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Kinder times?

Sex, BSAs and the thirties

BSA annual 1930s

Sept 17, 2017: This has to be one of the most attractive images in motorcycling. Okay, the one thing I dislike is there is no woman riding on the front seat. Forgive that for a minute and you have this image of people out there on a sunny day, enjoying their motorcycles at a gentle pace. Helmetless. That was the norm in the 1930s.

If you've never ridden a motorcycle without a helmet, I can recommend doing it at least once. Sober. Pissed, it too often ends in tears.

But there is a thrill in having the real (rather than the proverbial) wind in the hair. It's fantastic.

And, no, I'm not about to get into the whole nanny state thing - not for the moment.

There were a lot of things to dislike about the thirties, but it was also arguably the most stylish decade we've experienced in a couple of generations. Have a look at the machinery and tell me I'm wrong...

The Liquid Zed

Re-engaging with a legend

Kawasaki GPz900R A1

Sept 15, 2017: How many of these things are out there in good nick these days? Not many.

Around year 2000 I ran a panel discussion of motorcycle experts to talk about the most significant motorcycles of the post-war period (after 1945), and this model featured. Once you moved the discussion to post-1980, it was a hero.

Why? It was a combination of things. In truth, the GPz900R wasn't a great international race success, though it held its own in production and superbike races of the period. (Who remembers Len WIlling doing heroic things with them?) Maybe it was the Kawasaki brand and the 900 capacity that held some sway. It was also one of the most handsome motorcycles of the period. And one of the quickest.

Though not perfect, it was a 250km/h motorcycle with a reputation for stability in a field running then controversial 16-inch front rims.

It's also the epitome of mid-eighties styling - a mix or organic curves with sharp edges.

Motorcycle writers who were around at the time, including me, remember them very fondly and hold them in high regard. Fast, stable, bulletproof. So it was almost inevitable that, when a low-miler in mint condition came up, I had to buy it.

I've had one of these on the buying radar for years and have seen the prices fluctuate. Though they sold in decent numbers for the time, they were also released just as the motorcycle market was crashing. There was a time when there were plenty out there, but few were kept in decent condition. And very few have survived in original form.

What's a fair price for a peach? The owner asked $8500, which gave me reason to pause. Others I respect said it was a great buy and just do it. So I did, and will report back on the pick-up ride from Alice Springs.

Norton Four

Coventry's anti-climax

Norton four climax engine

Sept 14, 2017: Here's one of those 'I screwed up' stories. The motorcycle you see here is a Norton Atlas with a Hillman Imp four-pot engine fitted, and I kinda responded along the lines of people having too much time on their hands. In one sense I was right. Or a smart-arse...

As you'll notice, it actually looks kind of okay - not as bad as a lot of the bike frame-car engine mixes we've seen over the years.

Now the JUST British Motor Cycles folk on Facebook published this, saying it was built by one Sonny Angel in 1967, who wanted to demonstrate to Norton that it could and should build four-pot motorcycles. If the year is right, it was prescient. Norton should have listened.

In the meantime I was a little skeptical, having ridden a few mismatches of motorcycle chassis and car engines over the years. However colleague Spannerman pointed out that Angel's choice of engine was a good one. It was in fact an all-alloy Cooper Climax variant then borrowed from a Hillman Imp. Maybe, with a little refinement, it could have worked.

Which begs the question: had Norton listened, would we now be riding Norton-branded four-pot superbikes...?

Dirt dramas

A triumph of inspiration over sanity

Harley Sportster Honda XL250 hybrid

Sept 13, 2017: Spotted this via Bring a Trailer the other day - a stretched Honda XL250 chassis with a Harley Sporster engine. There was a time, a few decades ago, when this whole idea of turning a street engine to dirt duties was popular. That was well before the whole adventure bike thing became mainstream.

So you saw things like CB750 Fours given long-travel suspension, or much more weird mismatches of frames and engines. Like the mix of BMW chassis and Volkswagen engine I once rode - that's another story... At the time, adventure bikes didn't exist and the whole idea made some kind of tenuous sense.

And now? It's both strange and refreshing to see these things still exist. That it's an 883 Sporty engine with electric start suggests it was built at a time when everyone involved should have known better. Good on them for giving it a go...

Jawa dreaming

Strokers have retro appeal

Jawa 250 350

Sept 8, 2017: Jawa is one of those brands that's had a love/hate relationship with the local market. In their day, most people wouldn't touch one - particularly given the dominance of the Japanese offerings of the time.

The simple two-strokes were seen as primitive and, by the 1970s, outdated. However they had their fans and were a lot of fun to ride.

