Monday, February 28, 2011

Post-Academy Awards Special Backmarker: The Colonel's Motorcycles



In the 1930s, the Nazis knew that the next war would be far more mechanized than the last one. They encouraged the FIM to create an ISDT Trophy for the top military team.


The 1939 International Six Days Trial was held in Nazi-controlled Austria. With the political situation worsening by the moment, it seemed that Britain’s teams - especially the military dispatch riders competing for the Huhnlein Trophy - were destined to become P.O.W.s before the first shots were even fired. Instead, they climbed on their BSAs, Matchlesses, and Nortons, and rode around the clock to reach safety in neutral Switzerland. Finally, after another marathon ride, they arrived home just as war erupted across Europe.

Adolf Hitler was born in Austria, and remained an Austrian citizen until 1925. If anything, his National Socialist German Workers’ Party–the Nazis–were even more popular there than in Germany. In March 1938, Hitler’s ‘Anschluss,’ made his old homeland part of the Third Reich. A few days later in Vienna, he was given a hero’s welcome. Indeed, though Austria was to account for only 8% of the Reich's population, Austrians would soon make up 14% of the SS, and over 40% of the personnel involved in genocide.

The Nazis were masters of turning international sporting events into propaganda opportunities. The '36 Olympics were the most famous instance, but they also co-opted and encouraged BMW's land-speed-record attempts, and took advantage of the 1939 International Six Day Trial.
A prestigious international sporting event was just the thing to legitimize the Nazi’s new status in Austria. Since Germany had earned the right to stage the upcoming International Six Days Trial–often called the ‘Olympics of motorcycling’–they chose to hold it in Salzburg. It was a spectacular alpine setting, already the home of a major music festival (and of the Von Trapp family singers, of ‘Sound of Music’ fame.)

While Hitler consolidated his power, Britain (and the United States) responded to his political bullying and ominous military buildup with a mixture of appeasement, and their own half-hearted rearmament. Military strategists on both sides realized that the next war would be far more mechanized than the previous one.

Motorcycles would play a small but significant role in modern warfare. The British Army realized that the ISDT was an excellent test of military motorcyclists’ combat readiness. So, in 1938, the Army entered a team in the Six Days (that year, the event was held in Wales.) Three soldiers from the Royal Tank Corps; Fred Rist, Paddy Doyle, and Jackie Wood, did well. But overall, the Army team was poorly prepared, and their performance proved that military riders, machine specifications, and preparation had fallen far behind their civilian counterparts.

Shortly after the Army riders’ embarrassment in Wales, Britain suffered a more severe humiliation. The British Prime Minister flew to Munich, planning to mediate Hitler’s claim to the Sudetenland (an ethnic-German area in Czechoslovakia.) Chamberlain returned to England, and crowed that he’d “established some degree of personal influence over Herr Hitler.” This news delighted Britons, who were still recovering from the last war. But in fact, their Prime Minister had been completely bullied by the Fuerher, and had thrown Czechoslovakia to the wolves.

Through the first half of 1939, the British Parliament reassured the population that war was unlikely, but their actions belied their words. They published evacuation plans in the London newspapers, and dug trenches in public parks, for use in air raids.

The motorcycle press was no less contradictory. In early July, Graham Walker (the influential editor of ‘Motor Cycling’) wrote about the coming I.S.D.T., “No thinking person can ignore the gravity of the present situation, nor the oft-repeated suggestion that August may be a month of crisis.” But, he went on, “The Germans and Italians did not question their safety when visiting the Isle of Man in June and we see no reason why we should query the safety of our visiting Germany in August.” Besides, the Auto-cycle Union (A.-C.U.) had been assured by the event’s ‘Oberfuhrer,’ that if war broke out, all competitors would be given safe passage to their borders.

After their rude awakening at the ’38 I.S.D.T., the Army vowed to redeem themselves. Dispatch riders were encouraged to enter civilian competitions. They were allowed to use their issue machines, and provided with free fuel and oil. Rist, the Tank Corps Sergeant, took advantage of this ‘sponsorship’ to win the Travers Trophy Trial, an achievement made more noteworthy by the fact that he was still virtually a novice. Later, he teamed up with his fellow corpsmen, Doyle and Wood, to win the team event at the Cotswold Cup Trials. By beating several high-profile manufacturers’ teams, the trio established themselves as the cream of Army riders.

In June, the Army assembled a dozen crack riders under the command of Colonel C.V. Bennett. They were to spend the summer at Aldershot (an English military base) in full-time preparation for the Six Days. Their goal was nothing less than to win the Huhnlein Trophy, which was the award presented to the top military team. Over 11 weeks, the soldiers would train and be tested, then three squads of three riders would be selected to go to Salzburg.

The rear shocks on these bikes identify them as post-war Goldies, but this gives you a sense of what the bikes (and guys) in this story looked like.
Bennett leaned on the manufacturers of the Army’s motorcycles (BSA, Norton, and Matchless) for support. Each firm agreed to prepare works machines for the trial, and provide a factory service representative.

The team’s daily routine at Aldershot began with calisthenics and swimming, led by Sgt. Rist. Then there was riding practice on sand, grass, and gravel. They were tested on everything from changing tires and cables to assembling carburetors and clutches. Daily ‘trials’ of up to 200 miles often lasted until late in the afternoon. In the evening, each rider returned to his quarters with his machine, where he performed his own maintenance. Bikes were presented for inspection at 8:30 a.m. the next morning, and the cycle began again.

Factory experts gave workshops on set-up and service, and a technician from Dunlop taught them the fastest way to change a tire. In July, the Army lads were invited to the Bagshot Heath scrambles track, where they watched a special committee of the A.-C.U. select elite civilian riders for the British Trophy and Vase teams.

The Army brought in the country’s top scrambles riders as visiting coaches. They booked Brooklands and Donington for high-speed practice. Bennett was taking his job seriously; at the end of the month, the ‘International’ team was inspected by Major-General H.R.S. Massy, no less than the Director of Military Training.

On August 8 Britain’s future leader, Winston Churchill, spoke on American radio. A hush had fallen over Europe, he said, “It is the hush of suspense, and in many lands it is the hush of fear.”

At Aldershot, there was suspense too, as Bennett selected the riders for Salzburg. They were:

Sgt.-Major B. Mackay 347 Matchless
Sgt. O. Davis 347 Matchless
B.Q.M.S. E. Smith 347 Matchless

Lieut. J.F. Riley 490 Norton
Sgt. J.T. Dalby 490 Norton
Cpl. G. M. Berry 490 Norton

Sgt. F.M. Rist 496 BSA
Cpl. A.C. Doyle 496 BSA
Pte. J.L. Wood 496 BSA

The Matchlesses and the Nortons were standard-issue models, which were to see plenty of service in WWII. The Matchless G3 was a 350 c.c. overhead valve single, with a four-speed transmission. It made about 16 horsepower, and weighed 328 pounds. The Norton 16H was slightly less up to date, making just 14 horsepower from 490 c.c. It weighed 388 pounds in standard trim. The Matchless was fitted with a modern, oil-damped telescopic fork, but the Norton still relied on a girder fork, with a friction damper.

