 motorcycle now. Once the workhorse of our traffic police, it has faded so far from memory that it is quite difficult to get good information about them from local sources now.
However, two 20-somethings who had purchased the vintage motorcycle were determined to get as much information as they could. And they managed to track down the first civilian owner, Chan Fok Kai, who had bought two of the bikes from the police in the 1980s.
He has passed away but his widow, Chong Siew Kee, 68, was very eager to talk about it. “I remember everything,” she says.
Born in 1935, Chan was the second generation in his Chinese family to call Malaysia (then Malaya) home. He also owned the first workshop in Jasin after apprentising at another workshop in Paloh, Johor.
“When (Chan) heard that Jasin needed a workshop, he took a leap of faith and opened the first one in that area,” recalls Chong, who runs a small florist shop there.
His main clientele of police and army personnel gave him the means to obtain some of these public assets, she says.
“The workshop, called Kwong Fok, had a licence to tender for decommissioned military and police equipment.
“He bought the bikes in 1980 and was reluctant to sell them even when a buyer offered him RM500 in the 90s,” she says in a smattering of English.
Documents issued by the Malacca Police head office in 1980 state that Chan had acquired the motorbikes for just RM35 (about RM95 now) each!
“But the bikes were sold shortly before he died of a heart attack in 1997, after keeping them for about 17 years,” says Chong, who claims it was a “botched sale” and that the family did not receive a single sen from it.
“The sale was arranged when (Chan) was out of town,” she says.
Since that sale, both bikes have passed through the hands of at least two other owners but not much was done to keep them in good condition.
This year, two young men on a hunt for vintage motorcycles discovered the T500 in the home of a bike enthusiast in Puchong. The latter had purchased the bikes but had no time to do anything with them.
Despite being in civilian hands for over 30 years, the motorcycles still had their original white police paint work.
They also did not have the proper documentation needed to be taken out on the road, which was why the two new owners, Lau Jing Chung, 26, and one of the writers, had to track down the last documented owner.
Both traced the bikes back to Onn Booh Kong, Chan’s former right hand man who is now running Kwong Fok Motor Works.
From there, they followed the trail to Chan’s next-of-kin, riding down to Jasin and surprising the Chan family with information on the bikes.
“Perhaps this is just how fate works,” says Chan Tuck Kee, Chan’s eldest son.
An engineering marvel
Now a collector’s item, the T500 is worth considerably more than the RM35 that Chan paid for each of them three decades ago. Once restored, which the current owners are planning to do, the bikes would be a glorious reminder of the then engineering miracle created by Suzuki.
Almost 50 years ago, Suzuki went against conventional wisdom and developed the Suzuki T500, a motorcycle that people said could not be built.
With its huge 500cc two-stroke engine, it defied engineering capabilities in that era. At that time, the unwritten rule was that two-stroke engines could never be more than 300cc, as the engine would never be cooled fast enough for optimal performance.
But this was exactly what Suzuki did. Compared to a four-stroke, the two-stroke engine used by the T500 was considered primitive and ineffective due to its consumption of a mix of petrol and 2T engine oil. But boy, could it run.
It was on the same playing field in terms of power and drive capability when compared to its British four-stroke larger engine counterparts – the Triumph Bonneville and the BSA Lightning, two of the fastest bikes on the road in the mid 1960s – but was much lighter due to its smaller engine.
Despite its legendary status in the past – one of its highlights is famed Australian racer Frank Whiteway winning the 500cc title at the Isle of Man in 1970 – it has now become the bike that almost nobody remembers.
Trends and technology quickly put the T500 in an awkward here-but-not-here marketing position as other Japanese brands started to flex their dominance in the market. The launch of newer kings of the roads, like the Kawasaki Z1 and the Honda CB750, triggered the slow demise of a would-be legend.
However, the two-stroke 500cc engine still has a large following mainly in Britain and the United States, where owners use it predominantly as a base for aggressive café racer builds.
In an attempt to find out more about the motorcycle, Choong got in touch with a few of these enthusiasts. Among them were Paul Courbot and Tim Hart, who own a motorcycle workshop dedicated to two-stroke Suzuki bikes.
Both veteran bikers, their workshop in Kent, England, provides spare and custom parts for classic Suzuki bike owners, as well as rebuilds these classic motorcycles.
“When the (T500) bike first appeared, it was the biggest air-cooled two-stroke that had been seen,” says Courbot.
“Some thought the engine could not disperse heat sufficiently and would ultimately fail in extremely hot conditions. However, Suzuki responded by taking a 500 through the desert to prove to the doubters that there was no problem,” he says.
For Courbot, talking about the T500 is like taking a walk down memory lane.
“Back in the 70s, the performance of two-stroke engines was far greater than that of similarly sized four-strokes in general, so for the majority of young bikers, including me, four-strokes were not on the radar at all.
“At the time, the 500 wasn’t particularly popular, as there were a selection of three cylinder engines (triples) available which looked a bit prettier, although they didn’t perform any better.
“The 500 had built a fine race pedigree for itself as it was very tuneable, and the chassis was better suited to the racetrack than the triples. In fact, the late great Barry Sheen cut his early race teeth on the 500, and it’s race derivatives,” he says.
Courbot adds that T500 owners back then liked the fact that the bike didn’t look like a racer, but was capable of matching the performance of more sporty-looking machinery.
“In fact, I think it was once advertised as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Lee Wilcox of Curbside Classic (CC) says the T500 is probably the only bike that owes its existence to Cold War espionage and political defection.
“Here’s how the world’s political climate played a part in its production: In the thick of the Cold War, Ernst Degner was a rider and engineer on the racing team of the East German MZ factory. It didn’t take much to convince him to go to work for Suzuki.
“Degner taught Suzuki how to get more power and speed from their two-strokes, for which Suzuki, according to some stories, paid him US$10,000 (or US$78,000 now). The technology that he imparted bled over to Suzuki’s street bikes,” he says.
Renamed Titan 500 soon after, he says, the bike became bulletproof as it developed a reputation as an eminently reliable bike. “The T500 was such a complete package that it soon became a favourite with production road racers.”
While the T500 may have tricky beginnings, in Malaysia it was part of the nation’s history in policing.
It was the first high-performance workhorse for our traffic police, an upgrade from the Honda C70 kap chai that the force was using at the time.
Only a handful of specimens in Malaysia have survived through time and each would have its own story of being in action during the 70s, when the nation was still in its teens.
We attempted to gather more information from the police museum and communications department but we were unsuccessful as there were no records on the motorcycles.
Work on one of the bikes to restore it as close to its original police design as possible has begun. Both bikes are now in Ampang.
Tags / Keywords:
Lifestyle, Family & Community, Malaysia day bike
Copyright © 1995-2013 Star Publications (M) Bhd (Co No 10894-D)