These days they're gaining some appeal as a retro choice, though prices seem to be all over the place. We've spotted a 250 and a 350 for sale on Just Bikes, one for $2000 and the other albeit more attractive machine for $6500.

Ducati on the V4

Big claims for MotoGP-inspired engine

Ducati V4 engine Sept 2017

Sept 7, 2017: Ducati's next-gen V4 will be a hugely important model for the maker, and should turn out to be a significant one for collectors. A couple of aspects in particular intrigued us - the firing order and the rotation of the crankshaft.

Ducati on the firing order: A combination of 70° crank pin offset and 90-degree V layout generates what Ducati calls a Twin Pulse firing order because it’s as if the engine were reproducing the firing sequence of a twin-cylinder. The distinctiveness lies in the fact that the two left-hand cylinders fire closely together, as do the two right-hand ones. In the timing chart, the ignition points are, then, at 0°, 90°, 290° and 380°. It’s this particular firing order makes the V4 sound like a MotoGP Desmosedici.

Ducati on the counter-rotating crank: On normal bikes, the crankshaft turns in the same direction as the wheels. In MotoGP, counter-rotating crankshafts that run in the opposite direction are widely used. Ducati engineers have borrowed this top-level racing solution for the same reasons that first saw it applied in competition. Its benefits stem from two aspects of physics: gyroscopic effect and inertia.

A counter-rotating crankshaft offsets some of the gyroscopic effect generated by the turning wheels and that, in turn, improves handling and makes the bike more agile when changing direction.

The second benefit has to do with the inertia (i.e. the tendency of an object to oppose any change of state) of the vehicle and the rotating engine parts. During acceleration, drive torque is put down on the ground, causing the bike to wheelie. A counter-rotating crankshaft, however, produces inertia-linked torque in the opposite direction, lowering the front of the bike, limiting the wheelie effect and thus boosting acceleration performance.

(Meanwhile, Visordown has shown what may be a pre-release pic of the whole machine.)


1103 cm³ four-cylinder 90-degree V engine
Bore x stroke 81 x 53.5 mm
Compression ratio 14:1
Maximum power exceeds 155 kW (210 hp) at 13,000 rpm
Maximum torque exceeds 120 Nm (12.2 kgm) from 8,750 to 12,250 rpm
Euro 4 emissions
Desmodromic part chain, part gear [timing with dual overhead camshaft, 4 valves per cylinder
Counter-rotating crankshaft with crank pins offset at 70°
Wet multiplate anti-patter servo clutch
Semi-dry sump lubrication with four oil pumps: 1 delivery and 3 return
Fuelling with four oval throttle bodies (52 mm diameter equivalent) and variable-height intake horns
Six-speed gearbox with DQS up/down system
24,000 km “Desmo Service” maintenance interval (15,000 miles)

Kawasaki Z900 revival

Teaser vid

Kawasaki Z900RS video

Sept 7, 2017: Kawasaki has released a short teaser vid for its upcoming Z900RS retro bike. It doesn't reveal much, but this MCN link shows their best guess.

The Honda story

A different take

Honda CB750 Four book

Sept 6, 2017: Have just started reading a 2015 book on the history and impact of the Honda CB750 Four, by Rod Ker.

It's off to a good start with a backgrounder on Mr Honda himself: "In 1945, aged nearly forty, Soichiro began a new life basically doing nothing, indulging in what might now be called a gap year. For someone who had worked so hard since leaving school aged sixteen, this ‘human holiday’ was perhaps an uncharacteristic interlude, but it didn’t last long. While his friends and neighbours might have had the impression that Honda’s main interest was sitting around making saké, the Japanese version of moonshine, and generally trying to have a good time drinking it every evening, his fertile mind was hatching plans."

WIll let you know how it goes, but it seems very promising so far.

Two-strokes score big

Back in demand

Yamaha RZ350

Sept 3, 2017: A Shannons auction late last month proved two-stroke motorcycles are very much on the collector radar.

The first example was a very tidy 1985 Yamaha RZ350, which we rate as one of the best two-stroke road bikes ever made. They're light and nimble - very similar to the 250 version - but have the extra grunt the additional 100cc offers. It's one of the all time great sport bikes, if you make a few allowances for the fact the technology is now several generations back. It sold for $10,500, which doesn't come as a complete surprise. Examples of this quality are pretty thin on the ground.

Kawasaki H2 750

Next was a 1972 Kawasaki H2 750 triple - one of the legends of the two-stroke world. A fairly untidy handler, it had plenty of grunt for its time, though they're not quite as fierce as some would have you believe. We also note that F1 ace Sebastian Vettel was recently photographed rolling up to a race on a similar bike. How much? $33,500 was very solid money for one of these things, helped in no small measure by the exceptional presentation.