The British Army used two BSA models, the 350 c.c. B25 and the 500 c.c. M20. The M20 was heavy; its side-valve motor was wide. All in all, it was hardly a bike you’d recruit for a serious trial (though some were fitted with 21-inch front wheels, and used in competition.) Not leaving anything to chance, BSA equipped the ‘International’ team with their newest Gold Stars.

Towards mid-August, the team set out on their competition machines towards Salzburg, in order to get practice on ‘continental’ roads. They were accompanied by a loose convoy of over 50 civilian competitors (making up the Trophy and Vase teams, as well as club and manufacturer’s teams.)

A number of British fans also tagged along, one of whom later wrote, “‘Germany! Do you think it’s wise?’ How many times did we hear this before setting out to spectate at this year’s International? If anything, the dismal Jimmies spurred us on even more with their morbid, pessimistic remarks.”

Most of the British arrived a few days early. Salzburg’s streets were decked with Nazi regalia–decoration for the music festival, and because Hitler himself had established a summer base 15 minutes away at Berchtesgaden. One night at the opera, the crowd’s opera glasses spent as much time trained on one of the balconies, as they did towards the stage; Herr Hitler was in the house.

There were so many uniforms in evidence at the Six Days’ check-in–both amongst the competitors and the organizers–that some of the civilian riders grumbled they almost felt out of place. General Huhnlein (of Huhnlein Trophy fame) was present at the start on the first day (Monday, August 21.) Riders took off on a 295-kilometer loop into what had, only the previous summer, been the free country of Czechoslovakia.

The first day of the 1939 ISDT sent riders out on a route that was relatively easy, but it still took its toll on the Army teams. Berry (Norton) came off after hitting a dog. The crash destroyed his twist-grip, but he continued, pulling the bare cable to control his throttle. Later that day Smith (Matchless) was blinded by the dust of a passing rider, and hit a bus! He continued with bent forks. Finally, Lieut. Riley’s Norton split its gas tank. The Army’s BSA team of Rist, Doyle, and Wood, however, lost no marks, and was going strong.

Tuesday’s loop was shorter, but sharper. A number of competitors retired, including two of the Army’s Norton riders, and one from the Matchless squad. On the Nortons, Berry gave up when his replacement twistgrip would not work. Riley had managed to seal his cracked fuel tank with soap(!) earlier, but the split worsened. Smith, on the Matchless, finally succumbed to the bent forks and wheel he’d suffered in his previous collision.

On the same day, the Reich concluded a treaty with the Soviets. German riders and officials reacted warmly to this news. They believed their own propaganda, which suggested that the treaty reduced the risk of war with Poland. In fact, the opposite was true. One of the treaty’s secret clauses gave eastern Poland to Russia. Hitler no longer needed to fear that his attack on Poland would anger the Russians, who also craved Polish territory.

This was what the dictator had been waiting for. He convened a meeting of his top generals at his summer headquarters - they must have almost been able to hear the roar of trials motorcycles in the clear mountain air - and told them his decision to invade Poland was now “irrevocable.” They were instructed to have their forces ready to move by the weekend.

The Grossglockner Pass is still one of the motorcycle roads in Europe. In the 1939 ISDT, competitors raced over this route. Note that the road was not closed for the racers' use.
Wednesday’s route took competitors over the Grossglockner pass, a 23-kilometer climb that included numerous hairpin turns. Even at the end of summer, the surrounding peaks were snow-capped. A late thunderstorm put down the dust, and seemed to favor the British riders. That evening, competitors crowded around radios listening to the BBC news broadcast; they heard that France had ordered its citizens to leave Germany within 24 hours. Several racers suggested the British contingent should do as much, but the team managers were against the idea, especially as there were British teams poised to win all the important trophies. The British civilians were heartened by the fact that their Army team seemed perfectly calm.

On Thursday, British competitors again took to the course, while team managers sent telegram after telegram, desperate for any information or advice. Their uncertainty lasted into the night, until Norton Motors wired instructions that their team was to withdraw and return right away. Moments later, the British Consul General in Berlin warned all British subjects to leave Germany immediately.

By 7:30 a.m on Friday morning, all but a handful of the British civilian competitors had left Salzburg, headed for Switzerland. The German organizers begged them not to go. Event officials, all Nazis themselves, promised the team managers that if trouble started, they would accompany them to the border themselves to ensure a safe passage.

Marjorie Cottle was the only civilian competitor who stayed behind when all the other British civilians were told to leave Germany after the fourth day of competition. Her attitude seems to have been, "If the Army boys will stay, I'll stay." In my screenplay, I gave her an ulterior motive... (cue fanfare from James Bond theme, by composer Monty Norman.) Cottle doesn't actually need to be over-dramatized; she was one of the best and toughest female racers of all time, and competed in ISDT events in three different decades.
The British military team stayed behind, however. Colonel Bennett considered it their duty to compete unless he received specific orders to the contrary. At 5 a.m., while the civilians were frantically packing and loading their machines, the Army’s lads withdrew their bikes from the enclosure, and headed off according to schedule. One exception was Dalby, the final Norton runner, whose gas tank had also begun to split. Col. Bennett didn’t want to risk one of his men being stranded alone in the countryside, so Dalby was withdrawn from competition. Things seemed calm enough, and after seeing his riders off, Bennett and Bert Perrigo (who was tagging along as BSA’s technical representative) went for a swim.

When they returned to their hotel, they found orders from the War Office instructing the team to leave for Switzerland immediately. Ironically, the orders had been issued Thursday, before the civilians had been told to leave, but the paperwork had mysteriously been delayed in transit!

While they must have had their doubts about the political situation, the BSA squad under Rist’s leadership were still in the running for the top military trophy; in fact, they had not lost a single point between them in five grueling days.

On paper, the sixth and final day - Saturday - was to be the easiest by far. It began with an easy dash up and down the autobahn, and concluded with one last ‘special test.’ Perrigo, BSA’s factory man, suspected that Nazi officials had smoothed the final scrambles course as much as possible in order to suit the German motorcycles, which were fast but heavy. In spite of this, he was sure the Huhnlein Trophy was within their grasp. He noted the similarity between the final test and the team’s practice tracks at Aldershot and Bagshot Heath.

Perrigo’s optimism was probably well founded. (Rist became a legendary sandtrack racer after the war; so he, for one, would have done well on the smooth, gravel track.) This much is certain: the symbolism of a team of British soldiers, accepting their accolades from a German general at such a moment in history, would be lost on no one.

But as the tired riders reached the Friday check in, they found Col. Bennett waiting with new orders: prepare for immediate departure. The Army also took four civilian competitors under their wing (including Miss Marjorie Cottle, the only woman in the field.) The British convoy consisted of riders and ‘fitters,’ officers, factory reps, and another woman, Miss Bunge, representing the A.-C.U. They formed a column of two trucks, two cars, and fifteen motorcycles. They were accompanied by Bennett’s German liaison officer, the very downcast Col. Grimm,

The British ‘Internationals’ were far from the only soldiers on the move. The German invasion of Poland was set for 4:30 a.m. the next morning. Well over a million German troops began moving towards the border under cover of darkness.

