The bikes that time forgot

These four bikes were meant to turn motorcycling on its head but they never did. Wozza dons his rose-tinted goggles to ponder why

You'd be forgiven for thinking progress in the world of motorcycles was a natural and seamless state and indeed, a leaf through recent history bears this theory out as we skip seamlessly from Kawasaki's Z1 via Yamaha's RD350, to Kawasaki's GPZ600 and onward through Suzuki GSX-R750s, Honda FireBlades, Ducati 916s and the like, to arrive smugly and satisfyingly in the present day where an array of stunning machinery is waiting to greet us in any showroom we care to visit.

But the problem with history is it only records the big news. Stories which should have been major bangs but turned out to be minor whimpers tend to be lost along the way and in this, the world of motorcycling is no different to any other.

For example, remember that funny Qasar feet-forward thing that arrived in the 70s when we thought bikes were suddenly all about to sprout roofs? Never quite happened did it. Or how about when turbos were all the rage back in the 80s and bikes like the CX650 Turbo (which, incidentally weighed about as much as a bungalow) were going to revolutionise motorcycling as we knew it? Both of these and more have been largely forgotten in the mists of time.

And this isn't entirely fair because it takes nerve to lead in a new direction rather than follow everyone else, even if that direction does take you down a cul-de-sac rather than triumphantly leading you to the Promised Land as you thought it would. So, deciding it was time to celebrate some of motorcycling's forgotten heroes, I lined up these four bikes you see here. 

All were spearheading exciting new directions for motorcycling, we were told. They bristled with revolutionary technology, their creators eulogised about them as they were unveiled and we all truly thought we were looking at the future as we stared goggle-eyed upon them for the first time. Then the future inconsiderately headed in another direction leaving these bikes several light years behind almost overnight.

You could call these bikes turkeys, and you'd be right, but that would be missing the point because they may well have got it wrong but without them doing so no one else would ever have been able to get it right.

BMW K1

BMW are the all-time kings of weird and have never been shy of leaping headlong into areas where others fear to tread. Often this has brought them huge success as with the all-conquering R1100, 1150 and 1200GS models or perhaps the blinding new K1200R. On other occasions the Bavarian boffins in BMW's HQ have thrown us some real curve balls, but even they outdid themselves when they brought us the K1.

Launched as the company's flagship sportsbike in 1989 the K1 looked like nothing that had ever gone before, which was mainly because it looked like something a five year-old had made out of Lego. But as with all things BMW there was method in the madness because the bike's silhouette was born out of extensive wind tunnel testing and the K1 was blessed with outstanding aerodynamics as a result.

It was going to need them too because weighing in at an incredible 258kg the K1 was a total porker and it wasn't exactly packing heat when it came to horsepower either. The motor may have been BMW's first four-valve affair and it may also have been fuel injected but it still only made 100bhp. By way of comparison, Yamaha's legendary FZR1000, launched in the same year not only weighed 18kg less, it also had an extra 25bhp and was a grand cheaper. Unsurprisingly, sportsbike purists did not sign up for the BM in their thousands.

But then maybe the bike would appeal to the more traditional BMW rider after something a little feistier? Nearly, but not quite. There was the first ABS system ever fitted to a motorcycle to tempt them with as well as endless BMW reliability and the awkward indicators they knew so well, but with negligible comfort thanks to a riding position better suited to an Oran Utang this was no tourer, and with the turning circle of a canal boat it was no easy commuter either.

All of which left most people perplexed and buyers, largely, stayed away leaving the revolutionary K1 to shuffle quietly off the pedestal it had mistakenly been put on. By 1993 it was no more. Sniff.

With the benefit of hindsight it's obvious the K1 was never going to catch on, but at the time we had no way of knowing and I remember my 16 year-old jaw hitting the floor when one pulled up outside the local newsagent. I ran over the road just to marvel at it, and when the owner - at the time I figured he must be some kind of hero, looking back I realise he was a deluded fool who possibly had a penchant for young boys - offered me a spin on the back I couldn't grab my lid fast enough. Having never done more than 35mph (down a hill) on a bike at that point, 110mph on the back of a K1 was a whole new experience. I got off convinced nothing could possibly be faster, or more futuristic.

Fast forward to the present day and at last, 16 years on, my time to ride a K1 has come. First impressions are it is massive and very red. Add a couple of ladders and you could mistake it for a fire engine. It is also very, very ugly, from every angle. Hopping on I'm impressed by the pegs being roughly six inches beneath the seat and the bars being somewhere in the next county, but fire her up, pull away and something happens because the K1 rocks.

Gazing out across the dash which looks like something out of Tomorrow's World circa 1980, and punting the bike through the gears it feels superb. Thanks to its vast weight and size there's a feeling of unstoppable force and despite the lacklustre power figure the bike still has a remarkable shove to it for something so big. 

