Top 10 Wankel engined bikes

Rotaries might have been a blind alley, but plenty went down it…

APART from providing endless schoolboy sniggers the Wankel rotary engine is one of the greatest near-misses of 20th century engineering. It promised to revolutionise the bikes we rode and cars we drove, but despite decades of work never quite overcame the problems that prevented it from becoming a mainstream hit.

We won’t go into detail about how Wankels work, since it’s a slightly mind-bending concept based on a mind-bending movement that seems to virtually defy logic (see a great animation here). But the basic idea of getting rid of all the reciprocating bits of a normal engine – the pistons, con-rods, valves – and replacing them with a design that does the same suck-squeeze-bang-blog sequence using purely rotating parts is, frankly, genius. Sadly it’s genius that’s hamstrung by a couple of flaws - most notably difficulties in sealing the rotor tips - which have effectively ended its challenge to conventional piston engines.

We all know about Nortons and Suzuki RE5s, but there has been a host of other Wankel-engined bikes over the years, from prototypes to full production models. Here’s our top 10 pick.

10: Hercules/DKW W-2000

First on our list comes the earliest production Wankel motorcycle. The Hercules, which was marketed as a DKW in the UK, was sold for most of the 1970s and as such was one of the most successful rotaries in terms of numbers built. Sadly, despite the bike’s muscular name it was a little limp at around 30bhp from 294cc (although capacities of Wankel engines don't necessarily bare direct comparison to those of piston engines), and despite being German its build quality was patchy at best.

9: Yamaha RZ201

No, you didn’t miss something. Yamaha hasn’t ever made a production Wankel bike. But it nearly did, and this was it. Revealed at the 1972 Tokyo Motor Show, the RZ201 had a 660cc Wankel and made 66bhp. Although pretty tidy-looking, only a couple of prototypes are believed to have been made. If you like the look, though, you can always try to find a conventionally-powered Yamaha TX750 – it used the same frame and suspension and looks virtually identical to the prototype RZ201.

8: Norton Interpol II

Norton spent most of the 1970s fiddling with prototype rotary-powered bikes, but it took until 1984 before finally creating its first production Wankel, the Interpol II. But you still couldn’t actually buy one. Not unless you were a police force or breakdown service, that is. Of course, they turn up occasionally in private hands these days, but these were really somewhere between prototype and production machines. If that fairing looks familiar it’s because it was borrowed from the BMW R100RT that was the favoured cop bike of the day.

7: Kawasaki X99 RCE

Back to prototype waters again here, but Kawasaki’s twin-rotor X99 was clearly carefully considered for production, since the firm went to the effort and expense of buying a licence to build the Wankel motors. Shown in 1972, it was purported to be a 900cc machine making 85hp, but it disappeared without trace.

6: Norton Classic

After endless development the Norton Classic was the first proper production rotary from the British firm. Using the same air-cooled, twin rotor 588cc motor from the Interpol II and made as a limited edition of just 100 bikes, it was seen as a first step towards the comeback of both the rotary and Norton as a real motorcycling power when it reached production in 1987 – a full 11 years after the last serious Wankel production bike, the Suzuki RE5, had been dropped.

5: Van Veen OCR1000

One of the few motorcycle firms to emerge from Holland, Van Veen’s attempt to make a Wankel bike was ambitious. The twin-rotor, 996cc engine (actually developed by NSU and Citroen and originally intended for a car) made a claimed 107bhp and was said to give the bike a 135mph top speed – not too shabby in 1978 when production finally started, several years after the first prototypes had been made. Looked pretty good, too, although the rotary motor isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as a piston engine. Buyers weren’t convinced, and only 38 were made before the project folded in 1981. A 2011 attempt to revive the bike with a ridiculous €85,000 price tag is supposed to have added another 10 machines to that total.

4: Norton Commander

The ‘P53’ Commander of 1989 was another proper production bike, this time with Norton’s new water-cooled twin-rotor engine. And it wasn’t too bad by all accounts, even if you needed to be slightly obsessed with either the Norton name or the unusual engineering to choose one over, say, a BMW or Honda. The firm’s success in racing at the time, using a derivative of the Commander’s engine, helped give it a boost.

3: Suzuki RE5

Realistically, if you want to experience a rotary-engined bike, you’re almost certainly going to end up with an RE5. While the other contenders on this list were made in tiny numbers, the Suzuki remains arguably the only bike to have been truly mass-produced. Go onto eBay right now and there will probably be one or two available. The engine is only a single-rotor design (which means there’s a bit less to go wrong) and with 62bhp it wasn’t madly powerful even in 1974. But it’s smooth and intriguingly-styled, particularly in its initial form, with barrel-shaped instruments and tail light, which were replaced by conventional units in 1976.

2: Norton F1

Given the fact that Norton was enjoying racing victories again with its rotaries in the late '80s, it seemed odd that the first production bike it built around the engine was the Commander tourer. That was remedied in 1990 with the launch of the F1, which was nearly a proper sports bike. Its styling was pretty decent, albeit reminiscent of the first-gen CBR600, CBR1000 and Ducati Paso. Its all-enclosed fairing also meant it lacked the hard, race-rep look that would have really played on the firm’s on-track success. Shame, because the bits underneath were serious and included a beautiful aluminium Spondon frame and high-end WP suspension. Around 130 were made and prices today are steep.

1: Norton F1 Sport

But not as steep as prices of the even rarer 1991 F1 Sport, which finally gained proper race-rep styling like that on the firm’s BSB and TT bikes. Unfortunately, the firm only ‘got it right’ by something of an accident, as by 1991 Norton was in its death throes. The F1 Sport was more an effort to use up the remaining parts at the factory than a serious attempt to woo buyers in big numbers. Technically, its much the same as the F1, but with the race bike’s seat unit and new side panels that allow that Spondon frame to finally be seen. Unfortunately, the even better looking F2, shown as a prototype in 1992 and intended to be a cheaper follow-up to the F1, never reached production.

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