The well-engineered Suzuki T20 vaulted the Japanese manufacturer’s streetbike reputation upwards when it was released in 1964.
The atmosphere in Suzuki’s Hamamatsu design headquarters must have been electric in 1964. The factory had already established a worldwide reputation for excellence with a string of world championship wins and leading edge engineering. Sometimes they were just a little too ambitious – as in the case of the ill fated 250cc Square Four – but Suzuki was always pushing back the envelope of two-stroke performance.
By contrast, the road bikes were ordinary. Well-made, yes, but state-of-the-art, certainly not. But it was the quiet before the storm. Suzuki were about to launch one of the world’s great motorcycles and nobody but factory insiders knew anything about the project. The man about to release the avalanche was Masanao Shimizu – the lead designer of Suzuki’s all-conquering Grand Prix machines.
When the T20 (known as the X-6 in America) hit the showrooms it literally took the biking world by storm. Technically, the 250cc machine was not a revolutionary motorcycle. Rather, it was the completeness of the engineering package which stunned everyone.
One of the key components of a great motorcycle is the engine. The two-stroke T20 was blessed with a reliable parallel-Twin, which featured automatic lubrication, helping level the fueling convenience factor with its four-stroke competitors.
For a start, the T20 was a breathtakingly beautiful bike. Glinting in the summer sun, hardened bikers simply shook with desire. The T20 looked as if it was doing 100 mph standing still. The metallic red and chrome of the tank, front fork and oil tank sat exquisitely with the silver of the fenders and polished alloy of the engine. In looks it slaughtered the best of Honda and Yamaha and made British bikes look as if they were designed for retired Army officers. Young men in 1964 didn’t merely want a T20, they positively lusted for one.
Things only got better once the T20’s engine was started. Yes, the motor took cues from the German Adler two-stroke Twin, but what Suzuki did was to make the parallel Twin work in a way which was completely new. The first thing that T20 owners noticed is that the bike did in fact start first kick – every time. Reliable automatic lubrication meant ease of use, extreme engine reliability and low smoke emissions. This at a time when European manufacturers still expected purchasers of their bikes to carry a bottle of two-stroke oil with them – and then calculate the correct pre-mix every time they stopped at a gas station. Now, for the first time ever, two-strokes were as trouble-free as the four-stroke opposition.
The T20 was an easy bike to ride, with a six-speed gearbox and forgiving, durable clutch. With an experienced rider at the controls, the Suzuki was an able match for its 500cc challengers.
Once on the move, the T20 teetered wonderfully on the very edge of the performance-versus-practicality curve. That Suzuki pushed the envelope so hard is what made the bike special. Shimizu managed to get the T20 to produce 29 bhp at 7,500 rpm – and with stone-axe reliability. This figure needs putting in perspective. A Villiers engine of the same capacity was lucky to manage half this power, and only three years before the launch of the T20 the factory GP Suzukis were giving 28 bhp at 11,000 rpm – and then only rarely and with appalling reliability. The T20 was nothing short of miraculous.
The six-speed gearbox was sweet, positive and with perfectly chosen ratios which enabled the free-revving Twin to be kept in the fat part of the powerband all the time. The clutch was equally user friendly and capable of taking the most brutal punishment. In fact, this was an engine which combined race-track performance with industry-leading reliability in an unbeatable combination.
In the real world, rather than technical specification sheet, the T20 was a bike which could, somewhat sulkily, be trundled around town at 2,000 rpm but would then scream up to a genuine 90 mph on the open road. In the right hands, the bike slaughtered any 500cc bike on sale from Europe or Japan.
Its handling was as good as the motor. With a full duplex frame and powerful brakes, the T20 was a racer straight off the showroom floor and its successes became legendary in production and endurance racing. In fact, the T20 was so good that it soon spawned the TR250 GP racer – a very close relative of the road bike.
An all around hit for Suzuki, the T20 achieved its greatest success in America, where it was monikered the X-6.
If the bike was a success both in the showroom and track in Europe, it was to have an even greater impact in America. Here the X-6 changed the face of the motorcycle buying public. The new Suzuki was fast, attractive and easy to ride, and suddenly you didn’t need a Harley or a big British bike to be cool and have fun. Back in Japan, Suzuki’s Hamamatsu factory churned out 5,000 T20s a month and in doing so laid the foundations for Suzuki’s future commercial success.
Today, the T20 is just as much fun as it ever was – and still looks as gorgeous as it did 40 years ago. Blip the throttle and watch the tach needle flick round to 7,000rpm and it’s back to the Beach Boys, shoulder-length hair and fun, fun, fun ’til your daddy takes the Suz keys away – and makes you get on with your homework.