The Promised Land — Part 6

I am a child of the 70s.

And if there was a better time to be coming to motorcycling I can’t think when that was.

Sure, there’s propably a case to be made for the present, but the motorcycle arms race of the 1970s demonstrated a grander sweep of possible solutions — motors, chassis, suspension and braking — and a pace of sustained advancements that I think dramatically outpaces the electronics-led improvements of present day street motorcycles.

Now not all of those ideas were keepers — ‘They can’t all be zingers…’ — Is there anyone in the house that really misses their Kawaski Mach IV?

Show of hands?

“Not you, Rick…”

Ok. Except for that guy, no-one.

But think about it.

Honda changes everything that anyone at the time thought they knew about motorcycles by introducing an overhead cam, in-line transversely mounted 4 cylinder motorcycle. This is a configuration that comes straight from Italian Exotics — Gilera, MV Agusta — and Honda’s own Grand Prix Racing Motorcycles.


This shit be straight from outer space, Jackson, and one day it shows up at your dealer for $1495.

They were not absolutely perfect motorcycles, but they were damn close. Honda took the high output per displacement which they got from high rpms, and added displacement to that.

The front brake calipers — this was the first production use of a motorcycle disk brake — needed rebuilding a bit more often than later designs. The cam chain adjuster mechanism was definitely a Version 1.0, as Dick Mann discovered with his CR750 when it lasted 201.5 miles in a 200 mile Daytona race. The dual ignition points setup was just-fiddely-average for the day and was much improved by aftermarket Electronic Ignition upgrades.

But all that aside, it was smooth, and powerful and felt like the hand of the gods in the small of your back when one rolled on the throttle. My CB got over 70 mpg at 72 mph, and could do it for as long as I felt like doing it, or slightly longer.

The early examples of the CB, like this example, had sandcast, rather than die cast engine cases.

Honda wasn’t sure this “750 Dream Thing” was actually going to catch on, so they hedged their bets by not investing in the die development costs for the cases. They built the first few bikes with the low volume, labor intensive sand casting process, so if the bike sank without a bubble in the market, the company wouldn’t be out the tooling costs.

They needn’t have worried.

The power, ecomomy and comfort of the CB750 changed the perspective and frame of reference of the entire two wheeled universe.


Having seen what a Daytona 200 win in 1970 had helped Honda do in the marketplace with the CB 750, they guys over at Ducati figgured they could use some of that stuff, too.

A crash devlopment program created the original beast of a 750cc desmo valved motor. The factory brought in English racing chassis whiz Colin Seely who wrapped the beast in the bare minimum of steel required to fling it down he road and keep the wheels pointed and carving when it went around corners.

Which it did.

The Ducati men took their 750 SuperSport to Imola, where the open layout helped them run flat out to finish 1-2.

And the success of that model helped them birth the 750 SS supersport model, and later the 900 SS model, which was intended to be more of a sports tourer.






Further racing success in the hands of racing hero Mike Hailwood at the Isle of Man resulted in another race replica, the Mike Hailwood Replica.



The tracks of that first 750 SS motorcycle, with its large displacement desmo twin, and forward weight distribution, are visible still as Ducati’s motorcycle architeture to the present day. Going around corners better than the fours put Ducati on the map and helped to keep them there.




You will start to notice a pattern, here.

Yes you will.

Somewhere in Berlin, yet another Motorcycle Company Executive decided they needed to do some Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday thaang.

Only that motorcycle company was BMW, who hadn’t really been a force in roadracing, well, ever, really.

They had their US Importer, Butler and Smith, work with Rob North to build with a one off Formula 750 racer as a test mule, to see if on-paper torque and steering stability would translate to the reality of the track.


It did.

Reassured, the Factory designed and built the R90S, and went back to the track.

And, as every BMW nutjob knows, in the hands of Steve McLaughlin and Reg Pridmore, the R90Ss finished 1-2 at Daytona, and came back to the marketplace as the Missile Du Jour.




The R90S may not have had the horsepower of its rivals, but could get every pony to the ground, and held that speed through corners.

There are still people who will swear it is the best motorcycle BMW has ever made.




As we have previously said, not every idea about going faster is of equal quality.

Have you seen the old Saturday Night Live routine about the Blue Oyster Cult recording “Don’t Fear the Reaper?” — “More Cowbell?”.