Fuel was tightly rationed, but Herr Jaeger, of Shell’s Munich office, provided the group with enough precious gasoline to get to Switzerland. The British contingent - their day had begun so long ago, at 4 a.m. - rode right through the night. Streaming past in the opposite direction, an endless military convoy, headed for Poland. Once, the motorcyclists were halted and questioned by German soldiers at length, until Grimm came to the rescue. It was pouring rain, and cold. Despite this discomfort, they were so utterly exhausted that more than one rider dozed off, waking with a start after hitting the curbs.

In hindsight it seems certain that the German organizers would, indeed, have done everything in their power to ensure the safety of the competitors - even if Britain had declared war during the event. Afterward (when the war was in full swing and propagandizing was rife on both side; when few Brits could bring themselves to say anything remotely nice about the “Krauts”) Major H.R. Watling, the Auto-cycle Union’s Steward admitted, “The courtesy of the officials of the O.N.S. and N.S.K.K. towards British competitors remained undiminished.”

It’s a moot point anyway because that night, Hitler had a rare crisis of confidence. First, Britain reaffirmed its commitment to come to Poland’s aid. Then, Mussolini screwed up his nerve and informed Hitler that Italy’s military was not yet ready to help if Britain (or France, for that matter) joined the fray. The Fuerher called off the invasion. Poland got a brief reprieve, although it took hours for new orders to reach all the men in the field, and the escaping motorcyclists noticed no reversal of the Germans’ mobilization.

So, on the morning of the sixth day, instead of charging off to capture the Huhnlein Trophy, the Army team crossed into Switzerland. After seeing the last of his men to safety, Colonel Bennett bade farewell to Col. Grimm, and stepped across the border himself. It would be a long time before an officer of the British Army would again shake hands, as a friend, with of an officer of the Wehrmacht.

The British contingent rode almost nonstop through Switzerland and across northern France, to the ferry docks at Calais. They were no sooner home than the war was on for real. England declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. The United States entered the war two years, three months, and eight days later.

Left to compete in their event virtually alone, the Germans won all the major ISDT trophies. The results were never ratified by the FIM.

Quite a story, eh? After compiling an outline, I queried Cycle World, and the magazine said it would run it as a feature. I traveled to England to research the events of 1939 in the British Library, at the Imperial War Museum, and at the National Army Museum. I wrote it up and sent it to the magazine, but it was eventually killed because the then-editor didn't think they could support it with enough photos. I was told that it might run if I could get a lot of pictures from the event, preferably in color. It was 1939. It's unlikely anyone even shot the event in color. But it eventually ran in Classic Bike.

It was one of those great tales that, every time I told it, somebody said, "That should be a movie." I asked the only filmmaker I knew at the time, Peter Riddihough, how to start and he suggested that I just write out the story, which I did. I wrote a novella-length account of those events which was very true to the historical facts. I made up dialogue where needed and filled in gaps with plausible action. 

As a racer, the thing that fascinated me was the should-we-stay-or-should-we-go debates that I know must have taken place. They worked so hard to get to the ISDT, and to have to leave while in a position to win must have been agonizing. 

I shopped that story around with no success, hoping to find an experienced screenwriter who wanted to share it. I'd registered it with the Writer's Guild, so there didn't seem to be any reason not to put it on line. I posted it on the old Road Racer X web site one Thursday, and the next day I got a phone call from Davey Coombs, who asked me if it was all right for him to give my number to Matt Leblanc, who had called Davey after reading the post (those two knew each other from somewhere; Leblanc's an avid motorcyclist and Davey basically owns the sport of motocross in the U.S., so I wasn't surprised they were connected.)

Within hours, I got a call from some lawyer at Warner Bros., wanting to know who my agent was. I was told that they were going to make an offer to buy the rights to my account, and that I could expect a written offer to be delivered by courier within days.

I thought that was pretty cool.

Hollywood, someone once said, is the land of the slow no.

No offer ever came. I suspect that someone in WB's legal department said, "Wait a minute, this is all a matter of historical record, we don't have to buy this, we can just appropriate (read 'steal') it." While the underlying facts are matters of record, just taking an entire, original journalistic account of a historical event and using it as the basis of a film would put a producer on pretty shaky ground. My account was compiled from a number of period sources, and because the version posted above is based on a concordance of a number of accounts, my version actually spells out certain details for the first time. (If this happened, and this happened, then it follows that this must have happened.)

Anyway, when they never followed up I did what every other semi-employed guy in SoCal does; I bought a copy of Final Draft and wrote a screenplay. My first version of The Trophy stuck closely to my novella (and the historical facts.)

It got nowhere. Perhaps because it was not contrived to create conflict in every friggin' scene, and there was no bloodshed. Ismail Merchant was dead, and so was my movie.

I finally compromised and rewrote the film, sticking as close as I could to the historical record while injecting just enough conflict, romance (and yes some bloody violence) that it might, conceivably, get funding in Hollywood. I circulated to everyone I know with a degree or two of separation from the film business. My friend Jeff Buchanan who grew up in the movie business (his dad was a cult-hero director of sci-fi 'B-movies) read it and told me he hated it. He called me up and  point-by-point excoriated everything I'd done to the story in order to get it made.

Since Jeff has conspicuously good taste, I knew I was finally moving in the right direction to get it made.

Anyway, I think I'm possibly (pause while blogger touches wood) finally close to making an announcement about this film. While the popular assessment in Hollywood is that any period script, any costume drama, any movie with accents has one, two, three strikes against it... if The King's Speech does well tonight, The Trophy stands a slightly better chance.

The civilian competitors at the '39 event were taken aback by the predominance of Nazi uniforms. The event was actually organized by the Nazi party, and there was as much interest in the Huhnlein Trophy as there was in the 'main event.' For a few beautiful pictures that set the scene, go to the speedtracktales website. It's great.
The foregoing material has been registered nine ways from Sunday. Trust me, it'd be cheaper to buy it than steal it. Have your people call my people. Oh wait, I don't have people.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

The most important component on a motorcycle should always be the rider

Judging from the timesheets issued at the end of each day at the Sepang MotoGP test, there was a lot of formation flying going on, with groups of similar machines closely spaced at the end of each day. The effect got more pronounced as the test wore on, until finally at the end of Day 3 the results looked like this...

  1. Casey Stoner Honda 1:59.66
  2. Dani Pedrosa Honda 1:59.80
  3. Marco Simoncelli Honda 2:00.16
  4. Andrea Dovizioso Honda 2:00.54
  5. Ben Spies Yamaha 2:00.67
  6. Colin Edwards Yamaha 2:00.96
  7. Jorge Lorenzo Yamaha 2:01.00
  8. Alvaro Bautista Suzuki 2:01.19
  9. Hiroshi Aoyama Honda 2:01.32
  10. Hector Barbera Ducati 2:01.34
  11. Valentino Rossi Ducati 2:01.46
  12. Nicky Hayden Ducati 2:01.46
  13. Loris Capirossi Ducati 2:01.49
Since there's only one Suzuki in the field, that brand is 'grouped' by definition, but in the front 3/4's of the grid, only Aoyama seems to be out of the prescribed order. That distribution of bikes reminds me of the mid-'90s when I finally stopped watched F1 car racing. By then, the grid would be formed of pairs of identical cars. That, disappointingly, always suggested that drivers had little to do with the overall results — drivers’ skill or daring only mattered enough to influence the results when all other variables had been controlled for; ie _within_ their teams. I longed for the days before traction control (and ABS) had turned F1 cars into (admittedly breathtakingly fast) robot cars. I wished the genie could have been put back in the bottle, and when a driver with plenty of bottle, like Gilles Villeneuve, could overdrive his Ferrari 312-T4, which was an inherently compromised design (its flat-12 motor was unsuited to ground effect aerodynamic design, which had just emerged as the trend-of-the-moment.) Skip to about minute four of this video, and watch the last couple of laps of the 1979 F1 French GP, and remember that there was a time car racing was as exciting as motorcycle racing - and more exciting than motorcycle racing is now.



