We originally planned to cover Brian O'Shea's bikes in a single installment. But after considering the breadth of his collection, the bikes' significance and the heft Superbike racing has added to motorcycling's history since the series' inauspicious beginnings in the mid-1970s, we decided multiple stories would better allow us to dig more deeply into each bike's history and technical accoutrements.
We begin in the latter half of the 1970s, just as the streetbike-based class-called Superbike Production when it was introduced at Laguna Seca in '74-was evolving from one dominated by European twins (mostly BMWs and Ducatis) to one controlled by Japanese inline-fours (primarily from Kawasaki and Suzuki). Consider this, then, our opening salvo of a three-part series. Enjoy. - Ed.
These days, motorcycle collectors seem as common as re-formed '70s rock bands, the bikes they collect as varied as Elton John concert regalia from the same era. You've got your turn-of-the-century collectors, your boardtrack guys, your pre- and post-war Britbike folks, your Japanese-, Italian- and German-bike fans, your racebike, dirtbike and old-Vespa gatherers, and a whole lot more. And that's great; the more caretakers of two-wheeled history, the better.
But Brian O'Shea is different. O'Shea, see, collects Superbike racers. Not generic Superbikes, replica Superbikes, or even ones from the '90s and beyond, but the racing hardware baby boomers everywhere-especially here at Motorcyclist-watched, read about in the magazines and dreamed of when the class was becoming American roadracing's Big Show: the actual legendary Superbikes of the '70s and '80s.
In the early days, the Superbike class wasn't the polished, big-buck affair it is today. There were no glossy transporters, no seven-figure salaries, no PR people sucking the personality out of the show. Then, Superbike was young, raw and a bit romantic, with even the larger teams usually only consisting of a rider, a bike or two and a T-shirted mechanic, all working out of a box van. Superbike fit halfway between club racing and what was then American roadracing's main event-Kenny Roberts, Rich Schlacter, Steve Baker and others on their howling two-strokes.
But it was mind-alteringly exciting. Superbike had the newest, fastest street-legal motorcycles going at it hot and heavy on America's most revered racetracks-Laguna, Daytona, Loudon, Sears Point, Riverside-with engine and chassis technology changing month to month. Creative rule interpretation-cheating-was taken to new heights, partying was rampant for many riders and crew, and the on-track action was superb. When the factories-most notably Honda in 1980-got involved with Big Money support, things got turned up, as Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel would say, to 11.
This is the colorful, circus-like scene that hooked a young, impressionable Brian O'Shea during the early '80s. "I was the kid in the back of the class with a motorcycle magazine slipped between the pages of my history book," he says with a grin. "I couldn't get enough of that stuff!" O'Shea, 43, started in motorcycling like a lot of baby boomers: His cousin let him ride his Honda Z50, O'Shea got "hooked badly," and it was all downhill from there. Even a bad head-on off-road crash a few years later on his XR75 didn't derail him. "I had a bone sticking out of my thigh, was bleeding from the ears, and was in traction for six weeks," he says, a bit more seriously. "But two weeks into it I was back to reading the magazines, thinking of my next bike!"
O'Shea's two-wheel passion eventually took him to club racing on the East Coast, where he won assorted modified-production and endurance titles in the mid- to late '80s. Fittingly, endurance racing led him to the business of collecting classic racebikes. "I was poking around the pits after a race at Loudon in '89," he says, "and spotted an old Honda CB900F endurance racer, which turned out to be an ex-Ontario Moto Tech/Kaz Yoshima racebike. The cool thing was, it had a couple of neat parts on it: an AHM [American Honda Motor] Special Projects aluminum engine cover and a hand-bent Mike Velasco exhaust. So I bought it, restored it and sold it for decent money-money that ended up paying for my first real Superbike, the ex-Merkel/Shobert VFR750F Interceptor I still have. That one cost me 10 grand, a lot of money back then. Hey, I'm a blue-collar union guy, so I'm not rich. But I'm glad I took the plunge. That VFR is really special."
Indeed it is.
O'Shea's initial purchases helped him develop pedigreed racebike contacts around the world, which he slowly but surely used to buy, sell and horse-trade for the bikes he wanted. "In the early '90s a lot of these special American Superbikes just started popping up," he says. "I must have written hundreds of letters to people, made hundreds of phone calls, in the U.S., Canada, Europe and even Japan. I was leery about spending big bucks on some of them, but by buying and selling stuff smartly I was able to get the bikes I really wanted."
