Crazy Concept Motorcycles of the Past
Weird and wonderful concept motorcycles we wish there were more of
Call them what you will—show bikes, concept bikes, future bikes, whatever—they’ve been around for a long time. Sometimes they point the way to the future, most of the time they should wear a sign that says DEAD END. But the fun part is that nobody knows for sure at the time.
The first memorable concept bike of the modern era may have been the Suzuki Falcorustyco (gyrfalcon in Latin - pictured above), which appeared at the 1985 Tokyo Motor Show. Suzuki can deny it all they want, but it seems like the similarity between the Falco and the light cycles in Tron (1982) are a little too coincidental. Powered by a supposed square-Four four-stroke with three cams and packed with "hydraulic drive," hub-center steering, etc., all of it was "so advanced in its development that it could be produced almost immediately," said Suzuki. In January, 1986, CW bet "you won't have to wait a decade to see its like on the street." In retrospect, the Falco looks like it might have been a simple corporate diversion to throw curious types off the GSX-R trail—a conspiracy theory that unravels when you factor in that the GSX-R had already been introduced earlier that year. Maybe the Falcorustyco was just an internal diversion to keep the troublemaker engineers away from the GSX-R?
Another Suzuki that had already been introduced, three years before the Falcorustyco, was the 1982 GSX1000 Katana. Penned by ex-BMW chief designer Hans Muth for the German market, where high-speed stability and aerodynamics are important, the Katana's shape is not difficult to see in the concept bikes that came after it (right down to the suede seat).
Possibly still happily bemused at the reception the Falcorustyco had received, Suzuki was back at the 1986 Tokyo Show with the Nuda. This one, they said, is functional—not that anybody actually got to see it function. To keep it real, Suzuki said the Nuda contained a GSX-R750 engine, and then it was off to Tomorrowland again and babbling on about two-wheel shaft drive, hub-center steering and the "Suzuki Total Engine Control System"—a computer-controlled fuel-injection system regulated by air/fuel sensors, throttle-position sensor and engine-rpm sensor. Yeah, right! In any case, it all paid off in the form of the GSX1300R Hayabusa in 1999.
As with every show bike come to fruition, the stylists got a lot of what they wanted, and the technicians with the hub-steered dreams and three-cam square-Fours woke up alone on the couch yet again. Not that it mattered in the case of the Hayabusa: Its boring old inline-Four, telescopic fork and singleshock rear end provided more than enough kinesthetic stimulation.
Not to be outdone at the ’85 Cologne show, Harley-Davidson was, as usual, way ahead of its time with this Sportster-powered, Katana-inspired Café Racer, which shared the limelight with the new GSX-R750, Bimota Tesi, et al. Even H-D’s visions of the future share parts with the past: Bend that rear pipe up a little, Bob. Perfect!
Back in the U.S.A., meanwhile, we really were busy rolling our own. Having made quite a nice chunk of change by selling a Windjammer fairing to everybody in America with a motorcycle, Craig Vetter began cranking out his futuristic, modified KZ1000 Mystery Ship. Stylistically, the Mystery Ship looks like a sort of dead end, but thematically, Craig Vetter knew exactly where motorcycles were headed. And now that it had occurred to somebody that wind protection and styling were good ideas and didn’t have to be mutually exclusive, the floodgates were open.
The Bates Clipper (see ad above) fairing makes your bike look like it’s doing a constant cartoon double-take. What the?! Nice storage, though. And when the GL1100 Aspencade got its first factory fairing in 1982, the basic difference was that Honda moved the trunk to the back of the motorcycle.
Soon, the fiberglass resin was flowing like Gallo Burgundy; unfortunately, much of it flowed into molds that could’ve used a little more time in the barrel. One example was the creation of British designer John Mockett for the new Yamaha XS11 and available Over There as a dealer option; it never crossed the Pond. Just as well: It looks like a boating accident.
One word: plastics. DuPont showed its version of the future at the Design Engineering show in Chicago, circa 1984. We’re told there’s a V-Four Honda and associated running gear under the DOX-designed plastic bodywork. In the real world, you’d be able to appreciate the silver paint and orange wheels and trim.
Meanwhile, in Bavaria... The 1980 BMW Futuro was powered by a turbocharged Boxer Twin in a wrapper reminiscent of the classic dustbin, but with hints of shapes yet to appear—including a nearly auto-motive trunk Honda would put to good use in its Pacific Coast 16 years later.
And 10 years after the Futuro, in 1990, that trunk reappeared wrapped around BMW’s inline “flying brick” K100, labeled (literally) K1 and, for the first time, marketed to compete directly with the Japanese superbikes. Heavy, slow, buzzy, hot, uncomfortable and also with some characteristics that did not appeal to BMW devotees, about 650 of a total run of 2400 bikes were reportedly sold in the U.S. Combine BMW-guy devotion with weird-bike fanaticism, and it’s not hard to imagine the loyalty of the current K1 cult.