While there’s no denying that the road _to_ a MotoGP seat is still very, very difficult and everyone is scary fast, these results make me suspect, again, that the machines are fitted with too many rider aids, which reduce the significance of the rider in the overall equation.

At the Indy show, I heard Chris Van Andel of Motion Pro mention that one Superbike team had requested a special, extra-large spool for their Revolver adjustable throttle, with a diameter that would result in about a 1/8th turn throttle. “I can't imagine controlling a bike with such a quick throttle,” he mused. Someone else noted, “I guess they're just letting the traction control do all the work.”

I miss the days when lap times depended most on a single component: the nut connecting the handlebars to the seat. I hope these results don't mean that if you’re fast enough to get to MotoGP, once you’re there you’re only as fast as your machine and there’s little you can do about it. If it really turns out that rider input variations are less than the deviation between ‘brands,’ that will be bad for MotoGP.

Of course, over the course of a season or contract, a brilliant rider might be able to make such a contribution to his bike's ongoing development that he could shift the balance of power. Let’s see, for example, if Lorenzo or Spies has the quality of input that will allow Yamaha to keep winning. Or if Rossi can raise Ducati’s game. But even that doesn’t redound to the specific development rider as much as to the team as a whole.

I'll stop saying traction control's gone too far eventually, I suppose. But it's clearly 'better' than the best riders now. I'm not saying MotoGP's easy or that I could do it, because I know I can't. But how long will it be before ABS or even computerized lean control provide superhuman braking and turn-in?

At that point, we can all turn off.

Friday, February 25, 2011

World's luckiest Indian?

A friend of a friend forwarded this shot of, yes, 'The world's fastest Indian' which now resides in the Hayes Hardware store in Invercargill, on New Zealand's south island. Invercargill is pretty far from Christchurch, so this building wasn't at risk during the recent earthquake. It did, however, dodge a bullet during the 2009 quake that wreaked havoc on Invercargill itself. The photo came to us with no explanation as to how the bike ended up in the hardware store. Maybe Burt Munro ran up such a tab that it was the only way to repay the merchant.

Notable engineer countdown - at #6, Fabio Taglioni – adapted desmodromic valves to motorcycles

I'm sorry, I couln't resist. I'm told this guy's an avid motorcyclist. For a photo of the real Fabio Taglioni, go here.
Taglioni was the chief designer at Ducati from 1954-’89. Although many “Ducatisti” would like to believe that Ducati invented the “desmo” valve system (using a second cam to close the valves, instead of valve springs) the patent was held by Daimler-Benz. Still, it was Taglioni who realized that the system would benefit fast-revving motorcycle engines which, in the 1950s, were limited by the reliability of valve springs. When he mated two Ducati 350cc singles to create the first Ducati 90-degree V-twin, he created one of motorcycling’s truly iconic designs.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Racers shouldn't be fat(uous.) And more on James Parker's role in creating the stunning Mission R

So we're about to start another racing season. It's time to start my eye-rolling exercises, so that I'll be ready for more fatuous use of the word 'we' when racers refer to themselves. According to Wikipedia, it was USN Admiral Hyman Rickover who punk'd a subordinate who used the 'royal we' by asking him, "Three groups are permitted that usage: pregnant women, royalty, and schizophrenics. Which one are you?"

I don't even think royalty should use it, but I do agree with Mark Twain who thought there was one more class of person who could legitimately refer to themselves in the plural: people with tapeworms.

I get it. A high-level motorcycle racer is backed by a whole team and, by and large, unless they do their jobs adequately (or at the highest level, unless they do their jobs pretty damned well) the rider has no chance of winning. 

I suppose that in some long-lost post-race interview, the first racer who referred to himself as 'we' may have done so out of a spirit of generosity, in order to share credit for a win with his crew.

His crew would certainly have preferred to share the racer's paycheck.

It's appropriate to give your crew a shout out, but this idiotic use of 'we' has now become a nosism, which is to say that it's actually being used to aggrandize the speaker. Maybe motorcycle racers do it to sound like car racers; maybe car racers do it to sound like stick-and-ball athletes, who really do play as a team. Perhaps some racers' egos are that big that they should be saying 'we,' but until there's a MotoGP bike ridden by a pair of midgets one of whom can just barely reach the throttle and the other who just barely reaches the shifter, or until that new Chinese Moto3 team fields Siamese twins on their bike.. Riders please, refer to yourselves correctly, as 'I.'

The proof of how contrived this whole 'we' thing is, is that while riders self-consciously refer to themselves as 'we' they unselfconsciously refer to their competitors in the singular. I am sure that, in this video clip lowlight of Nicky's '06 campaign, he's not cursing out one whole side of his team's garage...


OK, rant over. I finally got around to transcribing the rest of my interview with Mission R designer James Parker. If you want to read this from the beginning, or need a little background on Mission and its bike, go here. If you're already up to speed, click on the little blue 'Read more' link just below this photo...
Parker and the Mission R, sans battery. The machined alloy plate seen in the horizontal plane at the level of James' left quadricep is, coincidentally, the fourth element of his 'quad-element' frame.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Whither (or wither?) Cycle World...

Or, if a tree falls in the forest, but no magazines are being printed, do the pulp and paper companies even haul it to the mill?.

I wrote this a few weeks ago, but was prompted to finally post after driving back to KC from the Indy trade show over the weekend. As I trundled along I-70 in my rental car I played back a few tapes in my head. I thought that on balance, the atmosphere at the show had been more positive than it seems to be in the motorcycle media. I thought that the absence of show coverage on the 'usual suspect' motorcycle web sites was conspicuous. (I saw Kevin Duke there, and he posted some insights into Erik Buell's new bike on MO, and I saw Sport Rider magazine's Kent Kunitsugu shooting pics of cool new accessories; it's not as if there were no journalists there, but still. Interesting material abounded; where was the curiosity?) 

I also think that the online world's been downright boring the last couple of weeks.Come on, you guys! I've got a bunch of huge stories I could break, I just don't have the time to write them up. What's my excuse? Posting Backmarker isn't my job.


What is my job, by the way? Seriously. If you know, please shoot me an email.


Half-way between Kansas City and Indianapolis, I passed this interchange. Left, Chicago, Right, Memphis; either way ya' got da' blues. Yet my sense at Indy was that the exhibitors were cautiously optimistic.
Where was I? I guess where this train of thought led me was that I think there's still a chance for Cycle World to snatch relevance from the jaws of obsolescence. Herewith...