Friedl Münch was a motorcycle designer for whom “More Motor” was “More Cowbell”. No matter how much of it there was, it still wasn’t enough.

Didn’t matter that, perhaps, there wasn’t enough brakes, frame or strong enough wheels in the world to deal with it, if Friedl could lay hands on more motor, he would build a motorcycle out of it. And it maybe doesn’t rise to the overall level of silliness of the modern Boss Hogg motorcycles that come with Chevy 350 truck engines, but using an NSU Prinz automobile engine was still pretty silly.


The Munch Mammoth, just like the Wooly Mammoth, proved to be a dead end on the tree of motorcycle evolution.




In go-fast tech, Kawasaki, and to a lesser extent, Yamaha, tried amped-up street two stokes.

And while they were fun, a combination of factors — wicked peaky, wheely-prone, high-siding powerbands, motors that were prone to full throttle seizures (fun! Right, Deryle? Right Bud?) , and eventually environmental regulations made the Machs and YZs as extinct as the Mammoth.




Once one has started to max out output options for internal combustion powerplants, there are a very limited number of ways left to still faster. Either make more RPMs, or make more mixture move through the engine through better intake and exhaust breathing. Predictably, the Honda men were willing to try both.

Honda’s racing motorcycles adopted V4 motors, which they incrementally developed to new heights. In F1 and Endurance Racing, the VFRs, with their state of the art frame and suspension, and mass centralized drivedrain, had considerable success. The handbuilts that came out of Honda Racing Corporation had gear driven cams, rocket science headwork and tuned exhausts that would allow the engine to scream all day long around 10,000 rpms.

The, going back to their favorite page from the Honda playbook, just as they had done with the 750/4, they took Freddie Spencer’s racebike, and they brought a series production version of it to the street – essentially homologating their best racebike as a production machine.



DSCN2519The Honda Men just love this play, it should be noted. They’ve just done it again, with their RC213V.

People in production classes who didn’t have one said manifold bad words.

For its brief shining moment, that VFR was the fastest production motorcycle ever made. I was a very new rider when they were introduced, and the thing came off as pure rocketship racetrack refugee — clearcoated magnesium cases, perimeter frame, monoshock rear, four active piston brakes — that sound it made from the valvetrain on the gas.

Might seem cute, now, but there was nothing like it at any other dealer, then.

To my young eyes the VF1000R had a halo and floated a full foot off the paved ground.

I might have personally lost a little ground clearence and picked up a little patina, but the VF hasn’t changed a bit.




If the VFR was Honda’s RPM play, then the NR750 was the breathing play.

Honda has always felt that their engineering skill could enable the 4 stroke powerplant to win any contest of speed.

Motorcycles like the 250/6 GP bike proved that, in 4 stroke engines, getting the most valve area per engine displacement would always produce more power, and one’s valve area was linked to number of cylinders. So if we assume any set number of valves per cylinder, then for a fixed displacement, a four will always make more power than a twin, a six more than a four, an eight cylinder more than a six, and so on.

Ergo, to go fast, you need more valves. To get more vavles, and their combustable mixture moving area, you need more cylinders.

Or do you?

Grand Prix racing regulations had evolved to limit cylinders in GP Bikes to no more than 4.

For a good bit of the 1970s, the GP world was ruled by 2 stroke power, that had an advantage in power per displacement.

Engineers at HRC felt that beating the 2 strokes was an engineering problem that they absolutely would solve.

There was no doubt.

The moment of illumination came when one of the engineers realized that what was limiting the number and area of valves per engine cylinder wasn’t the size of the cylinder.

It was the shape of the cylinder.

The easiest way to make a piston and cylinder that can seal the force of combustion gases is to made them round.

But it ain’t the only way.



By making the cylinder and piston pair a long oval, a 187cc race engine cylinder that formerly could accomodate 4 valves, could now accomodate 8.

Sure, you’d need to make a few other small adjustments, but that was not a big deal.

You’d need to use 2 connecting rods per piston so the whole mess wouldn’t twist in its bore.

And you might have a few problems with getting piston rings that were round in some places and flat in other places to do the things that piston rings need to do, like seal and sit flat in the piston lands without fluttering or twisting.

But no big deal.

