Finding Joel Robert's 1972 World Championship Suzuki
Ever since I started collecting works motocross bikes, I always thought the ultimate bike to find would be Joel Robert's 1972 World Championship Suzuki, designated the RH72. Joel Robert was arguably the best rider in the world at that time and many still believe that he is the greatest of all time. The pedigree of this bike was without peer. 1972 was Joel's last World Championship and the bike he used was the most refined, lightest (168 lbs.) and trickest (in relative terms) motocross bike ever built. The works Suzuki's of the early 70's were surrounded by so much hype and secrecy that this led to rumors and wild speculation as to what was so trick and secret about these hand built racers. A few magazines were allowed to run stories on the bikes but access was very limited, very few specs were revealed, journalists were not allowed to photograph key components such as inside the air box and nobody outside of the factory riders was allowed to ride them. The only information given to the common man about the RH and RN Suzuki's is that they were very light, very trick and very expensive. The bikes were light years ahead of anything else at the time and in the hands of Joel Robert, Roger DeCoster, Sylvain Geboers and Olle Peterson, dominated every series they entered. The secrets of those works Suzuki's remained secrets until 1994 when I found Joel's RH72.
My search for one of the early works Suzuki's began in the late 80's while looking for works bikes in general. Every person I came in contact with while pursuing works bikes was asked if they knew if one of these early 70's Suzuki's still existed. There were a few leads but every one of them turned into a dead end. I even asked Roger DeCoster in the early 90's and he said they were all destroyed. He told me that Suzuki was very strict about returning the bikes and other than the bikes that were given to him (1973 and later), there were none left. This was very sobering but still, I kept looking.
In the spring of 1994, I was on the phone with Mark Banks (son of GP great John Banks) working out a deal to buy his 1981 125 Mugen and during the conversation I asked the question I had asked hundreds of times. "Do you know or have you heard if there is an early 70's works Suzuki anywhere?" I was stunned by Mark's response. "Yeah sure, I know where two of them are. I've even ridden both of them. One is Joel Robert's 1972 250 and the other is Roger DeCoster's 370." After hearing and expecting the word "No" for about five years, I wasn't even sure I believed him. He then went on to tell me that they were owned by a guy named Graham Beamish who he said was the Suzuki importer for the UK back in the day. This all sounded credible but the problem was, when I asked for his phone number, Mark said Graham was living in Spain and had no way to get in touch with him.
After hanging up with Mark, I immediately called a friend of mine in England who was also a collector, Clive Bussey. Clive and I had many conversations in the past and both of us had talked about finding one of these bikes. To each of us it would be the ultimate find. I told Clive of my conversation with Mark and Clive told me that he knew Graham's son Stephen and would call him to verify this. Both Clive and I at this time were of the mindset that if this was true, and they were for sale, we had to act very fast.
My phone rang about an hour later. Clive had called Stephen Beamish and Stephen confirmed that it was true, the two works Suzuki's existed and were still at the Beamish farm in southern England. Clive was going to drive down to the farm that night (a 3 hour drive) and check things out and in the mean time, Stephen was going to contact his father in Spain and see if he would sell the bikes. I told Clive to go buy one of those disposable cardboard cameras and shoot the whole roll of film on both bikes and then send me the camera undeveloped by next day DHL courier. Before he left to inspect the goods we decided that if it really was true, who would get what bike. At this time I thought it was only fair to let him have first choice and I really had hoped that he would pick the 370. To me the six time World Champion's 250 was the ultimate and to most Europeans the open bikes seemed to be more desirable. We agreed that sight unseen, what ever agreement we made, that was it, and in fact Clive did pick the 370. So no matter what, if we were able to buy the bikes, Clive would get the 370 and I would get the 250. I also told him that when he got back home that night to call me immediately no matter what time it was. Needless to say, I did not sleep that night.