Another interesting bike from 1990, the machine that stole the spotlight at the Tokyo Show that year, was the Yamaha Morpho (pictured above, alongside the oval-piston Honda NR750 inset). This was an FZR400 spin-off named after a genus of iridescent South American butterfly. In addition to its hub-steered front end, the Morpho’s claim to fame was adjustable ergonomics: Its bars and mini-fairing swiveled up and down, and its seat and footpegs were also adjustable. The future, we concluded, will therefore be lightweight, powerful, well-suspended and comfortable. Bring it on!
When the payoff came three years later in the form of the fattish, expensive, not terribly comfortable and not-ergo-adjustable GTS1000, we’d been had again; and aside from the odd Bimota and the adventuresome folks at BMW, it’s been the tried-and-true telescopic fork for the lot of you ever since.
In ’92, on the other hand, Honda’s awesome fuel-injected NR750 appeared, ready for public consumption and looking almost exactly like the prototype displayed three years earlier at the Tokyo Motor Show. In fact, the ovalpiston V-Four at the heart of the NR had been in development since 1977, when Honda decided a V-Eight disguised as a four-cylinder was the only way to achieve four-stroke parity with the two-stroke GP machines. (The FIM had declared that 500cc bikes could have no more than four cylinders.) It’s not so hard to translate “futuristic” into titanium and carbon-reinforced plastic when you’re only building three bikes a day by hand—200 total—and charging $60K for each one. Though the oval-piston NR racers never did achieve any success, the FIM declared in their aftermath that pistons would henceforth be round. That left the NR750 in a niche all its own, a futuristic cul-de-sac, a high-tech, outside-the-circle salute to Soichiro Honda, who died just a few months before the bike’s 1992 debut.
Shooting in the dark with a pair of rear-facing bazookas at the 1999 Tokyo show, the Yamaha MT-01 (pictured below) was sort of equal parts tube-frame Buell and V-Max. As a concept bike, it showed what could be done by rearranging existing parts; and when a production version appeared nearly everywhere but in the U.S. for 2005, it didn’t look terribly different from the show bike. The torquey (a claimed 150 foot-pounds at 3500 rpm!), 1670cc Twin from the Road Star Warrior fit right in, and the fork and swingarm from the YZF-R1 looked right at home. On the other hand, the small-batch MT did have a bespoke controlled-fill cast aluminum frame, which must have driven its cost up considerably. For U.S. buyers, the MT-01 remains a “show bike,” though Yamaha sold it for years it in many other markets, including Canada.
“Streamlining,” wrote Technical Editor Kevin Cameron in a February, 2002, piece about the star of the 2001 Tokyo Show, “would just be an insult to the air-crushing power of the supercharged engine.” Correct! The Suzuki B-King added a belt-driven supercharger to the already potent 1299cc Hayabusa four-banger to produce more than 200 horsepower. And a fat, 240-section rear tire under a huge pair of glutei maximi exhausts encouraged even the dullest bystanders to take notice and clear the blast area.
Alas, when the B-King entered production in 2006, the supercharger was nowhere to be found (you’d have to make do with only 164.8 hp and 99.5 ft.-lb. of torque), and those huge exhaust cans hanging over a 200mm tire gave the look of a weightlifter who hadn’t spent enough time working on his legs. Suzuki sold a few, mostly to owners who must’ve parked the things under a cover once the honeymoon was over and reality set in. You really don’t see many B-Kings running around, do you? It’s destined to be a serious Craigslist bargain in another few years when owners throw in the towel after admitting that fashion is never going to catch up to this motorcycle.
When the experimental Honda NAS (New American Sports) design exercise appeared at the Laguna Seca World Superbike round in 2001, it made enough splash to appear on the October, 2001, cover of Cycle World. It was obviously a tarted-up version of the VTR1000F Super Hawk, a great Honda that had already been in production for three years by the time the NAS appeared. The top-secret Honda skunkworks basically took one of the best Hondas ever devised for street use and made it apparently uncomfortable and less affordable than the bike that already existed. As for the trick perimeter front brake disc and underengine exhaust can, the NAS shared the cover with the brand-new (production) Buell XB9R, which came standard with both. Honda’s design team said the New American Sportbike was about putting the focus back on street riding instead of racing, which was pretty confusing, given that’s exactly how the Super Hawk had been positioned, a machine that was (and is) an awesome sportbike for the real world. Looking back, could the NAS in fact have been an early Honda cry for help? Could we have done more to prevent the DN-01?
The motorcycle industry was cruising full speed ahead when the blue-sky Kawasaki ZZR-X (pictured above) appeared on the cover in January, 2004, resplendent in chic, smooth bodywork with integrated saddlebags and truly futuristic running gear that included conical perimeter brake discs (which were supposed to cool better).
