The SP500

suzuki sp500 review

It’s seen some action, he explained.

Well of course, I replied, gripping the phone a bit tighter, It’s almost twenty years old.

But it runs good! He quickly added.

It was 1999 and I was talking to the owner of a 1981 Suzuki SP500 while squinting at a blurry one inch square black and white picture in his Cycle Trader ad. Other than being able to make out two wheels, handlebars, and a headlight, it was difficult to tell what shape the bike was in.

With a budget of less than a thousand dollars my options were limited, and I was resigned to the fact that I would have to search outside my area to find my first Dual Sport motorcycle. Even though this bike was over six hours north on the far side of Seattle, gas was cheap and I was eager.

The seller and I discussed the bike a bit more, then set up a time to meet the next day.

Any other questions? He asked.

Just one, I said, What does SP stand for?

I have no idea. He replied.

The morning drive passed quickly. I spent the time carefully framing a mental image of the bike in my head, with me on it. We looked pretty good together. Even though it was only $900 (OBO) I had lofty expectations. A few years earlier I had purchased a 1981 Honda street bike in phenomenal condition for even less money. It never occurred to me that it might have been an isolated stroke of luck.

I arrived in the north Seattle suburbs over an hour early. Faced with some time to kill, I drove around aimlessly for a while. Then I spotted a strip mall barber shop. Well why not, I thought, I could use a trim.

Halfway through the barbershop door I stopped in my tracks. Everyone in the place, barbers and clients alike, was Korean. I started to turn and walk out then quickly chastised myself for being prejudice. Why couldn’t a Korean Barber cut my hair? When did I become such a bigot?

So I sat down in the waiting area and shuffled through the magazines spread out on a table. They were Korean versions of Teen Beat and Seventeen. I chose one at random and absently flipped through the pages looking at the pictures.

You! Next! One of the barbers barked at me in a thick accent.

I walked over smiling, sat in his chair and said hello.

I give you good haircut! He said enthusiastically.

Ok, just a trim, I replied nonchalantly, Just a little off the sides and back.

I give you good haircut! He repeated.

As he began to cut, I began to daydream of the SP500 and I, perhaps somewhere in the Alps, crossing mountain streams, cruising through dense forests, rolling into Bavarian villages, maybe doubled up with a hitch hiking fraulein…

Ok! Mousse or gel? The barber asked loudly.

What? I said, returning to reality.

suzuki sp500 review


Mousse or gel?! He asked again.

Oh no, no thank you, I replied.

Ok! He said, filling his palm with a pile of clear goo. Then he slapped it onto my head and began kneading my hair furiously.

Ok! You done! I give you good haircut! He exclaimed with a smile.

I looked in the mirror at my new spikey boy band haircut. It was ridiculous.

Uh, thanks. I muttered.

Getting out of the chair, I realized that I had the exact same haircut as the barber. Turning to leave, I realized I had the exact same haircut as EVERYONE in the barbershop. I didn’t care. The time had come for me to check out the SP500.

I arrived at the seller’s house and we stood in his driveway exchanging small talk without much eye contact. I kept glancing around for the bike, he kept staring at my hair. After a few more brief pleasantries, he finally rolled the SP out of the garage.

The years had not been kind. The seat looked like it had been ravaged by hyenas – an explosion of foam erupted up through shredded vinyl. The exhaust was solid rust, as was the chain. There was dried mud packed into every corner and crevice. A thin film of crud covered everything. Yeah, I thought, this thing has seen some action – tens years ago before it was left in the back yard to decompose.

suzuki sp500 reviewI didn’t have time to clean it up. The seller said sheepishly.

Right, I thought, You’ve only had it for 18 years. Why start today?

Here, lemme show you how to start it, He offered.

He slipped a leg over the seat, then turned the key switch, pulled the choke, and kicked it over. He kicked it again and it fired right up. I was shocked. Appearances aside, the bike sounded good. He hopped off and I climbed on for a test ride.

As I rode up the street I found my excitement begin to return. The bike ran strong and other than the fact that I was sitting on a wet sponge with fragments of hardened vinyl poking me in the ass, I was having fun. By the time I found 5th gear, I decided I had found my first Dual Sport.

I was able to get the seller to lower the price a bit, arguing that I desperately needed the money to get my hair fixed. And with that, I loaded the SP into my truck and headed for home.

I devoted most of the next week to showing the SP some serious love and affection. I purchased a new chain. I had the seat refoamed and recovered. I removed the entire exhaust system, knocked off the rust, and applied several coats of flat black wood stove paint. I spent hour after hour sitting in the garage, scrubbing the nooks and crannies with a toothbrush. I used a touch up paint pen to cover all the scratches on the frame. I slathered dielectric grease on every wiring connection. I waxed the side covers and removed the water spots from the instruments and headlight. Eventually I felt satisfied that I had resurrected it to some semblance of its former glory.

I rode it down to my favorite motorcycle shop, anxious to see what kind performance parts I could get to upgrade my bike. The owner of the shop had been in the business for decades and was a veritable warehouse of knowledge when it came to older motorcycles.

The SP500? He said, thinking for a long moment, Oh yeah, Suzuki made it for a couple of years in the early eighties.

suzuki sp500 reviewWhat’s the SP stand for? I asked.

