Saturday, 24 November 2012

Triumph Speed Triple R

I suppose it’s essential to be impartial and totally objective when fulfilling the role of motorcycle journalist, testing bikes for your information and entertainment. There has to be an element of subjectivity because we can’t be automatons all the time and just report the facts – not that anyone would want to read that anyway - but we can’t just slag off a bike because we don’t like a particular make or because our skill isn’t great enough to make sense of the machine in our hands.

 But, just sometimes, a bike comes along that not only speaks your language, but has the same accent and sense of humour, digs the clothes you wear, likes the same music and food and is happy to watch motorsport on the TV 24/7; in short, it fits like a glove.

One thing I have found, doing this job (can anything so enjoyable be called a job?), is that I have become increasingly confused about which bike I would buy if I had to spend my own money. Each bike has its plus- and minus-points and I love them all for what they are, but none has stood out as the bike that I would invest my money in. Some have come close, but there’s always been just that little…..something, missing.

If there is one bike that, to me, encapsulates the new Triumph brand, it is the Speed Triple. Not the Daytonas or Trophys or the retro models but the naked street fighter. Maybe because it is so uncompromising in its design and attitude; it’s a sort of two-finger salute to all those who wrote off the British motorcycle industry all those years. It’s a glorious ‘up yours’ that has backed the attitude up by being a sales success.

Anyway, enough waffle. The Triumph Speed Triple R: R30,000 more than the standard Speed T, but is it necessarily R30,000 better? Given that the standard Speed T is a cracking machine already, does adding fancy suspension and braking components, lighter wheels and a smattering of carbon fibre really make it all that much better?

The real world answer is; of course not, no, unless you had the skill of a professional racer and could detect the improved parameters of braking and roadholding that the uprated components give you. For you and I there is little other than bragging rights in having them fitted to what is already a state-of-the-art bike; having Ohlins stamped on your forks and rear swingarm and Brembo on the calipers does draw attention to the bike’s competency and away from your dire lack of skill to do anything with it!

But the Speed Triple is just such a brilliant bike and the R version adds that bit of extra bragging rights that so many of us bikers love. 

MV Agusta 750S America

There is something about Italian machinery; something indefinable but definitely there and it turns even the most mundane machinery into a piece of sculpture; a living definition of the Italian lifestyle; from the humblest Vespa or Fiat 500 to the mighty Ducati and Ferrari.

Of course, some Italian icons are a cut above the rest and, at the top of that pile is MV Agusta. Always frighteningly expensive, monstrously complex and ultimately exclusive – a product as aloof as Count Domenico Agusta himself - they have nevertheless gained a reputation as the motorcycle. No arguments.
Agusta was started as an aviation company in 1923 by Count Giovanni Agusta. He died in 1927 and the running of the company was handed over to his sons, Vincenzo, Domenico, Corrado and Mario.

Mecchanica Verghera Agusta was formed in 1945 as a means to save the workforce from redundancy in the slump years after the Second World War and to fill the need for cheap, efficient transport. The name derives from the hamlet – Verghera – where the first machines were made.

As with Enzo Ferrari, the brothers Agusta made road machines to fund their racing activities, at which they were devastatingly successful; they won over 3000 races and 63 World Championships between 1948 and 1967.

Their road bikes started as small capacity singles but in the early 1960’s, sales declined as customers moved to larger capacity machines. To meet this demand, a four-cylinder touring bike was designed – the 600 – but it was as ugly as the racing machines had been stunning. Customers craved a replica of the 500cc racing machines but the Count was having none of it and the capacity of the new engine was designed to discourage attempts to create such home-built replicas. Just 135 examples of the bike were made between 1967 and 1972.

In 1969, however, MV scored a hit at the Milan Motorcycle show when it launched the new 750S. It went into production in 1971 and used 1960’s Grand Prix technology, which meant expensive gears to drive the camshafts and roller bearings and shims throughout. It sold for four times the amount of the Honda CB750, which ensured exclusivity and, unlike its 600cc stablemate, it was super-stylish and utterly desirable. It was the Ferrari of the two-wheeled world.

Its sole role in life was to generate publicity and glamour on the Agusta concern, which was still making helicopters (naturally, some of the best money could buy). Follow-up models included the America and Monza – no less glamorous or more successful – and production ceased in 1977.

Trust the Italians to conceive something so improbably exclusive and mechanically impossible that virtually no-one could buy it but that everyone wanted. Production was always limited and in ten years, MV sold fewer than 2,000 four-cylinder machines. By comparison, Honda sold 61,000 CB750’s during the first three years in America alone!

But I know which one I would rather have.

MV Agusta F3

I’ve just had a brief and fiery affair with an Italian. She was (relatively)expensive, exclusive and temperamental; stunningly beautiful and, in the right hands, would perform faultlessly. The affair only lasted a few days; mere hours, but now that she has gone, I know that life will never be quite the same again. I will never look at another bike with quite the same yearning as long as she exists in my memory.
‘She’, of course, is the new MV Agusta F3 675. In all my years of riding motorbikes, I don’t think I have ever come across a bike that I wanted to own so much but that I knew would break my heart in the blink of an eye and would follow that up by breaking the rest of me. It’s not that it is dangerous in any way, but its abilities make it so aloof and proud - as any good Italian machine should be - that it would sneer at my ineptitude and clumsy handling and probably just refuse to start.

It is in every sense like a thoroughbred horse; not something that just anyone can mount and ride perfectly straight off. No, you have to work at this one to get the best out of it; you have to learn its idiosyncrasies and work around and with them. Get it right and it is the most rewarding experience – get it wrong and it will rebel against you and, in all likelihood, go off in a sulk.

What is it about Italian machines that provoke this sort of reaction? Actually, let’s be more accurate; what is it about MV Agusta that provokes this reaction? They have always been out of reach to mere mortals and have carried an impenetrable air of mystique. They are, after all, just a collection of different metals, nuts and bolts and plastics but there is that indefinable something about them that lifts them above other motorcycles.

Motorcycling is an emotional business. We buy bikes based purely on heart rather than entertaining what the head says. Of course it all comes down to personal preference but, in general there are some bikes that make the heart beat a little faster than others, no matter what your riding preference. We buy motorcycles because of what they make us feel - ‘cars transport the body; motorbikes transport the soul.’
Such a bike is the MV F3. I used to own an early 350cc MV, many years’ back and, even then, the name was something magic. Of course that bike was a long way from the amazingly exotic and expensive 750S America but it just had that indefinable something that all Italian machinery seems to possess. It was a relief to see that, with their return to motorcycle manufacture, MV didn’t lose the ability to amaze.

I was first given the chance to ride the F3 in the middle of Pretoria. The sick and twisted mind that dreamt up this was in front of me in a car whilst his cameraman filmed me from the back of the bakkie. I was there to film the bike for the Bike Show and it wasn’t pleasant. The bike was getting hot and so was I with the hot air vented right into the thigh area. Sweaty bollocks time!

The fuelling at low speed was terrible and you needed a fistful of throttle and slipped clutch to get off the line. Once moving, the throttle was like a light switch at town speeds, with the result that progress was not the smoothest. Like any performance bike, town riding was a series of violent accelerations followed immediately by hard braking.

