Thursday, 4 July 2013

Onwards and Upwards

The Bike Show; TV for Two-Wheels

When I started my career as a motorcyling and motoring journalist a couple of years ago, I did it partly out of the need to earn a living but also in order to indulge in a lifelong passion for all things wheeled and driven by the internal combustion engine.

Through hard work and not being a total prat (not to mention always handing test bikes back to the importers intact), I have succeeded and am now an accepted member of the South African motorcycling media with all the benefits that brings.

I started this blog right at the start of the career and have neglected it ever since, even though over 6,000 of you misguided souls have visited and, hopefully read and, even more hopefully, enjoyed the content.

I'll keep it going, if only to stroke my ego every now and then, but what is even more exciting is my involvement in The Bike Show, a consumer motorcycling TV show we produce here in South Africa for broadcast on the African satellite network.

I co-present the show and am involved in the whole production, from inception to final edit and voice-over and, while I say it who shouldn't, it's not bad; always room for a lot of improvement, but it's a start. We've just finished broadcasting the third series and the fourth is due to air in September.

Now, many of you may be thinking how lovely that is, but unless you live in South Africa, there's not much point in getting excited about it. And I couldn't agree more. But what you are forgetting is the glory that is youtube.

We started posting tests from the first two series of the show onto our youtube channel - ignition bike show - and so far we have had nearly 2 million views. Even better news is that we are about to start posting tests and features from the most recent series.

So, if you re desperate for some relevant and informative and entertaining motorcycling content to watch over your breakfast, head to youtube and the Ignition Bike Show channel and start enjoying. Do us a favour, would you? Subscribe and then you can keep up to date with everything we are doing.

Very soon we will start doing Google Hangouts on a Monday where we will discuss the weekend's motorcycling sport worldwide. Keep your eyes peeled.

We also have a website; www.thebikeshow.co.za on which we post news, features, tests and our blogs so go along and have a look. We'd love to see you there.

Thanks for supporting this blog.


Sunday, 10 March 2013

Mick Doohan; The Unstoppable Aussie

As a general rule of thumb, any rider or driver who dominates the championship for a number of years is not held in the highest of affection. There is respect for the scope of his achievements but that is about as far as it goes. I'm sure that many people don’t care who wins any race or championship, as long as we see good racing. But the fact of the matter is that, when there is such domination it is rare to see any kind of racing at all.

But it’s not as simple as that, is it. I mean, we all love to hate Michael Schumacher for whatever reason and I can see the love for Sebastian Vettel waning if he wins the championship for the fourth time in a row next year. But what about Agostini who won seven consecutive Championships; what about Rossi with his five consecutive championships? Surely they are two of the most loved riders in the history of the sport (is it coincidence this paragraph is neatly divided into car and bike riders?)

And then there is Mick Doohan. He’s a bit more difficult to pigeonhole. Not always the most popular of people when he was racing – journalists of the time refer constantly to his prickly nature when dealing with the press – he nevertheless won the 500cc championship five times in a row in the 1990’s with a display of absolute crushing domination. Consider the statistics; 141 GP’s contested, 54 wins, 39 additional podiums, five whole seasons where he never finished a race outside the top three (with only seven DNF’s). Pretty strong stuff.

Doohan started racing in the late 1980’s in the Australian Superbike series. When the World Superbikes visited Oran Park in Australia in 1988, Doohan entered the race and won both heats! This certainly brought him to the attention of the outside world and, sure enough, he was signed to Honda to ride their NSR500 in the 500cc Grand Prix Championship the following year.

Bearing in mind that this was the era of 500cc two-stroke machinery which couldn’t have been further from the big four-stroke bikes running in the World Supers and it is easy to see how it could have been a baptism by fire. But Doohan took it all in his stride and scored his first podium 6 races in.

With Daryl Beattie at the French GP,
The next year saw him win his first race; score 4 more podiums and 6 fourth places on his way to third in the championship. He was starting to make his mark but the next year – 1991 - really put him on the map. This was the first of the five years in which he never finished off the podium and had only one DNF. Three more race wins contributed to his finishing second in the championship to Wayne Rainey on the Yamaha, who had just won his second championship in a row.

1992 was a pivotal year in the making of the Doohan legend. He kicked off the year with four wins on the trot, followed by two second places and a fifth win to lead the championship by 57 points. Then, during practice for the Dutch TT he crashed and suffered a dreadfully broken right leg. Initial treatment was botched and amputation was on the cards.

This was thankfully avoided by the use of radical surgery, sewing both his legs together and transplanting muscles from his torso to his calves to help the dying muscles become oxygenated by the living tissue.
Seven weeks after the crash and with two races left of the season, Doohan returned to race at the Interlagos circuit in Brazil. Up to that point in the year he had been virtually unbeatable but here he was far too weak to ride; his leg withered and useless. ‘I’d lost 6 kilos and had been pretty lean to begin with. I was run down, beat up and on some pretty strong pills,’ he said.

But he got on the bike and raced in order to try and save the season and the championship. He eventually finished 12th, out of the points; all that effort had been for nothing. Pictures taken at the time show him in obvious appalling pain; “That was my toughest race ever, but I was happy that I had finished,” he says. “I got back to the pits and Costa [his surgeon] and another doctor were crying. It was all pretty emotional.”

Despite finishing 6th at the last race in South Africa, he lost the championship to Rainey by just four points.
1993 was to be an equally tough season as it was all Mick could do, by his own admission, to keep his ride at Honda as he battled to ride at the top level and regain his fitness. He did, however, gain five podiums and a win, which just goes to show the grit of the man.

One unfortunate side-effect of his accident was the absolute uselessness of his right foot and, hence, his back brake. To counter this he had a thumb lever fitted to the right handlebar, much as you would find on a quad or jetski for the throttle. This activated the rear brake and neatly sidestepped the handicap of his inoperative right foot.

Honda’s loyalty to their man was justified the very next season. In fourteen rounds he scored nine wins, three second places and two thirds and simply destroyed the opposition. And, if his fellow racers thought they might get the measure of him in the coming seasons, they were sadly misguided. For the next four seasons, Doohan was in a class of his own, He won 35 of the 57 Grands Prix, failed to finish in six and was off the podium in only four races!