The handing is far from nimble, but it is at least secure and as long as you only make clear demands of the bike it will do exactly as it's told. Ground clearance is far batter than the tyres and ice-cold track will ever be and, mindful of the fact bodywork for this bike is about as hard to come by as moonrock, I take it steadily. Even so, the K1 experience doesn't disappoint.

This bike never deserved to be a success, but at least now, freed from having to be a cutting-edge superbike because someone at BMW said it was, the K1 can take its place as a motorcycling icon, even if it isn't a pretty one.

Yamaha GTS1000

For an instant lesson in different cultures, place Yamaha's GTS1000 next to Bimota's Tesi. Both are hub-centre steered motorcycles but here the similarity ends because where the Bimota is beautiful, exotic and so unreliable it barely works, the Yamaha, despite being another take on the same idea, is plain (and that's being charitable), over-engineered and will work forever. 

The Yamaha's ace card though is it was the only one of the pair you could ever live with because if you planned to do any more with the Bimota than use it as a particularly ornate paperweight, chances are you'd end up shooting either it or yourself. 

So when Yamaha became the first manufacturer to really pick up the forkless front end concept and take it into mass production, the motorcycling world stood back and waited. Rumours of the bike were humming around the industry long before the bike appeared so when it did, everyone was watching. 

Then, towards the end of 1992 the GTS was launched. Bear in mind at the time the only bike with hub-centre steering most people had seen was the Tesi, perhaps the most gorgeous bike ever made, so when the GTS turned up a year later looking about as exciting as a home-knitted pullover, people were instantly disappointed.  And it was ten grand.

Of course it was. Yamaha had probably had to build an entire factory just to produce the front end, let alone the huge amounts of development cash that would have gone into the project. They may have been retuning the FZR1000 motor for it, but the rest of the bike was brand new and so well engineered you could have fired it out of a canon and it would probably have survived. 

None of this mattered of course. The GTS was instantly odd, boring looking and expensive all at once. The ride was going to need to be nothing short of fabulous for this bike to take off. 

Sadly it wasn't. Of course the front end did feel terribly smooth and composed, and yes there was less pitching back and forth on the brakes but it wasn't so different to conventional forks and when it came to really pushing there wasn't a huge amount of feedback. Throw in the fact the bike weighed a ton yet came with a mere 100bhp and all the smooth torque in the world wasn't going to turn something the big Yam into an exciting machine. 

So there the GTS stood. Pointed at by many, derided by some, and ignored by most once the initial furore over its launch had died down. A few owners claimed they were the best thing since sliced bread, and one brave soul even turned one into a half decent TT race bike but by this time no one was listening and hub-centre steering was yesterday's news.

Riding the GTS today is rather pleasant though. It's hugely comfortable and from a riders-eye view does everything it can to make you forget it has no forks thanks to the massive yokes and fairing obscuring your view of anything up front apart from the clocks. Throwing it around isn't exactly a natural state of affairs, but that's as much down to its weight as anything else. Ride it briskly and smoothly like any chunky sports tourer and it's perfectly good while the detuned EXUP motor provides ample shove but beyond this, there's little to shout about which, for a bike costing three grand more than a FireBlade when it came out, goes a long way to explaining why the GTS ain't with us now.

Suzuki Tl1000R

It's fair to say Suzuki's TL1000R never got the best of starts when it came into this world coming as it did, hot on the heels of the TL1000S, a motorcycle that attracted more bad press than Gazza on a bad day. 

Suzuki's official line was the TL-R and S were separate models developed alongside each other and that the R was always intended to be the superbike of the two. From it, Suzuki would make a WSB racer of such epic proportions Ducati would be crying into their grappa for mercy before the season was out - after all, this was the age of the V-twin and all the Japanese manufacturers were desperately trying to tap into the 916 phenomenon. But given the level of media storm in a teacup the R's predecessor the TL-S had created thanks to its occasional tendency to tankslap owners into hedges, no one was really listening. 

All eyes were on the TL-R when it came out, and everyone wanted to know one thing. Was it stable? If it was, maybe this supposedly ground-breaking bike would get a fair trial. It was, but whether this was because of the massive steering damper fitted as standard or whether it was because the issue had been ironed out was impossible to tell.

Still, the TL-R at least had the stability question put to bed. Now people could appreciate its other innovations, like the rotary rear damper. Because of the length of the V-twin motor, Suzuki had struggle d making the bike short enough so decided the solution lay in a rotary damper instead of a rear shock just as they had done on the TL-S. It certainly fitted neatly and looked pretty, but beyond this it was dismal. Not only did it not perform as well as a standard shock leaving the rear end prone to a spot of vagueness, it became much worse as the miles went on and it wasn't uncommon for TL-Rs with a few miles on them to have lost all damping from the back end.