But on the MV that didn’t matter as the sound was just incredible (any exhaust system that looks this good just has to sound brilliant). The engine may share architecture with the Triumph triple, but the layout is as far as the similarities go. This is like a Triumph engine on steroids; snarling, biting; it barks, it grumbles and finally it shrieks, all with a brutally hard edge to it. In the old days they used to say it sounded like the tearing of calico (a type of cotton cloth). Now I’ve never heard tearing calico, but if this is what it sounds like, then I’m off to buy some and rip it up!

Then I had the chance to get out onto the open road and it started making a bit more sense; it just wanted to clear its throat and let rip. And boy, when it lets rip, it goes. Maybe it’s the sound that does it more than anything but it certainly doesn’t hang around.

Esteemed colleagues who had the chance to take it round a track said the handling was simply brilliant. On the road there was no chance to verify that, but what you can say is that the ride is pretty unforgiving and the seat might as well be made from a plank of wood for all the give it has.

I had been riding the Suzuki GSX-R1000 up to that point and thought that it was pretty hard and focussed but when I climbed back onto it to ride back from Pretoria to Jo’burg, it was like riding a big, soft couch.
But, I love the fact that it takes a little concentration to ride; it’s refreshing to get on a bike that needs thought and effort and not be so perfectly docile that anyone can ride it. Because it makes no bones about what it is – a thinly disguised track bike - you can forgive it everything and, to the experienced rider with ability in spades, it would be more rewarding than a night with Pamela Anderson.

Look, the thing is flawed; I’ve spoken already about most of the problems and to add to that, the switchgear looks like it came from a discount electrical store. But none of that matters; it’s an MV and that’s enough to make you forgive it everything.

Ah, yes, I hear you say; but it must cost a fortune. Well, actually no! It’s only about 10-15% more than its rivals and when you look at what you get – exclusivity, looks, amazing chassis, full electronics package, sound and that name - it’s a bargain.

How can I convey my feelings about this bike; even though I will never be able to extract more than a few per cent of its abilities I would have it over any other bike I have ridden. So what if it’s even more impractical than an already ridiculous sports bike? As an exercise in making you look the other way, blind to its faults, this is damn near unbeatable.

The point about this bike is not how fast it is or how amazing round a track; it is all about how it makes you feel; the emotions it stirs. They are so strong that I would find it impossible to resist if I was in the market for a middleweight bike.

Even if it was flawed in the dynamics department, even if it wasn’t that fast (which, let’s face it is pretty academic unless you are trying to win races) it wouldn’t matter. It’s an MV Agusta and there is nothing finer in life than that.

Triumph Bonneville SE, 2013

Good looks, but shame about the optional single seat

There's no school like the old school, and this is the headmaster....

Back when I was young and foolish, a 1970’s Triumph Bonneville 750 was the first bike I bought after passing my test. For the next 12 years she was my main means of transport and never once let me down; I loved that bike and, whilst many others came and went, the Bonnie remained.

By the time the Triumph twin had been stretched to 750, it had lost all its smoothness and was a real vibrator but had a fair bit of punch. However, it was a ridiculously ancient design and the Japanese had shown the way forward way back in 1969, so that by the mid-seventies, Triumphs were way past it in every respect. But it was still an icon of Britishness and a last symbol of the once-mighty British Motorcycle Industry.

It wasn’t the best bike in the world to ride but it was small and nimble and the 750 motor, whilst being renowned as a shaker, was punchy enough and, with the right silencers fitted, made a lovely sound.

When new Triumph was born the only cues they took from the old Triumph were names; Daytona, Trophy, Speed Triple, Thunderbird, Tiger, etc. The engineering was as far removed from the bad old days as it was possible to get, although the 3-cylinder engine was a large part of the revival and has since rightly become one of the great motorcycle engines.

Quickly, however, Triumph realised that here they had a brand that still had enormous nostalgia in the minds of consumers and they chose to look backwards to go forwards. Hence, the parallel twin was reborn in an unashamedly retro package and the Bonneville name entered the catalogue once more. It was aimed squarely at returning bikers who probably started their riding on a 50’s or 60’s British bike and would feel comfortable with the familiarity of the new Bonneville. But, equally, it makes an ideal entry-level bike for new riders.

I, like many I suspect, dismissed the Bonneville as a sales gimmick, albeit one that certainly worked for Triumph. However, having now ridden one, I am happily forced to reassess that judgement.

It had been ten years since I last rode my Bonneville but stepping onto the 2012 Bonneville SE took me back in an instant. I couldn’t believe how similar it felt, rode, performed, and sounded. But there was still a modernity about it that addressed all the failings of the old and solved them perfectly without detracting from the essence.

It really was uncanny; I had been transported back ten years. Everything felt so familiar; the power delivery, the handling (although the new frame thankfully has none of the ‘hinge-in-the-middle’ feeling of Triumphs of old), even the look of the clocks, mounted high on the top fork clamp. The ignition key was where it used to be – on the left-hand headlamp mounting ‘ear’ – and, despite the fuel injection, there was a ‘choke’ that really needed to be used when starting from cold.

Standing beside the bike, it even looks exactly the same, right down to the dummy carburettors that house the fuel injection gubbins and the Norton ‘peashooter’ silencers. The SE is a copy of the 1978 Bonneville Special and has lovely cast alloy, 7-spoke wheels in black and a black tank and side panels.

And what a joy to ride. Performance is adequate but the motor is lovely and smooth; power delivery is very linear and nothing to frighten the novice rider. More experienced riders would obviously want more but that would be to miss the whole point of the bike. This is no long distance mile-eater or track-day bike. Its sole aim in life is to please and give fun and is simple enough to allow that to happen. It would be the ideal bike to have in the garage to simply jump on and go somewhere just for the sake of going there.
Handling is safe and secure and, whilst the suspension lacks any adjustability, it really doesn’t need it. The SE differs from the T100 Bonneville in having 17-inch alloy wheels as opposed to 19-inch spoked wheels. This reduction in diameter helps quicken up the steering and lowers the bike along with a thinner seat. Tall riders might find it a bit too low, but for normal-sized people it’s very comfortable.

The brakes – single disc front and back grabbed by Nissin two-pot calipers – are very strong and reassuring and, allied to the handling, make this bike a brilliant town ride. On the highway, you will see 180km/h (where permitted, of course…) but the wind will be pretty stiff in your face at those speeds.

But out and out speed is not the point of this bike; in a way the Bonneville exists to bestow a sense of history on the rest of the range – a tangible link to the rich history of Triumph. It’s a brilliant melding of retro design and style with modern technology. Who can say; if the Bonneville had been this good back in the 70’s, maybe the story would have been different? 

Saturday, 22 September 2012

This Week I Have Also Been Mostly Riding....

2012 Suzuki GSX-R1000

Feels like a soft couch compared to the MV F3! Actually a relief to get back on it after a day on the Italian temptress. Does that mean I am getting soft? Answers on a postcard, please, addressed to; As If I Care, Johannesburg, South Africa.

This Week, I have mostly been riding....

MV Agusta F3 675

This is the thinnest disguised race bike I've ever ridden. As a result it hates riding at anything other than full throttle.......oh well!

Monday, 10 September 2012

Land Speed Record Pt.3; The Last Hurrah of the Aero-Engined Monsters

In the early 1930’s the Land Speed Record (LSR) belonged to one man; Captain Malcolm Campbell. With the death of his great rival Sir Henry Segrave and an absence of any credible challengers, Campbell had no competition and was left alone to raise the speed time and again in the quest to reach 300mph.

