For this week’s selection from Greg Primm’s Classic Steel we are going to look at a bike I believe has gotten a bad rap over the years, the 1996 Suzuki RM250.
By: Tony Blazier
The ’96 RM250 was a radically improved machine over the terrible ’95 model. Everything on the bike was redesigned and supposedly tweaked with the influence of Roger DeCoster. For anyone short of a national caliber pro it was an excellent machine.
The Suzuki RM250 was all-new for 1996 and a major departure from the bike it replaced. The ’93-’95 RM250’s had been pretty poor machines compared to their rivals. Their motors had been long on punch, but short on breath, making them difficult to ride. The handling had been even worse, with an unsettled busy feel and terrible stability. While Suzuki’s 125’s were acknowledged to be some of the best in the class, their 250’s were relegated to the back of the pack. Suzuki hoped their radical new RM250 would be the machine to finally repair their tarnished 250 reputation.
Even the all-new RM was not immune to the ridiculous purple craze that infected the motocross industry in the mid-nineties. For some unknown reason every manufacturer felt an uncontrollable need to plaster their bikes with the color. Believe itor not this was actually tasteful by nineties standards. There was a good reason all the Factory race teams abandoned the purple craze on their works race bikes.
In 1996 the Honda CR250R was considered the gold standard in 250cc motocross motors. The CR produced an extremely broad, torquey power delivery that was both fast and brutally effective. This was in direct contrast to the short abrupt power delivery that had become a trademark of Suzuki’s 250 motor in the early nineties. Starting with the 1989 model, Suzuki had been using a case reed design on its RM250’s to less than stellar effect. The case reed design, while very effective on small motors like 125’s, had not proven particularly successful at providing a broad power curve on 250’s. Too often it resulted in a short, 125 style of power that made the bike difficult to ride. Suzuki’s ‘89-’95 RM250’s all had this quick revving, staccato style of power. For ’96 Suzuki looked to ditch their gun-and-run motor in hopes of taking down the class leading CR250R.
Suzuki aimed for the all-powerful Honda CR250R motor with their new engine and just missed the mark. The powerband was very similar to the CR’s broad torquey power curve but with slightly less thrust. It was not the most powerful bike in the class, but the RM motor was very competitive and a huge improvement over their previous power plants.
Suzuki’s ‘96 RM featured an all-new motor design that did away with the case reed intake entirely. In its place Suzuki went back to a more traditional piston reed intake and cylinder layout. It was pretty clear Suzuki had looked to the CR250 motor as inspiration for their new design. Even the kickstarter and pipe appeared to have been lifted right off the red machine. The only truly unique feature of the new motor was the internally housed water pump. It gave the side of the engine cases an oddly smooth appearance, but placed the often-vulnerable water pump out of harms way.
The big news on the ’96 RM was the all-new 49mm Showa conventional forks. They worked incredibly well at absorbing virtually anything on the track. They provided the plush feel of conventional forks without the troublesome flex and rut snagging overhang of previous designs. For anything short of Supercross they were absolute magic. Suzuki eventually gave up on the design, citing marketing pressures. As the only company using the design they were costly to produce, and eventually Japan soured on the extra development expense. When you add in the poor reception the conventional forks got at the Factory Race Team level it was pretty obvious their days were numbered.
The most radical departure in the RM’s design was Suzuki’s decision to go back to a conventional fork on the new machine. After six years of up-side-down designs, Suzuki’s new forks were actually a bit of a novelty in ’96. The main advantage of USD forks was their inherent stiffness that allowed pros to literally smash into obstacles. Unfortunately the stiff feel that pros appreciated tended to punish riders of average skill. The new 49mm Showa conventional forks were supposed to bring back the plushness without suffering from the flex that plagued earlier designs.
After several years on Kawasaki’s Mike LaRocco had a difficult time adapting to the Suzuki. It was pretty well known that he was not very happy with his works bikes in ’96. The discord got even worse the following year when Jeremy McGrath joined the team. After years on the powerful Honda squad, MC made it very clear that Suzuki’s Factory bikes were not up to the standards he was accustomed to. After several mechanical issues arose on the Factory bikes, LaRocco even tried to quit Team Suzuki midway through the ’97 season. In the end cooler heads prevailed, but at year’s end both he and McGrath left the yellow squad for greener pastures.
The rest of the RM’s chassis was very conventional in design. There was an all-new Showa shock to match the forks and a revised rear linkage. The frame was constructed of chromoly steel with a large center backbone and removable rear sub-frame. The new bodywork was sleek and featured a very cool, wrap around front fork-numberplate combo. While the new plastic reminded more than a few people of a yellow Honda, there was no denying it was a huge improvement over the bulky ’95 layout.
The oddest thing about the new RM motor was the internally housed water pump. It gave the right side of the motor an unusual appearance, but kept the vulnerable water pump out of harm’s way. The interesting arrangement also lent a strange ticking sound to the motor when running. Suzuki went back to a more conventional design when they redesigned the RM’s again in 2001.
On the track the new RM was a real winner for anyone short of a national pro. The new motor produced an excellent low to mid-range hit and good top-end pull. The RM ran very much like a ’96 CR250 with slightly less midrange power. It was torquey and flexible, with none of the hard to ride character of their previous motors. Much like the rest of the ’96 RM, the motor has taken a bit of a beating in the press as many pros have complained that it was too slow. The truth was the motor was excellent for 95% of the riders who were going to ride it. The RM may have been underpowered for Jeremy McGrath, but for Joe Average it was a damn good engine.
Albee had some truly spectacular get offs on the RM during the ’96 season. At the Houston Supercross he got ejected off the bike 30 feet in the air while jumping a huge quad. At High point he appeared to be headed to his first US win when he literally fell off the back of his bike in a rutted corner. Even though he had some hard crashes, the tough South African never failed to get back on the bike and keep trying. His perseverance would finally pay off with a 250 National Motocross title for Suzuki in 1999.
Much like the motor, history has been less than kind to the Showa suspension. The one thing most people seem to remember about the conventional Showa forks is that McGrath hated them. In truth they were just not stiff enough to take slamming into a set of whoops in 4th gear wide open. A rider of MC’s caliber required that the forks be incredibly stiff to withstand the incredible stresses he could impose on them. While the 49mm conventional forks were not up to the extreme pressures exerted in Supercross, they were absolute magic for the rest of us. They were plush and absorbed everything from breaking bumps to jump landings with equal aplomb. They were by far the best forks of any ’96 motocross machine. Unless you were named LaRocco or McGrath, it just did not get any better than these 49mm Showa’s.
While LaRocco and Albee did not like their Works RM’s; the stock bike was well received in the motocross press. The RM250 even took home MXA’s coveted 250 shootout in 1996.
The RM’s shock was nearly as good as the forks, absorbing large and small hits easily. The fantastic suspension contributed mightily to the RM’s excellent handling. Where the ’95 RM250 had bounced and darted all over the track the ’96 machine was stable at speed and precise in the turns. It had the turning prowess of the Honda and the straight-line stability of the Kawasaki. The light feeling and tight handling RM250 was the jack-of-all-trades in the motocross wars for ’96.
I had this exact bike, right down to the Factory replica N-Style graphics. I really think this bike has been unfairly vilified over the years. Of the nearly fifty bikes I have owned, this was one of the very best. The suspension was absolute magic and the power was more than adequate for my intermediate class speed. It ran and handled like a CR250 with better suspension and a little less hit. For 95% of the riders out there that was a pretty good combination.
The ’96 RM250 may be the most unfairly ridiculed motorcycle ever. Its fantastic suspension and awesome handling get overlooked in all the controversy that embroiled the bike at the pro level. It may be true that its mellow power plant was not fast enough for a guy like Albee, but for the rest of us mortals it was a winning machine.