On fast motorcycles

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IT NEVER ceases to surprise me when I go to a motorcycle meeting and talk to real dyed-in-the-wool motorcycle enthusiasts, to find that a surprising number of them read MOTOR SPORT regularly. When I inquire why they do this, when their sole interest appears to be motorcycles, they invariably reply that they like to know roughly what is going on in the four-wheeled racing world. They are not interested in great detail where cars are concerned, but they do want to have a working knowledge of how the other half live. All the activity is mechanised and it is all on wheels, so it is of interest, and while Grand Prix racing or fast cars are purely academic to them they like to read about such things once a month. Their two-wheeled life is too full to be able to find the time for weekly motoring papers, but once a month is sufficient to keep them in touch. Whether the reverse situation is true, and dyed-in-the-wool motor-racing enthusiasts read our monthly magazine Motorcycle Sport, I do not know, but the latent interest in two-wheelers from the four-wheeled world can be surprising.

In order to avoid traffic queues going to Silverstone for the British Grand Prix, and also to get from corner to corner of the circuit, I borrowed a 250-c.c. Yamaha twin-cylinder two-stroke, which my friends referred to as a “Japanese egg-whisk” or “Double-barrelled ring-ding-ding”. It did over 400 miles of more or less flat-out running during the week and proved to be an altogether very pleasant little machine, but being only 250 c.c. it meant that I was screwing the twist-grip against the stop in all the gears to get any sort of acceleration by my standards. However, the interesting point was that a surprising number of people in the four-wheeled world showed keen interest in this red and chrome motorcycle, and more surprising were the people who asked if they could have a go on it. Now one of the joys of motorcycles is that you can ride one almost anywhere, very little room being needed to have a brief ride, whereas with a car, traffic congestion often rules out the chance of “having a go”. While waiting for the traffic jam leaving the British Grand Prix to subside a bit, numerous friends and acquaintances zoomed up and down the paddock road on the little Yamaha, returning with smiles and praise for the way it went, most of them being impressed with the acceleration afforded by a mere 250 c.c., while the rev.-counter rushing round to an easy 7,000 r.p.m. impressed all of them.

These people were not motorcyclists, but people in the motor-racing game, on the inside in some capacity or another, and many of them surprised me by being able to ride a motorcycle at all. While there are certain sections of the two-wheeled world and the four-wheeled world who go out of their way to be abusive to each other, I feel these are professional moaners, and that the majority of people who have a basic interest in engines and wheels are much more tolerant and would like to know more about the “other side” if only time permitted. Some of the long-haired playboys of this world ride motorcycles because it looks good, alongside their Lamborghini, and it enables them to get their photograph in certain glossy magazines, but there are others who ride motorcycles because they like motorcycling; and in certain parts of the country a motorcycle makes travelling very easy and simple, while parking problems are non-existent. Because of this double-sided interest I feel it will not go amiss to take a look at the cream of the motorcycle industry, for of recent years there has been a resurgence in what I call “proper” motorcycles. For various reasons the British motorcycle industry died on its feet up in the Midlands, and but for Triumph serious fast motorcycles would have become extinct.

For many years the motorcycle world seemed to be populated by dreary economy bikes or 250-c.c. machines and a load of rubbish called “scooters”. In Europe BMW kept faith with the serious motorcycle world, producing their immaculate flat-twin in 600-c.c. form, but overall the imagination in the motorcycle world seemed to have diminished to a 50-c.c. image. Fortunately those doldrums seem to be over and there is now a very healthy selection of big fast motorcycles. I used to call them motorbikes until Jock West, the AJS racing man, said “You cannot really call something that costs over £500 a motorbike, it must be a motorcycle“!

In the car world the scene is a mass of small tinware, much of it remarkably good, but most of it looking the same, and this scene is punctuated by exciting cars like Ferraris, Maseratis, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins, Jaguars and Mercedes-Benz. The motorcycle world does not have much of a tinware scene, for the motorcycle as basic transport cannot really stand up against Minis, Imps and Fords, but the exciting scene is there all right. Honda must hold pride of place on paper, with their 750-c.c. four-cylinder twin-overhead camshaft motorcycle, though it has yet to appear in numbers in Britain or Europe, deliveries being delayed by some re-designing going on in great haste. MV Agusta should have held this place, for they produced a sports version of their four-cylinder racing machines some years ago, now in 750-c.c. form, it boasts shaft-drive, but such machines are few and far between, and I feel this is due to poor salesmanship. Moto-Guzzi produce a remarkable machine with a 750-c.c. vee-twin engine mounted across the frame, and these are getting quite popular in Italy, while the small firm of Laverda produce a very neat vertical twin 750-c.c. machine of very British conception and have just introduced a 1,000-c.c. three-cylinder.