The final incarnation of Campbell's Bluebird
Daytona Beach was still the venue of choice and in 1931 Campbell finally eradicated Segrave’s name from the record books with a speed of 246.09mph (396.03kmh) driving a still-further modified Bluebird. This achievement gained him the recognition he so desperately craved in the form of a Knighthood.

Subsequent attempts at Daytona Beach saw Campbell raise the record, first to 253.97mph in (408.71kmh) in 1932 and then to 272.46mph (438.46kmh) in 1933. In 1935, with Bluebird drastically remodelled (all at his own expense), he added a meagre 4mph to his record at Daytona, suffering from terminal wheel spin.  He realised that the sands had yielded all the speed they were going to give and that a new venue must be found if the magical 300mph was to be reached.

Despite the difficulties he had suffered at Verneuk Pan in South Africa some years before, Campbell realised that this was the sort of venue that would be essential to reach 300mph. But this time it was to Utah and the Bonneville Salt Flats that he turned. Using the remodelled Bluebird now fitted with a 36.5litre Rolls-Royce R-type aero-racing engine developing 2,300hp he finally broke the 300mph barrier with 301.129mph (484.60kmh). At first the timekeepers told him he had missed the mark by mere fractions. Campbell immediately resolved to try again the next day but the wind was taken out of his sails when the timekeepers revealed they had made a mistake and he had in fact surpassed 300mph. Campbell was furious, feeling that he had been cheated out of his moment of glory.

He had earlier stated that he would retire from record breaking once he had reached 300mph and he was good to his word. Nine times the LSR holder, he turned his attention to the water speed record, which he took four times, leaving it at 141.740mph (228.108kmh). He died in 1948, aged 63.

Campbell had been very active between the wars at Brooklands race circuit in Weybridge, Surrey. Two of his contemporaries at the track were the next men to forge a bond of competition for the LSR.
Eyston's mammoth Thunderbolt under construction in the Bean
works at Tipton in Staffordshire

John Cobb was a wealthy fur broker in London who, with painstaking and infinite care, eased his way into racing and eventually to the LSR. George Eyston, First World War hero, sailor, pilot, engineer and inventor, made a career out of breaking records of different durations in different sizes of car, setting over two hundred individual records by 1935. As much as he was an enthusiast, he broke records for profit, figuring that this form of motor sport brought greater rewards than circuit racing.

Cobb had shown his skill at handling large and powerful cars when he commissioned the building of the Napier Railton, powered by a 27 litre Napier Lion broad arrow W12 engine and designed by Reid Railton, an acknowledged engineering genius who had worked on Parry Thomas’s LSR car and Campbell’s Bluebirds. With this car Cobb was to set the all-time Outer circuit lap record at Brooklands of 143.44mph (230.84kmh) as well as numerous 24-hour records at Bonneville.

For the LSR, Cobb and Eyston followed different design approaches. Cobb opted for the scientific approach, once again employing Railton as designer. The Railton Special employed two W12 Napier Lion, 1,250hp engines mounted on an S-shaped backbone chassis; the forward engine driving the rear wheels and the rear engine the front wheels. The whole was fully enclosed in a futuristic one piece teardrop body that gave maximum aerodynamic efficiency.

Eyston designed his own car and opted for brute force. His ‘Thunderbolt’ car weighed 7 tons and used twin Rolls Royce R-type engines developing 2,350hp each, mounted in an 8-wheeled (four up front to steer, 4 mounted on one axle at the back for drive) chassis of massive proportions. It had twice the power of the Railton but weighed twice as much.

Bonneville was the de facto venue for record attempts by now and Cobb and Eyston conducted a duel for the LSR that saw the record change hands five times in 2 years, their battle only halted by the Second World War.

Cobb's Railton Special showing how the bodywork could be removed in one piece
Eyston fired the first shot in 1937 - over two years after Campbell had broken the 300mph barrier. The huge untried car, which had astonished locals with its size when it was unpacked from its transport crate, suffered from clutch problems, although the engines ran perfectly. He persevered and at one point ran one way at 310mph, only for the clutches to break again before he could start a return run. Finally, just before the weather broke he went for it, raising the record to 312mph (502.10kmh) with runs of 305 and 319mph.
Knowing that Cobb was preparing for an attempt and that his own car had hardly been extended, he went back to Bonneville a year later, but this time Cobb and the Railton Special were there also and battle was well and truly joined.

Eyston set the first marker, but it was not without drama. His first run was 347.155, faster already than his old two-way average. Art Pillsbury, the official timekeeper was blunt and to the point about the return run; ‘Get it done, and make it good,’ he told Eyston and so that’s exactly what he did. To Pillsbury’s horror, however, on the return run, he realised that no time had been registered on the timing tape. As Eyston bounded up, confident that he had done enough, Pillsbury could only burst into tears.

Illustrating the position of the
engines in the Railton Special
However, Eyston was no Campbell and mildly put his arm round Pillsbury’s shoulders and told him not to worry, that they would tell the press that it was just a trial run. Eyston was a big man in more ways than one.
Three days later, on August 27th, 1938, with the sides of Thunderbolt painted black to avoid a repeat of the timing error, Eyston tried again and shattered his own record with 345.50mph (556.01kmh).

Now it was Cobb’s turn. He put in several trial runs while teething troubles were ironed out and then, on September 15th, he went for it. ‘John’s got it,’ were Eyston’s words as Cobb flashed through the timing traps and, indeed, he had, averaging 350.20mph (563.57kmh).

Well knowing that Cobb’s car was capable of massive speeds, Eyston had not been sitting still and had devised and implemented a change to tank cooling for the great engines, blanking off the old radiator inlet at the front of the car. The tail fin was removed, the car was wheeled out the day after Cobb’s record effort and Eyston calmly re-took the record with 357.50mph (375.32kmh).

That was the end of it for 1938 but, late in 1939 as war clouds were gathering over Europe, Cobb was back at Bonneville to take up where he had left of the year before. He raised the record with the minimum of fuss to 369.70mph (594.95kmh). He knew there was still more to come and the magical 400mph beckoned enticingly but, with the world on the brink of all-out war, this was no time to be playing with fast cars.

Thunderbolt gets a push start at Bonneville
Cobb wasn’t done with the LSR, though. In 1947 he dusted off the Railton, now called the Railton Mobil Special in deference to the main sponsor, and headed back to Bonneville. There were a few problems with the course and the car, but nothing that was insurmountable and, on 16th September he made two runs at 385.645mph and 403.135mph for a record of 394.196 (634.38kmh). On a smother course he could have undoubtedly taken the record over 400mph, but as it was, the weather turned the very next day and that was the end.

Like Segrave and Campbell before him, Cobb turned his hand to the Water Speed Record, only to lose his life on Loch Ness in 1952 whilst travelling at over 200mph.

Cobb’s was the last LSR for a piston engined car and the record was to stand for 17 years (officially! Unofficially it stood for 16) and when the next contenders stepped forward the turbine and the jet would be the motive power. The second chapter of LSR history had come to an end, but an even more astounding era was about to start with speeds spiralling rapidly towards the speed of sound.

BMW and the K1600GT

The road stretches out ahead; sometimes straight as an arrow, sometimes twisting, rising and falling with the landscape. Every sense is assaulted in a vivid palette of colours, scents and sounds; you are acutely aware of everything around you and there is a feeling of unreality about your progress as the kilometres swiftly and effortlessly pass beneath your wheels. The journey is a long one, but both bike and rider are as relaxed as when they first set out, three hours ago.

