By now, well into the second century of automobility, you’d think that we’d be using something better than just yesterday’s bikes today. It isn’t just what critics of motorcycle engineering claim as the stultifying effect of motorcyclist conservatism, but because turning by leaning is so natural to us, as I try to explain in my 2008 book, Bodies in Motion: Evolution and Experience in Motorcycling. Our evolution has left us with a preference for the sensorium of the leaning experience, which confronts visionary engineers with a set of intractable design problems. How to meet the demand for a revolutionary or evolutionary machine that both turns by leaning and also is a light, narrow machine to make the rider go fast, look good, and feel great?
Kawasaki showed us a tantalizing alternative in 2013 with its “Concept J” three-wheeler. This machine takes design from the 19th century into the 21st by way of enabling the machine to adapt itself to us rather than the other way around. In this, it is truly ground breaking, because despite such devices as sport-tourers or dual-sports, our bikes demand that we adapt to them, not vice-versa.
Watch the Kawasaki video to see how the Concept J changes its physical layout as its rider decides to go from sportbike to touring bike or in-town cruiser. The key to the genius of this design is that the actual posture of the rider changes from the “under-the-paint” crouch of the racebike to the upright, relaxed position. As all experienced riders know, posture is immensely important in defining the experience of a ride.
Kawasaki "J" Concept - 2013 Tokyo Motor Show
Kawasaki’s elegant suspension design also changes the front-wheel track (distance between the wheel hubs) from very narrow in sportbike mode to wide in touring/cruise mode. The safety advantages of this ought to be obvious, at least to any rider who has strafed apexes with a Piaggio MP3 leaning three-wheeler in any of its versions (I rode Piaggio’s Gilera-branded 500cc “Fuoco” to get the grins in the turns). Of course, you can overcook a corner on one of these as you can on any two-wheeler, but in my experience, your chances of steering out of your mistake are better than with a conventional two-wheeler.
Combining this adaptable three-wheel layout with an electric powertrain puts Kawasaki on the greenies’ lust list, but by now, everybody knows the torque advantages of e-bikes, even though the charging-time problem remains a deal-killer for riders who can leave their prejudice for the motor-music of an internal-combustion engine behind.
The Concept J remains a concept, we’re told, but its unprecedented adaptable design ought to be pursued for production, so that we can at last ride a bike-trike-thing that allows us to knife through the esses with a two-wheeled sportbike’s excellence and then allow us to sit upright for creeping through town or savoring the wonders of nature on a leisurely tour. Yamaha’s recently announced “Tricity” three-wheeled machine shows that, as expected, the big Japanese companies with the resources to create and then sell machines that only remain dream machines for other manufacturers understand that yesterday’s designs, while terrific for some purposes and some riders, can’t do what tomorrow’s designs can. It’s about time.