I have no idea, He said. Probably nothing more than a model designation.

Special Projects! Called the mechanic from the back room.

After some time spent searching through a multitude of catalogues, it became evident there were no after market parts specifically made for my bike.

They only made these bikes for a few years, The shop owner warned. You might have a hard time finding any parts at all.

Scarce Parts! Teased the mechanic again.

I left undeterred, still swollen with pride of ownership for my first Dual Sport motorcycle.

I rode it around town every day for the next week. There was something about kick starting a motorcycle in the grocery store parking lot that made me feel pretty cool. But as much as I was enjoying my bike, I began to realize a few things. The suspension felt a tad bit squishy. And the handling was reminiscent of a mid 70s Cadillac that had been converted into a Jon Boat. The drum brakes also seemed a bit antiquated, even though they did stop the bike. Eventually.

I decided this was because I wasn’t experiencing it in it’s native habitat. After all, its intended to be used off-road. Isn’t it?

The following weekend came and brought with it exceptionally fine Spring weather, so I threw some supplies into a backpack and headed into the mountains. As the asphalt gave way to gravel road the bike became rather squirrely, like trying to balance a ten speed bicycle on a hockey rink. So I slowed down considerably, which really made the SP feel really top heavy in the corners, so I sped up again – which made it feel squirrely. This back and forth continued as long as the gravel road did. Then I finally hit a dirt road.

suzuki sp500 reveiewThis was more like it! At moderate speeds the SP did just fine in the dirt. I followed logging roads up to higher elevations, riding through rocky sections and over erosion berms. I was having the time of my life, even though the bike’s suspension didn’t really soak up the rough terrain so much as it just passed it on. But a few loose teeth were a small price to pay for big fun.

As I climbed in elevation, I noticed small patches of snow begin to appear on the sides of the road. The road itself had gone from soft loamy dirt to a more firm, moist surface. I was headed towards the remnants of last winter’s snow pack. Mud puddles began to appear, then larger bits of snow, and finally I found myself stopped in front of a huge mound of snow that went across the entire road. There was a single motorcycle track running up its bank, disappearing over the top.

I got off the bike and scrambled up to the top of the bank to investigate. Sure enough, the track went down the back side. Looking further down the road, there were more of the enormous snow banks off into the distance, all of which had a single motorcycle track running up and over them. Well, someone had made it through recently. Time for some real adventure!

I returned to the SP and pushed it back down the road a bit figuring I needed to get a decent run at the bank. I knew as soon as the rear tire hit the snow there would be no more traction. I sat on the bike for a moment trying to visualize making it over the top. Then I took a deep breath and let out the clutch. As soon as the front tire hit the snow I let off the throttle. My momentum carried me to the top, then I slid with my feet out down the back side. I made it!

Having the time of my life, I repeated this over many snow banks and climbed higher in elevation. After each successive bank, the road got a little deeper with mud and the distance between snow banks grew significantly shorter. It was getting harder to keep my speed up. The SP began to break traction, its rear wheel spinning in the mud. As the front wheel crested the top of the next bank, the rear wheel suddenly dropped straight down, stopping me instantly. I was stuck with the front end of the bike pointing skyward and the rear end buried deep in the snow. I climbed off the bike and immediately slipped, fell, and slid down the bank into the mud.

suzuki sp500 review


From this viewpoint it was easy to tell what went wrong. The snow had melted underneath the bank, leaving a large hollow area where the bike had fallen through.

I’ll just pull the bike out backwards, I thought. But it wouldn’t budge. I tried pulling the rear end up and out of the snow. Nothing. I tried to free it by rocking the bike violently from side to side. This caused it to sink deeper. I stood there for a while wondering how much the bike weighed. I always assumed the 500 on the Suzuki’s side covers designated engine displacement, not pounds. Maybe I was wrong about that.

Eventually I did the only thing I could think of. I started digging. First with my hands, then with a stick, and finally attempting to shovel snow out from around the bike with my helmet. At last I reached a point to where I could just push the bike over sideways and drag it back down the bank. By this time I was soaked with sweat and facing another dilemma. The SP was now on its side in soft mud.

I tried lifting it but my feet slid. It felt like I was trying to pick up a car. A car that was stuck in the mud. I planted my feet firmly, got a better grip and tried again. The bike slid away from me. This routine continued for quite a while before I was able to get the SP upright. Now I was soaked with sweat, exhausted, and wondering if I had a Hernia. Solar Plexus, I thought. That’s what SP stands for.

It took me hours to get back the way I had come. The bike kept breaking through snow banks. Sometimes I got stuck going up, sometimes on the downside. Either way the results were the same – struggling, digging, sweating, cursing. I now had an idea what the SP stood for: Stout Pig, Severely Ponderous, even Shit Pile….and ultimately Stupid Purchase.

Returning home I knew I was done with the bike – I had gotten a taste of the true potential of Dual Sport motorcycles and consequently, an even bigger taste of the SP’s limitations. I held on to it while saving for something a bit more dirt friendly and svelte, but eventually sold it and purchased a Honda XR250.

While he was looking it over the guy who bought it asked, What does the SP stand for?

I have no idea, I replied.