Sunday, April 03, 2011

Indulging in Nostalgia

Back before I started high school I had a fascination for motorcycles of all kinds ... it was the days of the little Honda step throughs and the ascendance of the small displacement Jap sport bikes. Although the term sport bike meant something completely different than what gets the label these days.....

I remember one little Yamaha 100cc twin that was the essence of the Junior high school all purpose get around... less than ten HP but what a blast to scoot out to the lake or cruise the drive-in strip!
There was a rapid proliferation of Street twins in the 125 to 200cc range .... all two strokes except for Honda ... and then the gradual displacement creep into the 250 to 350cc range s the enthusiastic young riders got the bug for faster bikes and the capacity for highway riding that those little sub 200s did not really possess.

There were high pipe models they liked to call scramblers but which were really the same as the low pipe counter parts ... except they looked a lot more aggressive and sporty ... a look I really dug .... but the downside was the burnt legs ..... usually of a female passenger in shorts. But the really cool thing about these little two stroke mosquito foggers was that most of them would smoke past a typical Brit bike of the day and any Harley ..... even though the larger bikes were often 3 to four times the displacement.

A real eye opener was when Suzuki came out with their 250 street twin .... around 66 ... I watched one of these little screamers absolutely embarrass a guy on a BSA Spitfire ... that particular Beezer considered to be one of the fastest bikes around. The local scene prior to about 63 had been mostly populated by a handful of guys with older BSAs and Triumphs and an occasional Matchless or BMW or some more eclectic Euro or Brit bike. The real oddballs were guys who brought over European scrambles type bikes from the across the pond. And, of course there were the usual guys who bought into the big bad Harley image ..... mostly image ... and whose bikes spent more time parked in various sized puddles of 30 weight oil and chain drippings.

The Bike Boom of the 60s
Around the time those small displacement bikes started showing up ..... there was also a boom in the larger motorcycle's sales and so long as the owners middle weight Brits and the larger hogs felt secure in their mechanical machismo there was little negative comment about the small bikes. But as the little buzzers began to show up in numbers that seemed like about 20 to 1 over the established bike riders there began to be heard a lot of snide comments from some of those invested in the image of the bike riding rebel. At least until that Suzuki twin crushed that Beezer in an impromptu back road drag race.... then left him dangling as they did the run back to town on a twisty little two lane blacktop. All of a sudden .... the buzz about bikes took on a new tone .... with the excitement meter going up on the topic of Japanese imports .... and the bitter silence or petty slanders from the Brit bike crowd and the hog gang.

The writing on the wall so to speak.....
Around the time I started high school this divide was pretty well established. I'll never forget the first day there ... a line of bikes angle parked on the street across from the school ... about 50 of them ... all Jap twins except for two Beezers and two Triumphs ... a single Sportster pulled up a bit late .... puking oil smoke and barely running. After school the whole scene was one little zinger fired up in a cloud of blue two stroke oil smoke and gone they were .... in seconds then the Beezers and Triumphs ... then the sad sack Sportster ..... kick kick kick kick kick kick ..... and so on .... never to light a fire ... but gone by the next morning never to be seen again ... leaving just one black smudge on the road where it's primary case had leaked out a cup of oil the day before.

After the Awakening.....
Over the years spent in high school there were two things that developed which both contributed to an explosion in interest in motorcycles. One, was the proliferation of motorcycle enthusiast magazines and the other was the incursion of the Japanese into the 500cc and up displacement range. The magazine boom could be easily traced to the increased number of riders who had suddenly discovered the sport and the interest explosion fed into the growth of still more new riders and interest in bikes.
The evolution of Japanses bikes into the displacement ranges previously dominated by the Brits was a more complicated thing. The desire for faster and more exciting bikes was stoked by the magazines .... the Japanese were willing to deliver .... in ways that the established brands were not prepared to respond. Those Kawasaki triple two strokes were scary fast with engine performance that overran their chassis and brakes. Suzuki sort of lost their way .... it seemed they were stuck in a rut of boring design (even though the water buffalo 750 was a technical breakthrough).... Yamaha dropped into some weird product development warp that produced nothing but re engineered versions of British twins that were either boring or unreliable.

But in 67 Honda nailed it out of the park with the four cylinder 750cc in line motor.

It was so successful that around where I lived it was about the only bike being sold by `72 except for the 500cc four.... or so it seemed.

Yet ... all the interest in bikes that had grown along with the sales of these bikes also created a greater awareness of what was going on and a better understanding of what actually made some bikes better than others.
Up to that point ... the British bikes that were well known were known because they had the best marketing and thus the best sales in North America. Their reputations had been established and were for the most part well deserved. Triumphs and BSAs did have sporty performance and they were easily flickable in the curves. They were light enough to feel quick and well mannered and for anyone who wanted some real performance .... there were plenty of parts in the aftermarket to hot rod the motors .... or even the chassis for those who wished.
The new Japanese muscle bikes were simply all that and more ... the Kawasaki triples handling could be tamed with chassis tweaks and the Honda fours ... well in spite of what those Triumph guys would have us believe.... the Honda fours were better handling bikes. The two exceptions to this fact were that the fours tended to feel heavier going into a corner and required more positive input at the bars to steer in turns ... and ... the fact that the 750 four had enough power to force a speed wobble under acceleration... something that the Brit bikes did not have.
The cornering on the Hondas was perfectly stable and predictable and except for things easily fixed like better tires and shocks started out the equal of the Brit bikes. At the very start faster ... better mannered ... more comfortable and most of all more reliable by an order of magnitude.

However.... the whole thing about growing awareness was in play as well ... people were learning about other brands of motorcycle that had history and were possesed with attributes that were more in line with what they were coming to expect.

Enter the Nortons.... the Laverdas... the MV Agustas....the Benellis.... and Ducati.

As the breadth of written material evolved... the enthusiast magazines began talking about these European manufacturers ... we began to learn about their heritage and we began to realize that we had been misled by the marketers and the press who had ... up until that point .. not been telling us the real story about where the cutting edge of motorcycle performance really was.

It was in fact at the factories of those marques who had been the driving force in performance technology and had the racing pedigree to prove it. It was never Triumph or BSA that Honda was shooting for ... It was the likes of MV they were hoping to emulate. Machines that already had been dominating and in fact eclipsed BSA and Triumph for over two decades by this time.

And so this is where the enthusiast began to look for the exceptional and the unique.

That is why in 1972 I bought a Ducati 750GT .... a bike that had equal the power of any other equal displacement motorcycle .... came with precision calibrated suspension and competent brakes ... light weight alloy wheels and sticky tires that would do for track duty in the day. All hung on a spaceframe chassis that was more rigid and lighter than any of the competition.

In short the Ducati possessed exactly what every sports journalist had been claiming to desire and gave nothing away in any area of performance. With the exception of electric start there was nothing the Ducati lacked in comparison with the Japanese imports ....while functionally it excelled in every area over these bikes.

Now if I had only kept the damned thing all these years.

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