American Beauty

Three years ago, architect Michael Czysz set out to build his dream motorcycle. The radical C1 990 is the result--and it couldn't be more unorthodox. Alan Cathcart tells us how the prototype works

Photography by Kevin Wing

Most of us have probably dreamed of building our own motorcycle, one that incorporates all those wild, why-not ideas we thought of while riding to work or cutting classes. For many the bike would be a MotoGP racer capable of whipping the best of Italy and Japan, but at the very least one that could prove, out in the harsh environment of the racetrack, just how good those ideas really are.

For most of us such fantasies remain what-if whimsies. Once in a while, however, someone comes along with the drive, determination and resources to make their particular dream come true--guys such as John Britten and James Parker, whose avant-garde bikes brought alternative two-wheel technology to mainstream manufacturers.

Now meet the latest proponent of outside-of-the-box two-wheel thought, 40-year-old American architect Michael Czysz. Portland, Oregon-based Czysz (pronounced "sis," as in sister) heads Architropolis, a high-end architectural design firm that's done work with A-list celebrities, such as Cindy Crawford and Lenny Kravitz. Czysz is also a longtime motorcyclist; his grandfather Clarence Czysz was a top Manx Norton tuner in the postwar era, and Michael's father, Terry, followed in his tiretracks by preparing bikes for his son Michael to ride in an amateur racing career aboard Aprilia RSV250s.

But from there to the creation of a clean-sheet proof-of-concept motorcycle such as the C1 990 was quite a step, especially when that machine is powered by a 1-liter inline-four with staggered cylinder blocks and stacked, contrarotating cranks, the whole thing positioned lengthways in a carbon-fiber chassis equipped with radical front and rear suspension systems.

Czysz recently invited me to Las Vegas Motor Speedway to sample his C1 prototype. The result proved seriously eye-opening, even for someone who spent three years racing the factory Bimota Tesi and, later, the equally radical Saxon-Triumph.

Fitted with a single headlamp in the left corner of the fairing, presumably to hint how a C1 streetbike would look, the Czysz prototype sat waiting for me on the pit apron with bright red tire-warmers cladding its Michelin slicks. Before the main course, however, would be an introductory hors d'oeuvre in the form of 40 laps aboard a stock Yamaha YZF-R1 fitted with the C1's 6X-Flex front end, similar to the Saxon-Triumph's SaxTrak system I came to respect over a couple of seasons of racing.

But the 6X-Flex setup is even better. Although it doesn't have the British bike's inherent antidive and you can't alter the head angle as easily as the Saxon's, the C1's front end --featuring a single Oehlins shock sans linkage--delivers an uncanny degree of confidence straight out of pit lane. This is mostly due to the fantastic feedback the system delivers; it's almost as if you're holding the front axle in your hands, with only the tire between you and the track. You feel every ripple and asphalt imperfection, all of which tells you exactly how far to push the tire. It's stable yet sensitive--magic!

A key factor in this is the use of linear bearings in the system, which offer less stiction and therefore increased feedback sensitivity. We used them on the Saxon-Triumph, yet the result was never this good. After reprogramming your subconscious you can trail-brake toward the apex like there's no tomorrow. On conventional bikes that's an invitation to lose the front when you hit a bump with the fork at full compression. But the C1's high-quality shock and lateral flex system overcome this, allowing you to set damping throughout the entire stroke and gain an extra dimension of stability and feedback even while hard on the brakes.

But that's not all. It's also possible to alter front-end geometry in minutes. Imagine riding your R1 Flexi Flyer at a track day and deciding to make the bike gain stability in the really fast sections. Easy; it takes five minutes to jack up the front wheel, pop the axle, fit a set of detachable spacers with different values, then bolt everything up again and off you go. To prove it, Czysz called me in every six or eight laps to try another adjustment, each of which made a noticeable difference in the R1's behavior. During one stop I timed the crew making the change: 3 minutes and 21 seconds later I had new front-end geometry. Compare that to how long it would take to juggle triple clamps.

Time for the main course. Climbing aboard the C1, it's immediately apparent how slim the bike is. It feels long and narrow, and even with a claimed 54/46 percent front/rear weight distribution, the pointy nose and screen make me feel as if I was sitting on the back half of the bike. Czysz says the ergos are the same as Yamaha's YZF-R6.

Firing the engine created a wall of noise, and blipping the throttle produced a twangy, gruff exhaust note, a soprano version of Suzuki's GSV-R MotoGP racer. Throttle pull was surprisingly heavy for a fuel-injected engine, a factor of using a single cable to rotate all four butterflies, each with heavy return springs fitted, presumably to counter the suction of the free-breathing engine. Czysz says dedicated throttle bodies and a trick linkage are coming for the second prototype presently under construction, which should fix that.

The next surprise was how little vibration emanated from the narrow-angle V-four. Only a tiny buzz leaked through the footrests at high rpm. The engine feels well-balanced and torquey by 1000cc four standards, though it does feel as if there's lots of inertia inside the cases. It didn't scoot up and down the revband as quickly as I expected. You sense a lot of weight speeding and slowing down each time you twist your wrist. It runs leisurely to the 12,500-rpm rev limiter, and because the engine doesn't make a whole lot of peak power (not even close to what current literbikes produce), the wide spread of power makes the C1 seem more roadbike than racer. Which is of course what baby is being brought up to become. These are very early days in the C1's lifetime; it's still wearing diapers in R&D terms.

