Genesis - Feature

Many of today’s technologies are innovations that were born yesterday or yesteryear.

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There is a significant difference between innovation and novelty. An innovation solves a serious and outstanding problem in a fresh, new way. A novelty is difference for its own sake, accomplishing no meaningful purpose.

Although motorcycling has certainly seen its share of novelties throughout its history, it also has been the beneficiary of many true innovations that re-aimed the industry in a direction it either pursued for many years or, in some instances, still follows to this day. Here are just a few.

Frameless Construction

There is perhaps no better example of innovation than the Vincent Series B Rapide of 1946, which presented radical, forward-looking thinking in the form of frameless construction. Like with Ducati's new 1199 Panigale, the Vincent's steering head was attached to its engine's cylinder heads by a box structure, with the rear suspension affixed to the back of the engine/gearbox unit. In the early 1990s, New Zealand's John Britten did something similar with his homebuilt V-Twin racebikes.

Aluminum Twin-Spar Chassis

Yet another example of innovation with long-standing effects is the 250cc racebike designed by Antonio Cobas, whose aluminum twin-spar chassis concept is now used on most of the world’s sport- and racebikes. He built eight of these in 1982, one of which was ridden in GPs by Sito Pons; in 1984, Pons won the Spanish GP at Jarama on a Kobas (Cobas’ brand) chassis. By 1986, Yamaha had adopted the concept in 500cc GP competition, and Honda was building its VFR750F with such chassis.

Adventure Bikes

As described in other stories this month, BMW's popular GS series, the first of which was the 1981 R80 G/S, created an entirely new category of production motorcycles called "adventure." But long ago, California desert racers rode their big, home-built bikes ("desert sleds") on the highways and across the deserts in much the same spirit as that original G/S ("Gelande/Strasse," which means off-road/road in German). BMW, however, deserves credit for putting such bikes into production.

Genesis: Telescopic Forks - Feature

Genesis: Telescopic Forks - Feature

Telescopic Forks

BMW was not the first to produce a workable telescopic fork, but it did a quite good job of it just before WWII. This design made it unnecessary to tolerate the weakness, flexure and frequent instability of existing girder forks, with their four bronze-bushed links and limited suspension travel. Telescopic forks were adopted by one maker after another in the later 1940s and '50s, and their use is near-universal at present.

Wheelbase Length

As explained in "The Five Greatest," Italian engineers Piero Remor and Carlo Gianini placed the inline-Four engine of their 1923 Rondine in the chassis transversely instead of longitudinally, as had been the tradition with previous four-cylinder motorcycles. This not only solved an uneven cooling problem but also allowed four-cylinder bikes to have a more reasonable wheelbase. But in the 1930s, another Italian maker, Moto Guzzi, tackled excessive wheelbase length in a different way. The Guzzi engine's single horizontal cylinder made the engine rather long, so to compensate, the two transmission shafts were "vertically stacked"—placed one above the other—as a means of reducing their contribution to engine length. Yamaha adopted vertically stacked transmission shafts on its 500cc Grand Prix bike in 1984 and put the design into production on the 1998 R1. Since then, one after another maker has adopted this feature to make engines shorter, front-to-back.

Long-Travel Suspension

Long-travel suspension is an innovation of the 1970s that solved important problems of stability and control on rough surfaces. It evolved first on motocross and off-road bikes, with Maico increasing rear-wheel travel by moving the shocks forward on the swingarm and Yamaha doing likewise with a single-shock design. After proving its value on dirtbikes, long-travel suspension was adopted in roadracing in 1974-75, from which it then spread to streetbikes.

Genesis: Bimota Tesi 1D - Feature

Genesis: Bimota Tesi 1D - Feature

Hub-Center Steering

Bimota's famous Tesi (which means "thesis") of the 1990s attempted to be innovative by eliminating the telescopic fork in favor of a type of hub-center steering. The concept, the performance and the look never caught on, reducing Tesi to the status of a novelty—along with the ELF hub-steerers, the Fior bike, the Yamaha GTS1000 and other attempts to improve on the highly developed telescopic fork.

Genesis: Honda CB750 - Feature

Genesis: Honda CB750 - Feature

Disc Brakes

Motorcycle disc brakes were a genuine innovation, and like so many other ideas, originated in the dim past. But as drum brakes were becoming marginal in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly for racing, innovators like Grand Prix racer Peter Williams began to seek fade-free performance from automotive disc brakes of the period. Honda put a single front disc brake on its 750cc Four in 1969, and by 1972, discs were the new standard.

Genesis: Slipper Clutch - Feature

Genesis: Slipper Clutch - Feature

Slipper Clutch

As you brake hard and downshift when aggressively entering a corner on a large-displacement four-stroke, the drag of engine braking tends to make the rear tire hop or slide out to the side. MV Agusta, in its last racebikes of the mid-1970s, did not find a solution for this, and Honda encountered the same problem with its oval-piston NR500 of 1977-81. Honda, however, developed a device that partially disengaged the clutch when the rear wheel was driving the engine. This was the "slipper clutch," now found on many sportbikes.

The Future

Motorcycles continue to have serious problems that cry out for innovative solution. To go around corners at today’s high angles of lean, bikes have to locate their engines and riders high enough to avoid dragging crankcase or footpegs on the pavement. But with major masses located so high, wheelies and stoppies occur at lower rates of acceleration/braking. Compromise!

Motorcycles are small, but their aerodynamic drag is relatively high because their short length allows no room in which to “close” airflow smoothly and with low loss behind the vehicle. A motorcycle’s wake therefore is turbulent and drag relatively high. Low-drag, fish-like shapes like those proposed by Craig Vetter or used on large “cabin bikes” just look weird to many riders. More compromise!

Yet another unsolved problem, most notably on roadracing motorcycles, is the behavior of suspension in corners. Conventional suspension works well when the vehicle is fully upright or only at moderate lean angles; but when at high lean angle in mid-corner, the suspension is mostly pointed sideways, making it almost useless if the pavement is not glass-smooth. At present, designed-in frame flex acts as a crude “sideways suspension” in corners, but it’s a tricky technique to make work right.

Obviously, there is a lot more to do! Anyone have an innovation to offer?