The next morning my phone rang and it was Clive. It was about 5 in the morning in England and Clive had just returned home. He had been up all night and his voice didn't sound excited at all, in fact he sounded tired and depressed. "Well, what happened, did you see the bikes...are they real?" I asked. "Yeah they're the real deal alright, the 250 is the better of the two, at least it's together but the 370 is in pieces and they are both in very bad shape." He told me he would get the film developed and send the pictures in the mail and that I should take a real hard look at the bikes. To be honest, this didn't even phase me in the least. Just knowing that the bikes existed and just maybe they could be purchased was enough for me. I had been looking and dreaming of this moment for years and it would take a lot more than this to deflate the vision I had.
A day later a package of pictures arrived at my office via. DHL. Clive had them developed and kept a set for himself and sent me a set. After opening the package and viewing the prints, I could see why he was so depressed. They were without a doubt the real deal but both bikes were in bad shape. The 250 was by far in the best condition and was all there and assembled. The 370 was at best a basket case. The motor was in the frame and the tank was mounted but the rest of it was all over the place and the pieces were in very bad condition. Somebody had tried to restore the 370 and tried to polish the billet forks, in doing so, removed so much material that they seemed almost un-repairable. Stephen had got in touch with Graham and Graham had agreed to sell both bikes for 10,000 British Pounds each or about $15,000.00 each at the exchange rate at that time. Now decisions had to be made. To me it was a "No brainer" but Clive really paused at spending that much money which was unprecedented at the time for anything in that condition. I told him I was going to go ahead with it and if he did not want the 370, I would take that too. There was no way I was going to let these bikes go. This was a once in a lifetime chance to own two of the most historical bikes of all time.
I called him later in the day to see if he had decided and his wife answered the phone. This is when things can get a little dicey. His wife answered and said " Is my bike the one with wheels or the one without wheels." Obviously she had seen the pictures and I really didn't know whether to laugh or try to explain how special all of this was. She put Clive on and he told me he was going to go for it. He made the right call. After his decision I immediately wired the money for the 250 and began to arrange for shipping. Later that day I called up DeCoster and told him the story. He didn't believe it for a minute. The story was, that Beamish had requested both bikes for display at a motor show in London in November of 1972. Beamish Suzuki was selling more Suzuki's in the UK at that time than all of Europe combined. Therefore he had a lot of clout with the factory and against company policy they gave in to his request. I verified this with an old Motorcycle News magazine story that covered the event and actually had a picture of both bikes on display at the show.
It just so happened that weekend Roger DeCoster was being inducted into the Motor Sports Hall of Fame in Detroit Michigan and he had invited me to be his guest there. On Friday, I received the pictures from Clive and I took them with me to Detroit that evening. I met Roger at the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit where the ceremony would be and showed him the pictures. When he examined them he knew immediately the bikes were the real deal and was very surprised to know that the two works Suzuki's still existed. Soon a crowd gathered that included former Formula 1 World Champion race driver Jackie Stewart who was to Emcee the event. It was amazing to see everybody's reaction to these photos of two bikes in major disrepair taken in the dark at 2 in the morning.
It was really cool to see Roger get the award and there were many celebrities in the crowd. Jackie Stewart introduced Roger and told the audience of when he was on the Formula one circuit, hearing of and following Roger's success in Grand Prix motocross. How cool is that? After the award ceremony Roger and I spent about an hour or so in the Hotel lobby at about 1:00 am with Roger telling me all about those bikes. He said his 1972 370 was his favorite bike of all time and that the 1972 works Suzuki's were some of the best motocross bikes ever built. In 1972 there were no weight limits and the engineers pulled all the stops and produced bikes that were far superior to anything at the time. They were so successful that the following year they were banned by the FIM and weight limits would be implemented from then on.
Early the next week Clive drove down to the Beamish farm to pick up the bikes. A shipping company was commissioned to take apart the RH72 and Mark Banks' Mugen, crate them and air ship both bikes to Chicago. It was a little over a week from the time I had the phone conversation with Mark Banks until the plane landed at O'Hare with the bikes. Everything happened so fast it all seemed like a blur, but it was a huge relief when the crate was finally delivered.