And this is where the reputation of the man takes a bit of a beating. No-one can blame a rider for winning in the most certain way possible but Doohan’s superiority was such that he rode off into the distance at the start of the race and then, when the gap to second was sufficient, would cruise home to win. Hardly what you would call thrilling. But whose fault was it? Often with up to eight rivals on the same bike, surely it was their fault for not being able to take the fight to Doohan. With so many victories in that period, it wasn't what you might call a vintage era for close racing.

The story of so many
races; build a lead, protect
it to the end
Another factor that cannot be ignored as the presence of Jerry Burgess as chief race engineer. His skill at setting up the suspension and geometry of a race bike perfectly matched Doohan’s skill in the saddle. Also, one has to remember that between 1994 and 1998 Doohan and Burgess resisted the pressure from Honda technicians to try new technology on the bike; they knew what worked and stuck to it - much to the frustration of Honda - and this undoubtedly helped them.

 At the beginning of 1999, Doohan crashed in wet practice for the Spanish Grand Prix, once again breaking his leg badly. He announced his immediate retirement shortly after.

So that’s Doohan the rider. What of Doohan the man? He was always a down to earth Australian who told it like it was and didn't mind who knew it; ‘I guess I could be a little intimidating for journalists at times, but everything just kept snowballing, the demands on your private time increase, and in the end the pressure of trying to give everyone what they wants gets just too much. And although you don’t mean it, you end up ignoring or bypassing some people you should spend more time with. The truth is that the longer you do it the harder it is to be polite to everyone!’

Writing the Top Ten in Motocourse, the annual bible of the racing season, the editor drew attention to Doohan’s position; ‘If he looked around him, he saw only a clear track; if he looked behind he saw a generation gap. Either way, he was alone, and it wasn't comfortable.’ He went on to say that Doohan was ‘more prone to snap than smile.’

The fact of the matter was that Doohan was a reluctant hero who wanted more than anything else for someone to come along and challenge him. Rainey and Schwantz were gone and Doohan was left on a pedestal on his own. ‘At the moment, racing is as boring as sh*t,’ he commented in an interview in 1995. He wasn’t having fun and neither were the spectators. Naturally he got the blame (‘What do you expect me to do? Slow down?’) but wondered about the low standard of other works riders and revealed how his own enjoyment of racing was suffering as a result.

After his retirement, Doohan continued to work for Honda in an advisory role until 2005. Now he spends his time in capital investment, leasing corporate helicopters and jets and property. It feels like he has dealt with the return to normality after the frenzy of being the world’s top racer with ease and this normality has allowed the real Mick Doohan come back into the light and it seems he is smiling once more.

Friday, 1 March 2013

John Britten; The Man who Couldn't Say No

Where most of us just moan about something not being right, John Britten actually did something about it 

Readers of this blog should be no strangers to John Britten and the bike he created, the Britten V1000. Thing is, however, it is a story that you just can’t ever get tired of and it only seems all the more amazing with the re-telling.

From his backyard in Christchurch, John Britten - design genius, engineer, artist, thinker, entrepreneur, inventor, architect, builder, glider pilot and sculptor - combined design and engineering to stand the world of motorcycle racing on its head. His motorcycle has been variously described as state-of-the-art, novel, avant-garde, revolutionary, exotic, innovative, unique and an organic thing of beauty. The fact that it was the work of one man and a few friends is just the icing on the cake.

Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1950, he immediately displayed a passion for mechanical things. Together with a friend, he built go-karts out of disused packing cases and by the age of 12 he had fitted a petrol motor to one, after stripping and rebuilding it to see how it worked.

The first incarnation of the Britten
By the time he was thirteen, he and his friend had unearthed and restored an Indian Scout. By the age of 26 and with a mechanical engineering qualification under his belt, along with jobs in New Zealand and the UK, he packed it all in, built himself a couple of glass kilns and went into business as a fine artist, designing and hand-making glass lighting.

At the same time he restored an old stable block into a home for him and his wife using material reclaimed from old buildings. Not being able to find light fittings or door handles that satisfied him, he designed and made his own.

His passion for motorcycling never left him and, in 1986, he started to modify his Ducati bevel-drive race bike by creating his own bodywork. But the rest of the bike was hopelessly unreliable. He then set to work and made his own frame into which he slotted a New Zealand made Denco engine. Yet again the engine was not up to the job so there was really only one option open to a man like Britten.

He would build a bike from scratch; not just the frame; not just the bodywork, but the whole thing; engine, chassis, wheels, the lot, buying in components such as brakes and suspension units.  And, typical to his philosophy, it would all be done on a shoestring budget, making it up as he went along.

Being an individual without any constraints whatsoever, he could begin from first principles. Shaun Craill, writing in Pro-Design magazine, said; ‘He didn’t understand he was being unconventional because he hadn’t been taught what conventional design was…’

As Britten stated in a 1993 interview: “I guess I'm simply free of any constraints. I can take a fresh look at things, unlike a designer working for, say, the Jaguar company, who is obliged to continue the Jaguar look.”
Britten and his small band of helpers conceived, designed and built a 60-degree V-twin engine, casting and machining every component themselves. There was no frame as such, the engine acting as a stressed member with a backbone unit across the top to hold the suspension at the front and the seat at the back. The front suspension was an update of the old girder forks and the rear Ohlins suspension unit sat vertically at the front of the engine. Forks, backbone, wheels and bodywork were constructed from carbon fibre in their workshop. The shape of the bodywork was arrived at by using No.8 fencing wire and a glue gun to create a male mould.

‘It’s the world’s most advanced motorcycle, and it’s not from Japan, Germany, Italy or America,’ shouted the cover of American magazine Cycle World. And it was developed into a winner too.

At the 1990 Battle of the Twins at Daytona in the USA, the bike finished third. The next year they went one better and stood on the second step of the podium.

By 1992, Britten realised the bike needed a complete redesign and at that year’s Battle of the Twins race New Zealand rider Andrew Stroud burst to the front at the start and toyed with rival Pascal Picotte on a Ducati for the whole race, clearly having the legs of the Italian. Heartbreakingly, an electrical fault put the bike out on the penultimate lap (Britten later said; ‘serves me right for using a Ducati part’), but the ride had garnered the attention of the motorcycling world.

