Why Do Alternative Front Suspensions Stay Mostly Alternative As The Telescopic Fork Prevails?

The big question...

ELF-5 of 1988 static side view
ELF-5 of 1988David Dewhurst

After so many promising beginnings by chassis innovators, why has it taken so long for a non-telescopic front end to reach a mass market? BMW's Telelever (derived from the Saxon-Motodd suspension), combining telescopic fork legs with an A-arm, arrived in 1994 but has had only limited use. When suspension of the highest performance was required for that company's S1000RR sportbike, a conventional (but highly refined) telescopic fork was chosen. When Dorna created Moto2, a "torrent of chassis innovation" was predicted, but only a "conformity of success" has resulted.

"Honda was sufficiently impressed to license ELF concepts for planned mass production, but after ELF-5 of 1988 all became silent."

Of innovation there has been plenty—from the Ner-A-Car to George Wallis' pure hub-steerer of 1923 and OEC's duplex steering of 1927 to DiFazio's "Nessie" and the 1950s adoption of leanding-link forks by BMW and Guzzi. Then came the intensive chassis R&D of ELF, beginning in 1978 with ELF-X (a chassis-less, fuel-on-the-bottom pure hub-steerer) and running through ELF-E, then straight into 500cc Grand Prix roadracing (with Honda collaboration) in five evolving designs. Best championship finish was fourth for rider Ron Haslam in 1987.

Honda was sufficiently impressed to license ELF concepts for planned mass production, but after ELF-5 of 1988 (pictured) all became silent. Honda suffered embarrassment in 1984 when fuel on the bottom was proven to make its NSR500’s direction changing sluggish. ELF evolution was practical, driven by the problems it encountered. The engine-as-chassis of ELF-X (1978) did not work consistently. ELF2 continued hub-center steering but with push-pull steering levers that disappeared in ELF2a, but there was “inherent instability and lack of finesse.” ELF3 dropped hub steering to seek more direct steering feel but was criticized as “impure” in concept. This and later ELF designs combined a lower A-arm with a pivoted MacPherson strut. The heavy, slow steering of the final ELF 500 racers imposed a classic big-line corner-speed riding style on its rider Haslam. Its definite advantage in shortened braking distance wasn’t enough to overcome its problems. All that remains of ELF’s program today is the single-sided (rear) swingarm used by a few manufacturers.

Bimota's radical hub-steering "Tesi" appeared in 1989, but riders wanted more steering "feel" than could be transmitted through all its ball-joints and steering transfer shaft. The Hossack, Fior, and Britten forks have come, been hailed as the future, yet have gone. Visionaries continue with variations, but investment and production have not followed.

In 1988 I went to report on Harley-Davidson's "Springer"—a revival of its prewar short-bottom leading link fork—but its engineer described it as fashion over function. When I asked him if there was some area of superior function, he said, "Well, it does have a shorter braking distance than our telescopic fork." Aha. Just like other pivoted-link suspensions.

Honda states the the reasons given for adoption of a pivoted rather than sliding front suspension on the 2018 Gold Wing are reduced bump shock to the handlebars (because the stiction of a tele-fork is replaced by the lower resistance of rolling pivots) and lower steered mass (which increases stability).

Tracing through the experience of riders with alternative front ends, it’s clear that steering feel and rider confidence improve as the number of pivots decreases. Linkages and Heim joints look high-tech but add vagueness. It comes to this: The motorcycle is the simplest of motor vehicles—two wheels, an engine, and a place to sit. As design has tried to move away from that simplicity, more of value has been lost than has been gained.

Honda has found a way to improve function without paying the cost of lost feel: the new Gold Wing fork significantly reduces stiction and steered mass while retaining the direct steering of a conventional rolling-bearing steering-head.