European riders love big single-cylinder motorcycles. North America might be the natural environment of the Kawasaki KLR650 or the Suzuki DR650, but Euros love their thumpers too, and over the years, they’ve had access to some big singles that have been rare, or almost unobtanium, in Canada and the US.
This 1995 MZ Saxon 500 Country is the perfect example. These bikes only came to North America in very limited numbers, and right now, you’ve got a chance to buy one right here on ADVrider, thanks to the Flea Market forum.
What’s an MZ?
MZ – short for MZ Motorrad- und Zweiradwerk GmbH – was a motorcycle manufacturer based in East Germany during the Cold War. MZ built more technologically advanced machines than their Communist counterparts in the Dnepr and Ural factories. Through the 1950s and 1960s, MZ’s two-stroke GP bikes were actually quite successful, until racer Ernst Degner defected to the west, taking the company’s tuning secrets with him and selling them to Suzuki. This was the basis of Suzuki’s initial roadracing success, and also an excellent book and graphic novel by former racer Mat Oxley—you can see more details on the graphic novel here. It’s well worth a read, we’re told, and you can buy both versions of the story at Oxley’s website.
North Americans were never too keen on the MZ machines, as they were suspicious of most of the Eastern Bloc’s offerings. MZ motorcycles were more common in Europe, especially behind the Iron Curtain, obviously. Travel to Cuba, and you’ll see lots of them on the road there, thanks to Castro’s prolonged disagreement with the gringos.
MZ survived the fall of the Berlin Wall, and updated its lineup considerably afterwards. Through the 1990s, MZ built several new four-stroke models, some with engines developed in-house, and others with engines sourced from a third party. That’s what the Saxon 500 Country model was: An MZ-built motorcycle with an engine from Rotax.
Tried and true design
When MZ built the first Saxon 500 models around 1992, it was using an engine that was already well-known. The air-cooled Rotax 500 engine had powered the Armstrong MT500 dual sport bike for years (as used by the British army and other militaries, and also built by Harley-Davidson). When Les Harris tried to revive the Matchless line in 1987, he used the Rotax 500 to power the G80. The Rotax engine also appeared in the KTM 504 MXC, the Can Am Sonic 500, and other models that have disappeared into the mists of moto-history.
Note that all those motorcycles were made in the 1980s, and the Saxon was made in the 1990s—the buzzy single was getting dated by then. However, it was still a tough engine, and rated for 34 horsepower at the crank. Not bad for an air-cooled 500, although it would have lagged behind the big 650s of the early ’90s.
There were some quirks to the 500; the kickstarter was on the left side of the bike. The SOHC engine used a timing belt, instead of a chain. It was a dry sump design, but still required three litres of oil. The chain final drive was fully enclosed. Like the Rotax 650 engine that came later, the 500 had dual headers, even though it was a single-cylinder.
The 500 used a 33mm Bing carburetor, and had a 9:2:1 compression ratio. This was not a race-bred, high-compression engine, but a sensible machine built for rough use.
Looking at the rest of the bike, it’s an interesting set of contrasts. On one hand, MZ went with a dual-shock rear suspension, a very dated design by ’92. On the other hand, the factory used proper Bilstein shocks. There’s a 19-inch front wheel, not so common for adventure-style bikes in the early ’90s, but very common for road-biased ADVers today.
Some journos of the ’90s thought the MZ’s bodywork was ugly, but in retrospect, it doesn’t seem much worse than anything else from that time period.
In a way, it’s a reflection of MZ as a company. On one hand, you very much had stern Cold War design realities at play here. Vehicles must be practical and affordable, comrade, to suit the needs of the workers! But on the other hand, MZ did have a long history of clever design and competition success. The company’s engineers and leaders wanted to win, but the Cold War had held MZ back. This was a chance to try some new ideas.
A rare find
This 1995 model, for sale in North Carolina is extremely uncommon in the US. The seller, longtime ADVrider inmate Little General, reckons there are only a dozen or so in the States. I don’t know if that number is accurate, but I do know I’ve never seen another one for sale, and certainly haven’t seen one on the road.
He had to do some work on this bike to get it going—read about that here. The bike looks like it’s in pretty good shape, and he says he hasn’t ridden it much since putting it back together, as the weather hasn’t cooperated. The bike comes with a GIVI trunk and side luggage racks. He’s asking $2,500, which doesn’t sound like a bad price, considering the machine’s rarity. And yet, thanks to its common Rotax engine, you should be able to keep the bike running forever.