Two of the bikes O'Shea most wanted are the bikes featured in this opening piece-the Vetter-sponsored KZ1000 Reg Pridmore used to win the '78 Superbike title, and the Yoshimura GS1000 Wes Cooley rode to the '80 title. Noted fairing designer Craig Vetter had acquired both in the early '80s, but ended up selling them to O'Shea in 1993.
When we first met O'Shea a few years ago and asked about meeting him at a racetrack to ride and photograph his collection, he agreed instantly; the guy believes strongly in the living museum concept, as do the folks at Barber Motorsports Park. It's fitting, then, we would eventually meet up with O'Shea at George Barber's fabulous facility to check out what's very likely the most scintillating collection of U.S.-spec "glory days" Superbikes in existence.
1978 Vetter Kawasaki KZ1000
Son of Z1-and brother of the first title-winning Japanese Superbike
Unless it's your birthday-or wedding anniversary-August 21, 1977, might not hold any special meaning to you. But that summer day in '77 is a key date in motorcycle racing history, because it marked the first win for a Japanese motorcycle in an official AMA Superbike Championship race.
The machine was a Kawasaki KZ1000, much like the one shown here, sponsored by SoCal speed shop Racecrafters, built and tuned by the legendary late Pierre des Roches and ridden by Reg Pridmore not only to that race win at Pennsylvania's Pocono Raceway, but also to the '77 Superbike title.
"I had to start from the back of the pack," Pridmore says, "because I'd crashed in qualifying trying to pass [Wes] Cooley. Wes ran up front in the race, but dropped out with a mechanical, and I inherited the win." Pridmore was followed home at Pocono by Mike Baldwin, Kurt Leibmann, John Long and Kurt Lentz, all on Ducatis except for Baldwin, who rode a Moto Guzzi.
That win, and the Superbike title that followed, proved to be a harbinger of Things To Come in U.S. Superbike racing, not only for Pridmore, but for Japanese marques in general.
The powerful Pridmore/des Roches combination returned to Superbike grids in '78 to defend the title, this time with upgraded '78-spec KZ1000s from Kawasaki and additional sponsorship from designer Craig Vetter, the father of the vaunted Windjammer fairing, a product that literally changed the face of motorcycle touring.
"I'd done some roadracing in the Midwest," Vetter tells me, "but my wife-to-be said it was too risky, so I thought of sponsoring a Superbike team instead. I spoke to my friend Cook Nielsen [editor of Cycle, winner of the '77 Daytona Superbike race and runner-up to Pridmore in the '77 Superbike series], who said, 'If you can get Reggie and Pierre, do it.' So I met with them and we made a deal. I was thrilled!"
"Pierre wasn't just a superb engine and chassis builder," says Pridmore, "but just the sweetest guy-quiet and friendly to everyone. [Editor's note: Des Roches died in a military helicopter crash a decade later.] He built me a wonderful racebike that season: It was fast, it handled really well and the engine was indestructible. We were really consistent that year."
They were indeed. Pridmore didn't win a race all season-but he still ended up with his third consecutive Superbike title (he'd also won in '76, the first year of the official AMA Superbike Championship, aboard a BMW). His competitors rode a mix of Japanese and European brands. Steve McLaughlin, John Bettencourt and Wes Cooley won races on Suzukis, while Paul Ritter and Harry Klinzmann won on a Ducati and BMW, respectively. The tide was changing.
Streetbikes of the day were heavy and relatively slow, with frames that were slightly more rigid than heat-treated licorice, so top-tier Superbike performance depended on well-chosen, well-executed modifications. Pierre des Roches' '78 KZ1000, while lacking the aesthetic nastiness of the Yoshimura Suzukis (and of the factory Hondas that would arrive in '80), was as serious as anything on the grid. The frame got plenty of attention.
"Pierre told me one key to stability and proper cornering was a straight and true frame," Vetter says, "but that the stock KZ frames had their steering-head assemblies welded slightly off-center, which compromised handling. So he basically ground down, re-welded and re-positioned the racebike's steering head so it was true. This allowed him to also position the steering head slightly rearward compared to stock, which shortened the wheelbase and effectively moved the bike's weight bias forward. He also got quite creative with frame and swingarm bracing."
"Yeah, the thing cornered nicely," says Pridmore. "It felt planted, yet it wanted to change direction quickly despite the 19-inch front wheel. I could tell a big difference right after he did the frame bracing."
I felt similarly at Barber while riding the KZ. Although the seat positioned me farther forward than I would've liked, the bike felt surprisingly agile, plenty taut and highly stable, which resulted in ample feedback and was extremely confidence-inspiring. No wonder Pridmore was able to flog the thing so thoroughly.