The recent fall in motorcycle sales and concomitant (even more dramatic) fall in motorcycle ad spending has hurt all the American motorcycle magazines. Road Racer X just folded; Ultimate Motorcycling has shuffled its production schedule, Motorcyclist survives by the grace of bankruptcy protection. No doubt the tight economy's hurt newsstand sales a bit, and this whole scene's exacerbated by the migration of readers (and advertisers) to the Internet. There's a vicious cycle here, as the magazines get thinner and more cluttered with cheaper and crappier ads, they become less attractive to readers, too.

In spite of this, Cycle World's 300,000+ press run still makes it the world's most widely circulated motorcycle magazine, and it remains the most influential single voice in American motorcycle journalism.

Until last month, Cycle World's parent company was Hachette-Filipacchi - one of the world's largest media companies...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Notable engineer countdown - at #7, Etsuo Yokouchi – Suzuki GSX-R750 design team leader

"To infinity, and beyond!" Etsuo Yokouchi, in a photo taken about a 15 years after unveiling the first Suzuki GSX-R750, which was launched at the 1984 Cologne motorcycle show.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Indy Scene (and heard)

The motorcycle industry's big 'Dealer Expo' had a slow opening yesterday. It used to run Sat-Mon and this year the schedule was changed to Fri-Sun. Today the show was pretty busy and while only a few of the big OEMs were present, the mood amongst upstart manufacturers and the myriad parts and accessories suppliers was, I thought, cautiously optimistic going into the 2011 riding season.

Here are some of the people and things that caught my eye walking around the show...

Not surprisingly, there was a bit of buzz in the electric scene...

I was surprised to see that Vectrix is back in business. Vectrix sort of had First Mouse Syndrome, and after an early flurry of interest in its nickel-metal-halide battery-powered maxi scooter, the company folded some time in '09. Its name, tooling, assets and IP were acquired by Hong Kong-based Gold Peak Batteries International company, and the bikes are now powered by Gold Peak Li-ion batteries.

The line is comprised of three bikes: the original maxi scoot, which is seen at the far left above has been joined by a smaller and lighter entry-level scooter and a rather cool electric version of the Piaggio tilting three-wheeler. This latter bike retails for around $14k, and has a claimed 70 mph top speed. The new Vectrix company is honoring the old Vectrix' warranties, and has reestablished relations with many of the old dealers. It's also looking for a few good dealers, while focusing on fleet operators. It has a relationship with a separate company that outfits the machines with extra lights for police work.
Ultra Motor was at Indy with a new, beefed-up version of its electric bicycles (or, for such a green vehicle, maybe I should say, "Now with extra tofu"?) This bike requires a motorcycle license, and is capable of 30 miles an hour. Like the other A2B bicycles, there's a battery in the frame, but this one also has a bigger hub motor and that thing on the back that looks like a bread box is a secondary battery. That one is easily demountable, so you can leave the bike locked up outside and bring that battery inside for charging. Ultra Motor North America is based in San Francisco; the company's HQ is in London; the machines are designed in Germany and manufactured in Taiwan.
Zero now claims that 40 dealers have signed up, and they've got another 20 "talking." They're still looking for about 10 more. "All we ask," one Zero acolyte told me, "is that they put a couple of bikes on the floor, so they can demo them. Then, we can deliver bikes as they sell them, in about three days." The bikes no longer have the clean white look; there are colors and more graphics. Maybe that appeals to conventional motorcycle dealers. Zero told me they now have over 60 accessories, too.

New-to-us manufacturers were desperately seeking distributors...

There were several Asian manufacturers I've never heard of, looking to sign up dealers or even distributors. At a glance, some of the machines looked like competitive offerings...
...while others were almost so ugly they were cute.

Some of my friends desperately needed sleep...

Erik Buell's batteries were drained getting this gorgeous EBR1190RS ready for the show. The $40k machine really looks the business. "I'm here looking for dealers," Erik told me. "I want guys who are passionate about sport bikes."

I mused that one problem for the old Buell company must have been Harley dealers that didn't 'get' the sport bike market. Erik looked at it slightly differently. "Some of the dealers were great," he told me. "But a lot of them were great at selling cruisers. So one of the things I learned from Harley was that your dealers have to be passionate about the thing you give them to sell. Some people here today hear the price and think it's too high, but lots of people have told me, 'I can sell a few of those.'"

Rotax bought all the rights to the 1125cc Buell motor back from Harley-Davidson, and supplies fully assembled 1125s to EBR. In Wisconsin, the motors are torn down and bored out to 106mm, for an 1190cc final displacement. Needless to say the pistons are replaced, but that's nowhere near all -- the rods and crank are changed, the heads are CNC milled and fitted with Ti valves. Buyers will have the option of a Suter mechanical slipper clutch or the Buell vacuum-assisted one.

Buell hopes to homologate the  new bike for AMA Superbike racing by the Infineon round. To conform to AMA Pro Racing rules, he has to have 18 bikes completed, and promise to complete 100 this year. That's about all his12-person shop can make. I asked if he had to show the AMA parts for 100 bikes and he laughed and said that he couldn't afford that many parts. "I have to sell a few bikes, first."

I know that he'll have no trouble selling the first few, as there was a ton of interest in this machine.
Gorgeous triple clamps, carbon 'tank' and all-business fuel filler. Does the EBR1190RS look like a $40 grand bike? It's not far off, that's for sure.

Lee Conn and Brian Case are behind the soon-to-be unveiled Motus sport tourer. The company's based out of Birmingham, with motors coming out of Pratt & Miller, up in Michigan. They're working around the clock to prep for a couple of pre-launch 'private screenings' and a public unveiling at Daytona. This is a really interesting story I've been following for a while now and I'll hold off on details for another couple of weeks. Lee showed me a nice-looking bike on his phone, but wouldn't hold it up in this picture. "Your camera looks like it has too many megapixels!"

And there's yet another new American OEM! Steve Christini has also been pulling all-nighters to bring two Christini 2WD bikes - not kits - to the show. Both bikes are basically made in China to his specs, and brought to the U.S. where his front-wheel drive system is fitted. He's standing in front of the 450 four-stroke, which is basically the carburetor-equipped previous-generation Honda 450. This bike will retail for less than $7,000 (yes, in 2WD!) and will be available in a street-legal dual-sport version as well as the trail-only version shown here. Christini also has a higher-spec trail bike powered by a Gas Gas 300cc two-stroke motor.

"This should have been the hard part," Christini told me, patting the bike and meaning, engineering the bike should have been the big challenge. What he hadn't counted on was the red tape involved in becoming a manufacturer. It took three months just to get a letter from the EPA allowing him to bring in the bike in this photo... for EPA testing.

It's been a long road for Christini; I remember seeing one of his first prototypes, back in about 2004 when Dirt Rider and Motorcyclist shared a lockup under the Petersen building on Wilshire Boulevard in Hollywood. Since then, he's installed about 250 kits. He's been courting an OEM, like KTM for years. Now, with Gas Gas dealers suddenly interested in carrying his two-stroke, he's hoping to sell 150 bikes this year, 500 next year, and looking at maybe a couple of thousand in two or three years.

