Michelin have been celebrating a landmark event this year and rightly so, because it's 25 years since Michelin introduced the radial tire, which has made an important contribution to motorcycle performance and safety ever since. Back then we didn't guess that radial tires would quickly take over from the old cross-ply design.
But Michelin clearly knew they had come up with something special, because they organized the most ambitious press launch I've even known and, fortunately, invited me to take part. Five grand prix stars – including Wayne Garder, who would win that season's 500cc world championship – and five journalists rode in a blind test at Donington Park, in which Michelin's new 59X radial tire was pitched against four leading cross-ply competitors.
The fact that Michelin were prepared to stake so much money and credibility on the launch and to persuade five of their top racers to take part, shows just how important the radial tire's launch was – and how confident they were of its superiority. Either that or they had organized a fraud that would have ruined the company.
Other than having two wheels and an engine, the Honda Cub and the Harley-Davidson Super Glide wouldn't seem to have much in common. They were each designed for a different purpose and a very different clientèle. But in their own time, each of these were significant milestones that altered their respective categories forever. They were both game-changers of the highest order.
Every so often, a new motorcycle is introduced that changes the way we view all the rest. Not just motorcycles; in fact, this applies right across the spectrum of consumer products. It can be down to one single factor in which a new model excels so far beyond the competition that it re-sets the parameters or sometimes it s a combination of multiple elements. As is evident from the Honda Cub, this is not about exclusivity or sophisticated technology – it's all to do with thinking outside the box.
Coming up with revolutionary ideas or approaches doesn't guarantee that a product will change the world, though. Companies invest millions in trying to develop products that are ahead of the competition, although few of these will actually succeed in becoming true game-changers. And even if they do, not all of them result in commercial success.
Kawasaki's first racing victory came in 1963 when a 125cc single, called the Kawasaki B8M and known as the Red Tank due to its distinctive coloring, dominated the Japanese motocross championship. But most of the company's competition success has been in road racing and, since the early 1970s, the color strongly linked with Kawasaki has been green – specifically lime green.
After entering Grand Prix in the 125cc class in 1965, at the Japanese GP, Kawasaki had their first major success four years later when factory-backed British rider Dave Simmonds won the 125cc world championship on a disc-valve parallel twin. One of Simmonds' eight GP winds that year was also Kawasaki's first Isle of Man TT victory.
The early 1970s saw the arrival of the 'Green Meanies', as Kawasaki's fearsome two-stroke triple racers became known. The 500cc Kawasaki H1 roadster was developed to create the H1R racer, on which New Zealander Ginger Molloy rode to some impressive results, including finishing second in the 500cc world championship in 1970. Simmonds, later to die tragically in a caravan fire, won the marque's first 500cc GP at Jarama in Spain the following year.
Kawasaki's 750cc H2R was also successful on both sides of the Atlantic. Yvon DuHamel scored some big wins in the States on the 100 PS, two stroke triple, which earned its Green Meanie nickname by being fast, but difficult to ride. Mick Grant won the 1975 British Superbike championship and Senior TT on its KR750 derivative. Australian ace Greg Hansford and American Gary Nixon also scored some notable wins on the Kawasaki KR750.
It's hard to believe that the iconic Ducati brand, one of best known names in the motorcycling world, was an electronics company which contracted to build a 48cc clip-on engine for bicycles back in the '40s. Italy was shaking off the dust and destruction of the World War II, times were really hard, and people needed transport. A little motorcycle that would get papa to work more easily was a relief from the depression.
The 48cc Ducati clip-on engine was designed by Aldo Leoni, who came up with a four-stroke featuring pullrods where the rest of the world used pushrods, with a tow-speed transmission and could give close to 140 kilometers to every precious liter of fuel if you weren't in a hurry. Because it has a fair old exhaust bark – well, it was Italian – they called it 'Cucciolo', or 'Little Pup'. Forget the Fiat, mama, this was affordable transport. Ducati Electronica, urgently looking for work, was contracted to produce the power unit when it was launched in 1946, and after a slow start production grew to about 250,000 a year.
If it hadn't been for the Versailles Armistice Treaty following Word War I, Ewan and Charley would have had to do their glove-trotting on another make of motorcycle. It was the terms of the post-war treaty that forbade BMW (Bayerische Motoren Werke) to make any more aircraft engines, forcing the firm to consider branching out into motorcycle production.
BMW was created in 1916 by the merging of two existing aircraft engine-producing companies, BFW (Bayerische Flugzeug Werke) and Rapp, and following the restrictions imposed by the treaty, the firm started making motorcycle engines for various German manufacturers including Victoria and Bison.