The Vetter KZ's DOHC inline-four was impressive as well. Displacing 1015cc and claimed to produce 140 horsepower (with 90 bhp at just 6000 rpm), the engine featured Yoshimura cams, pistons and close-ratio gearbox, Axtell heads with larger valves, modified stock carbs that were said to flow 85 percent more than stock, a beautiful hand-bent Bassani exhaust and a tail-section-mounted Lockhart oil cooler. "I love where Pierre mounted that oil cooler," says Vetter. "It looks distinctive and is out in the airflow where it could do some good."
Did Pridmore realize the significance of his win at Pocono in '77 as the first official AMA Superbike class victory for a Japanese motorcycle? "Not really," he says. "I mean, Yvon [Duhamel] had won the first Superbike Production race in '74 at Laguna, so it wasn't like the Japanese bikes weren't around. They were, and they were competitive. It just took awhile."
Owner Brian O'Shea knows just how competitive; he won a classic Superbike race and finished second in another aboard the Pridmore/Vetter Kawasaki at Daytona awhile back. "Reliable? [The Pridmore bike] had sat for years [with the Cooley bike], but with fresh rubber, new pads and an oil change, it was awesome!"
"O'Shea was one of the earliest collectors of these things," says Vetter. "He bought them when no one else wanted them!"
Good on you, Brian.
The Mystery Ship Connection
Many have seen or heard of Craig Vetter's Kawasaki-based Mystery Ship motorcycle, which debuted in 1980 to curiosity more than outright applause from the motorcycling community.
What many folks don't know, however, is that the Ship's chassis and overall performance was based on that of the Pridmore racer's. "My goal," Vetter says, "was to offer a real racer for the street with street bodywork. I worked closely with [Pierre] des Roche on the chassis, which is very close to the racebike's."
Only 10 Mystery Ships were built, although Vetter says at one point a couple hundred were planned. "The bike was to be a promotional tool for the then-new Quicksilver fairing I'd designed," Vetter told us, "but when I sold the company in '79 the new owners changed that fairing's design."
For a close-up look at the real thing, the Motorcycle Hall Of Fame Museum in Pickerington, Ohio, has Mystery Ship Number 1 on display. Click on www.motorcyclemuseum.org for more info.
1980 Yoshimura Suzuki GS1000
The bike Wes Cooley rode to beat Spencer and Lawson-along with a protest-for the '80 titleLeafing through Cycle News one evening in early '93, Brian O'Shea was surprised to see the for-sale ad-but also plenty excited.
"It was just a little blurb in the back saying the Wes Cooley and Reg Pridmore Superbikes were for sale," O'Shea says, "so I called the number and spoke to Craig Vetter. I ended up going out to his place [in San Luis Obispo, California] to see the bikes and make a deal. I bought both of them, and ended up spending a couple of weeks out there hanging with Craig. He'd apparently had them for quite a while, more than a decade. He'd had them in his office."
Such dedication-leaving one's job for weeks at a time and spending big bucks on travel and rare-motorcycle purchases-might seem somewhat over the top, but it's just business as usual for O'Shea. And he's got armloads of wild cross-country and around-the-world bike-buying stories.
The Cooley bike-the Yoshimura-built Suzuki GS1000 Wes Cooley rode to the 1980 AMA Superbike championship after an end-of-season protest from Eddie Lawson and Team Kawasaki-is clearly one of O'Shea's favorites.
"Cooley edged Freddie Spencer for the win at the end-of-year Daytona race," O'Shea says, "and Eddie Lawson, who came into the race with a 13-point series lead, crashed, scoring no points and giving Cooley the title. Lawson protested Cooley, saying his bike's frame was illegal, and Cooley protested right back, saying Lawson was aboard his teammate's [Dave Aldana's] machine, which was true because the bike Lawson qualified on had blown up in practice."
Months after the '80 season's final race the AMA determined the title belonged to Cooley. Lawson's protest wasn't allowable because he raced a motorcycle other than the one on which he'd qualified. That meant Lawson was disqualified from the event and therefore not eligible to file his protest. Cooley took the title, with Lawson second and Spencer third.
In its decision, the AMA also recognized it had a problem with the Superbike class, which had outgrown its simple production-spec framework. It noted a certain "lack of clarity" in the rules, as well as some "laxity in the enforcement" (to put it mildly) regarding some of the mods being performed. Yoshimura, for instance, was accused by some of taking advantage of the rules' vagueness, though it wasn't blatant enough to disqualify Cooley and Yoshimura. And, in truth, Yoshimura's rule-bending wasn't any worse than that of its competitors.