In 1993, the Britten V1000 won the New Zealand Formula One title. In 1994 it won the British, European and American (BEARS) race at Bathurst in Australia and set four FIM World Speed Records in the 1000cc and under category; the flying mile (302.705 km/h), the standing mile (134.617 km/h), the standing start mile (213.512 km/h), and the standing start kilometre (186.245 km/h), proving itself as the fastest thing on two wheels in its class.

In 1995 the Britten bike, ridden by Andrew Stroud, stormed the international circuit, taking 1st place in the BEARS World Championship (an Italian owned Britten taking 2nd) and devastating the field at the Daytona World Twins, finishing 43 seconds ahead of the two Harley super-bikes and the latest model Bimota and Ducati V-twins. Earlier the Britten team had claimed the New Zealand Superbike Championship and the New Zealand Grand Prix as well as the New Zealand Battle of the Streets.

When the Guggenheim Museum staged an exhibition called The Art of the Motorcycle, the Britten V1000 was one of the exhibits, curator Ultan Guilfoyle saying; “All this engineering wizardry might have ended up looking like a techno-geek's nightmare, but Britten's genius was […] about turning his dream into an organic thing of beauty, as compact and powerful as a coiled spring…”

Patrick Bodden, describing Britten's designs as the “privateer's last stand” in an age of generic factory-born superbikes, wrote in The Interactive Motorcycle:

“It takes someone like John Britten to remind us that individual thought and passion can still challenge and on occasion, beat the very best teams of engineers and the orthodoxy in which they have embedded current motorcycle design. Evolution alone won't sustain such an effort—nothing short of revolution will do! In designing and building the motorcycle that bears his name, John pushed his reference materials to the edges of his work area and began with a blank sheet, an open mind, and a fertile imagination. His stunningly beautiful and effective creation affirmed for the entire motorcycling community the intrinsic value of working to build a better bike and the potential of an individual to make it happen.”

Britten was much more modest about his achievements, describing himself as a ‘former racer who was never much good; a bit like a violinist who's no maestro but makes his own Stradivarius.”

John’s death from cancer at the age of 45 robbed the world of an engineer who could have changed the motorcycle for ever. As it was, he came close.

The Genius himself and his creation

Burt Munro and the World's Fastest Indian

Dogged persistence or bloody-minded obsession

I suppose we all love speed in one way or another. Some of us are content with the speed that our standard machines provide whereas others will bolt on aftermarket parts to increase that maximum, even though they will probably never reach that maximum on road or track.

And then there was Burt Munro. Not only did he buy, in 1920, a very standard Indian Scout of 1919 vintage (top speed around 50mph), but he spent the next 46 years modifying the bike to go faster and faster. And, don’t forget, there was no popping down to his local performance parts shop and buying what he needed; he had to make everything himself. Then, at the age of 69, he took the bike to Bonneville Salt Flats and clocked 190mph. But it is between these bookends that the real story lies.

Munro was born in 1899 near Invercargill at the south end of New Zealand’s South Island to a farming family. From an early age he displayed an obsession with speed, riding the farm’s fastest horse, much to his father’s disapproval. The arrival of cars, motorcycles and trains to New Zealand stoke Burt’s interest further and he longed to escape the farm and see the outside world.

The start of the First World War gave Munro the chance to escape and see the world, but it ended before he had the chance to enlist. At 15, he bought his first motorcycle. At the age of 18, he bought a new Clyno with sidecar. He removed the sidecar and raced the solo machine, setting a few local speed records. He began entering speedway races and turned professional, only to give it all up and return to the family farm when the great depression arrived.

He then got a job as a motorcycle salesman and mechanic and rose to the top of the New Zealand motorcycle racing scene. The Indian was purchased, probably for mere transportation reasons, in 1920 and remained stock for the first six years of ownership. It was a 600cc V-twin with a three-speed, hand-change gearbox and foot clutch.

Due to lack of finances, rather than selling the Indian and buying something more powerful and, therefore, more suitable for record-breaking work, Burt simply had no choice but to set to and modify the Indian himself. At this point he was still working as a salesman and would often work on the bike through the night, heading out for work next morning without having had a wink of sleep.

In 1926, the first major modifications were made. At first, this was mainly removing surplus items to lighten the bike and altering the riding position. But, as the years rolled by, major re-engineering work took place; in the 1940’s and 50’s, for example, Munro designed and manufactured double-overhead-cam cylinder heads and converted the engine to overhead-valve actuation in place of the sidevalve/pushrod original set-up. Over the years, he would make his own barrels, pistons, flywheels, cams and followers and his own lubrication system.

But what is more impressive is that he had no fully-equipped workshop; he did everything on a shoestring budget and used unorthodox methods. When Wayne Alexander of Britten Motorcycles was commissioned to build two replicas for the movie about Burt’s life – The World’s Fastest Indian – he was amazed at the time and effort Munro put into the project; ‘Burt would spend 40 hours hand filing a piece that could have been done on a mill in 30 minutes.’ Munro himself acknowledged the amount of time he spent pursuing his dream; ‘It’s almost impossible for me to give a true picture of the time I’ve spent on my motorcycles,’ he said in 1970. ‘The last 22 years have been full time. For one stretch of ten years I put in 16 hours every day, but on Christmas day took the afternoon off.’

He was the master of improvisation. He scrounged old pieces of cast iron gas pipe that had been buried under the streets for years to make cylinder barrels, reasoning that, after spending so long underground, the iron would be ‘well-seasoned’. He hand carved con-rods from an old tractor axle and carved the tread off tyres to make slicks. One apocryphal story even had him casting pistons in holes dug on the local beach. Not true, however, says his son.

In 1945, he and his wife of 20 years divorced and Burt set himself up in a workshop (built by himself, of course) where he worked on the bikes, lived and slept. Inside the shed was written, on one of the walls, ‘Offerings to the God of Speed’ and underneath was a pile of hundreds of broken engine components. Over a 50-year period, he estimated that he suffered 250 engine blow-ups. His motto summed up his character, however; ‘If it’s broken, fix it and try again.’ After breaking 50 standard con-rods, he spent five months making his own out of an old Ford truck axle. Obsession?

By 1948 he had stopped working to devote his life to his one passion; speed. By 1962, Bonneville Salt Flats were beckoning and Burt shipped the bike to the US where he bought an old station wagon for $90 to act as ‘Team HQ’ and took on the fastest streamliner motorcycles in the world. On a 42-year old motorbike, a 63-year old New Zealander established a new World Record of 178.97mph. Onlookers were astounded.

