Top Gear's James May and Autocar Magazine's Colin Goodwin team up with Yamaha and Harley-Davidson in a quest for the alternative to scary sports bikes.
James May is 'not the short one' on BBC2's Top Gear. Unlike Clarkson, who famously hates motorcycles (despite the fact he once bought his wife a Ducati), May is a serious bike fan who's had some fairly useful machinery clutter up his garage. He started off, having discovered bikes in his late 20s, with a CB500 twin. From this worthy learner bike he went back in time to a brakeless 1971 Honda CB750 before returning to the 20th Century with a Ducati 750SS. He then worked his way through an 851 and 888 before ending the run of Ducatis with a 748. "I had to get rid of the 851, the electrics were driving me mad. I pushed it further than I rode it," says May.
He's also had loads of Hinckley Triumphs, from Speed Triples to a Thunderbird Sport to 955i Daytonas, but the current collection is a three-bike line-up of Yamaha XJR1300, Moto Guzzi V11 Sport and a 1978 Guzzi California.
"I used to buy a new bike every year to take advantage of the VAT situation. Utter bollocks of course, because I lost loads of money on each one."
As you can tell, May is rather difficult to categorise. Into which box do you put a bloke who's had bikes as diverse as a Ducati 888 and Triumph Thunderbird Sport?
The 'odd' box. The box, in fact, that you might put potential owners of the new Harley-Davidson VRSCR Street Rod and Yamaha MT-01, neither of which is exactly a conventional motorcycle. Surely it's the sort of tackle that May himself might buy?
"Funny you should say that," he says. "The dealer from whom I bought the XJR13 has been pestering me to try one out thinking it might be my bag. He could be right."
We'll know by the end of the day. There is no plan, we're just going to ride shotgun with May as he ponders over the possibility of adding one of these to his collection.
"I've done long touring trips on bikes - to Verona for an opera on a Speed Triple - but generally I just use them to plonk around town and to go down to the Top Gear studio in Surrey or to the local cafŽ. In other words, the sort of riding both these bikes should be perfect for."
The Street Rod is what H-D should have launched right after it presented us with the original V-Rod back in 2001. Unlike the V-Rod, the Street Rod has ground clearance, big Brembo discs and upside down Showa forks. And attitude. It's meant for riding, not just for posing. It's also the model that should do justice to the watercooled 'Rod motor, which has always been much revvier, punchier, smoother and more sporting than a traditional Harley 45¡ twin.
The Street Rod also gets around a problem that the company has with its traditional market - it's been invaded by the Japanese with their Harley clones. And on top, sales growth of H-D's traditional big twins is currently stalling. Either way, it's time to fight back and the V-Rod platform is an excellent way to do it - steal market share from the Japs in the big streetbike market and hopefully make some converts to the Harley cause. You know - R1 last year, Street Rod this year, Electra Glide next year. Well, it's a plan at least.
Yamaha doesn't have a problem to sort, but has spotted a niche into which it's hoping to slot its funky MT-01. The theory is that there are a whole bunch of people out there who have got rather bored of scaring themselves to death on sports bikes and want something that is fun, handles, stops but doesn't have a power output that'll highside them into the nearest churchyard.
We first saw the MT-01 at the 1999 Tokyo show as a concept that didn't look that far off being reality. And it wasn't, because what you will see in your local showroom isn't that different. Don't confuse this bike with Yamaha's BT1100 Bulldog. That bike was a bit of a marketing/product planning cock-up that produced a big-engined air-cooled twin intended to appeal to virgin riders. Which it understandably didn't. And since it wobbled and scraped around corners and was more than a bit gutless neither did it appeal to the experienced rider who wanted something stomping and different.
Having collected both bikes from TWO's office, May and I set out across London to meet up with photographer Steve Lovell-Davis, an old mate of May's who owns our man's old 748. Lovell-Davis hasn't eaten, so straight away we're in a cafŽ downing a heart-stopper. As well as being a chance to further reduce bore sizes in the strawberry, it's a chance to look over the bikes.
May is immediately on hands and knees in front of the Yamaha: "It's a bit over done. The idea's okay, but they've tried too hard and not known when to stop. I like Darth Vader's jock strap in between the V on the right-hand side but what's the thing above that looks like a fish poacher? From the back the exhausts look like seaside postcard breasts. The right-hand side of the engine is very neat, expecially the pushrod tubes up the side. You can see the bits that were the work of engineers and which were done by designers. The engine, forks and brakes were done by engineers; the gauges, tank and jock strap were done by the designers."
From Tokyo to Milwaukee: "The Harley's also got some odd bits on it. The radiator cowl looks like a juke box and there's something like a Mouli grater at the front of the tank, but it's not as overdone as the Yamaha. The engine cases look fabulous, with some really nice shapes like the clutch cover. The metal working is very nice, too.
"What's not so good is the quality of some of the fittings. There's rust on the ends of the exhausts and some of the fasteners holding the system together are cheap zinc plated pieces you wouldn't put on a BSA Bantam. This isn't very good on a bike that costs £10,995. I know what the idea is: you buy the bike then spend another fortune on extras like louder pipes. Fair enough, but what you start with should be high quality in case someone doesn't want to accessorise. Or is so skint from buying it that putting petrol in the tank is a financial burden.'
From Camberwell we ride across to Tooting and out of London on the A3. Although he reckons it's overstyled, May doesn't seem bothered riding the MT-01. Never mind, we're heading for Box Hill, several cups of tea and a blast in the country.
The Street Rod's a long bike, but thanks to the sat-forward riding position you forget there's several feet of motorcycle behind you. I'd be surprised if Harley's test team wear full-face helmets because the chin piece obscures the speedo. Not a problem if this bike was powered by a traditional Harley V-twin, but this joint effort with Porsche really takes off over 5000rpm and you need an idea of how fast you're going.
Haven't been to Box Hill for years. I used to be a regular, but for the last few years I've not bothered. All you see is 17 R1s, 13 GSX-Rs, a few Ducatis and a load of other off-the-peg superbikes. There used to be variety. Which is why these two bikes are so welcome. Biking is returning to a broader base, and that's great.
As we arrive, ultimate track day man is about to leave. He'd just come back from Europe on his Ducati 999. Tyres shot to bits and - get this - numberplate worn on bum-bag on his behind. Complete with wiring. If you see a bloke walking around WH Smiths with a numberplate strapped to his arse say hi from me. May, who happily confesses to being a particularly slow rider, looks at him as if he's just stepped out of a spaceship.
The Yamaha MT-01 is fitted with a revised version of the Road Star Warrior's 1670cc V-twin. Gone is the belt drive and in its place a chain running on the right-hand side - no doubt to give the bike a less 'Japanese' look. The engine also has a lighter crankshaft to give it more pick-up and quicker reactions.
Yamaha has developed a range of MT-01 accessories, all with the 'Darth Vader' emblem, but May isn't impressed: "I don't want any MT-01 after-shave anywhere near my life. I hate all that rubbish."
There's a road that leads from Dorking up over Ranmore Common to East Horsley. It would make a great hillclimb course except everyone would be killed. The Street Rod is hugely impressive here; the engine has lots of power and loves to rev, and it handles like no other Harley. The original V-Rod is good on twisty roads, but up here you'd run out of ground clearance. The brakes work well, too.
Now it's my turn on the MT-01. I'd been warned by Urry that I'd find it slow, but that Yamaha is offering tuning kits. Frankly, I don't see the point. This bike is aimed at people who have been scared off high horsepower machinery. Surely turning the MT-01 into a tyre-spinning torque monster is defeating the object? Anyway, the Yamaha handles really well. The engineers have taken a lot of trouble to keep the weight low and you can really chuck the bike around. It's fast enough to have a laugh with, that's for sure.
"The MT-01 doesn't feel as quick as the Harley," adds May, "but it's much more fun. The Street Rod's too smooth for its own good. How has Yamaha got those exhausts through noise tests? They make a fantastic 'pop pop' on the overrun. And I really like the way the it delivers power. It's got bags of character, which is what you're after with these bikes, and it's this that makes it more fun to ride. A gentleman shouldn't discuss handling, but the MT-01 is easier to chuck about than the Harley."
So, is May's Yamaha dealer about to be paid a visit?
"I don't worry what people think, but if I owned either of these bikes I'd be worried they might think I work in advertising, and I'd mind that a lot. These bikes - especially the MT-01 - are strongly promoted as 'lifestyle statements', but I don't want an off-the-peg lifestyle from Tokyo or Milwaukee. I've been looking for my motorcycling self for over 10 years and I think I've found it in a 1978 Moto Guzzi California."
SPECS - YAMAHA
TYPE - STREETBIKE
PRODUCTION DATE - 2005
PRICE NEW - £9399
ENGINE CAPACITY - 1670cc
POWER - 82.5bhp@4300rpm
TORQUE - 98.3lb.ft@3600rpm
WEIGHT - 189kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 825mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 15L
TOP SPEED - N/A
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - n/a
SPECS - HARLEY-DAVIDSON
TYPE - MUSCLE BIKE
PRODUCTION DATE - 2005
PRICE NEW - £10,995
ENGINE CAPACITY - 1130cc
POWER - 104.7bhp@7800rpm
TORQUE - 72.3lb.ft@8500rpm
WEIGHT - 280kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 762mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 18.9L
TOP SPEED - N/A
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - n/a
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