"It's a really special bike," O'Shea says with a grin after recounting the protest story. "It's the Cooley title bike, the only one left of two, documented by a letter from Fujio [Yoshimura, head of Yoshimura R&D] to Craig Vetter, which says Cooley's backup bike was parted out and that Vetter got the primary machine."
While Cooley rode Yoshimura-Suzuki Superbikes in '78 and '79 (winning two races on his way to fifth overall in '78, then grabbing his first AMA Superbike title in '79), the '80-spec machine was even more advanced, reflecting the constant, hectic pace of Superbike development in those days.
Longtime motojournalist John Ulrich put it well in a Yoshimura GS1000 tech story he wrote in 1980: "In racing there is a word for people who don't improve their bikes every season. The word is loser. To win, development must never stop. Every year's machine must be better than the last." Every race's machine was more like it. Rapidly progressing technology, the teams' pioneering DIY spirit and the absolute necessity not to get behind on one's cheating all helped fuel the headlong development.
Based on the Suzuki GS1000 that debuted in '78 (Suzuki's first big four-stroke, the GS750, was introduced in '77), the '80-spec machine was a powerhouse, its highly modified 1023cc inline-four pushing the bike to 167 mph at Daytona, with a chassis that offered reasonably stable handling that seemed to outclass everyone elses. Positively narcoleptic (by modern standards) frame geometry-60.25-inch wheelbase, 27-degree rake and 5.9-inch trail-plus top-shelf suspension bits-a GP-spec Suzuki RG500 fork and high-end KYB shocks angled at 54 degrees-helped keep the 133 claimed peak horsepower (at 10,000 rpm) from turning the modified double-cradle steel-tube frame into a wobbling two-wheeled hinge at high speeds, as the Yoshimura Kawasaki Z1s Cooley rode in earlier years had been. Lightweight RG500-spec Dymag wheels in 3.25-in.-front and 3.75-in.-rear widths helped suspension action considerably. Although the trick fork and wheels were replaced when the bike was sold to Vetter, O'Shea had acquired the correct parts at press time and planned to install them shortly. "Money was tight in those days for Pops [Yoshimura, the company's founder] and the RG pieces were hard to get," O'Shea told us, "so they'd yank them for next year's machine and put less-special parts on the old bike."
The Cooley racer has a mean, stripped-bare look, one buttressed by the heavily braced swingarm, the lack of sidepanels or battery, radically cut saddle, 31mm Keihin CR smoothbores inhaling through polished velocity stacks, and the sexy cockpit fairing patterned after the stock item on Suzuki's '79 and '80 GS1000S. Ready-to-race weight with a full tank of fuel was 450 pounds-about 20 pounds more than today's production literbikes. Privateers at least had access to the parts to build such weapons, but the cost was dear: $15,000.
In an '86 Cycle Guide story (our own Charles Everitt had been CG's editor before then), Cooley brilliantly captured what it was like to ride the era's Superbikes: "It's the power I really like about these bikes; I like coming off the turns and being able to grab a whole handful and having the front wheel come off the ground, sliding [the rear wheel] a little bit."
My ride aboard the Cooley racer at Barber wasn't quite that exciting, but it did shine some light on the almost holy regard enthusiasts-me included-held the near-mythical machines Cooley, Spencer and Lawson rode in U.S. Superbike racing's glory days.
Settling into the roomy cockpit was sublime, the 26-inch-wide handlebar placing my hands at what felt like the perfect height and angle for aggressive riding and control. I could have used a taller seat, though Cooley's a bit shorter than I am, so he probably felt right at home. The bike felt low and long as I motored out on the Barber circuit, quite unlike today's shorter, taller literbikes.
Power was impressive, though again, it paled in comparison to my expectations, or the unreal yank of any modern literbike. I'm sure the videos I've seen of Cooley, Lawson and Spencer banging 'bars and sliding through corners had me thinking these things were going to be real handfuls to ride. This one, however, wasn't; at least not at the medium-fast pace O'Shea and I were running. In fact, it was the Cooley bike's surprisingly mellow power delivery that surprised me most-it hit hard on top, but there was plenty of flexible grunt between 7 and 10 grand, all of which made riding the bike quickly a relatively easy proposition.
O'Shea proved the point awhile back by running the Cooley bike at the AHRMA races in Daytona. Although an ignition gremlin forced him to race the Pridmore Kawasaki, you've gotta love the idea of a guy actually racing a bike as cool and valuable as this one. "I don't intend to let it sit and gather dust," O'Shea says. "This bike wants to be on the racetrack."