The ‘bike is a BMW. For decades they have made the quintessential touring motorcycle and for many of those decades they have been powered by an engine that is as distinctive now as it was then; a masterpiece of design that has its origins in the early 1920’s.

More recently – in the last 3 decades, to be exact - BMW have designed new engines of ever-increasing originality and innovation, but the original design remains a significant weapon in BMW’s armoury. Whilst the engine architecture might have stayed the same for so long (even if the details kept up with the times), there was never any lack of imagination around the conceptualisation of the bike as a whole. At all times have large BMW tourers represented the pinnacle of touring motorcycle design.

Now, however, BMW have taken touring motorcycle design to even greater heights and have endowed it with one of the greatest motorcycle engines ever to have been produced. And no, it doesn’t have two cylinders.

This history of BMW is a fascinating one, shaped as much by human conflict as by striving for engineering excellence. Initially an aero-engine concern, Rapp Motorenwerke, they were forced by the Versailles Armistice Treaty after the First World War to abandon this branch of engineering and diverted materials to the manufacture of motorcycles in order to survive. The very first machines laid the foundations of BMW motorcycle engine design that were adhered to exclusively until the 1980’s and are still in evidence today; a transversely mounted flat-twin ‘boxer’ engine and shaft drive.

In 1928, they moved into car manufacture, albeit by building a car based on the Austin 7 from England, calling it the Dixi. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that the car side of BMW really came into its own, having staved off bankruptcy in the late 1950’s by manufacturing diminutive bubble cars. By 1966, BMW had introduced the 1602 and 2002Tii models, thus establishing their reputation for brilliant sports sedans that are a mainstay of the brand to this day.

However, it is with the motorcycle side of the firm with which we are concerned here. By 1923, the company had introduced their definitive design, the R23, which featured a 500cc boxer engine coupled to the shaft drive mentioned earlier. The engine was ahead of its time in that it featured recirculating oil lubrication as opposed to the total-loss systems used by rival manufacturers. The cylinders sticking out into the airstream on either side aided cooling.

Prosperity followed through the 1920’s and 1930’s but war was yet again to intervene and leave the company torn apart and unable to manufacture anything. When everything settled down, Germany was divided and with it BMW; a factory on one side and all blueprints and schematic drawings on the other, Soviet controlled, side of the Berlin Wall.

But this did not deter the BMW engineers when they were allowed to recommence manufacturing by the Allies. They simply took pre-war examples of motorcycles and copied them in order to get back into production. It is testament to the soundness of the original design concept that, upon its reintroduction in 1948 as a 250cc model, it was still way ahead technically of its European rivals.

And so it was that BMW motorcycles entered the new era with renewed vigour, steadfastly refusing to follow trends in motorcycle design that emerged from the leading motorcycling nations in Europe and, later, Japan. It was this dogged determination and belief in their product that found favour with many enthusiasts and BMW refused to be drawn into competing in the sports-bike class that had become so popular with the arrival of the in-line four-cylinder Japanese bikes; bikes that had effectively ended the supremacy of the British motorcycle industry and ultimately led to its demise.
BMW found their niche in fully-faired sports/touring machines of immense capability and durability. The quality in terms of both the design and construction of the bikes was never in question. When fitted with panniers and top boxes, the fully faired models were, quite simply, the best touring machines available. Everything on a BMW was based around rider comfort and, therefore, safety through reducing rider fatigue, coupled with maximum efficiency of the motorcycle as a whole.

The 1980’s saw BMW break out of the cocoon of preferring steady evolution over revolution and embark on a path of innovation that has not ceased to the present day. When, in the early 1980’s, BMW introduced the GS range of tall, go anywhere ‘Adventure’ bikes, based on machines that had been so successful in the Paris-Dakar rally raids, they initiated a trend in motorcycle design that was soon copied by all other manufacturers, none of whom have been able to oust the GS as the motorcycle of choice for serious adventure riders.

BMW eventually bowed to the inevitable and went down the four-cylinder route with the K100 of 1983 but, BMW being who they are, they did it in their own inimitable style and not only mounted the engine longitudinally (i.e. running front to back and not across the frame as in every other multi-cylinder bike) but laid it flat on its side so that the crank lay on the right and the cylinder head on the left of the bike. It was affectionately referred to as the ‘flying brick.’

As always, safety was paramount to BMW engineers and this led to them being the first manufacturer to fit ABS to a motorcycle in 1988. Ground-breaking work on suspension systems led them to introduce their Paralever, Telelever and latest Duolever suspensions for front and back wheels. As usual, BMW completely ignored contemporary thinking and their approach was justified in that all three systems work perfectly and add considerably to the safety of the rider.

And so we come to the modern day and BMW have once again moved the goalposts in motorcycle design. Long known for their touring motorcycles, it seemed that they had nothing left to prove in that arena, but how wrong we were. With the introduction of the K1600GT and GTL motorcycles, BMW has shown that it has lost none of its appetite for brilliant design and engineering, placing rider comfort and safety foremost whilst sacrificing none of the excitement that should be felt when riding a motorcycle.

The heart of this state-of-the-art bike is an astonishing six-cylinder engine that sets new standards of refinement and performance. It is at the same time docile and vice free whilst also having a sting in its tail when the throttle is cracked open. The power delivery is so progressive that the feeling is rather one of a turbine as opposed to an internal combustion engine yet it never stoops to the brash showboating of sports bikes, preferring to maintain its dignity whilst travelling at enormous velocities.

This bike is not all mouth and no trousers, however. The engine rides in a chassis that is as impeccable in its behaviour as the engine. With a full complement of electronics governing the suspension’s movement and stop-and-go functions, all of which have several settings for those who wish to fine-tune a bike to the road or riding conditions, the whole machine is a technical tour-de-force that few, if any, motorcycles can come close to matching.

As befits a touring motorcycle, which by its very nature doesn’t have to contend with the space restrictions imposed on city-dwelling bikes, the K1600 – in either guise – is a large and extremely comfortable bike. But at no point does the size feel unwieldy or overwhelming; the weight is carried low and, once on the move, not only is the bike supremely stable, but the size shrinks around you, whilst the protection afforded by the bodywork never does.

The rider has a fine array of essential information literally at his fingertips. Tyre pressure, oil level, air temperature, fuel consumption and range to empty, average speeds, twin trip counters, not to mention turning the heated handlebar grips and seat on and off are all monitored and adjusted from the comfort of your throne whilst cruising down the road. Talking of cruising, cruise control takes the ache out of the throttle hand and the screen can be lowered or raised electrically, virtually eliminating any wind on the rider.

There is no aspect of this motorcycle that has not been looked at with a view to making it the very best it can be. And this is a design philosophy that is carried through the entire BMW range, making even the lowliest model (if such a motorcycle exists in the BMW canon) supremely competent and an investment to own. No BMW could ever be called a mere motorcycle for, as with the company, they are more a way of life than solely a means of providing transport.

Shot on location in the Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa.

This article first appeared in SA Deluxe Magazine

Linhai Quad Test

Let’s be honest, off-roading can be a bit of a schlepp; move all the crap off the trailer, load the bike, find all your gear, pack it in a bag (that you’ve also had to find), drive to the country, unload the bike, get dressed, fill up the bike, try and find the one glove you forgot to pack, fill the camel back to find it now leaks, try and start the bike (which has been standing for 6 weeks), swear a lot. Only then can you actually start to ride.