Despite the Honda Men’s confidence, it was a big deal.

The engine would go through 3 major design revisions before it achieved competitive levels of output and reliability, but despite some highly visible and embarrasing public failures, it eventually did, winning a 500 mile GP in Japan at Suzuka.

And once again, having created something truly unique and bordering on the magical, Honda Racing Corporation made another RC series model available for the street.


Their pride at the effort required to make this thing work could not be contained,





The thing was the Honda NR, signifying New Racing, and it carried the oval piston 8 valve engine and all of the other structure and handling magic they could throw at the thing. At $50,000 1992 dollars, there weren’t a lot of qualified customers, but there were some.




The Honda NR engine was essentially a V8 that racing rules had forced to be packaged as if it was a V4.

Of course, absent racing rules, if you really want a V8, you just make one.

Giancarlo Morbidelli wanted a V8, so he made one.

The Morbidelli Company was a company whose primary business was the sale of woodworking machine tools.

But after work, in a back room, Giancarlo and three of his mates built really fast motorcycles, and then took them racing.

No one had told them that it was impossible that four Italian guys in some back room could beat the men from Honda, and Yamaha, and MV Agusta.

And since no one had told them, they didn’t know, and promptly went out and did just that.

Morbidelli Racing motorcycles won 4 World Championships, and demonstrated creative design thinking and precision machining that made them successful on the track.





The Morbidelli 750 GP bike, for example, was an aluminum monoquoque structure, designed to achive unparalleled lightness and rigidity.

After leaving racing, Giancarlo wanted to achieve something that would eclipse all the other motorcycles of Italy — Ducati and MotoGuzzi. He wanted a motorcycle that that was faster, smoother and more comfortable — truly a refined rocket for men of wealth and taste.

And the V8 was the way.





The 850 cc, 32 valve DOHC V8 made use of the Morbidelli Company’s exqusite skill in precision machining, as seen in their woodworking machinery. The engine and its internals were as nice as any swiss watch.

They had to redo an inital body design approach that reminded people of Star Wars droids, and not in a good way.

Version 2.0 was much better, with flowing lines, and, befitting a woodworking company, had a nice walnut dashboard.




Looking at it, it struck me as if someone had taken the motor out of my K Bike, made it much smaller, and then put two of them back in the motorcycle. Only the overall finish of the Morbidelli was much better than mine — thin, even seams, even alloy cases, deep chrome, great paint.

At $60,000, the market was minscule, and the line was shut down after building just three examples.

It prolly felt just like sex on the gas, but it became another example of art and commerce not wanting to be on the dancefloor at the same time.



4 thoughts on “The Promised Land — Part 6

  1. You write “Only that motorcycle company was BMW, who hadn’t really been a force in roadracing, well, ever, really.”

    Fact: BMW held the side-car world championship title from 1954 to 1974 (except for 1968 and 1971, when the title was taken by the URS-combination of engineering genius Helmuth Fath). That is 18 (EIGHTEEN) world titles.

    There were other victories, in particular at the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, including 1st and 2nd place in the Senior class (arguably the most prestigious road event of that era) in 1939.

    • I knew, the very millisecond I wrote this, that there would be one guy that would hone in on the asterisks. Congrats. You’re that guy. 😉

      BMW owned sidecar racing. Still does, in some classes. Sidecar racing is not the same as roadracing. The hacks were one case where the greater frontal area and limited ground clearance of the boxers weren’t a competitive death sentence.

      The 1939 TT win of the Rennsport Kompressor is another asterisk. It was a magnificent victory for BMW, but the FIM reacted to the event by promptly outlawing superchargers in international competition, essentially ending the competiveness of the OHC Rennsport.

      So, sidecars don’t count, and one TT win doesn’t make you ‘a force’. I stand by my characterization.

      FWIW, I live about 20 miles away from Hagerstown, Maryland. Do a little research on Hugo Wolters, who was a German expatriate master machinist. Hugo, god bless him, had a complete copy of the engineering drawings for the Rennsport, and the skills to make one from scratch. I’ve seen one up close, and they appear to be original in every way.

      The RS54, with its gear-driven overhead camshafts, is one of the most beautiful motorcycles ever built. Its just a shame that the elegance of the design didn’t equate to ‘faster than everything else’.

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