International roadtester and motorcycling sage Roland Brown looks back at the years that changed motorcycling over the decades…
We knew 1985 was going to be special because it was motorcycling’s centenary, coming 100 years after German teenager Paul Daimler made the first ever ride aboard a 264cc, wooden-framed single called Einspur (“One-track”) built by his dad, Gottlieb. What we didn’t know at the time was that 1985 was destined to be arguably the best ever year for two wheels.
Even in a stunningly rich and varied year, Suzuki’s first GSX-R750 stands out a mile. The original GSX-R was the first modern race-rep, complete with twin-headlamp full fairing, rev-happy 100bhp oilcooled motor, and aluminium frame that helped it weigh an outrageous 176kg — far less than any other big bike.
Admittedly I’m biased, having owned and raced one of the first GSX-Rs in the country. But there’s no denying that the Suzuki was both a brilliant road bike and unbelievably quick on the track. And unlike Honda’s RC30, it was priced like a normal mass-produced four. Just as well, because after smashing mine to pieces at Snetterton, I had to buy another…
While the Japanese factories were all busily building and designing brilliant new bikes, the Italians were in deep poo. Moto Guzzi launched the Le Mans 1000, complete with larger, 949cc V-twin engine, but it had none of the impact of the legendary Le Mans of the Seventies. Ducati, recently bought by the Castiglioni brothers, unveiled a stylish, fully-faired 750 F1 Replica that had cheap suspension, mediocre brakes and a high price. Once-mighty Laverda still had an old-style aircooled triple, the SFC1000. But Laverda couldn’t agree on which direction to take with their company, which ended up following Bimota into administration.
Kawasaki made an expensive mistake in September ’85 when they launched the following year’s GPZ1000RX at the Salzburgring — and brought along the existing GPZ900R to show the world’s journos how much better the new bike was. Trouble was, even the hacks who didn’t crash the RX on the damp Austrian track preferred the more compact, sweeter handling 900R.
Rising Star of 1985 was a Scottish kid called Niall Mackenzie, who was British 250cc Champion on an Armstrong, whatever that was. Niall, or was it Ny-all, also won something called the British Circuit Promoters’ 350cc Championship. Wonder what happened to him…
Freddie Spencer won both 500 and 250cc World Championships, swapping between the NSR250 V-twin and mental NSR500 V4 with staggering ease. At Le Mans Freddie won both races in baking heat, leaving the likes of Eddie Lawson, Wayne Gardner and Ron Haslam in the dust. Most memorable moments were in practice, hearing the two-stroke scream as Spencer accelerated out of the first-gear final turn sideways, on the verge of a massive high-side every lap.
Yamaha’s FZ750 would have been a star in almost any other year, with its torquey 20-valve liquid-cooled motor. But the steel-framed Yam didn’t have the Suzuki’s style, or racetrack cred.Just in case the GSX-R750 wasn’t mad enough, Suzuki also came up with the RG500. It was even more extreme than the GSX-R, but didn’t catch on in the same way.
Surprise star of the year was Yamaha’s mighty V-Max, which was launched only in the States but found its way over here in small numbers. With crazy street-rod styling and 143bhp from its 1200cc, liquid-cooled V4 engine, the mighty Max was the hardest-accelerating bike ever seen. Wobbly handling added to its hard-man appeal. I loved it.
“Freddie’s the best at sliding the front wheel, it’s something he can do and I can’t. he can often have the front wheel wash out and then push it along with the bike skidding on his knee. He’s just pushing the front and he doesn’t seem to worry about it. Eddie Lawson is like me, if it does it he panics a bit, but if it happens to Freddie it’s just natural. I don’t have the bottle to do that, I’m not that good, but I hope I can learn it because it can save you crashing.” Wayne Gardner is in awe of Spencer’s ability.
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