But, as soon as that happens; as soon as a wheel turns and you hit the dirt, all the above ceases to matter as you pit yourself and the machine against the best, or worst, that nature can throw at you and come out on top (well, most of the time!). Even getting hot, sweaty and dusty/muddy (delete as applicable) is fun, in a masochistic sort of way.

Throw in a few mates and a cooler box of cold ones over which you exaggerate the trials of the day’s ride as the sun sets and you have the perfect recipe.

Deep down, we never lose that childlike passion for getting really dirty; show an off-roader a puddle and he’s attracted to it like a fly to poo; show him any expanse of mud and he’s in heaven. Somehow, returning clean from an off-road excursion misses the whole point of doing it in the first place; we’re not there to actually ride and practise our skills. No, the idea is to get ourselves and the bike as filthy as possible to prove to ourselves that we haven’t forgotten how to be a big kid.

Now, the question remains; two wheels or four? Both have their adherents and some of us don’t care how many wheels there are, as long as we’re riding something. Four wheels can mask many deficiencies in skill, but two wheels can be more rewarding when (and if) you get it right. But it’s horses for courses and here we are concerned with four.

There are many variations of the quad theme, from out and out sport, through general purpose to workhorses. It is into the latter category that the Linhai models tested here fall into, although Linhai has tried to jazz up the bikes to widen the appeal.

As is the case with many categories of bikes these days, there are competitors from Asian countries which ape their Japanese and American rivals, with greater and lesser success, in every respect except for one important area; price. And, in this day and age, price is becoming more and more important.

 But can these cheaper alternatives deliver the same riding pleasure or capability in the field of work? As to the latter, I’m no farmer or land owner who needs one of these to carry out its duties without excessive downtime or issues with longevity of service, but we can judge them on pure enjoyment of use alone, even though many recreational riders wouldn’t necessarily consider one for that purpose.

4X4 capability!
So, what did we ride? In one corner we have the 4X2 Rustler 300 (actually 275cc) and in the other is the 4X4 Rustler 400 (a measly 352cc). Both are chunky and dumpy looking machines, with CVT transmission, high and low range gearboxes plus reverse and large, roll-over-anything wheels. There are front and rear carriers of generous proportions and both have a towing capacity of 200kgs. The 2WD model has a single rear shock and solid axle whilst the 4WD has twin-shock independent suspension at the rear. Simple to operate, useful and cheap; what more could you possibly want?

Well, a bit more good old fashioned grunt, to be honest. Out at the Maraisburg mine dumps, the first thing that made itself felt was the relative lack of any real ‘go’ about the bikes. Not sure if this was down to the CVT transmission or simply a lack of oomph from the motors. It was probably a mixture of the two, but it was immediately clear that these are not intended as purely recreational vehicles. This was made apparent even more comprehensively when we realised that there was little, if anything, that would stop these bikes moving forward and I’m talking obstacles, gradients, surface, rider ineptitude…… We just couldn’t find anything that would stop them.

And this is exactly as it should be, given their targeted role in life. The 4X4 was especially unstoppable, which in itself brought a new element of enjoyment to riding them. A 45 degree fine sand slope proved no obstacle to it, a fact that was brought home when the toggle switch that changes the drive between two- and four-wheel drive was inadvertently switched to 2WD half way up. Obviously, it got stuck, but as soon as the mistake was noticed and 4WD re-engaged, it set off with no fuss and completed the climb.

When I say they were virtually unstoppable, that also unfortunately also applies to the brakes. I’m not sure when I last used brakes as bad as these – possibly a 1963 BSA Bantam comes close – but I do know I don’t want to come across them again in a hurry. Allowing for the fact that these were brand new bikes and so maybe the pads weren’t bedded in at all, there was woefully little stopping power. The front brake lever might as well have been attached to a piece of oak, for all the lever movement and feel that there was, whilst the back brake (the bikes have discs all round) didn’t really seem to do anything much. Maybe it was just as well that they couldn’t go very fast!

Whilst acknowledging that no-one looking to buy a quad for recreational use would necessarily look at these machines, the very fact that we were hooning around and having a blast tells you more about the fun to be had on any kind of bike, no matter what its makers intended. The 4X4 was difficult to turn quickly at any speed, but both bikes in 2WD would hang the tail out with little effort. In fact, the lack of power meant that these were as unintimidating as a Rottweiler with no teeth; still large and heavy but not likely to cause any real damage through misuse or abuse.

Going back to the child analogy, riding off road on a bike custom made for those conditions brings out the child in anyone and, to that end, despite being underpowered, the two Linhai’s were just as much as fun as anything I’ve ridden. If you put away your snobbish performance expectations borne of more expensive choices there is enjoyment in simply being on the right machine for the conditions.

It is easy (and all too common) to slag off the unglamorously labelled underdog or his poor relation but if you can get over these uncharitable feelings and need a machine to hold its own up in the working environment then why would you need to pay more than the R40,000 or R50,000 for the 300 and 400 respectively? The cheapest Polaris, the Sportsman 450, for example, comes in at R70,000. Alright, so it might last longer and have less reliability issues in the long term (something I couldn’t possibly comment on in respect of the Linhai’s given our limited time with them) but, given the inevitable higher cost of parts and servicing of the Polaris, can the cheaper alternative be ignored? What is more, how long will it take the Chinese to get their act together and improve their build quality and reliability to become real rivals?

Finish of components, especially plastic switchgear fittings, loses marks but they do what they are designed to do even if they feel cheap and a bit nasty. You gets what you pay for, I suppose. Both bikes sport the inevitable digital dash readouts, but how often does anyone really look at them, apart from the fuel gauge?

At the end of the day, we achieved exactly what we set out to do; have some fun and get absolutely filthy and feel like real men! There may be better machines out there that we could have done this on, but not many of them would be able to fulfil a dual role as these could for the price. So, if you’re a farmer who hasn’t completely lost his sense of fun and needs to let off steam every now and then, there is now even more choice to confuse you.

(This article first appeared in Offroad and Adventure SA Magazine)

Yamaha Super Tenere Road Impressions

The Yamaha Tenere has been around for more years than anyone can remember, a bit like BMW’s GS (1980) and Honda’s Transalp (1987). It first appeared in 1983 as a replica of the Yamaha’s run by Yamaha France and ridden by Cyril Neveu to victory in the Paris-Dakar (as it still was in those days) of 1979 and 1980 and was powered by a single-cylinder, four-valve 600cc motor.

It continued thus throughout the ‘80’s, ‘90’s and 2000’s, with a brief interlude from 1989 to 1996 when the parallel twin 750 Super Tenere version was introduced and ran alongside the singles. It was this twin that formed the basis for further Paris-Dakar machines that took victory six times in the early 90’s.

Come the late 2000’s and it was clear that to compete for sales, parity with the market-leading BMW was needed, and so, in 2010, the 1200 Super Tenere was introduced. Already we are at 2012 and the big Yam is established as one of the more competent competitors in the super-successful large capacity Adventure market.

The adventure market is huge, but all the players share one thing in common; adventure bikes are a compromise between off- and on-road capability and it is how far they lean into one camp or the other that defines whether they will be successful. What I mean is that the majority of bikes out there will never see a piece of dirt so the on-road performance has to be slightly dominant over off-road. And it is as road bikes that they are supremely effective; tall enough to see over traffic, with punchy acceleration, smooth, vice-free handling and great rider comfort. As for off-road performance, I couldn’t comment but, as I am one of those who do the vast majority of their riding on-road, my tests naturally concentrate on this aspect of a bike’s performance.