BMW have recently come out with a brand new version of their flat-twin with shaft-drive to the rear wheel of 750-c.c. capacity, and in Munich a fellow named Munch produces a machine called the Mammoth! This has a 1,000-c.c. air-cooled NSU car engine mounted transversely in an orthodox motorcycle layout. If it is size you want as well as performance, the Munch-Mammoth is the answer. Hard on the heels of the four-cylinder Honda from Japan comes the Kawasaki 3, a 500-c.c. three-cylinder two-stroke, and at the moment it must be leading the Honda on sales, for you can buy a Kawasaki 3 now, whereas Honda people are still waiting for the “four”.

Britain has not been left behind in the exotic motorcycle stakes, for the Triumph-BSA group produce a transverse three-cylinder 750-c.c. machine, called a Trident if it is a Triumph and a Rocket if it is a BSA. (This is badge-engineering, like Jaguar/Daimler, which I feel sure wastes a lot of effort.) At one time the name Norton conjured up the ultimate in motorcycles, but during the 1950’s to 1960’s the Norton firm died, was taken over by Associated Motorcycles and virtually killed. Recently a group of business men headed by Dennis Poore, of Connaught and Alfa Romeo fame, have resurrected Norton from the debris of AMC Ltd. and are well in the high-performance market with the 750-c.c. Norton Commando, a sleek vertical twin with some novel features.

Making a fast large capacity motorcycle is no easier than making a fast large motor-car, and while the imposing list of high-performance motorcycles is long and varied, they are not all the ultimate in all respects. If you have ever driven a 7-litre Iso Grifo you will know that sheer engine capacity and size do not make a good car, and by all accounts the Munch-Mammoth is in this category, it not being an easy machine to hurl round corners. Costing over £800 and being made more or less to special order, it is understandable that opportunities to ride one are non-existent. Of all these fast machines the most appealing-looking is the Kawasaki 3, for it looks no bigger than a 350-c.c. machine and the three-cylinder 500-c.c. two-stroke sounds a real goer, but those who have ridden it say it is a bit of a handful in the opposite direction to the Munch. A big handful of twistgrip tends to make the frame bend in the middle as the torque comes on! Undoubtedly an exciting machine.

The Triumph-BSA “threes” have more than enough power but are large and a bit on the cumbersome side, rather like an Aston Martin compared with an E-type Jaguar. The Guzzi V7 would appear to come in this category as well. Talking fast motorcycles to people who are well on the inside of the game, it is interesting that the general consensus of opinion seems to be that while all these machines are interesting and exciting, as well as being expensive, the best all-round and practical fast motorcycle today is the 750-c.c. Norton Commando. It is the E-type Jaguar of the motorcycle world, for it may not be the fastest, nor the most accelerative, and certainly not the biggest, nor the most expensive, but it is a good all-round uncomplicated machine. All these big bikes have acceleration in the “shattering” category, which will leave most fast cars behind up to 100 m.p.h., but there is no point in quoting facts and figures, for they only confuse. My Vincent vee-twin friends quietly point out that there are still many 1,000-c.c. Vincents that will see off a Honda 4 or Kawasaki 3 or Trident 3 on a standing quartermile, and these are fully road-equipped bikes that are now some 18 years old! My Honda 4 friend points out that while the Vincent chap is kicking over his vee-twin engine, he has pressed his electric starter button and purred away! Such is progress. Arguments or comparisons aside, the present batch of big exciting machines do accelerate, and they have varying maximum speeds all of which I consider as fast. The Trident and Guzzi have proved they can do 130 m.p.h. by record breaking, and even if the Commando will only do 120 m.p.h., that is pretty quick on two thin strips of rubber.

The important thing about all this is that it looks as though the motorcycle world doldrum is well and truly over and we now have an imposing list of real motorcycles. Like our imposing list of good cars they can be argued about and compared forever, which is what make them interesting. When the two-wheeled world seemed plagued by bad scooters and little fizzing runabouts, there was no point in “talking motorcycles”. Now we are getting back to something worthwhile.—D.S.J.