When the crate was delivered, my wife called me at work to tell me it had arrived and I immediately grabbed the next commuter train home. It was still hard to grasp all that had taken place and on the train ride home all I could think of was all the times I had seen Joel on that bike in magazines, and that now the bike was in my garage. When I got home there in the garage was the crate. Just knowing what was inside made the whole experience overwhelming. It was like opening a treasure box that contained ancient antiquities. Both bikes were disassembled and each part was carefully wrapped. As I removed both bikes from the crate, I put the Mugen on one side of the garage and the Suzuki on the other. It was at this time that I started to notice the condition of the Suzuki. There were holes in the clutch cover and the top of the gas tank. The cylinder fins were bent so bad I wasn't sure if they could even be straightened. The left rear crankcase had a gob of weld on it at the motor mount, the frame was cracked, the fork tubes were rusted and the list went on. This bike was hammered. I found out later that Stephen Beamish actually raced the bike in England for a couple of years and since no parts were available, make shift repairs were made as things broke. The bike then was retired to a shed where it sat for years.
Nearly every part of the bike needed attention in one way or another but the good thing was, 95% of the original parts were there and it looked like everything was repairable. The project was way beyond my limited skills and I knew it would be real expensive to restore but right away I decided cost should not be a factor and it was important to find the right people to do the job correctly. This bike was too important to take any short cuts. The other issue was to find as many photos of the bike as possible for reference. The ultimate goal was to bring the bike back to the condition it would have been as prepped for a GP. Too many bikes are buffed, over polished and over restored that they totally lose their original character that they had when new. That was not going to happen to this one. Since I had never seen the bike back in the day, all I had to work with was photos and I also asked DeCoster to help out. Roger agreed to do it but stressed the significance and importance of getting it right. His memory was amazing, he seemed to remember every little detail of the bike and supplied me with detailed photos to guide me along. This was a huge help.
I decided to contact Joel Robert himself and tell him of the news. Roger gave me Joel's phone number and when I called Joel for the first time, his response was not what I expected. When I told him I found and purchased his World Championship Suzuki, his response was "We have a problem. This is not possible, the bike was destroyed after the 1972 season." Obviously he didn't believe me and he thought this was some wacko with a hopped up TM. I didn't understand his English too good at first and rather than trying to argue the point and convince him this was real, I decided another approach. I called Roger back and asked him if we could do a three way call to Joel's house and Roger and I could talk to him in one conversation. I was ultimately hoping that Joel would have some spare parts or at least offer some help with the restoration. Roger agreed and we did the three way call but most of it was them two talking in French and not much was accomplished. Joel still thought I was nuts but when Beamish's name came up, he remembered an important incident.
After the 1972 GP season, Joel took his GP 250 and his 370 that he raced International races with to Spain where he stayed for over a month. It was during this time that Suzuki rounded up all of the 72 works bikes and took them to Nimag in Holland (Suzuki headquarters) and destroyed them. Some of the bikes were actually thrown into the North Sea. When Joel returned back to his home in Waterloo Belgium with the bikes, they stayed in his garage for a while. It was then that Beamish requested the World Championship bikes for the motor show in London. Suzuki contacted Joel about retrieving the bikes and had a mechanic drive down to Waterloo and pick them up. They were then sent to England where they remained until Clive and I bought them. Somehow, Beamish was allowed to keep the bikes but the factory wouldn't sell them any parts. It's interesting to note that after I purchased the 250 from Beamish, he sent me a letter stating that the 250 was Joel's World Championship bike but he wasn't sure about the history of the 370. Now everything as far as the story goes was taking form and making sense. Joel was not convinced though but he did ask me for the serial number. I gave it to him and that was the last I heard about that until after the bike was restored.
The restoration took a little over a year and will be discussed in detail in another section. The total cost to restore the bike was a little over $20,000.00. I was fortunate to find very qualified and talented craftsmen who understood the enormity of the project and really went the extra mile to do it right. Even though $20,000.00 sounds like a lot of money to restore a bike, most of the guys gave me discounts on their labor and were very happy to be involved. When the bike was done, it looked perfect, just like it was just prepped for a GP. I couldn't resist seeing if it would start and it started on the second kick. I rode it around the back yard for a few minutes and just hearing the open expansion chamber and feeling how light it was really topped things off. The restoration was a complete success.
