ELF Racing - ELF Motorcycle Chassis Designs - Retrospective

Tracing A Decade Of Radical Racebike Experimentation

By Alan Cathcart, Photography by Cathcart Archive

Rosset's commitment to produce results had immediate effect. Haslam used the ELF3 to score ELF's first 500cc World Championship point in its first race at Jarama in 1986. Haslam was a superb test rider, forging an unlikely but lasting close relationship with Rosset. In the hands of this Anglo-French alliance the ELF3 progressed quickly, winding up ninth at the end of the season ahead of the works Suzuki team. The breakthrough had been made: Here was an alternative design that worked as well as a conventional one right out of the box, with an entire development cycle ahead.

Honda agreed, signing a secret 1985 agreement to evaluate ELF's patented designs with an eye toward production applications. Commercial negotiations to lease the patents began, and an agreement was signed in September 1987. The first Honda to incorporate ELF's patented single-sided rear swingarm (henceforth dubbed 'Pro-Arm') had already been introduced to the market. Trema holds the distinction of being the first outsider to spend a fortnight working inside HRC. He visited there late in 1986 to design parts for the new ELF4 and to work on the NSR500C V4 engine. Delays meant Haslam started the season riding a standard NSR Honda in ELF colors, but he finished fourth in the 1987 points table though he only rode the ELF4 in the final few GPs. Serious brake problems delayed the bike's race debut. A proposed carbon-fiber chassis was rejected after laboratory tests showed its failure to meet minimum safety standards.

Instead, Rosset and Trema redesigned the V4 ELF for 1988. That was the final year of the ELF bike project, at least partially because of concept champion Guiter's imminent retirement. Employing a cast-magnesium chassis and Honda-supplied Nissin front brakes, the ELF5 worked well enough, but the conventional opposition had become stronger and more sophisticated. Three seventh places and 11th in the points standings were the fruits of its disappointing final season; an anticlimactic end for a project that had promised so much and actually delivered such useful technology.

In the end, the ELF roadracing effort went out with a whimper instead of a glorious bang. But there was one race victory in the 1986 Macau GP, on a circuit where Ron Haslam is the acknowledged master, to point to as proof that the unconventional motorcycle really did work. Honda obviously thought so too. Every Pro-Arm-equipped VFR Interceptor that rolls out the door reminds us of this fortuitous collaboration. Who are we to argue that?

The final edition
Riding elf5,The End of This Innovative Line

The ELF5 that carried Ron Haslam to 11th place in the 1988 500cc World Championship (sevenths at Spa and Brno were his best results that season) was the ultimate expression of the project's design philosophy. I had ridden most of the previous ELF designs and was keen to sample the last in line. I got my chance after the 1988 racing season at circuit Paul Ricard during the Au Revoir les ELF test day. The ELF5 evolved from the ELF3, with a true frameset and a single horizontal front swingarm using a MacPherson-like strut and single Showa suspension unit. Team Manager Serge Rosset called this sophisticated, highly adjustable front-end design the VGC System, for Variation Geometrique Controle, or controlled geometric variation. To reduce weight, most chassis and suspension components were made from cast magnesium. The 1988 ELF5 actually used the 1987 Honda NSR500 two-stroke engine, as the '88 version wasn't available early enough to allow development of the cast chassis.

The riding position was more extreme than a conventional NSR. You sat farther forward to get more weight on the front wheel. On track, the ELF5 pushed badly, sending me off the outside of the fast sweeper at the end of the Mistrale Straight and again at the tight left after the Pif-Paf chicane.

Haslam explained you couldn't ride the ELF5 like a traditional GP racer, braking late and steering with the rear on the way out. The ELF5 needed lean angle to turn. When steered like a conventional GP bike, it felt heavy and unresponsive. But apex the corner in a classical Mike Hailwood style and steering became neutral, though still heavy. It was stable but far from nimble, unlike the lighter-feeling ELF3, which felt much more controllable.

What you got in exchange for heavy steering was unparalleled braking stability. Because of the hub-center design's constant steering geometry, you could brake harder and later than on any conventional machine, and turn under braking without upsetting the handling. Another advantage of the ELF5 was exceptional chassis adjustability; all the usual suspension settings, plus head angle, wheelbase, trail, ride height front and rear, as well as weight distribution were all readily changeable.

It didn't win a championship, but with the ELF5 Serge Rosset's dream of une moto a la carte-a bike that could be easily altered to suit the taste of anyone-had been realized. As a believer in the ELF philosophy from the start, I still can't help but feel a sense of unfinished business surrounding the concept. As former ELF rider Dave Aldana wrote in a sidebar to my test of the ELFe back in 1983: "Nice bike, but not done yet."

I'll go along with that.

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