In a letter to fellow American V-twin enthusiast John Andrews in England, Burt wrote: "I had some of the worst out-of-control rides on record. The worst was in 1962. In an effort to stop wheelspin at 160mph I bolted a 60lb lead brick in front of the rear wheel. By the time I got to the three-mile marker, the top of the shell was swerving five feet and the wheel marks were five inches wide and snaking 30 inches every 200 yards. I wound it all-on for another one and a half miles and when I found out it would go on that way forever I rolled it back and got it stopped. When the gang found me laughing and asked the joke, I said I was happy to still be alive."

There was something indefatigable about Munro; nothing, it seemed, would put him off. "At the Salt in 1967 we were going like a bomb," he later recalled of one high-speed tumble. "Then she got the wobbles just over half way through the run. I sat up, the wind tore my goggles off and the blast forced my eyeballs back into my head - I couldn't see a thing. We were so far off the black line [the marked line which riders at Bonneville are supposed to follow] that we missed a steel marker stake by inches. I put her down - a few scratches all round but nothing much else." At the time Munro, then 68, was travelling at close to 200mph.

It was in 1967 that Munro set the speed that made his Indian officially the World’s fastest. To qualify to take part in the annual Bonneville Speed Week, riders had to set a one-way timed run at a pre-determined speed. By this time, the engine displaced 950cc and he managed a 190.07mph (305.89kmh) one way run and a 183.586mph (295.453kmh) average over two runs, which made it the World’s Fastest Indian; a record that stands to this day.

By 1975, aged 76, Munro had lost his competition licence and his speed attempts ceased. The bike was sold and is on display in a hardware shop in Invercargill. By the time he stopped, the engine, which originally produced 18bhp, was producing around 100bhp and Burt reckoned he had added 3.5mph each year to the bike over the 50 years he campaigned it.

Long a sufferer of angina, Burt succumbed to the heart condition in 1978. He once said ‘you live more in five minutes flat-out on a bike like this than most people do in a lifetime.’ On that basis, Burt Munro must have fitted dozens of lifetimes into his own.

Triumph Tiger Explorer; Tigger Gets Serious

Triumph Have the Germans in their Sights

The English, by nature of the weather and a drink called tea, do tend to sit around a lot and talk. This is commonly known as a Good Thing. Look what came out of it; the invention of the jet engine; the Jaguar XK; the Raleigh Chopper bicycle. And the Triumph Triple engine.

While the one from the 1960’s may have given the modern incarnation of Triumph an historical peg on which to hang its designs, it was released prematurely and, as a result, not as good as it could have been, despite making the most delicious noise and doing rather well in production racing and at the Isle Of Man. Then the Honda-four came along, kicked the British motorcycle industry up the backside and showed it the door.
The newly reborn Triumph concern in the 1990’s drew heavily on its historical links and re-introduced the triple and it has rightly become one of the great motorcycle engines, powering everything from full sports bikes to tourers and multi-purpose adventure bikes.

And now Triumph have upped the ante on BMW and released the 1215cc, 3-cylinder, shaft drive Tiger Explorer and first impressions are that they have got their sums exactly right and that BMW should be very afraid.

The engine, whilst aping its forebears, is completely new and is a stonker of a motor. It produces way more power than the rivals (think GS, Super Tenere, etc) and it just has so much character in comparison with those same rivals. With the Arrow pipe fitted, it absolutely howls and you can’t help knocking it down a gear or two and opening the throttle at any opportunity just to hear it sing! It is an inspired piece of design, combining the qualities of both an in-line four and a twin.

Now, these bikes are classed as Adventure, dual-purpose bikes but the reality is that 99% of them will spend 100% of their time going no further off-road than up the kerb in Sandton. To that end they are completely focussed on on-road performance and handling. This bike is no different, although journalists who were on the official launch reported how good it was on sand or gravel roads.

But as a road bike it excels; all the usual benefits of tall adventure styling but dynamics of a sports bike with excellent chassis components making for beautifully fluid handling. I had the chance to take it round Red Star raceway and it just felt so stable and smooth, inspiring confidence. But it can be trickled around town in the gentlest of manners without a hint of protest from engine or transmission; it fulfils both sides of a rider’s personality – hooligan and need-for-transport.

The styling does seem a little schizophrenic, as if lots of different designers all worked on one little bit without knowing what the other was doing and then they made them all fit together somehow. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but actually there is coherence in the madness that means there is something new to notice every time you look at it for any length of time and. It is certainly a striking look and one that seems to emphasize its capabilities.

If it’s electronic gadgets you like, then the Triumph has them all; switchable ABS and Traction Control, Tyre pressure monitor, heated seats and grips, spotlights, frost warning, range to empty, cruise control. OK, so many of these are optional extras but the trend in this market sector seems to point towards owners loading up their bikes with all the bells and whistles.

Overall, it gives the impression of bringing a bit of fun – a bit like a hyperactive kid – to a party thrown by staid and serious rivals, such as the BMW. There may be a bit of sniffy looking down the noses but, secretly, there’s a lot of envy at the devil-may-care attitude. Not to say that the BMW is a bad bike all of a sudden, but now at least here is a dangerous rival to Teutonic efficiency.

Maybe not the Triumph's natural habitat but no worse
around the track for all that
British against the Germans? Now, where have I heard that before…?

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Land Speed Record, Part 5; Untried and Unsuccessful

Stutz Blackhawk before its first runs
Any account of the Land Speed Record would be incomplete without acknowledging the efforts of those men who tried and failed to take the record or the cars that never made it further than a drawing board or scale model. Indeed, the stories of these men are sometimes more entertaining than of they who succeeded.

It is inevitable that, hidden behind the lists of those men who became legends and heroes, is a whole army of hopefuls who, by sheer bad fortune or bad design, were not destined to share in the limelight. Not for the want of trying, that is.

These attempts can be divided into several categories; those that were unrecognised by the governing body in Paris; those that were plainly unsuccessful or unconfirmed and those that never got off the drawing board. While the successful attempts naturally garnered all the press column inches, the failures can tell as much of an interesting story.

A good case in point is the story of Frank Lockhart and the Stutz Black Hawk. While his rivals were building aero-engined monsters with cylinder capacities of 24-litres and more, Lockhart, 25 years old and already an Indianapolis 500 winner, took the high-efficiency scientific route. He took two straight-eight cylinder Miller engines and mated them on a common crankcase to make a 3-litre sixteen cylinder engine, producing 385bhp. This he installed in a light and fully streamlined chassis which again owed as much to clever scientific thinking as brute force.

On his first runs at Daytona Beach in Florida, the car showed promise, although a gust of wind threw the car out of control and into soft sand, which flipped it over into the sea. Lockhart escaped relatively unhurt and the car went back to Stutz for repairs.

Stutz Blackhawk after its first crash at Ormond Beach in Daytona.
At this time the record stood at 207mph and, with the Black hawk rebuilt, Lockhart worked up to 203mph, again at Daytona. On the return run, however, the right rear tyre collapsed, sending the car into a series of rolls along the sand that smashed it to pieces and killed its driver.

But Lockhart’s ‘less is more’ approach was a lone island in a sea of brute force. From Thomas’ Babs, through Segrave’s 1000hp Sunbeam and Golden Arrow, Campbell’s Bluebirds, and the preposterous American Triplex Special (3 Liberty V12 engines, about 80litres capacity in total!), aero engines ruled the waves.

Thus, when Sunbeam’s latest contender, the Silver Bullet, powered by two Sunbeam-Coatalen V12 engines of 24-litres each and giving 4000hp in total, housed in an enormous sleek silver body, was announced, the company looked set to regain the record they had taken three times.

Sunbeam Silver Bullet
But the car was an unmitigated disaster. Due to the exhaust manifolds being too close to the inlet galleries from the supercharger to the cylinders, heat build-up was a massive problem and things grew so hot that the fuel-air mixture ignited before it even reached the cylinders, the resultant impact running back to the blower, shattering its blades and causing fires. The car reached 186mph, but this was at a time when the record stood to Segrave at 231mph. The car never did run properly and this was the end of Sunbeam as a force in record breaking.

Fast forward to 1958 and Mickey Thompson’s Challenger 1. While rivals Breedlove and Campbell were experimenting with jet and gas turbine power respectively, Thompson stuck to the spirit of the LSR and used four 6.7litre Pontiac car engines, two driving the front wheels and two the rear. Both the engines and most of the material used to construct the car had been sourced from scrap yards.

Each of the four engines had its own clutch and three-speed pre-war La Salle gearbox but the car was operated with two pedals. By comparison with the average LSR monster, Challenger 1 was commendably small but, thanks to the heavy American iron under the bonnet, it was heavy. It was also the first LSR car to use parachutes to help slow it down.

Challenger 1
But fate was to play cruel tricks on Thompson. Mechanical failures played a large part in preventing him beating Cobb’s record of 394mph in the beginning and then, when running a potent mixture of petrol and nitromethane, his oxygen supply failed and he breathed in toxic fumes. He managed to brake but was in a coma by the time he was rescued from the car.

By 1960, the engines were supercharged and Thompson tried again. This time the car was running fine and on his first run, he reached an amazing 406mph. But it was not to be as, on the return run, a driveshaft broke and that was it. He tried again two years later but a bumpy course and a back injury prevented him from taking the record. By 1964, the jet-age had arrived and the cars of Breedlove and Arfons were to push the record out of reach of piston-engined cars.

Some cars never progressed off the drawing board or, if they did, never turned a wheel in anger. Possibly the most fantastic of these was the 1932 Stapp Jupiter. In fact, it was so outrageously improbable that one can’t help wondering what exactly Rene Stapp was thinking.

In a vast cylindrical body, built on a Voisin car chassis and retaining the original engine, Stapp mounted three 800hp Bristol Jupiter radial aero engines, converted into ‘internal combustion turbines,’ whatever they may be! The only detail of the engines that was divulged was that the pistons had been removed! Drive to all four wheels was claimed to be by ‘electric transmission.’

Stapp Jupiter
Accommodation for driver and mechanic was utterly bizarre, as it seems they had to stand amidships like a railway engine driver and fireman on the footplate, the driver having to peer out of a hatch cut in the bodywork with no protective windshield.

It was demonstrated on the streets of Paris (!) and then taken to the sands of Brittany for testing, where the Stapp Jupiter burst into flames and, perhaps thankfully for all involved, destroyed itself.

Possibly the most infamous ‘failure’ in LSR history – although its driver and owner would argue the point vociferously – was that of the Budweiser Rocket. It is a long and involved tale encompassing name and driver changes but, in short the car was designed to break the sound barrier (+/-750mph, depending on altitude and prevailing air temperature) at a time when the LSR stood at 630mph to Gary Gabelich in The Blue Flame.

Budweiser Rocket
The only problem was that the team chose to completely ignore all the rules governing the setting of a new LSR. According to the military radar system that measured the speed, the car did indeed travel at 739.66mph, a mach figure of 1.0106. However, the car was measured in one direction only over a distance of 52.8ft (1/100th of a mile). Opinion is divided as to what precisely they did achieve, but it very definitely wasn’t the world LSR.

Daimler Benz T80, sitting alongside Grand Prix W196
Then there was the pre-war Daimler Benz T80, which used an inverted 44.5litre V12 engine and ran on 6 wheels, four of them driven. This astonishing machine was only prevented from running by the German invasion of Poland and start of the Second World War. And not all of Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebirds were successful; his 1929 version that ran on Verneuk Pan in 1929 failed to take a record, Campbell receiving a telegram while there that Segrave had run 231mph at Daytona in the Golden Arrow, forcing Campbell to return home to lick his wounds and rebuild Bluebird yet again.

The history of the LSR could look so different if it hadn’t been for bad fortune, bad timing, over-optimism or plain ineffective design scuppering chances. Names such as the Fred H Stewart Enterprise, Infinity, Green Monster No.14 ‘Cyclops’, Valkyrie 1, Blonde Bombshell, Pea Soup Monster, Vanishing Point or Gyronaut X2, to name but a few, would have added colour to an already kaleidoscopic roll-call of successful attempts.

But it is the existence of the failures that makes the achievements of the successful stand out and we would be foolish to ignore them just because their names appear on no lists. It could be argued that all these men – successful or not – were made of something special and that they all deserve a place in history for the simple reason that all of them set out with success as their primary goal and stopped at nothing to try and make it reality.

Kawasaki Ninja 300EX

Good Things Come In Small Packages

At the beginning of last year I rode the Ninja 250 and, once I had learned that you need to rev the nuts off the engine at every opportunity to get anywhere, I loved it.

Now, Kawasaki has introduced the 300cc version of the bike and, while it is not such a huge leap forward, the capacity increase has made it even more fun. You still have to work the engine hard to get any performance out of it but what is noticeable now is a useful increase in roll-on power when sitting on the highway, for example.

The figures speak for themselves; 18% more power and 24% more torque from a 20% increase in capacity, 39bhp (29kW) at 11,000rpm and 27Nm of torque at 10,000rpm. But the 300cc engine is far from a bored out version of the 2012 250cc motor.

Bore size has stayed the same but the stroke has been increased to give a capacity of 296cc. New crankcases house a new, stronger crankshaft, lighter pistons and increases the oil capacity by 700ml. The cylinder block is sleeveless with plated bores to keep weight down and the water pump is new.

One very special feature on the 2013 Kawasaki Ninja 300 is the racetrack-derived slipper-clutch that is smoother operating while eliminating the back-torque that potentially causes rear wheel hop under hard deceleration in racetrack or aggressive street riding conditions. Because the engine delivers so much extra power and torque the six-speed gearbox has been beefed up and the ratios widened to improve acceleration, top speed and fuel economy.
So, Kawasaki have taken care of the engineering side. What hasn’t changed, thankfully, is the styling which apes so effectively the larger Ninja models. In fact, from a distance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was one of the larger models and this is the bike’s real trump card. Up close, the quality is clear to see and Kawasaki have been careful to hide as many of the fairing fixings as possible.

I love the look of the bike and so, I presume, will the target market for the bike. It really is a scaled down sports bike in every respect and really looks the part. It isn’t overly small, although, as a six-footer, I did feel slightly conspicuously large on it. But it is easy to fold yourself onto it and is comfortable enough when you do.

On the road it is a hoot, just like its smaller-engined predecessor. Keep the engine on the boil and the performance is there but it never feels completely mad and this is the best bit. You scream everywhere at maximum velocity yet you are never really going that fast. Having said that, it will sit on the highway at 140km/h+ all day if you want it to do that. But really, this is a bike to throw around some country roads, having fun.
It teaches you so much about keeping corner speed high; let the speed drop too much and you find yourself exiting a corner slower than a snail. So you have to learn how to tip it into the corner carrying as much speed as possible and keep it in the right gear to get good drive out.

The brakes have an easy time of it, with so little weight to haul to a stop; a single 290mm front disc is more than enough for the job and has great bite and feel. There’s not much adjustment for the suspension but it is so well set-up out of the box that you don’t need it.

The Ninja 300EX may only have 50cc’s more than its predecessor but is so much better in every department than the 250. In its new guise it remains one of my favourite bikes from the year’s riding.

2013 Harley Davidsons

Growing Old But Not Growing Up; Harley Turns 110 Years Old

Harley Davidson invited members of the motorcycling press to Cape Town to sample their 2013 line-up a couple of weeks ago and I have to say that I came away completely hooked. It is all too easy to knock Harley Davidson and everything they represent but I would have to say that most of that attitude comes from pure ignorance.

After a whole day of riding on highways, twisty mountain passes and good A-roads under pure blue skies, I was definitely starting to see what all the fuss is about. One thing that struck me is that a Harley is possibly the only ‘honest’ motorcycle out there. But that means what, exactly?
Well, it strikes you that a Harley really is made out of what it appears to be made out of. And mostly that is metal! If there is plastic around it is used very sparingly and is invariably of very good quality. You do get a lot of material for your buck. But more importantly, the modern Harley doesn’t pretend to be something it is not; it sits comfortably in its own skin and makes no apologies for what it is. And what it is, is a large and powerful, yet strangely crude but appealing motorcycle that wears its heritage on its sleeve.

For 2013, the H-D line-up is subtly tweaked but, in actuality, is more of the same. And there is nothing wrong with this; why mess with a recipe that has been so successful for such a long time? The big news is that 2013 sees the 110th Anniversary of the company and, to celebrate there are some new cosmetics and one or two improvements in running gear and a larger V-Twin on some models.

But the essence remains exactly the same; rolling acres of torque from enormous capacity V-Twins; heavyweight chassis that deliver a surprisingly high grin factor in the corners; gaudy, but not unattractive hardware and paintwork and a general air of quality helped, no doubt, by the sheer bulk of the bikes. Even the ‘baby’ Sportster is a significant piece of engineering in terms of weight but it is this very weight that gives the bikes their feeling of solidity and comfort.

In all I rode six models throughout the day and, to my great surprise, the standout models were the two Sportsters – the 72 with its high rise chopper bars and forward controls and the Sportster Custom. The latter had a great riding position and was, literally, the sportiest of all the models we tried, feeling taught and punchy.

The Softail models all were great fun to ride, only let down by poor ground clearance from the footboards which, nonetheless, gave entertainment to those following me through the twisties to the accompaniment of showers of sparks.

The only model that left me cold was the Electra Glide Ultra, a great pudding of a bike that felt just like a ship, both in its response to commands from the helm and the general size of the thing. It wasn’t unpleasant but after the dynamics of the others, it wasn’t fun on anything but a dead straight road. However, it seems I was alone in feeling this way so either I am wrong or everyone else is!

The whole point is that Harley’s feel so different from anything else on the road and it’s a great feeling. I’ll never be wealthy enough to buy one, but I will jump at the chance to ride one again.

Monday, 14 January 2013

2012 BMW GS Eco, South Africa

Are BMW owners too good to be true? Not only do they believe they own the best bikes ever made but then they go on huge jollies so they can park alongside hundreds of the same bike and blitz the countryside by riding all over it. Not content with that, they then go on to offset their carbon emissions by planting hundreds of trees and donate thousands of Rands to the communities that host them.
Motorcycles and water.......and why not!

Like I said; too good to be true?

BMW bikes; you either love ‘em or hate ‘em. There seems to be no middle ground. But, one thing’s for sure, you’d be stupid to not try one if you were in the market for a big, capable adventure bike (the 1200GS), or even a smaller, just-as-capable adventure bike (the F800GS or G650GS).