It wasn't a month after the restoration was complete that I got a phone call from Joel Robert. He asked how the restoration was coming along and told me he was coming to the States just to see the bike. There was something that convinced him that just maybe all of this was true. This was as exciting as finding the bike. I had contacted my friend Ron Lawson (Editor of Dirt Bike magazine), who was doing a story on the on the whole ordeal and told him Joel was going to come to Chicago to see the bike. Realizing that this would be a once in a lifetime chance and also adding to the story, he booked a flight to Chicago that would have him arriving a day after Joel arrived.
On the day Joel was to arrive, I decided to put the bike on display in the middle of my living room. I had absolutely no idea what his reaction would be and this would also be the first time we would meet in person. Joel had not been to the States since the 70's and to me he was bigger than life as I had read all about him in the magazines back in the day. Remember Bruce Brown's comments in the movie "On Any Sunday"? "Joel was such a big hero in Belgium that the fans would lay down on the track to slow the other riders but Joel didn't need any help." To say the situation would be intimidating was an understatement.
I picked Joel and his wife Josiane up at the airport right on schedule and brought them back to my house and after some small talk and introducing them to my family, we went into the living room to see the bike. As soon as he turned the corner in the foyer he saw the RH72 for the first time in over 20 years. Talk about an emotional moment. He spent a lot of time quietly looking over every little detail and then lifted it off the stand and paused and lifted it again, checking out how light it was. He turned and said this is it, this is my bike. He said he even checked on the serial number that I had given him earlier on the phone and that it matched, it was the same bike that he used at every Grand Prix in 1972 to clinch his sixth and final World Championship. He started the 1972 season with two RH72's and only rode one. The other sat in the truck the whole season. When I asked him why he never rode the 2nd bike, he said "This one was good enough." After spending about 30 minutes or so checking out the bike, Joel gave me an original jersey that he wore during the 1971 Trans-am race at Saddleback park in 1971.
Ron Lawson showed up the next day and after looking the bike over for several minutes asked if it ran. When I told him it did, he asked if we could take it outside and start it up. The bike fired up on the first kick and after warming it up a bit I went first and rode it around the back yard. Then Ron tried it out. By now several minutes had gone by and with the exhaust pipe being so loud, we were starting to cause a ruckus in a very quiet neighborhood. Ron came back to the driveway, shut the bike off and Joel was just standing there quietly looking and maybe reminiscing of the GP's in 1972. I asked him if he wanted to try it out and after a little coaxing he decided to give it a whirl. This is where things got really cool. My back yard is about 300 feet long and about 200 feet deep so there is enough room to give it a little gas. As Joel started up the bike, I thought immediately to run in the house and grab the camcorder. As I came back out, Joel was just letting the clutch out of the RH72 for the first time in over 20 years. I just had to record this moment. He wasted no time in grabbing a handful and was at the other end of the yard in no time. The sound of the open expansion chamber echoing off the houses in the neighborhood was very loud and the neighbors were starting to come out. From the far end of the yard Joel pulled the front end straight up and wheelied the whole length of my backyard. When he got to the end, he dropped the front end down and carved a corner with the bars just inches from the ground and gave it full throttle, throwing a 40 foot roost of plush green sod! UNBELIEVABLE!!! I was in total shock watching this and trying to record it at the same time. Neighbors were now coming over and my wife was explaining that this was the six time World Champion from Belgium on his bike. I'm not sure what they initially thought. After making several passes on the bike, Joel came back to where a crowd had now gathered, shut it off and said "It sure is noisy." Everybody including the neighbors busted out laughing. He said that the bike felt and ran just like he last remembered it from back in 1972. What a special moment it all was.
It was a dream come true to find and restore that bike but all of that paled compared to the friendship that Joel and I established since then. Our families have become very close and we often take vacations together in both Europe and in the States and almost never miss a month of calling each other. As big of a Champion as Joel was on the track, he is a bigger Champion off the track, a real gentleman and all around nice guy. He still has the iconic status in his home country of Belgium, recognized everywhere he goes, but when you meet him, you would never know it. He still promotes races including a motocross race in southern Belgium for a boys orphanage that he has promoted every year since he was World Champion in the 60's. Joel Robert is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet.