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.

Land Speed Record, Part 4; Into the Jet Age

The Land Speed record now moved into the realms of science fiction as first turbine power and then jet and rocket power became the motive force. The move was made possible by the demise of the large aero piston engine as a means of propulsion for aircraft as wartime experiments with jets moved swiftly towards post-war commonplace at breath-taking speed.

Breedlove and his Spirit of America, seemingly in the
street outside his house!
What was more important was the fact that jet power provided sufficient thrust to overcome the increasing penalties of air and surface drag that were becoming the biggest barriers to raising the LSR as speeds rose towards the sound barrier.

Not everyone was convinced that this was the right way to go. Before his death in 1952, John Cobb opined that ‘a jet-propelled vehicle would not be a motor-car; it would be a sort of aeroplane dragging its wheels along the course.’ He was not alone in dismissing the significance of the jet. Americans Mickey Thompson, Art and Walt Arfons and Athol Graham all persevered with the piston engine in the 1950’s, with no great success, although another American, Dr. Nathan Ostich, gave a glimpse of the future with his turbojet-engined (and unsuccessful) Flying Caduceus.

And this is how it ended up!
Everyone was still looking at wheel-driven cars as being the rightful holders of the LSR. The last such vehicle to hold the record was a resurrection of the great pre-war record names; Campbell and Bluebird. Donald, son of Malcolm, took up from where his father had left off, first taking the Water Speed Record several times in the 1950’s before turning to the Land Speed Record.

Bluebird CN7 was the most technically complex car yet. Powered by a Bristol-Siddeley Proteus aircraft-type gas turbine, it was monocoque in construction and had four-wheel-drive through enormous, tyred 4ft 4ins wheels developed by Dunlop.

The problem with CN7 was its over-long gestation period. Ironically it was constructed by Rubery Owen, that unwieldy conglomerate of companies that had taken so long to get the BRM V16 racing car to the circuits. Just as the V16 had arrived as the formula for which it had been designed was abandoned, so the CN7 arrived just as jet-power became the must-have; Bluebird CN7 was immediately outmoded.
Walt Arfon's Wingfoot Express
Campbell persisted, however and finally dragged the car up to a speed of 403.1mph in July 1964 at Lake Eyre in Australia. But it was a hollow victory, for Craig Breedlove had taken his jet-propelled tricycle Spirit of America to 407mph the year before. The reason that Campbell’s record still mattered was because the FIA only recognised wheel driven records and, in any case, because it had three wheels, Spirit fell into the motorcycle category. Eventually, however, the FIA created a new pure-thrust category so, while Campbell held the wheel driven record, the outright LSR was Breedlove’s.

The stage was now set for one of the most remarkable periods of the LSR when the record changed hands a total of 11 times in just over two years. Breedlove had started the ball rolling in 1963, making a mockery of Campbell’s attempt the following year. Even had he not, by the beginning of October 1964, a mere 3 months’ after Campbell’s nightmare in Australia the matter was put beyond any doubt as Tom Green, driving Walt Arfons’ jet-powered (and four-wheeled) ‘Wingfoot Express’ travelled through the measured mile at 413.20mph (664.96kmh). Walt and his brother Art were estranged, which must have made it all the more galling for Walt when, only three days later, Art shattered Walt’s record with 434.02mph (698.46kmh) driving his ‘Green Monster’.

Art Arfon's Green Monster
Then Breedlove came back in the middle of that same October and went 468.72mph (754.31kmh) to put them both in their place. He knew there was still more speed in the car, however, and just two days later duffed up the Arfons brothers properly with 526.28mph (846.94kmh); a massive increase. Mind you, all wasn’t well that ended well; as he left the measured mile he deployed his braking parachutes only for nothing to happen. His wheel disc brakes burned out completely and failed and the Spirit of America, after slicing through a telegraph pole, ended up nose-down in a brine lake, the cockpit completely submerged. Fortunately Breedlove escaped and swam to safety.

Still they weren’t finished! At the end of October Art Arfons took his car out one last time before the weather closed in and reached 536.71mph (863.72kmh). That might have been it for 1964, but certainly not for this titanic battle.

Tyre technology was reaching its absolute limit, as Green
Monster demonstrates. This was a twofold problem as,
without tyres, there was no tyre company investment
(Breedlove had huge support from Goodyear)
Over the winter of 1964/65, Breedlove secretly built a completely new Spirit of America, the Sonic 1 with which he intended to reach 750mph (1206kmh) and break the sound barrier. It is remarkable that he was able to build the car in such a short space of time and even more remarkable that, in early November 1965 he calmly re-took the record with 555.48mph (893.93kmh).

Arfons was also at Bonneville with Breedlove and, five days later, went 576.55mph (927.84kmh). However, during the run, Green Monster was damaged when one of his Firestone tyres blew out. Breedlove was heavily sponsored by Goodyear who were naturally ecstatic when, a week later, he became the first man to exceed 600mph, recording 600.60mph (966.54kmh).

Spirit of America; Sonic One
It had been the most incredible 24 months of intense activity which had seen the record pushed up nearly 200mph; an unprecedented explosion of speed. It had been a game of speed roulette and was incredibly dangerous, as Art was to prove a year later as Green Monster, travelling at over 600mph, smashed itself to pieces after a wheel bearing had seized. Miraculously, Arfons survived unharmed and discharged himself from hospital a few hours later. They made them different in those days!

Towards the Sound Barrier

At the height of the Breedlove/Arfons duel, another Goodyear sponsored project was a portent of things to come. Art Arfons’ brother, Walt, had built a new Wingfoot Express, this time powered by a series of dry powder JATO (Jet Assisted Take Off) rockets. Driver Bob Tatroe had worked up to 475mph before it caught fire when the rockets fired wrongly and that was the end of it but it was a neat precursor to the car that would hold the LSR from 1970 to 1983.

In a way, it could be argued that the Blue Flame was the LSR car of the post-war period most deserving to take the record because the team behind it, Reaction Dynamics, built not only the chassis, but the rocket motor that powered it. It used Hydrogen Peroxide and was intended to use Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), hence backing from the American Natural Gas Industry, but in practice, LNG was never used.

Blue Flame
Blue Flame was a beautiful, pencil slim projectile, 38-feet long, running two wheels very close together at the front and the rear wheels out rigged 7 feet apart. Despite a few teething problems, in a short two months late in 1970 at Bonneville, Gary Gabelich, NASA trainee and drag racer, succeeded in raising the record to 622.41mph (1001.639kmh).

And so we come to the modern era and introduce the name of Richard Noble, who has done so much to keep the LSR alive and, what is more, in the hands of the British.

Noble had envisaged a three part attack on the LSR. Thrust 1, as he called it, would be a starter vehicle, to gain experience driving a jet car and to generate publicity and credibility. Thrust 2 would be much more powerful and complex and would serve as a high-speed demonstrator vehicle to attract backers for Thrust 3, the record car.

Thrust 1, a ‘cathedral on wheels’ in Noble’s own words was built on a shoestring, largely by Noble himself and powered by an ancient Rolls Royce Derwent jet engine. Running at 200mph at an RAF airfield, a wheel bearing seized and the car rolled itself to destruction, Noble emerging unscathed.

Thrust 2 at Black Rock Desert, Nevada
They sold the remains of the car for scrap (and went to the pub to drown their sorrows) and made the momentous decision to jump straight to Thrust 3 – the actual record car. Noble assembled an amazing team around him and while they performed miracles in the design and construction of the car, Noble fought a bitter battle and performed equal miracles to find funding through sponsorship. That he and the team succeeded in both disciplines is one of the inspirational stories of the late 20th century and the upshot of it all was that, after two years of failed attempts at Bonneville and with money evaporating faster than jet fuel on the desert floor, the team finally took the LSR at a speed of 633.47mph (1019.44kmh) at the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA.

As Noble said; he had done it ‘for Britain; and for the hell of it.’

And so we come to the record that still stands today, that Noble is trying to beat once more with Bloodhound; the first supersonic record; 763.035mph; faster than the speed of sound! Set in 1997, RAF fighter pilot Andy Green was now driving, but Noble was once again the driving force behind the attempt, inspired by reports that Breedlove was readying a car to attack his record (he would peak at 636mph in his Spirit of America – Sonic Arrow). Once again he assembled an amazingly small team around him and set forth once more to raise the money. This time he not only had to battle corporate apathy but also engineer’s scepticism who argued it just couldn’t be done safely.

Thrust SSC; through the Sound Barrier
This was truly entering uncharted territory and for the first time, Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) was used to predict the airflow over, around and under the car. The simple fact was that no-one knew what would happen to the shock waves formed as the car went supersonic, especially as there would be a nasty desert floor to interrupt its progress away from the car.

Finally, on October 15th, a sonic boom was heard in the town of Gerlach, 10 miles from Black Rock. Just under an hour later, a second boom was heard; the team had done it, shattered the record and the sound barrier at the same time. ‘We bloody did it; thank God it’s over,’ was Noble’s fitting, and exhausted, epitaph.

Where to now? Well, now we are where we came in with this series of stories; BloodhoundSSC and the race for 1000mph. Whether or not they will succeed no-one can say, although the engineers believe it can be done and Andy Green and Richard Noble also have faith. This is going to be one hell of a story and I, for one, will be right there to watch it first-hand. If you know what is good for you, you’ll be there too.

Brief Test; Suzuki GSR750

Now, I have to admit that, on the whole and in general, I’m not a fan of inline four-cylinder bike engines. I find them too buzzy; too smooth and the power characteristics not to my liking – you’ve got to rev them madly to get anything out of them. But, having said that, these are the very attributes that attract me to the GSR750 Suzuki.

The GSR is a completely new bike; not just a GSX-R750 with flat bars and no fairing. OK, so the engine comes from the 2005 GSX-R750 but it has been worked over to improve low- and mid-range power at the expense of some top-end performance. As such the bike is far more user friendly than a GSX-R, which is as it should be and, in fact, the bike gives the impression of not taking itself too seriously, which can happen with the superbikes.

Suspension is adjustable for preload only, front and rear, but the whole system works really well for normal, everyday riding. The front upside-down forks look the part and, in fact, the whole bike looks great in a funky, modern, European style. Naked bikes are big over there but not that popular here; not sure why that is and it’s a shame as they are great fun to ride. OK, so over long distances the wind buffeting might get tiring but, let’s face it, how many of us ride to Durban or Cape Town every weekend? Most of our riding is done within a 100km radius of where we live and for this, naked rocks! A great riding position and no fairing gives a real sense of how fast you’re going and keeps the insane speeds down with no loss of fun.

It’s a cracking bike. It looks great, goes like stink and is unbelievably comfortable to ride. I’m not talking soft suspension that wallows all over the place or chassis dynamics that are great in a straight line but then dangerous in corners. I don’t know how Suzuki has done it but this bike feels taught yet supple at the same time. The feeling is helped by a – for once – soft and comfortable seat.

A naked bike seems to hark back to the days when a bike was an engine in a frame with a wheel at both ends. You could see everything and it was all accessible. Thoughts of rider comfort and protection from the elements still hadn’t appeared by the early seventies, although after-market fairings were available. A bike looked like a bike and not some bulbous moving windbreak. I suppose you could say that they were honest bikes.

In the R80,000 price bracket there is lots of choice but you would be foolish to ignore this Suzuki just because it is undressed; it’s got a cheeky nature that makes you want to get on and go for a ride, just because you can and surely that is the essence of biking; for the hell of it.