Suzuki RG500

Last and far from least is a Suzuki RG500 pre-production motorcycle, with zero miles. Intended as a display item only, it's currently up for online auction. It was previously on eBay around 18 months ago, with a 'buy it now' price of $75,000. Current bidding is at $44,900 and it hasn't met reserve with just under two days to go. It will be interesting to see where this one ends up. The RG was actually a pretty nice thing to ride. It was better sorted, particularly in the handling department, than its nearest competitor, Yamaha's RZ500 (or RD500 in some markets). In an ideal world, you'd have both.

Ed's note: the final bid on the RG was $65,100, which didn't reach reserve.

It's Czech, mate

Inventive two-strokes

Cezeta motor scooter

Sept 3, 2017: Our story on the Italjet Dragster (below) started another thread on our Facebook page, regarding out-there scooters. Long-time classic bike and industry bod Phil Pilgrim contributed the above,  a Cezeta circa 1957. They were built in Czechoslovakia, home to all sorts of interesting gadgets, like this Velorex forecar below.

Velorex forecar

Italjet Dragster 180

Serious silliness

Italjet dragster 180

September 2, 2017: If it ever stops raining in Mudbourne (as auld mate Pete Smith used to call it), there's a chance I'll get to finally take my Dragster for a gallop. Err...what? An Italjet Dragster, that is. It's one of three project bikes in the shed at the moment.

Never heard of one? Here's an excerpt from a piece I wrote for Motorcycle Trader mag number 321: I rate the Italjet Dragster series as one of the most interesting scooters ever made. A ride on one when it was new in Australia nearly 20 years ago was a joy. I had an absolute ball on thing. Great acceleration, wickedly quick steering and sensational braking. And you got the mad cackle of a happy two-stroke single on song. It was the definition of the petrolhead urban scalpel.

Better, it looked the goods. That weird front end was a version of the James Parker RADD also used on the Yamaha GTS1000, but re-imagined so the front shock was laid down in the floor pan between your feet.

There was the blunt angular dual-lamp nose, plus a rider-eye view of a sporty instrument layout with clip-ons and proper analogue speedo. Oh, and there was a weird Ducati-like steel space frame protruding through the bodywork. This was the whole idea of a premium scooter turned on its head. The market stayed away in droves – their loss.

Back in the very late 1990s, when this thing appeared, it was a radical piece of kit. Italjet was soon to follow up with another out-there concept, a three-wheeled scooter called the Scooop (yep, three Os) – two wheels out front and one rear. Does it sound familiar? Prototypes had latter-day Bauhaus styling similar to the early Audi TT coupe. Sadly the money ran out. The project was bought by Piaggio, which turned it into the successful MP3 series. [ends]

So where are we? If it stops raining long enough, I might actually get to throw a new battery in the thing, plus a fresh spark plug (hang the expense!) and see if the fond memories are right. Wish us luck..

Original Thunderbird

Great graphics

Triumph Thunderbird

September 1, 2017: This is one of my favourite pieces of motorcycle art, celebrating the launch of the 1949 Thunderbird range. It has an art deco look to it, long after that movement was fashionable.

And the start of the T-Bird legend? Here's part of a piece I wrote for Road Rider magazine number 136: There are a couple of versions of how the Thunderbird name came about. One is legendary designer Edward Turner was inspired by an American Indian (as in native tribes, not the motorcycle brand) statue or totem pole.

A more pedestrian explanation – which we find entirely believable – was he happened to be staying in the Las Vegas Thunderbird Motel for a dealer conference, and the T-bird motorcycle insignia ended up being a stylized version of the giant signage in its forecourt.

Get onto the interweb and you can track down some hazy pictures of the motel from 1950-ish, which back up the second version of the story.

So what is an original Thunderbird? Triumph’s then current parallel twin engine architecture had already been running successfully for years, from 1938, as a 360-degree pushrod four-stroke 500. World War II put a dent in any civilian market ambitions, but it came back with a vengeance at the end of hostilities.

Move to the big boy, the 650 Thunderbird, and you’re talking a whole new level of performance. This first series was produced in a pale blue livery. Producing a then-respectable 34 horses at 6300rpm, the first-gen Thunderbird was a handy device.

As part of the model launch, a team of three riders famously rode (their no doubt carefully prepared) machines from Triumph’s then-new Meriden works in the UK’s midlands to Monlhery near Paris, where they used a track to set an average speed of 92mph (148km/h) for 500 miles (800km).

Then they were ridden back home. It was, for the time, a remarkable feat. It was one of those signature exercises that established the T-bird as a serious performance motorcycle. [ends]

Here's a picture of the motel.

Thunderbird hotel 1950



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