Motorcycle Technology - Future Perfect - Up To Speed

Sir Alan Reflects On Some Of The Best-And Worst-Technological Advances In Recent Motorcycle History

By Alan Cathcart, Photography by Cathcart Archive

We motorcyclists tend to be a conservative bunch. Ever since the French New Werner established the basics of today's motorcycle back in 1901-engine mounted low between the wheels in a triangulated frame and the fuel tank carried above, between the rider's knees-we've wanted more of the same, with little tolerance for anything different.

Yet there have been many forays outside the traditional design envelope-some admirable, some misguided. Consider the mid-20s Megola from Germany, with its five-cylinder engine mounted inside the front wheel to deliver the benefits of FWD on the loose road surfaces of the day-but without the complication of a clutch. Megola-maniacs were advised to "orbit" at the new-fangled "traffic robots" of the day to keep the engine running. The Monty Python bunch couldn't have made that up.

Others of a more practical mind have tried to improve on convention, and succeeded. The monocoque-framed 1973 John Player Norton was an Isle of Man TT-winning attempt by rider/engineer Peter Williams to transfer auto-racing chassis technology to two wheels, by making the fuel and oil tanks part of the frame. Clothed with wind-cheating bodywork that reduced frontal area and partially enveloped the rider, it delivered far more performance than any air-cooled, parallel-twin-powered machine had a right to. Still, the JPN Monocoque got canned after a single successful year because Norton race mechanics proclaimed it too hard to work on. Bet Casey Stoner's Ducati crew wouldn't have objected, as long as it was winning races.

Alternative front suspension systems have become a special obsession for motorcycle chassis designers. Many smart engineers are convinced that, just as fuel injection replaced carburetors, cast wheels replaced spoked rims, twin rear shocks gave way to monoshocks and drum brakes to discs, the telescopic fork will be as obsolete as steel girders are now. But while clever men like Nico Bakker, Claude Fior, Pierluigi Marconi (in his Bimota days) and the late John Britten have all gained sporting success with products beyond the engineering status quo, alternative front suspensions have largely been a failure, BMW's model line excepted.

BMW's brilliance has been to disguise its avant-garde chassis technology. The Telelever and Duolever front suspension, as well as the Paralever rear end, conceal the fact they do things differently. From the outside, a Telelever boxer looks like it has a telescopic fork. All the different-looking stuff is behind that fairing, out of view. And the German make is Europe's No.1 motorcycle manufacturer, building over 100,000 high-priced bikes a year. So maybe alternative technology per se doesn't deter customers as much as the way that technology is presented. Yamaha found out the hard way with its James Parker-designed RADD front-ended GTS1000 two decades ago that functional superiority doesn't help. If it looks different, it's likely to get the thumbs-down from Joe Public.

The racetrack is a different story. Looks don't count, results do. Race teams are not afraid of new technology as long as it delivers results. And, when you're developing new technology in the racing sphere, it's best to move forward slowly, one step at a time. The ELF GP effort of the '70s and '80s arrived at this lesson the hard way. They trashed the tele-forked design criterion in toto to experiment with a hub-center-steered front end with push-pull steering, and struggled for quite a while to build a functional system. Better to do like Spanish engineer Antonio Cobas, who essentially reinvented the conventional metal motorcycle frame in the early '80s. After developing the aluminum twin-spar format, Cobas incrementally improved the chassis package, first by adapting a more rigid inverted fork borrowed from the MX world, and then designing a progressive-rate rear suspension to optimize handling and grip. Cobas moved forward methodically-and successfully-developing the modern-day racebike one proven evolution at a time.

I'm a certified techno-freak, fascinated with the future of motorcycles, and I've been fortunate enough to have ridden or even raced many of these aspiring futurebikes. I found out the hard way that John Britten's original Winged Wonder was a bird that crash-landed on takeoff. I should have known-kiwis don't fly! I had better luck on the Saxon Triumph that we used to beat the Britten V1000 at Monza-that experiment worked so well that BMW adopted the SaxTrak front-end technology wholesale and rebaptized it as a Telelever, without paying Saxon's Nigel Hill a nickel! One of his customers actually patented the idea-after he discovered Hill hadn't bothered to-and sold the idea to Munich without Hill's involvement!

My two seasons racing the factory Bimota Tesi taught me that hub-center steering only works if everything's in the right place. Including a front tire suitable for a bike that loads the front end hard in turns. Braking deep into corners on a hub-steered bike, in a way that isn't possible with a conventional fork, just destroys tires. Same with a Hossack or Fior-type fork, as the crash-littered BMW Power Cup K1200R race series amply demonstrated. Which only goes to show that motorcycles are indeed a sum of their parts, and that new ideas only work if all the component technologies are up to snuff. These lessons from the past give us some insight as to why Yamaha owns hlins, KTM possesses WP, and why Valentino Rossi is so adamant to have Bridgestone tires on his MotoGP bike next season.

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