Esteemed motorcycle journalist, Roland Brown, talks about what was going on in motorcycling, way back when
Sometimes you don't have to ride a bike far to realise it's special. I still vividly remember riding away from Suzuki's Crawley HQ on the new GSX-R750T back in 1996, tipping it into the first left-hander and thinking, 'blimey, this is how a sports bike should steer'. Suzuki had given the GSX-R a twin-spar aluminium frame with the same geometry as Schwantz's RGV500 GP bike. The motor was all new and 116bhp made the GSX-R the most powerful 750. The bike's class and speed shone through and there was no doubt that, after several years of feeble models, the GSX-R750 was back on track.
In 1996 Honda's American importer released the Valkyrie, a stripped-down Gold Wing powered by a 100bhp, 1520cc flat-six. Ahead of the bike's European arrival, Honda brought one to the Isle of Man during TT week, and I blagged a ride. Best moment was riding this 310kg naked bruiser the wrong way down the Mountain just before the road closed for a day's racing, and being impressed by the thing's improbable poise as it swept through the Bungalow, Gooseneck and Waterworks, hitting well over the ton on the straights. Why Honda called it the F6C instead of the Valkyrie over here remains a mystery, but the bike was great.
Bimota has built plenty of unusual bikes during its short and turbulent history, but nothing to match the Mantra that the Italian firm released in 1996. The naked 904cc V-twin, with its oval headlight, walnut dashboard and four silencers, looked distinctly weird. So much so that after I'd borrowed one from Bimota's Rimini factory, a guy on a scooter chased me round the town to get a better look. I was glad that the Mantra's 86bhp aircooled Ducati motor and tubular aluminium-framed chassis gave enough speed and handling to escape. Unfortunately for Bimota it was so strange and expensive that hardly anybody bought one.
Back in 1996 Buell was still controlled by founder Erik Buell, although Harley had recently bought a 49 per cent stake in the small firm whose base was in East Troy, a short blast from Milwaukee. Having flown to Wisconsin to test the S1 Lightning, Buell's first naked bike, I found myself cursing its lack of wind protection as I headed up Interstate 43 in the cold and rain towards Harley's factory. But the Lightning was ace. Its 1203cc Sportster motor had been tuned to give 91bhp with heaps of grunt, and its short, reasonably light chassis made it fun on the twisty roads. A decade later, Buell, now owned by Harley, is much bigger, but still making a naked Lightning model.
For a bike making 162bhp and 180mph Honda's Super Blackbird was a teeny bit disappointing when launched in 1996. The 1137cc motor lacked low-down grunt, and the venue, Circuit Paul Ricard on a blustery day, served to highlight its weight rather than its crosswind-hindered progress down the Mistral Straight. There were quite enough thrills on the launch, though, thanks to a terrifying ride from hotel to track in tiny helicopters that were thrown around by the wind. At least when we were taken parasailing I didn't follow the example of one Dutch journo, who was dragged along behind a boat underwater until he'd drunk at least half the Med.
The announcement, "Moto Guzzi is being revived under new ownership, and is launching a couple of new V-twins" is reminiscent of a scratched record - those old-fashioned discs that used to jump and repeat, in Guzzi's case every few years. Back in '96 the new V-twins were the Sport 1100 Injection and the Daytona RS. Neither bike exactly set the world on fire. But Guzzi's finances had stretched to hiring Mugello, the sun was shining and there was pasta in the pits. What's not to like? The firm's new owner was a merchant bank, whose boss promised a powerful liquid-cooled, eight-valve V-twin plus a return to top-level racing. Several more owners later, we're still waiting...
Yamaha's Thunderace launch, near Cape Town, didn't go as planned. My first setback came when KLM lost my leathers, so I had to buy a hideously coloured set of Kushitanis from a local shop. By the time I got on a bike, MCN's tester had crashed and broken his leg. The final night's tequila-drinking session was memorable - especially when the Ed of one monthly mag dived into the hotel pool's shallow end and broke his neck. As for the Chunderace... Hmm, don't remember much about that, except that the 145bhp four, basically an updated version of the previous FZR1000, was fast but heavy and unwieldy compared to a FireBlade.
Strange to recall that only a decade ago there was no YZF-R1 and Yamaha's top sports bike was the potent but porky Thunderace. Meanwhile the fastest and best Yam-powered super-sports bike was Bimota's YB11. With 150bhp pushing 183kg, the Bimota was as powerful as the 'Ace but as light as Honda's less powerful FireBlade. Thrashing one on the hilly roads near Rimini was brilliant fun, especially trying to keep up with Bimota's test rider, who was squirming his back tyre out of every hairpin. The YB11 was great and could have been a big success, only the 500 Vdue two-stroke was set to cripple the firm's finances.
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