MV Agusta, the legendary Italian brand was born out of World War I when Sicilian aristocrat Count Giovanni Agusta enrolled Battalion, operating out of Malpensa. After the war, he started manufacturing airplanes out of the same base but, when he died in 1927, his son Domenico took the company in a new direction.
As it became more likely that Germany was going to lose the war, Domenico recognized the need for a cheap post-war form of transport and hit on the idea of manufacturing small, economical motorcycles.
The story of Suzuki is from weaving looms to motorcycles with Michio Suzuki in control. For the first 30 years of his career, Michio Suzuki designed, built and sold weaving looms to cater for Japan's massive silk trade. He would have been a successful and wealthy man even if he'd never though about building motorcycles.
Born in the tiny seaside village of Hamamatsu in 1887, Michio Suzuki apprenticed as a carpenter and, at the age of 22, designed a complex and hugely effective wooden loom for weaving thread into textiles. In 1909 Michio Suzuki founded the Suzuki Loom Works and, by 1920, had established the Suzuki Loom Manufacturing Company. Following the decline of the weaving industry in Japan, Michio Suzuki attempted to diversify into the car market and, by 1939, had build several prototypes and held talks about building the Austin Seven under license in Japan, but the outbreak of war interrupted his plans.
Off all the bits we borrowed from the first combustion engine, it is probably the carburetor which looks most prehistoric. I mean, little bowls of petrol? Brass holes and tapered needles? It's like something off an industrial era steam engine, not a modern motorcycle. Compare with the dual-valve, dual-injector engine management system on the average 2012 big bike. There are some physical similarities – you have a barrels leading into the cylinder head, with an air valve controlled by the throttle twist-grip, and a means of introducing petrol into the air flow. But that's where any similarities end.
The move from carburetors to fuel injection is like the move from analog music to digital – you have an analog passive, self-regulating mechanism replaced by an active, digitally-regulated system. Old motorcycles where fueled by predictable physical actions on suitably-sized components: the air is drawn through a venturi which speeds up its flow, and dropping its pressure. This pressure drop sucks petrol up through small brass jets in an appropriate ratio. And as the rider opens or closes the throttle, more or less fuel/air mixture is introduced.
Compare this elegant, almost clockwork system with a modern motorcycle's electronic fuel injection. A computer is frantically watching every major parameter on the engine – from RPM, temperature, crank position, throttle opening and air pressure, comparing it to look-up tables of fuel injector opening times, then sending an electrical signal to the injectors to open and close for that time. This all happens in tiny fractions of a second, and happens constantly. Even when the motorcycle is just idling, the ECU is making millions of calculations a second, it never gets a rest.
Ignore anything you read that claims the electronics damping systems recently introduced by Ducati and are 'active' suspension; they're nothing but a shadow of the true active suspension system that, 20 years ago, looked certain to replace the springs and dampers that have been with motorcycles since the down of the last century.
Developed over a decade in Formula 1 racing, the idea of real active suspension, as opposed to the merely adjustable or adaptive damping systems that are just starting on motorcycles, was to get rid of conventional springs and dampers entirely, replacing them with computer-controlled hydraulic rams. Initially heavy, complex and unreliable, the system's benefits were so clear – it could completely eliminate pitching and diving, alter ride height on the move – engineers stuck with it until, in racing terms at least, it was perfected.
Just the same benefits it offered to cars, such as Nigel Mansell's 1992 championship-dominating Formula 1 Williams car, also applied on the road, with various prototypes – particularly several Lotus machines – and a few production cars from Toyota and Nissan proving just how effective it could be. Motorcycle companies weren't slow to pick up on the idea; in the late '80s and early '90s a slew of non-running concept motorcycles featured vague claims of 'active' suspension, although none actually ran with such a system.
One of Europe's earliest and largest motorcycle manufacturers, NSU went into motorcycles in 1901. The company originally made knitting machines, in 1880, at Neckarsulm, Germany. NSU stands for Neckarsulm Strickmachinen Union – don't try to pronounce it with a mouthful...
By 1905 there was an office in London. From 1903 to 1905 the company made 2250 motorcycles, Britain taking 25% of its production, via the London office, so its was clearly well respected. The First World War spoiled that business as the factory produced for the German Army. Post hostilities, NSU was soon back in action, employing 3000 people in 1922 and introducing production-line methods of assembly. In 1929 it recruited Norton's chief designer, Walter Moore, with big money and a house with servants. Moore designed big bikes as well as the 98cc two-stroke 'Quick' that sold 235,000 between 1936 and 1950. 1939 saw another world war and Moor came home.
Back in civilian production NSU produced a range of four-stroke singles and in 1953 launched the 49cc 'Quickly' moped; it was to sell over a million. At the same time it launched the luxurious 250cc Max with two eccentric rods driving the overhead valve gear to give very quite running. It was the most sophisticated 250cc road motorcycle money could buy.