With OEMs showing even more caution than usual right now, becoming his own manufacturer makes good sense. I think that the sharply priced four-stroke will appeal to casual riders, who are the very people who benefit most from 2WD. As soon as he has a dual-sport version of the 450, I'll be pestering him for a loaner to test.

...and others desperately needed sponsors.


Around Christmas, David Lloyd told me that ENI/AGIP had withdrawn sponsorship of Lloyd Brothers Motorsports brilliant Ducati flat track program. I hope the presence of his bike in the ENI booth means that they've found a way to keep their program on track. I'll check in with David soon and report back.


Finally, some were just plain desperate...

"Hmm, what will get people's attention? I know, tight miniskirts." "No way, dude, it should be free beer." "Tight miniskirts." "Free beer!" "Tight miniskirts!!" "Free beer!!!" "Wait! Why are we fighting?.."

Friday, February 18, 2011

Notable engineer countdown - at #8, Tadao Baba – creator of the Honda Fireblade

Not to be confused with the guru known to millions as simply 'Baba', Honda's Tadao Baba brought sweet handling and smokin' performance together to create the modern 'liter-class'.
Thanks to the GSX-R750, Suzuki stole a march on Honda in the performance market. Then Suzuki introduced a larger and even faster 1100cc “gixxer.” That bike, however, didn’t handle nearly so well. Baba, an engineer working at Honda saw the opportunity to create a motorcycle with open-class power and 750-class handling. When it was introduced in 1992, the ‘blade amply reached those goals: it weighed about 410 pounds and produced nearly 125 horsepower. Baba’s creation completely changed the expectations of open class riders, who had always wanted acceleration and top speed but never knew they could have handling too.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

New feature! @$$hole du jour!

I'm swamped today, getting ready for a road trip to the powersports dealer show at Indy tomorrow, and I just haven't had time to finish transcribing my Mission Motors design files. I'll get the rest of James Parker's interview up soon, and follow it with stylist Tim Prentice's insights. Whether Jorah Wyler talks to me remains to be heard, I guess.

I've got some cool ICE stuff in the pipeline, too: a feature on Shinya Kimura that I'll post in the next couple of weeks - part of an 'L.A. Confidential' pairing, in which I'll compare and contrast Shinya with Ian Barry and Falcon.

But what about today, you ask? Well, I'm initiating a great new feature, in which you can participate and even win (somewhat) valuable prizes!

Yes, I'm finally launching @$$hole du Jour, something I've been meaning to do since that one fateful day in 2004. Yes, I remember it like it was, well, about 7 years ago. I'd pulled some sportbike out of Motorcyclist's fleet to ride home, and had just turned off the 10 onto I-5 in heavy-but-flowing SoCal traffic. I was getting ready to migrate into my position of choice - lane-splitting just to the right of the fast lane - but I was still in the shoulder lane when a huge SUV towing a large boat trundled right down the next on-ramp. The @$$hole driver looked right at me and pulled all the way into my lane. For a few seconds, the only place for me was the space beside the trailer tongue. I thought, What a great photo feature this would make for Motorcyclist, if I could only get a picture of this d1©&head.
The world still needs a place to document and archive these $#!tty cage-driving @$$holes.

To get things started and without further ado here's...

The @$$hole du Jour for February 17, 2010
I actually thought this license plate was cute as I approached it, since it almost spells out the mnemonic for learning which letters are vowels - A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y. But soon after noticing it, my inner voice was screaming "Aiee! You @$$hole!"

Situation: Heading north at 35 mph on Brookside Boulevard in KC, approaching Ward Parkway. It's a four-lane divided road. Toyota Priapus in curb lane, traveling about 30 mph. Unseasonably warm weather, so the driver's window is open. I can see the driver in his wing mirror, so I know he can see me, and should be able to hear me as I roll off the throttle to reduce closing speed (and prepare for a light ahead, which I can see has just turned yellow.)

@$$hole nomination: Priapus driver pinches me off as drifts into the left lane without signalling or shoulder checking (or for that matter, listening.) Maybe he's confused about his 'hybrid' car and thinks he should drive as if he's inbred, to keep things in balance. 

In truth this was not a particularly hairy situation, because the road's not perfectly straight there, and in those situations I always anticipate cage-drivers may drift. I may have detected a subtle change in his body language indicating a desire to move left, too, because my spider sense was tingling slightly more than normal. (Or was that the Bonneville vibrating? I can't be sure.)

I wanted to pull up beside him at the next light and tell him, "Hey, d1©&head, in the future please try to either look, listen, or signal," but I was too grossed out when I looked in and saw him engaged in a very vigorous two-handed nose-pick. He was actually pulling his nose off to one side with one hand so he could reach into the other nostril to the wrist. OK, that's an exaggeration but you get the idea.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present you the first-ever official @$$hole du Jour! The driver of the Toyota Prius with license plate AE1 YOU.

Now, I invite motorcyclists everywhere to vent their frustrations without risking some self-entitled cage-driver pulling his Glock and offing the righteously indignant.
Not only will I post your photos and accounts, I'll award (semi-) wonderful prizes for submissions.
@$$hole du Jour Contest Rules
  • @$$hole du jour is scored on the honor system, claims are not verified.
  • Entries must consist of a photo and description of events. The photo must allow readers to either identify the car (license plate) or driver. Extra points will be awarded if drivers can be identified by name. Extra points awarded for humorous and/or compelling descriptions of cage-drivers' idiocy, and overall hairiness of evasive maneuver. Extra points for video links! Maximum points will typically be awarded for actual accidents with injury.
  • Please don't do anything in order to get the photo that will alienate uninvolved drivers.
  • Although the whole point of this is to give motorcyclists a way to vent frustration without violence, drivers identified as @$$holes du jour are welcome to complain directly to me. 
  • Submit your entries to dujournomination@gmail.com
  • First round of prizes: Copies of 'Wrenched' - motorcycle poetry by Ed Milich.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ural? Ural!

Since a good part of my time is devoted to practicing the dark arts of communications strategy, it counts for something that if, say, in 2008 you'd asked me, "What motorcycle brand is least likely to become a hipster favorite?" I would have responded, Ural.

And yet.

Here we are in 2011 and a friend of mine sent a note about a sidecar outfit he'd seen written up in the Continental Airlines inflight magazine; he thought it looked really cool. There was a Hammarhead custom Ural parked inside the Ace Hotel for Hell for Leather's New York motorcycle show party. And Ural sponsors the delightful Australian-based BikeEXIF web site.

Where's my machine gun? When Mary and I met our friend Mark for coffee in Lawrence last summer, and he drove up on this thing, he admitted that he'd bought it because he wasn't sure his wife would let him have a two-wheeler. But I immediately fantasized about setting this up with a 'Russian front' style windshield and leg guards, and using it through my first Kansas City winter. Huey Lewis was right: it's hip to be square.
Nice job, Ural. You've gone from a non-brand for aging geeks, to the choice of the uber-cool types who embody William Gibson-style 'antimarketing' theories.

To be sure, Ural got some help from The Great Recession. First, it became somewhat less cool to flaunt conspicuous consumption, and the anything-but-trendy Ural emerged as a sort of antidote to posers on their 1198s.

Picture the conversations...
"Is that this year's model?" 
"Yes, and last year's, and next year's, and the year after that, and..."

Or, in the snowbound northern tier...
"I'm having my MV Agusta trucked to L.A. so I can do a track day at Willow Springs."
"Oh. I'm leaving for Uruguay tomorrow morning. But first I'm using my Ural to plow the driveway, and then I have to transfer 600 pounds of construction debris to the dump."

In this age of Tea Party budget cuts, Urals evoke a "who cares if there's no money to fix potholes?" insouciance. So it's a bike for these times, I guess.

The recession also opened another door for Ural, a company with a nearly non-existent budget for conventional advertising. When the bigger, richer manufacturers (and that's almost all of them) killed ad budgets and closed whole marketing departments in '08-'09, they proved that one of the oldest communications strategies in the world of business is still utterly valid: The time to build mindshare is when everyone else cuts back on their marketing activities. You don't have to do much to get attention when everyone else is silent.


Ural's become hip with what amounts to a textbook example of skillful and timely guerrilla marketing. (They wear those ratty fatigues well, since I once heard a rumor that Osama bin Laden escaped from the Tora Bora area, across the border into Pakistan, as the passenger in a Ural sidecar.)


And, from what I hear the company's also backing clever communications with good customer service. A friend of mine who bought one used found that there were metallurgical problems in some valve-train components. Clearly a manufacturing defect, but this was a bike he bought used; to make matters worse, Ural had no dealership near him (he lives in Lawrence, Kansas.)

Ural could've said, "Hey, we have no idea what the last owner did to it, and we don't know you. You're on your own."

Instead, the company found and recommended a local BMW shop, and covered the cost of bringing the bike up to proper spec.


Not just great guerrilla marketing, but a hearts and minds program to back it up.


Wouldn't you know it? The Commies are coming...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Notable engineer countdown - at #9, William S. Harley – created Harley-Davidson's first V-twin

William S. Harley, 1880-1943
Bill Harley drew up a single-cylinder motor suitable for powering a bicycle in 1901, at the age of 21. Two years later he partnered with Arthur Davidson to produce a racing motorcycle; that first Harley-Davidson was born in a 150-square foot shed. Harley graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1907. By that time, two more Davidson brothers had joined the partnership and the company was firmly established. Harley designed and prototyped the first H-D V-twin motor that year, too. Whether you love or hate what that design led to, there's no denying the fact that William S. Harley is the single individual who ended up having the largest influence on the shape of the American motorcycle. To learn more about him start here.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Forrest North out at Mission, now Saiki out at Zero?..

The days are long gone when Soichiro Honda could show up late for a board meeting, wearing a shop coat and absent-mindedly toying with a camshaft, speaking only to insist that the company spend unheard-of percentages of revenue on upgraded production equipment, R & D, and racing. Luckily, his friend Takeo Fujisawa, who ran the company day-to-day, always had Honda's back. Reading period reports from within Honda before Soichiro's retirement in the early '70s, it's clear that he galvanized the entire workforce, sparked creativity, and inspired a belief that anything was possible. What would have become of Honda, the company, if they had turfed out Honda, the man, after the release of the Honda Dream?
I'm reading reports that Zero Electric Motorcycle founder Neal Saiki's been pushed out of the company he founded three or four years ago. And I recently heard that Forrest North's no longer got any day to day responsibility at Mission Motors, where he was the founding CEO.

Years ago, I was the VP Marketing of a Canadian retailer called Mark's Work Wearhouse. People used to ask me all the time if I was the Mark in the store's name, and I told them no, I was the other Mark at the company. I reported directly to the founder, Mark Blumes. He was a legend in Canadian business -- partly because he was a huge, crude, cigar-smoking caricature of a Jewish retail baron, and partly because he'd started with a great idea and few thousand bucks in inventory and built it into a 200-store, $200 million business with one of the country's strongest brands (that's where I helped.) Despite his gruff exterior he was the classic thin-skinned guy driven by a need to prove all the better looking, cliquey kids in his school that he was a winner. If you told him a story that was even a little bit sad, he'd cry.

My office was about 100 feet down the hall from big Mark and if he needed me, he'd just yell for me. If it was a bad day (common in retail, since you lose money about 9 days out of 10) it'd be, "Gardiner, you @$$#ole, get down here!" That was a sign he loved me. He was the kind of guy who, in an excited conversation, would accidentally spit on you, and seem not to notice he'd done it. Once, we went to some fancy New Age $1000/day corporate creativity retreat in New Mexico where we shared a suite. I was reading late at night when he let loose a ripping fart so cacophonous, I burst out laughing. He woke up demanding to know what was so funny. "I have no idea," I replied. "I must've been dreaming."

I moved on, starting my own ad agency. And after one more round of financing, Mark lost controlling interest in the company that bore his name, and he was turfed out by the board. He was a broken man, and I have to say that while I was saddened when my old friend died, I was almost relieved. With his company, he lacked a raison d'etre.

I've been critical of both Saiki and North in the past -- The first time I interviewed Saiki, I came away thinking, that he was not even trying to actually build a motorcycle company; I was sure his exit strategy was just to sell Zero to some larger OEM as a sort of turn-key EV R&D department. North, as CEO of Mission two years ago, was essentially fully occupied with seeking additional funding, but no one I spoke to there could elucidate a business plan; no one seemed to have any sense of the risks of overpromising - and the final responsibility for that lies at the top. Despite the fact that I asked tough questions, both were unfailingly gracious to me, and seemed like genuinely nice guys.

For them, being turfed out is not nearly the same thing as it was for my old boss. Big Mark got his retail training at the Hudson Bay Company, a Canadian retailer that was, at the time, about 400 years old. Mark's goal was to build a permanent company in his (admittedly homely) image. Saiki and North are young, super-intelligent guys with very desirable skillsets, and they're from a different culture of serial entrepreneurship. And they probably both had nice parachutes.

There's a lesson here though, for brilliant technical guys and engineers (it happened to Erik Buell, too.)

A big idea won't get you that far. You've got to have a business plan, and if you don't have one, your investors will create one for you. Money guys are drawn to big ideas, but the closer they get to them, the more they tend to focus on your ideas' attendant risks and not the future rewards. 

At that point, you're expendable.

Any trials rider knows it's tricky turning on a slippery slope

How do you feel about smoking? I know that I love to see a really hot, sexy woman smoking. Because as soon as she lights up, I can totally relax around her; I lose all sexual attraction instantly.

But seriously. This morning, an article in the New York Times discusses businesses (mostly hospitals) that know use smoking as a reason not to hire, or even to terminate, new employees. I'm not sympathetic to smokers, and am sympathetic to smokers' employers who pay for innumerable 'smoke breaks' when nicotine fiends leave the building to go and smoke wherever it's allowed (I think most go to Nevada.)

As I was reading it, though, I thought it was a slippery slope. After all, it's risky but legal behavior. So's motorcycling. Sure enough, even the New York Times listed riding motorcycles as a logical next-banned-activity target for this kind of thinking.

Fair warning...