There is no denying that the GS, in all its various forms, is a brilliant motorcycle. You just have to ride one to realise that so much work has been put into making it the best it can possibly be; the attention to detail is evident throughout the bikes. OK, so there are quirky elements to the design but they don’t detract from the experience; in fact they add to it by ensuring that the bike is not just one more bland, homogenous entry into the adventure bike category.

Motorcycles and Mountain Passes......and why not?
More than any other make I can think of, with the possible exception of Harley Davidson, BMW owners go to enormous lengths to do things together. In this, they know their efforts are matched and exceeded by both BMW Motorrad and BMW Clubs South Africa to organise events for their loyal customers to participate.
The latest such event to take place was the GS Eco. Formerly known as the GS Eco Challenge, the word ‘Challenge’ was removed as those terribly irresponsible BMW owners would take this as a red rag to a bull and treat it as such, whereas the whole point of the exercise was to give GS owners a forum in which to prove to themselves even further how brilliant their choice of motorcycle was without looking at it as a competition.

This year, as last, the event took place in Clocolan in the Free State, a sleepy farming town of no great distinction on the edge of Lesotho. Most dealers organised rides to the event and we went with the Lyndhurst, Melrose Arch crowd. That the dealers were committed to the event was proven immediately when one bike was knocked over by some tool in a Range Rover before we’d even left the dealership, the bike sustaining light but incapacitating damage. Of course, it was parts that weren’t carried in stock but a plan was made, bikes were cannibalised and the damaged bike was ready to roll with the rest of them.

Motorcycles and impassable obstacles
.........and why not?
The central Agricultural show grounds in Clocolan were taken over and a rough total of 630 GS’s flooded in to take over the town completely. Quite what the locals made of such an invasion is not recorded but it has to be admitted that it was a pretty impressive sight. Everywhere you looked – at every junction, in every driveway, in front of you or in your mirrors on the road and always in vast numbers at the petrol station – there were BMWs. For the BMW hierarchy present, it must have been a heart-warming (and job-security affirming) sight.

The format of BMW events is simple; ride there and then, when you are there, ride lots more and, at the end of it all, ride home. The GS Eco is no different; everything is geared around getting the most out of your GS. There are three grades of off-road routes to choose from, depending on your skill; green, orange and red. In green and orange there was a choice of three routes of ascending difficulty with everything being eclipsed by the one red route. As the man said the night before; ‘if you’re wondering if you are good enough to do red; you can’t; you’d know if you were!’ Not going to try that one then….
Helping out a friend in need........well, why not?

Now, here I have to admit that, over the course of a weekend where there were 7 off-road routes to ride, of varying difficulties from merely unbearable to completely suicidal, I opted for a tar road route. I know, I know, a poor showing. But, given that many so-called adventure bikes will never see a bit of dirt in their lives, the road performance is a very important factor in their appeal. That and the fact that I am terrible off-road!

And thank god there was that escape clause! Just to jump out of sequence a little for dramatic effect, on the Saturday our little party was busy filming riders on the Orange 3 off-road route and, not to put too fine a point on it, you’d have to be completely bonkers…!

Pulling a wheelie over rail tracks......why not (OK, enough of the
rhetorical questions, maybe?)
I don’t think I have ever been happier that I am not an off-road adventurer when I saw the road we had chosen to ride that day; through the Lesotho border near Ficksburg and off into the hills, heading for the Katse Dam. Holy Alpine Pass, Batman! On F800GS and 1200GS respectively, we proceeded to ride what must be the most amazing 100kms of road in southern Africa as it snaked its way up and up into the heavens. This was exactly the type of road that any hot-blooded motorcyclist dreams of and to find it, on a perfect blue-skied day on a bike that was perfect for the job, was a dream come true.

Hang on. Did I just say that a GS BMW was the perfect bike for such a ride? Actually, yes. You don’t need a thousand brake horsepower or race-bred chassis to get the best of a road like this. Believe me, you will only get yourself into a whole heap of trouble. The GS was perfect because it only has a certain amount of power, but what there is, is low down, stump-pulling power so you don’t have to stir the gearbox endlessly to get anywhere; you can almost keep it in third (on the F800) and use it like that.

Magnificent countryside, friends and bikes. Why not?
The suspension is long-travel and supple (the road was in great condition but a rock-hard ride would be murderous), the seating position is upright with a good view of the road ahead and the handlebars are wide for plenty of leverage when counter steering. They all added up to a perfect, but long, day’s riding over some brilliant roads.

Back at the show grounds at the end of that first day and GS riders in varying states of euphoria told tall tales of the day’s exploits and the brave few tried their hands at the skills test. Mere mortals would struggle to complete the tests on light and nimble trials bikes but here were enormous GS’s making light work of the obstacles – no mean feat after a hard day’s riding and it was clear to see exhaustion taking its toll on some of the riders.

Lesotho and only half way through the most amazing ride
Day two was more of the same but some of us decided there was more fun to be had in driving to some of the trickier sections of the off-road routes and offering ‘advice’ to those who had chosen to ride. One particular section, which again most of us would hesitate to tackle on a trials bike, demonstrated not only the capabilities of the GS in the right hands, but also the skills of those right hands! Photographs don’t do justice to the route but they were difficult enough to walk down; let alone ride!

The amazing thing, though, was that it was never a case of ‘you’re on your own, son’. Many hands were always waiting to help others and these weren’t course marshals who had been placed there. So many riders interrupted their rides to take an hour or more to help on the really tricky sections, before getting back on their bikes to complete the routes themselves. A real atmosphere of comradeship pervaded the whole event and there was never any question of forcing someone to do anything they didn’t feel comfortable with; there would be plenty of volunteers to take your bike down for you.

By the end of day two, the tales were growing taller as drinks lubricated parched throats and a good dinner filled empty stomachs. The skills competition got more diabolical and there was a general feeling of relief coupled with elation to have reached the end in one piece (although there would be a few ‘victims’ the next morning…)

How do you sum up an event like the GS Eco? Like I said, if you’re not into BMWs you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Some of you might even see the opportunity of 600+ GS’s in one place as too good to miss if you wanted to get rid of a few in one easy explosion. But it has to be said that the BMW rider’s community is one based on respect (dare I say, love?) for the marque and, in that light, such an event can only build on that respect. Everyone who participated got something out of the event, no matter to what extent they pushed themselves or their machines.

Is the GS the ultimate adventure bike? No idea, frankly, but what is undeniable is the popularity of these bikes and the amazing lengths that BMW go to, in order to involve their customers in something that will challenge them and their machines and which can only strengthen the brand loyalty. The fact that the customers respond in enormous numbers is testament to that loyalty and the trust that owners place in their machines to do whatever is set up for them to do.

Near Katse Dam; about as far off-road as we got all weekend,
but did it matter? 
What is even more apparent is the unbelievable ability of these bikes, whether on- or off-road. There are many pretenders to the GS’s throne, some of which are snapping very closely at their heels. But, although this is a dangerous thing to say and I am not sure that I even want to believe it myself, it seems that the GS’s position at the top is assured for a long time to come.

My Motorcycling Year, 2012

12 months and 56 bikes have made for a varied and interesting year’s riding.

It has been a fascinating year, one way or another, with a wide variety of machines sitting in the garage awaiting appraisal. Some have been ridden for thousands of kilometres, some for only a few hundred; some simply around and about Johannesburg and some around South Africa. A few bikes also unexpectedly made it to Mozambique and back. All, however, have been interesting and fun to ride; a heartening state of affairs in this day and age of homogenisation in road vehicles.

Gilera Fuoco; brilliant handling, but it'll never catch on.
I would say, having also attended several car launches through 2012, that there is more character and variety in the biking world, even among bikes in the same category, especially when it comes to styling. Cars really are becoming amorphous blobs, some barely distinguishable from others.

Looking through my notes, I see that I rode a total of 56 bikes this year, not missing out any of the major manufacturers. Kawasaki tops the list with ten bikes, followed by Triumph and BMW with seven apiece and the rest following in ever smaller numbers. What must be noted is the absolute willingness of all the importers to support the motorcycling press – be they regular or freelance – with machines to test and, in the case of BMW, invitations to join them and their customers on the various events that the German marque organise in order to foster brand loyalty.

Naturally, there is no way I could choose a ‘best bike’ as they all were great in their own way (well, they did all have two wheels…) and it would be impossible to rate between the categories. But, what I can do is to recall a few highlights; the bikes that stood out for whatever reason.

KTM 990R Adventure; Only the tall need apply
The 3-wheel, 500cc Gilera Fuoco was a very different machine, with two wheels at the front which, through clever front suspension, leaned into the corner while both wheels stayed in contact with the road. The amount of grip that they afforded was remarkable and, once got used to, gave a very high margin of safety on loose or slippery surfaces.

Adventure bikes are, of course, the next big thing in motorcycling, to the exclusion of growth in almost any other category. Naturally enough, there were plenty of examples in the garage throughout the year, from all the big manufacturers.

The KTM 990R Adventure was a physically imposing machine through its sheer height that left me, even as a lanky 6-foot plus rider, stretching to reach the floor; clearly a very competent machine that would need an equally competent rider to get the best out of it. The Kawasaki Versys was a strange hybrid of adventure styling with four-cylinder engine and road wheels and tyres; not, to my mind, entirely convincing.

GS and K1600GTL BMW; both frighteningly competent
The GS BMW, in both 1200 or 800cc guise, could not fail to impress with its complete mastery of any conditions on- or off-road. But they found their supremacy in the market being challenged by great machines from Triumph – also in the 1200 and 800cc categories – and Yamaha with the latest version of the Super Tenere.

If direct comparison between Triumph and BMW adventure bikes were to be made, I would say that Triumph made the more convincing road performers while BMW had the edge off-road. Yamaha sit somewhere in the middle.

Mozambique; 1500kms in four days was more fun than
any of us expected; and we survived!
Great fun was had during a ride to Mozambique and back on scooters. The idea was to take them out of their natural habitat in a city and expose them to a more rigorous test in order to see if a scooter really could be an ideal all-round bike; one that could handle commuting, weekend fun and a long trip each year. For this we chose Chinese import scooters from Puzey, Sym and Gomoto and matched them to a similarly priced Yamaha Mio and a completely out-of-our-price-range Vespa, which came along as a comparison bike.

While all bikes made it there and back with no attention whatsoever, it was clear that the Vespa was streets ahead on quality (expected at the price), while the Yamaha made a very good case for itself against the Chinese bikes and was actually running better at the end of the trip as the engine bedded in (it was brand-spanking new). The trip was worth it alone for the looks on people’s faces when we told them where we were headed for.

Aprilia Tuono APRC; mental, but in a great way.
I do have a soft spot for naked sports bikes and I would be hard pressed to choose between the Aprilia Tuono, Triumph Speed Triple and Street Triple. The Italian bike was completely bonkers but brilliant to ride and the brace of Triumphs were works of art and also deeply impressive on the road. Have all three in the garage? Oh, alright then!

The BMW K1600 engine was a masterpiece; silky smooth power and an intoxicating howl when revved, fitted into a remarkable chassis to create the ultimate tourer. The level of equipment gives you plenty of toys to play with on long journeys and you can tailor the bike to your exact tastes and requirements.

Triumph Thunderbird 1600; why can't all cruisers feel like
While the Kawasaki Vulcan was a pretty dire affair, the Triumph Thunderbird 1600 was a hoot! Bags of power and torque from the parallel twin motor in a chassis that allows you to use all of it. I’m not normally a fan of cruisers but Triumph has gone down the road less travelled once again and come up with a stonking motorbike. Having said that, the Rocket 3 was so ridiculous and thirsty, I wasn’t sorry when I had to return it earlier than expected.

Fast, Red, Italian and Sexy; what more is there?
The MV Agusta F3 gave a glorious insight into temperamental but brilliant Italian engineering, styling and performance while the Honda NC700X was as bland and uninspiring (although still a very good motorcycle) as the MV was inspiring.

And the last bike that made an impression this year? Well, the Harley Sportster 1200 really impressed at the end of a day spent riding all the 2013 Harleys in Cape Town. After flopping around on an Ultra Glide, the Sporty felt taut and punchy and great fun along the flyover into Cape Town. I could have ridden it all day and had fun.

 So, it’s been a pretty interesting year altogether. Let’s hope that the local bike market picks up in 2013 so the importers may consider bringing in ever increasing numbers of new models.