1990 was a mixed year for motorcycling. Remember the Laverda Navarro?
Motorcyclists didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as the Nineties began. Bikes were getting ever faster and more powerful, but the threat of a 100BHP limit hung in the air. There was some great new machinery for those who could afford it, but the dodgy UK economy left many people skint. Norton’s attempt to revive the Brit industry seemed to stall but THEN TRIUMPH CAME CRASHING BACK ON THE SCENE...
The most unexpected day of my career came after I’d been invited to visit the headquarters of Triumph Motorcycles at Hinckley. I knew the bankrupt old company had been bought some years earlier by a wealthy builder named John Bloor, but had little idea that he’d done much with it.
We were shown into what looked like just another giant warehouse, but turned out to be a state-of-the-art motorcycle factory. There were two prototype bikes, one streetbike and the other faired; their three and four cylinder engines were the result of Triumph’s modular design concept. This man Bloor was obviously serious.
This was mind-blowing stuff for anyone who’d witnessed the seemingly terminal decline of the British bike industry. Bloor himself was polite but blunt, explaining his huge investment (bewildering to all of us who’d seen so many high-profile ‘Brit revivals’ fail) by saying he liked a challenge and liked engineering. “Make the most of this interview,” said the publicity-shy Bloor, “because you won’t be getting another.” Despite my requests since, he’s stuck to his word to this day.
Kawasaki’s ZZ-R1100 wasn’t simply the fastest superbike the world had ever seen, it brought a whole new dimension to warp-speed riding. The Big K’s engineers used all their conventional tuning tricks on a new 1,052cc, 16-valve motor, then added a new one: ram-air induction.
Arriving for the launch in France, I was a bit cynical about ram-air, the hot-rodding technique that Kawasaki claimed was borrowed from Formula One car racing. Then I rode the ZZ-R and, like everyone else, was blown away by a 145bhp missile that ripped to 175mph at a mind-bending rate. The big Kwack was stable, comfortable and unburstable, too. Original and best of the Nineties mega-blasters.
Star of the UK racing scene was a lanky Londoner named Terry Rymer who won the British title in impressive style. But the year’s biggest star was Wayne Rainey, who won his first 500cc championship. The blond Californian had previously made his name by repeatedly botching the push-start in 250cc grands prix, then carving through the field. Still riding for Kenny Roberts but now aboard a factory YZR500, Rainey nailed the starts and outrode Schwantz, Lawson and all to take the title
Suzuki sorted out their wayward GSX-R1100 with the L-model. Honda took a gamble with its iconic VFR750F, replacing the old faithful V4 sports-tourer with a sportier VFR750FL model featuring RC30-style beefy alloy frame and single-sided swinger for the first time. Ducati introduced the 851SP, a hotted-up, 888cc version of the 851 that had begun the Bologna brand’s eight-valve V-twin line two years earlier. In Rimini Bimota launched the Tuatara, featuring the 140bhp motor from Yamaha’s FZR1000 EXUP in a classy alloy beam-framed chassis. Named after “the world’s fastest lizard”, the Tuatara was light, quick and ridiculously expensive. Befitting of lizards all around the world.
Laverda’s 125cc Navarro was rubbish, but sadly the year’s most disappointing bike came from the UK. Norton’s F1 was a street-legal version of the fire-breathing rotary racebike that had won two British championships the previous season in the hands of Ron Haslam and Steve Spray. The fully-faired, 588cc F1 looked good, produced a super-smooth 95bhp, and handled well thanks to a Spondon frame and WP suspension. But it was thirsty, snatchy, prone to overheating, and far too expensive for a bike with middleweight performance. It was unique, but it completely bombed.
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