Friday, February 11, 2011

Mubarek and the motorcycle

I don't know how many times I could fill my Vino with this load of oil. But if millions of disgruntled Arabs want to rock this boat, it won't hurt motorcycle sales.
The news that Mubarek has stepped down - presumably defusing risk of a violent revolution in Egypt - resulted in a slight drop in the price of oil futures today. This after a couple of weeks in which increasing uncertainty had pushed prices higher.

But the departure of a 'strongman' military-backed dictator doesn't necessarily - or even usually -result in stability. (Remember Tito? This one, not this one...)

Where was I? I suppose the prospect of some kind of caretaker government, leading to the creation of a constitution based on democratic principles and fair elections, should be viewed with cautious optimism. If that could work anywhere in the Arab world, I guess Egypt's the place. But the prospect of a wave of popular uprisings across the region has oil traders twitching. Disruptions in oil shipments would result in price spikes, although a general level of uncertainty could engender an every-man-for-himself mentality amongst OPEC nations, weakening an already structurally unsound cartel. Prices could go up, they could fall.

Frankly, although another oil price spike would weaken our shaky 'recovery' from recession, there's some evidence (from the MIC) that high fuel prices in 2008 provided a boost for the scooter and commuter-bike market, and there's certainly some anecdotal evidence that it encouraged people who already owned motorcycles to use them instead of their cars. Those were both good things. And, since American business now has the attention span of a fruit fly, it would refocus interest and investment on the EV sector, which seems to ebb and flow with the price of gasoline.

A few weeks ago, I read an interesting article in the New Yorker suggesting that mandating improved fleet fuel mileage or increasing the percentage of hybrid vehicles on the road will not result in reduced energy consumption. Higher prices, however, will have that effect. More motorcycles on the road, and a reduced carbon footprint; I'm down with that.

I guess I don't want downtrodden Arabs to pointlessly rebel against dictators and oligarchs who'll brutally suppress them; nor to I want the pessimist's view of an Egypt spiraling into extremism to come true. But, what the hell... let 'em rock the boat for a while. I liked it when, as gasoline prices climbed steadily through 2007-'08, people rolled down their car windows at stoplights and asked me, "What kind of mileage are you getting?"

Notable engineer countdown - 10 who left their mark on motorcycling

Before the modern motorcycle could take shape, it first took shape in the minds of engineers and designers. Picking the ten most deserving for this list is a task guaranteed to infuriate some readers, but these guys championed ideas and influenced whole categories and markets.

In position #10, Erik Buell – engineering iconoclast


"More cheese, Gromit?" Wisconson's Erik Buell does his best imitation of another noted cheesehead. This was at Daytona in 2006, when the star-crossed XBRR took 'modifying the cases' to extremes. Rules are made for stretching.
Although Harley-Davidson’s air-cooled, pushrod V-twin motors are not an obvious choice as powerplants, Erik Buell’s determination to produce a mass-market American sport bike was admirable and he’s proven to be an extremely creative engineer. His use of shock absorber springs that operate in tension, frames that carry fuel and swingarms that carry oil, and rim-mounted brake discs are just a few of the inventions that may, some day, be found on other brands of motorcycle. 


After Buell was, almost literally, thrown out into the cold by Harley-Davidson, he set up a small shop and went back to his roots, selling and servicing production race bikes. He plans to release a new streetbike, the EBR 1190RS, soon.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Getting beneath the bodywork: James Parker on the Mission R

What a difference two years make. Mission's progressed from this rather strange creature (though I have to say I certainly got a nice shot of it last spring at Infineon...)
...to this. The Mission R, slated for TTXGP (and Isle of Man?) competition this year. The release of these photos (by Kevin Wing/courtesy Mission) created immediate buzz. The machine, designed by James Parker and styled by Tim Prentice, may be the one that finally makes EV motorcycles sexy.
Time flies. It's nearly two years on, now, since I first visited the headquarters of Mission Motors, and interviewed them about the process of building a bike for the Isle of Man TTXGP event, and their plans to launch a road-legal electric sport bike.

After spending a couple of days in San Francisco and at Infineon with the Mission crew, I came away with mixed feelings. On one side of the equation, it was clear that they were all very intelligent. In the office space (itself reminiscent of a scene from The Social Network, minus the beer, dope, and chicks) there was a whiteboard covered with comically-obtuse algorithms. Basically, anyone else in the room, if I had their brain, I'd throw my brain out.

I was ready to believe that they were fully up to speed on batteries, motors, and the critical software that connects those elements and makes powerful e-bikes rideable.

But.

There were a few red flags, too. On the technical side, no one else in the EV world believed the road bike specs they'd published (150 mph/150 mile range, etc.) were achievable with available batteries. And after years in the advertising business, I'd learned that smart guys protect their IP but amateurs overprotect it. If you've got a circuit board across a workshop on a bench in the background of a photo, no one's going to blow up the halftone color-separated photo when it appears three months later in Road Racer X, and reverse-engineer you. That kind of paranoia smacks of hubris, which is great when you're pitching VCs but a real hindrance when it comes to actually being competitive. In the marketplace, an inferiority complex is actually a good motivator.

Another thing I've learned is that while it may be true that 'what you don't know won't hurt you,' what you don't know that you don't know is deadly. I questioned the company's decision to hire an industrial designer with a background in personal computers. There didn't seem to be anyone there with a grasp of motorcycle chassis dynamics. And although they'd announced a date (now long past) when their first $60,000 high-performance street bikes would reach the market, no one had answers when I asked about contracts with key suppliers, potential distributors or dealer networks, or parts support. I came away with the impression that there was no business plan at all.

My overall impression was that in a math bee, the crew at Mission would kick Brammo's ass. But that if I was going to invest in an electric motorcycle company, Brammo would still get my money. And I have to say I felt a tiny bit vindicated when Brammo eked out the better result on the Isle of Man.

Some time after that, my friend James Parker mentioned that he'd been approached by Mission. I told him about what I just wrote there, adding words to the effect of, They want you, but what matters is, do they know they need you?

I heard no more about it until Mission's new TTXGP contender was recently unveiled...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Engineering advance #10: Fuel Injection

Once again, motorcycles were “behind” cars in terms of adopting this particular technology. Initial attempts to make fuel injectors work on motorcycles were held back by size and weight concerns and by the fact that high performance motorcycle handling is influenced by the rider’s ability to open the throttle and feed in power very smoothly. The first production motorcycle fitted with electronic fuel injection was the 1982 Honda CX500 Turbo. That model was a technological triumph but a commercial failure. As is often the case however, both the CX500 Turbo and its big brother CX650 are now highly collectible.

The Honda's fuel injection system was finicky, and put a lot of people off the idea of injection for bikes. About 10 years later, an even more revolutionary bike, the Yamaha GTS1000 'reintroduced' the idea of fuel injection in a big way. That bike, too, was a commercial failure. It was another decade before EFI systems were really giving carbs the boot.
Shortly after the introduction of the CX500 Turbo in '82, all the CX models were increased to a nominal 650cc displacement. The CX650T was actually 673cc. With a claimed 97 horsepower, it was a scary-fast bike in the early '80s. And while the compression was increased and boost lowered to minimize 'turbo lag', the combination of turbo effects and a notchy off-idle throttle pickup typical of early fuel injection systems made it a handful. So it wasn't just scary-fast, it was also plain scary to ride fast.