An important point can be easily forgotten in high-flown discussions of technology: cost. Each time the state of the motorcycle art is advanced, this point is central—but invisible. Through most of the 1960s, Honda produced its reliable electric-start motorbikes using traditional (and expensive) rolling-element bearings. Meanwhile, in winning many world championships, its Grand Prix racebikes created a new “brand” with the words “Honda Four.”
In 1969, Honda was ready to release a production Honda Four that the public could buy. Doing so required designing unnecessary expense out of the machine at every possible point. This took the form of adopting economical automotive technologies, such as plain bearings for crankshaft and connecting rods, and Hi-Vo chain between engine and gearbox. The resultant machine was the CB750, which led the motorcycle market in a whole new direction.
Earlier, Edward Turner had done something similar for Triumph in Britain. Until the coming of Turner’s Triumph Speed Twin 500 in 1937, Britain’s mass-market motorcycles had all been Singles. The Speed Twin was consciously designed to be simple and inexpensive at every point—and fit into chassis originally designed for Singles. Raising the performance bar wasn’t enough; big 1000cc Twins from Brough, BSA and others had already done that. What also had to happen was the planned union of higher performance with affordable price. Turner succeeded, and thousands of examples of his design were sold. Higher-priced big Twins from specialist makers petered out after sales of a few hundred.
Recently, a friend e-mailed me a picture of a pre-war Koehler-Escoffier—a remarkable overhead-cam 1000cc V-Twin. With its modern features and high performance, why did it go nowhere? I don’t know the details, but with many such ambitious projects, the builders run out of money before sales can take up the slack and put smiles back on the faces of frowning investors. Achieving significant sales requires a product people can actually afford.
Vincent was a high-performance motorcycle designed to actually be sold. Its central innovations—frameless construction and swingarm rear suspension—were not expensive to manufacture. Its engine, a big air-cooled 1000cc V-Twin, did not break the bank with attractive but hard-to-manufacture overhead camshafts. In their place were “high cams” (which made pushrods shorter and lighter) driven by easy-to-make spur gears. Demand for these machines was considerable, and the company would surely have lasted a lot longer had it concentrated on the expanding and performance-hungry U.S. market, as Triumph so successfully did.
From Vincent, it’s a short hop to Ducati, whose 750SS model created great demand in winning the 1972 Imola 200. But then, the expense and slowness of its manufacture limited its sales to the patient, financially secure connoisseur buyer—not a large market. Only when the complexity of its bevel-gear cam drive (true believers revel in taking seven happy hours to shim all nine bevels to perfect mesh) was replaced by the workaday simplicity of toothed-belt cam drive did Ducati V-Twins become market products rather than tool-room specials.
Motorcycles have become wonderful high-tech creations, but at every point along the way, someone had to make each advance affordable.