Persevering with their line that the TL-R was going to be the next world-beating superbike, Suzuki also gave it the most radical steering geometry yet seen on a production bike. Any benefit this gave was sadly obscured by the steering damper... Then there was the huge weight issue (it was 18kg more than a GSX-R750, yet it was supposed to be a superbike), the fact it needed revving like a four despite being a big twin, and the final fly in the ointment, it was a bit rubbish on the track. 

Coming back to the TL-R experience for this test was like meeting an old friend who's been on the piss since you last met and who has now aged 15 years in just two. Everything on it looked like it had been a struggle to get into place, from the damper bolted on awkwardly above the top yoke to the exhausts fighting for space under the motor and the sidestand lug that has to be a foot long to give you a fighting chance of ever finding it. As for the riding experience it was positively prehistoric with a lazy turn in, a lacklustre motor, and wooden brakes. It's no surprise this bike never saw a WSB grid.

Bimota Tesi 1D

Few bikes can render a group of battle-hardened, launch-weary and professionally cynical bike journalists silent in dumbfounded awe, but the Tesi is one of them. When it was rolled out of the van at Brands Hatch a hush descended as we simply stared at it. 

Beautiful doesn't even come close. Even snapper Oli, a man who'd fail to raise so much as an eyebrow if Valentino Rossi rode past him on a unicycle singing the Italian national anthem was impressed. "You can't ride it," he said, punctuating the silence. "It's too perfect".

He had a point too because never have I been as scared of damaging a test bike as this one because you almost can't even put a price on the Tesi. It was the first ever production bike with hub-centre steering and even now is only one of two to ever make it onto the market. Just 250 were ever made, and even if you wanted to buy parts for it, the poor fortunes of Bimota in the years since its launch mean you can't because they just don't exist.

Talk about an iconic bike. For years Bimota persevered with the idea of a forkless front end, first titillating the world with a racing prototype in 1983 before finally unleashing the production version eight years later. The Tesi had arrived, and everyone was excited.

The most incredible thing was that Bimota had produced the Tesi at all. For years engineers had been harping on about the benefits of removing front end dive on the brakes by isolating braking forces from steering and suspension forces, and an assortment of race bikes had broken cover with a fair degree of success. The fact it was Bimota, a tiny Italian company of just 60-odd employees who made the jump into production ahead of any of the major manufacturers and their comparatively infinite resources is nothing short of remarkable. 

So why didn't the Tesi take off? Two reasons. The first is hub-centre steering is infernally complicated not only to design and build, but also to run and service which all makes for some serious extra expense, not just for the manufacturer but for the owners too. And with the bike already costing over 20 grand, people loved to look at it but there weren't many who could actually afford one. Secondly, Bimota build some of the worst motorcycles on the planet and had the Tesi ever been a sales success it would probably have sunk the company overnight in warranty claims.

You see Bimota are gutsy, gifted and have turned out some of the most incredible looking bikes known to man. When these bikes have worked, on occasion they have been spectacular, especially in the handling department. Problem is, they rarely work. And by this I don't mean they splutter a bit when cold or the electrics play up now and again - although they are prone to all manner of gremlins and parts falling off when they do run - I mean they genuinely don't work. And our Tesi was no exception.

This particular bike has had more love and pampering from its owner than a Crufts poodle. It lives in a dehumidified, warmed garage, has never seen clouds let alone rain, and when it so much as needs petrol just about the only qualified technician in the country is called in at vast expense to tend to it. It has just 660 miles on the clock. It fired up when we stowed it into the van, and a day later at the track... Nothing. The starter turned but nothing fired.

We bumped it endlessly, we checked everything, we bumped it some more. We called the owner to see if we'd missed something daft like an immobiliser. We bumped it some more. It never fired once. There we were with one of the rarest bikes on the planet, a bike we'd all dreamed of for years, with a dry and empty Brands Hatch and the best we could do was roll it down Paddock Hill like a home-made go-kart. 

But that's Bimotas for you. I tested the legendary 500cc two-stroke V-Due once a few years back, well, I say tested, what I mean is I spent a day trying to start it at a racetrack and that never started either. The same goes for the supposed WSB homologation machine, the SB8R which I also spent a day pushing around   another paddock. Three perfectly-prepared Bimotas, and all three of 'em inexplicable non-runners. 

Someone at Bimota is certainly tainted with genius to develop bikes like the Tesi, it's just a shame their intentions are so far adrift from their production capabilities. If they made a wheelbarrow the handles would probably fall off.

Join the conversation!

Let us know what you think, just sign up for a free account, leave a comment and get involved!
Register Now

Comments

Loading Comments...