So to the Yamaha. Don’t expect anything remarkably different in terms of styling to anything else in the market; a 19-inch front wheel, clever multi-function carrier at the rear, remarkably efficient front screen and the essential tall suspension, propelled by shaft and bevel gears. The one area that I didn’t like was the front end treatment; it looks like the jaw of a face has been blown off by a shotgun, leaving only the eyes! Looked at one way, it could emphasize how much extraneous bodywork rival bikes have at the front, but maybe there’s a reason for that!

Yamaha has returned to the twin-cylinder theme for the 1200, but this time with a little sophistication thrown in. It is a 270 degree twin, which mean that the cylinders fire closely, giving much better power characteristics than a 360degree twin, especially when the going gets slippery off-road. The only downside is that it gives a strangely flat note to the sound of the motor when compared to such engines as Triumph’s triple-cylinder as fitted to the Tiger Explorer. No bad thing, but if you judge an engine by how it sounds – which is completely irrational, I know – then this might disappoint.

It comes with all the bells and whistles you’d expect – in fact it boasts more electronic wizardry than the R1! Switchable traction control and ABS are becoming de rigeur for these bikes and the Yamaha has them. It also has ride-by-wire throttle, dual power modes and linked braking.

I suppose that you either love the look of a big adventure bike or you hate it. Personally, I like the chunky, utilitarian looks of them (and I’m tall enough to be able to ride the things) and there isn’t really much to choose between the main contenders in the market segment so it all comes down to which badge you want sitting in your garage. Certainly the BMW has the reputation but you ignore the Yamaha at your peril; unlike Triumph, Yamaha have been making these (and winning the toughest races with them) for years and many of the lessons learnt have found their way onto the production bikes. It is surely only a lack of cubic centimetres that has prevented it, in the past, from keeping up with the runaway success of the BMW.

One really good feature of the bike is the gearbox. It shifts like a hot knife through butter and the first three gears are fairly closely spaced to allow for useful off-road and around-town performance whilst raising the ratios of the next three gears to allow for relaxed highway touring. What is more, the engine is perfectly flexible and the fuelling absolutely spot on to allow for smooth low-rev, low-speed manoeuvring with no jerkiness.

The suspension is everything you would expect in a tall adventure bike, being supple but well controlled and with easy adjustment to firm it up if that’s how you like to ride. The brakes are really good, although probably not any better than any of its rivals, which would be hard to judge without doing a back to back test. As with all ABS systems, the back brake has a really wooden feel to it. You can’t turn the ABS off. The linked braking system is disabled if you touch the back brake before the front but is active if the other way round.

The traction control has three settings; full nanny, slightly naughty nanny and drunken nanny passed out on the sofa. The engine mapping has two settings – sport and touring – which can be changed on the fly.
At the end of the day, as I said before, it all comes down to which badge you want between your legs. To most of us mere mortals, any of the top contenders in the Adventure market are supremely competent to a greater or lesser degree in all the areas for which they were designed. You would have to be such an expert to tell any of them apart that it becomes academic.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Yamaha Super Tenere. In terms of pricing, it is right on the button…………. and, given their history in the Paris-Dakar, you would have to think that they know a thing or two about making a tough, reliable bike that would be a useful tool to have with you in any situation. I liked it for daring to tread in BMW’s hallowed wheel tracks and posing a real threat to the established leader.

Great Bikes? MV Agusta 750S

There is something about Italian machinery; something indefinable but definitely there and it turns even the most mundane machinery into a piece of sculpture; a living definition of the Italian lifestyle; from the humblest Vespa or Fiat 500 to the mighty Ducati and Ferrari.

Of course, some Italian icons are a cut above the rest and, at the top of that pile is MV Agusta. Always frighteningly expensive, monstrously complex and ultimately exclusive – a product as aloof as Count Domenico Agusta himself - they have nevertheless gained a reputation as the motorcycle. No arguments.

Agusta was started as an aviation company in 1923 by Count Giovanni Agusta. He died in 1927 and the running of the company was handed over to his sons, Vincenzo, Domenico, Corrado and Mario.

Mecchanica Verghera Agusta was formed in 1945 as a means to save the workforce from redundancy in the slump years after the Second World War and to fill the need for cheap, efficient transport. The name derives from the hamlet – Verghera – where the first machines were made.

As with Enzo Ferrari, the brothers Agusta made road machines to fund their racing activities, at which they were devastatingly successful; they won over 3000 races and 63 World Championships between 1948 and 1967.

Their road bikes started as small capacity singles but in the early 1960’s, sales declined as customers moved to larger capacity machines. To meet this demand, a four-cylinder touring bike was designed – the 600 – but it was as ugly as the racing machines had been stunning. Customers craved a replica of the 500cc racing machines but the Count was having none of it and the capacity of the new engine was designed to discourage attempts to create such home-built replicas. Just 135 examples of the bike were made between 1967 and 1972.

In 1969, however, MV scored a hit at the Milan Motorcycle show when it launched the new 750S. It went into production in 1971 and used 1960’s Grand Prix technology, which meant expensive gears to drive the camshafts and roller bearings and shims throughout. It sold for four times the amount of the Honda CB750, which ensured exclusivity and, unlike its 600cc stablemate, it was super-stylish and utterly desirable. It was the Ferrari of the two-wheeled world.

Its sole role in life was to generate publicity and glamour on the Agusta concern, which was still making helicopters (naturally, some of the best money could buy). Follow-up models included the America and Monza – no less glamorous or more successful – and production ceased in 1977.

Trust the Italians to conceive something so improbably exclusive and mechanically impossible that virtually no-one could buy it but that everyone wanted. Production was always limited and in ten years, MV sold fewer than 2,000 four-cylinder machines. By comparison, Honda sold 61,000 CB750’s during the first three years in America alone!

But I know which one I would rather have.

Motorcycle Land Speed Record

Those of you who have read my pieces in iauto.co.za on the Land Speed Record for cars, which has particular relevance to South Africa as the next attempt is to be made on local soil, may be unaware that there is also an LSR for motorcycles, although this has always received much less publicity than the four-wheeled competition.

As with the cars that have contested the LSR, motorcycles that have attempted record have borne less and less similarity to their road-going cousins as time has passed. However, the motive power for the attempts has retained very close links, usually being highly tuned versions of road-bike engines, often paired in tandem in a custom and extremely streamlined chassis and bodywork.
Glenn Curtiss on his V8-powered machine at
Ormond Beach, Daytona, USA

But it was enough. In 1907, running on Ormond Beach in Florida, he set an absolute record for all vehicles (two- and four-wheeled) of 136.36mph. It wasn’t until 1911 that this was bettered by a Benz motor car. However, as with all American-set records of the time, it wasn’t officially recognised by the FIA and its motorcycling arm, the Federation Internationale Motorcyclisme (FIM) in Paris. Official recognition only happened from 1920 and it wasn’t until 1930 that Curtiss’ two-wheeled record was surpassed.

The 1920 official attempt resulted in a speed of 104.12mph (165.67km/h), set on American soil by one Gene Walker, a flat track racer. However, unlike contenders for the car LSR, who made US soil the default location for record attempts from 1927 onwards, the motorcycle world de-camped to Europe for the next 35 years, only to return to the US and the famed Bonneville salt flats when speeds outran the best that Europe had to offer.