Again they teased us with adjustable ergonomics, this time in the form of handlebars that pivoted with the (fake) gas tank and fairing to allow the rider to go racy or relaxed at will, and with electric fairing leading edges that would allow airflow adjustment. As the home-equity bubble continued to inflate with no end in sight and motorcycle sales surged toward the 2005 high-watermark, Kawasaki designers brazenly pursued buyers’ significant others via softer, less-threatening curves that would go nicely with the new Shabby Chic living room ensemble. When reality eventually reared its head in the form of the 2008 Concours 14, precious little of the ZZR-X remained; the new bike was way more predatory ZX-14 than ZZR.
Hey, money was flowing freely in the industry circa 2003—motorcycle sales were up seven percent and scooters were up 22 percent—so manufacturers tried some interesting things. The Suzuki G-Strider was one of a few cool crossover moto/scooter models that appeared at the Tokyo show late that year while we all grew fat and wealthy, sporting “posture that a relaxed human body assumes in a weightless environment.”
Looks like somebody at Suzuki pried the front end off the dusty old Falcorustyco and created a whole new future vehicle behind it, powered by a parallel-Twin with electronic CV transmission. What the G-Strider did get right was its “next generation telematics system, with interactive communications over a bidirectional wireless infrastructure…all controlled via glove-friendly trackball.” Which is actually similar to the thumbdrive controller that sorts through all the electronics on BMW’s new K1600s. This wouldn’t be the first time BMW took some good cues from the generally proletarian Suzuki.
If you knew you were going to introduce a touring bike as radical as the Victory Vision in a year or two, what better way to prepare everybody than to show an even radicaller concept bike of the same name at the Long Beach (California) International Motorcycle Show? The Victory Vision 800 showbike of 2006 was more of an urban scooter, propelled by an 800cc snowmobile Twin running through a CVT, but the Vision Tour’s direction was already apparent in the boomerang cab-forward sweep of the thing.
It was a nice try on Victory’s part, but touring riders tend to be a conservative bunch, many of whom still haven’t quite accepted the Vision’s aesthetic. Like the citizens of Rome carting off blocks of Coliseum to build apartments and Pizza Huts, the Vision’s advanced aluminum frame concept has gone on to form the foundation for more traditionally styled bikes like the Cross Country and now the Hard-Ball, complete with ape hangers.
It ain’t easy being a visionary.
Yet more shades of Katana (on that bike’s 25th anniversary), resurrected once again for the 2005 Tokyo show, and this time called Suzuki Stratosphere, arching above a lovely inline-Six. Using then-current bore/stroke numbers, Kevin Cameron suggested an 1100cc Six could be an inch or two narrower than a typical Four, and that 200 horses would be an easy target to hit for such a smooth-running, shortstroke engine.
In 2007, Suzuki went so far as to announce that the Stratosphere would be entering production at an unspecified future time. Shortly thereafter, as you may have noticed, the free-market system imploded, and our Suzuki contacts claim to have no knowledge of what became of the bike. Still, a running prototype was built and did appear in a Suzuki teaser video that’s viewable on YouTube (though it’s not clear in the darkish vid what exactly is propelling the bike). In the meantime, BMW introduced its six-cylinder K 1600 touring bikes to worldwide acclaim and has enjoyed a sharply upward trajectory in sales and profits.
Motorcycling’s answer to the Prius, the 2005 Yamaha Gen-Ryu hybrid invention melded a YZF-R6 engine with an electric motor. A lightweight aluminum frame, steam-locomotive wheels and Buck Rogers bodywork all come together with high-tech safety features such as a vehicle-to-vehicle distance warning system, a pivoting headlight like on BMW’s 2012-and-later K1600s and a noise-canceling system to reduce audible wind roar. Anticipating your iPhone, the Gen-Ryu also sports voice navigation and hands-free cellphone function. I could see a greener, gaunter me on this one cruising to Burning Man with one of those helmet Mohawks. You?
What do you do with the bratty, smart kids if you’re in charge of the kindergarten and you want a little peace and quiet? Put them to work in the corner with the crayons and Popsicle sticks, that’s what. And when times are hard and the class needs to be thinned, they’re the first to have their graham crackers and milk withheld: What the world needs is more mid-level managers.
In current times when motorcycle sales haven’t been skyrocketing every year, we haven’t been seeing so many concept bikes, but it’s interesting to note that the most outlandish ones we sampled here were Suzukis—a company known, really, for producing reasonably priced, hard-working motorcycles for the common man.
Meanwhile, the Big Three Euro-brands conspicuous by their near absence—Ducati, Triumph, and BMW—have been busier cranking out striking machines (admittedly at a cost) for people to buy and ride. And in fact, BMW has taken a few Japanese showbike features and run with them: the inline-six and the menu-navigation multifunction wheel controller to name two. Let that be a lesson to you. Dreaming is fun. Doing is way more lucrative. Doesn’t mean we prefer one over the other.