OK, how about the chassis, with the engine positioned lengthways in a way-stiff carbon frame? Well, here it's hard to resist feeling Czysz has turned a new page in two-wheel architecture. The C1 may well be the most neutral-handling bike I've ever ridden. It's a riding experience in which all adverse forces created by engine operation seem to have been completely expunged, leaving the team to dial in chassis geometry and suspension setups ideally without worrying about external considerations such as crankshaft rotation and inertia. It's been understood for many years that the gyroscopic forces of a conventional transverse inline-four's crankshaft rotation have a direct and negative effect on a motorcycle's handling, making it difficult for the bike to roll and, therefore, turn. And you need only look at the current conflict of opinion in MotoGP's pit lane to see that. The inline-fours from Kawasaki and Yamaha each have the crankshaft rotating in a different direction to produce contrasting handling characteristics aimed at countering this gyroscopic force, the ZX-RR's runs forward while the world-champion YZF-M1 runs backward. Without going into the different spinoff effects each of these designs result in--some good, some bad, in handling terms--what matters here is that there is an effect that impacts the way each bike behaves.

On the C1, with the engine turned lengthways along the axis of the wheelbase, the gyroscopic force of the crank's rotation is instead put to use countering time-wasting wheelies under acceleration and enhancing stability under braking by eliminating stoppies, not impeding the bike's desire to roll left or right. And with the twin longitudinal crankshafts turning against each other, there's zero torque reaction to upset handling. Blip the C1's throttle at rest in pit lane and there's absolutely no rock 'n' roll to one side or another.

What this means is that although the MotoCzysz feels tall and top-heavy dynamically, it steers into turns easily and controllably, flicking side-to-side through a chicane almost as fast as the Aprilia RSV250 Czysz says he was aiming to emulate when creating the bike, in spite of the C1 being 75 percent heavier. Yet even though it's high, it handles bumps well on the gas without shaking its head despite the relatively steep 22.5-degree rake, and with the reduced amount of power presently on tap it hooked up well exiting corners whilst cranked over. The C1 doesn't squat unduly exiting a turn under power, if at all--it just hooks up and drives. It also doesn't want to wheelie out of slow turns, an increasing issue with the most recent MotoGP bikes I've ridden. But the jury's still out on how well the C1 will behave with an extra 50-75 bhp on tap. One thing's for sure: It stops well and doesn't back into the turn on the brakes, again presumably because of the rerouted gyroscopic engine forces.

Where the C1 really shined was the way it allowed me to maintain my speed in corners, all the more an issue when you lack power. Although the front suspension was a little stiffer than the R1's, I didn't stop to fix it even though I knew it'd only take a few minutes. Instead, I had fun trying to make the front tire chatter, especially in the infield section of the Speedway where there's acres of runoff. But I couldn't make it happen; the front Michelin slick stayed locked to the tarmac, the front Oehlins shock absorbing track irregularities smoothly and without fuss. Really, the C1 felt like the ultimate "no-worries-mate" motorcycle.

What's next? "You've just discovered that this whole concept works," Czysz told me, sounding like a proud papa. "Now we need to advance engine development toward a race-worthy status that will also lead to production, and I've hired a team of engineers with a specific experience in high-performance motorcycle engine development to help me. We now have funding in place up to and including the third and final round of investment, which will result in the C1 taking part in at least one shakedown race in '06, then a full season in '07--though whether in World Superbike or AMA depends on homologation numbers."

And the timeline for production that will lead to the C1 being qualified for Superbike? "I don't think anyone has the ability to raise $100 million to start a motorcycle company in the U.S. right now--not just because of the economic climate, but because of Excelsior-Henderson and Indian, which left potential investors sour. And I also don't want to service a $100 million debt, because then you're forced to make decisions you don't want to make about product quality.

"So we're going to use the revenue of the company to build slowly while staying out of debt. One year from now, in '06, we're going to manufacture 50 motorcycles as a first run, all racers like this one; I believe we have 50 buyers out there who are interested in spending $100,000 to buy a track-day bike or a collector's item, or even one they can get a license tag for in Russia or Peru--they'll all have a headlight, just like this one! Then in '07 we'll manufacture the first 150 street versions, bringing the price down to somewhere between $55,000 and $65,000 each, building production up to 3000 bikes a year in '09. We have a business plan in place for an entire range of street and racebikes; following the C1 will be the C6, a 600cc four-cylinder Supersport--just wait until you hear that engine! But all that's in the future. What we're focusing on now is building an American Superbike company, with a product unlike any other that works a whole lot better than any other. This is what I want to be known for--the guy who built an American motorcycle company, not just a single bike."

As an architectural businessman, motorcycle entrepreneur and family man, Michael Czysz is a busy guy with some pretty tall cards stacked against him. But when the end result of his two-wheel venture is as innovative and dynamically effective as the C1, which three years ago existed solely in the recesses of Czysz's mind, it looks like this is one fantasy-bike dream that has a decent chance of coming true.

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