It’s strange, looking down a list of title holders from the motorcycle world, how many names are completely unknown, whereas in the car world, the men who risked all to become the fastest in the world became household names.

Who, for instance, knows of Bert Le Vack, Claude F. Temple, or Oliver M. Baldwin? They were the men who held the official record between 1923 and 1930 raising the record from Walker’s 104.12 mph to Le Vack’s 126.75mph (207.33km/h) in the process. Odds are that none of them lacked any of the courage of their four-wheeled competitors but the fame was simply not destined to sit on their shoulders (at least not for record breaking; Bert Le Vack is considered one of the greatest motorcycle racers of his time and a biography of his two-wheeled life makes fascinating reading for the motorcycle enthusiast. Glenn Curtiss himself didn’t exactly waste his life; he held U.S. pilot’s licence number 1, created the first Naval aircraft and invented the flying boat and built the largest aviation business in the western hemisphere).

1930 can be considered a watershed year for the bike LSR as it was in this year that Glen Curtiss’ record was finally beaten (what had all the pretenders to the title been doing – or more accurately, what engine had they been using - in the meantime?). As through the 1920’s, the venue was Arpajon in France, a small town (obviously with long straight roads) near Paris and the speed was 137.23mph (220.99km/h) set by Joseph S. Wright on an OEC Temple JAP.

Joseph Wright on the OEC Temple-Wright
The 1930’s saw Arpajon fall out of favour but there was no one venue that took its place. Two more records were set in 1930 itself, raising the record to 150.65mph (242.59km/h), one in Germany and one in Ireland. The one in Germany was significant in that it was set by Ernest Henne on a BMW, the first of six times this gifted racer would take the record over the next 7 years. In fact, between 1928 and 1937, he took a total of 76 land speed records of all descriptions on BMW’s and his last, taken in 1937, stood for 14 years.

For some unexplained reason, Hungary was the venue for several successful record attempts in the ‘thirties. Englishman Eric Fernihough finally wrestled the record from Henne riding a Brough Superior at 169.68mph (273.244kmh) in 1937, only to be killed a year later attempting to regain the record from the ever-present Henne who had raised it to 170.27mph (274.181kmh). In the interim, racing driver Piero Taruffi had taken the record from Fernihough on a Gilera. Taruffi found fame as the winner of the last ever Mille Miglia motor race around Italy in 1957 and also as racer of the improbable ‘twin-boom’ Nardi and Tarf cars that took basic aerodynamic and low-drag design for automobiles to its apogee in the 1950’s.
Piero Taruffi on his twin-boom Tarf

Comparisons with the car LSR are inevitable when talking about any other vehicle LSR. It is interesting to note that, for a long time, bike record holders were much more likely to be regular racers than their car counterparts. OK, so Malcolm Campbell and Henry Segrave and John Cobb were well known for racing but, apart from Segrave, this was almost entirely at Brooklands in England which hardly represents the best of international racing.

Perhaps it was because motorcycles could be made to go fast relatively cheaply by the manufacturers, who would use their contracted racers to ride bikes that still resembled their road-going offerings, whilst cars were getting bigger and bigger and had little in common with a road car, thus negating any publicity the manufacturers might have gained from participation. It has to be said, though, that cars were much faster than the bikes; the current record for the bike LSR matches a record set by a car in 1947!

Ernest Henne with his Supercharged BMW
But I digress. The Second World War interrupted proceedings and it wasn’t until 1951 that Henne’s record was broken, by another German, Willhelm Herz, this time on an NSU streamliner, pushing the record to 180.29mph (290.322kmh). It is interesting to note that the Germans relied on supercharging of relatively small capacity engines to achieve their records, whilst those using British machines relied on good ol’ cubic inches. Indeed, Herz’s record was beaten by Russell Wright on a 1000cc Vincent-HRD in New Zealand, four years later.

 1956, and things really start to come alive for the bike LSR. Most significantly, the venue for record attempts moved to Bonneville Salt Flats in the US and all subsequent attempts would be made there. What’s more, the first records set there would give the motorcycling world one of its most iconic machines.
NSU set the ball rolling, Willhelm Herz once again taking the record at 211.4mph (338.092kmh) in the supercharged streamliner in 1956. However, barely a week later, their thunder was stolen in controversial fashion.
Johnny Allen and the Triumph-engined steamliner at

Texan Johnny Allen was a well-known AMA flat-track racer. J.H. ‘Stormy’ Mangham had built a 15-foot long streamliner, powered by a 650cc Triumph Thunderbird engine and with this machine, Johnny Allen snatched the record away from NSU with a speed through the measured mile of 214.5mph (345.188kmh). However, the record was not recognised by the FIM on a technicality, although Triumph themselves gained massive publicity from the attempt and speed attained, which still stood as an official American record. And, of course, Triumph capitalised even further by naming their newly introduced flagship model, the T120 Bonneville; the stuff of wet dreams for generations of motorcyclists and still a powerful and evocative name in the modern Triumph line-up.

Triumph-engined machines were to hold the LSR for the next fourteen years; first ridden by William A. Johnson at a speed of 224.57 mph (361.41kmh) in 1962 and later, in 1966, by Robert Leppan in Gyronaut X-1 which used two Triumph twins in tandem for a speed of 245.60mph (395.28kmh). From this point on, all records would be set by machines using two engines.

Bob Leppan and Gyronaut X-1
But there is a complication! In 1964, Craig Breedlove thought he had set a new car LSR of 526.277mph (846.961km/h) in his three-wheeled, jet-propelled Spirit of America. However, the FIA only ratified records set by four-wheeled vehicles, the FIM looking after those set by two-and three-wheeled vehicles. So, in fact, the record he set was, to all intents and purposes, a motorcycle record. At the time, the FIA also only considered records set by wheel-driven cars as applying for title of fastest in the world.

When Breedlove’s record was rejected by the FIA, he went to the FIM to get it ratified. This whole episode prompted the FIA to create a new category for thrust-powered vehicles to its listings and so Breedlove’s record returned to where he intended it to be. As it was, most people considered Spirit of America to be a car and not a motorcycle, anyway.
Don Vesco's Yamaha-powered contender

Through the seventies, the record was pushed higher and higher by Yamaha, Kawasaki and Harley Davidson engined machines. Don Vesco achieved 251.66mph (405.25kmh) using two 350cc two-stroke Yamaha engines in 1970. Later that year Cal Rayborn took his Harley-engined bike to 254.84mph (410.37kmh). By 1975, Vesco had gone over 300mph for the first time using two 750cc Yamaha motors and then switched to Kawasaki engines to go 318.598mph (509.757kmh) in 1978.

Cal Rayborn and the Harley Davidson streamliner
As with the car LSR, things quietened down as far as record breaking on two wheels were concerned throughout the 80’s and nineties, although Dave Campos took his twin Harley-engined bike to 322.150mph (518.450kmh) in 1990. This record stood for a record 16 years until there was a renewed struggle between Chris Carr and Rocky Robinson in the 2000’s, the latter taking the most recent record at 376.363mph (605.697kmh) in 2010 using two Suzuki engines in his Top Oil Ack Attack. (It might be interesting to note that John Cobb was faster on four wheels than this in 1947, which probably proves something, although I’ve no idea what that might be.)

And the future? Well, there are always contenders waiting in the wings to have a crack at the record, some using piston power and some following cars into the jet age. The story has not reached its conclusion just yet.

Hailwood and the Isle Of Man, Part 2; 1979 and a Farewell to the TT

In part one of this story, we saw how Mike Hailwood came out of retirement to join battle once again with his old adversary, the Isle Of Man TT course, ten years after he had effectively walked away from two-wheeled racing. It was a fairytale return but there was still some unfinished business. We rejoin the story as the dust settles on the 1978 races.
Hailwood practising at Oulton Park on the 1979 Ducati.
It turned out to be nothing like as good as the '78 model

Mike had achieved more than anyone dared hope and repaid all the faith shown in him in 1978, but still the failures rankled (the big Yamaha had broken in the Classic just as the predicted battle with Mick Grant on the Kawasaki was heating up) and it didn’t take Mike long to determine to return in 1979.

Ducati were again keen to supply a bike but Yamaha, asked for a current 500cc machine, said no. Maybe they were still smarting from the failure of their machinery in 1978 but the request for a bike for 1979 was firmly turned down; ‘I regret I cannot let you have a 500cc machine,’ said a high ranking Yamaha official. ‘We feel we would not have a machine that would adequately meet Mr. Hailwood’s very fine reputation.’

He went on to say that if they couldn’t give him a bike that was as good a Hailwood was they would rather not give him a bike at all. There were not enough 1979 bikes available and to have him ride a 1978 bike would be unthinkable. As Kenny Roberts had just clinched the ’78 World Championship on one, it was hard to follow their reasoning, but they were not to be moved.

Where Yamaha feared to tread, however, Suzuki were only too happy to be given the chance and a 500cc GP machine was made available.

Mike, Left and Phil Read on the right
The Ducati was being further developed by the Italian factory – allegedly. But when Mike came to test the new bike at Misano in Italy, it was clear that development of the Ducati had not only been non-existent, but the bike had actually regressed – it was slower and just could not be made to handle; it was a real dog and not a machine that Mike relished riding to try and repeat last year’s triumph in the Formula One race.
Walls, Kerbs, telegraph poles
and a mountain. The TT course.

Mike thought that he might just be race rusty and tried not to blame the bike, but it was clear that the promised extra 15bhp was not there as well as all sorts of other problems with the rest of the bike.

‘I couldn’t believe it. The bikes were terrible,’ said Mike. ‘They were not a patch on the ’78 machines. And the handling! It was dreadful. I thought it must be me and I was glad when Eddie Roberts and George Fogarty, the other two lads in the team, had a go and had the same feeling.’

By contrast, after testing the Suzuki at Donington, he told the mechanics to put it away and leave it alone – it was perfect.

Martyn Ogborne, the brains behind Barry Sheene’s world championship engines, was told he would be working on the Suzuki for Mike at the TT. ‘I can’t believe it,’ he said. ‘Working for God! Me! That’s fantastic.’ After Mike’s Donington test of the Suzuki he could only marvel even more; ‘I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Nothing wrong with it! It was so unusual not to have some sort of criticism. But Mike is in a class of his own. He told us to shove the bike in the van and fetch it to the Isle of Man.’

If 1978 had been the comeback, then 1979 was the farewell. After the emotion of ’78, 1979 promised to exceed all expectations as Hailwood again stepped forward to do battle with the Island. This time, people knew he could win and he was taken all the more seriously; not that he had been underestimated the year before but, this time, the novelty and uncertainty had gone and he was seen as a very real threat.

Win No.14; Mike on the works 500cc Suzuki during the
1979 Senior TT
Hailwood himself was in a dark frame of mind, however. He had been to the North West 200 in Ireland, long a traditional warm-up for the TT and, there, Tom Herron had been killed. Mick Grant had crashed in another race and broken his pelvis and everywhere Mike looked, riders were being battered and bruised in accidents. ‘I must say, it started me thinking. With all of that and my own crash in Italy [when the Ducati spat him off and he broke several ribs] I was not in the happiest frame of mind.’

Hailwood was really up against it for the Formula One race and could only manage fourth fastest time in practice, with Scotsman Alex George breaking Mike’s lap record of the year before, claiming he hadn’t pushed himself or the Honda to their limits.
In the race it was all George. There was nothing Mike could do but, typically, gave it everything he had, to no avail.  On the last lap his battery box came adrift and, despite stopping out on the circuit to fix it, he still came in fifth. ‘Well, that’s one to forget,’ he said after the race. ‘I’m bloody glad it’s behind me. I tried as hard as I could, but it was pointless.’

Even in 1979, Hailwood was as neat as ever; here he is at
Quarter Bridge during the 1979 Classic
His best lap at 109.39 mph might not have set the world alight – George’s best was 112.45 – but it moved one insider to comment; ‘That must have been one of his finest laps of the TT. On that Ducati, handling as bad as it was, and being so way behind in power, it was an heroic performance. I just don’t know how he did it.’

Prospects for the Senior TT were much brighter, as he would be riding the Suzuki. However, on a late visit the night before the race to the mechanics, who were still working in the garage, he was dismayed to find the engine on the workbench in a thousand pieces. When they had started the engine that afternoon, great plumes of smoke came out of the exhaust – it was burning oil at a huge rate and wouldn’t have lasted a lap. There was nothing for it but to strip it down. It took them all night to find the problem – a coil spring had flicked off an oil seal - and when the bike went to the line the next day, it had not turned a wheel in anger since they had finished.

Hailwood, Alex George and Charlie Williams after George's
1979 Classic victory
At the end of the first lap Mike was third, behind Grant and George, both acknowledged masters of the Island and Grant, in particular, was looking forward to the contest, despite being in terrible physical condition with his broken pelvis.  But then Grant retired with a broken crank, and Mike simply blitzed the rest of the field, raising the class lap record to 114.02mph in the process. It may not have been as emotional a win as ‘78’s Formula One but, as a demonstration of skill, it left his rivals floundering and wondering why he ever retired in the first place. It was his 14th TT victory.

The Classic that rounded off the week was just that. It was a straight fight between Hailwood and George and both men dug deep and performed miracles, riding as hard as they knew how. Mike knew what the Suzuki was capable of, but George’s Honda had 500cc’s more and was fantastically fast.

They set off, Hailwood first and George 15 seconds later. Despite being so close on the road, they were not to see each other again until the end of the race, so evenly were they matched. George eased ahead by a few seconds, but could not make the break stick. They both rode faster and faster. On the penultimate lap, Mike put the hammer down and clawed back to lead by one second. Warned by his pit signals, Alex put everything into his last lap, clipping banks, running wide, wringing every last ounce of speed from the Honda. Mike had appalling luck with back markers who put him off line and delayed him. At the line he was but 3.4 seconds adrift.
Hailwood, after riding as hard as he ever had and still losing
the 1979 Classic, cannot hide the emotion as he makes his
way back to the paddock.

He was gutted; ‘…I tried so hard. I was sticking my neck out all over the place, far more than I wanted to. …I wouldn’t want to go through a last lap like that one all over again.’ By the time he got to Alex on the podium, the disappointment had been replaced with praise and admiration for what his rival had achieved. The curtain had come down on the career of a TT legend but still his first thought was to give the winner his due and say nothing about himself.

Never comfortable with praise himself, Mike would always try and find a way around any compliment. Vernon Cooper, the man responsible for setting up the deal for Mike to return to the TT, emphasized the value of having Mike there. Self-effacing as ever, Mike could only reply; ‘Well, it did me a favour, too. I got a second place; I’ve never had one of those on the Island before.’

The great Mike Hailwood, seen here as so
many remember him; a winner