SIMPLE STROKES FOR COMPLEX FOLKS

MotorCycle International – April 1987

One of my perennial complaints about advances in motorcycle design providing more finicky technology than the average rider needs or can use featured here, and once again, in these days of traction control and lean-angle ABS it was as relevant then as it is now… possibly.

In the bad old days of bike journalism (and indeed Bike journalism), L J K Setright used to write a column called ‘Cog Swapping’ which most of us didn’t understand but few of us remained unimpressed by. (Setright was a marvellously eccentric but high erudite automotive journalist  – also a real biker – who I’d previously admired  in Car magazine from under whose wing, anoraks might recall, I launched Bike – MW). Leonard’s command of the English language was such that the determined reader could often only plough through his pieces if armed with a very substantial dictionary, and it was thus often the case that the subject matter got swamped by the syntax. But on matters technical ­– and ‘Cogswapping’ was after all supposed to be a technical column – Setright certainty knew his stuff, and if he didn’t it was inflamed with such extreme literary pyromania that few would dare contradict him. One technique that he repeatedly employed, and which consistently irked me, was to jump into a eulogy on some deeply obscure engine design, brake system or lubrication pump using the catch-all springboard of there being ‘nothing new under the sun’. An old trick and one beloved of motoring hacks of every stripe, but too often used when the writer has little wise or witty to say about matters of the moment. (And just in case you think you know what’s coming, you’re wrong…)

No, I merely mention this now because | was reminded of Setright’s technique, and indeed his loquacity, when | was struggling to come to terms with current motorcycle suspensions… and also because this column probably wouldn’t fill a page without a couple of largely irrelevant introductory paragraphs.

However, unlike Setright, I am not especially interested in plundering the history books in order to leaven the claims of modern motorcycle designers. The march of progress is in my opinion entirety healthy and any recent duplication of engineering solutions can only improve on the original thanks to better development and manufacturing techniques. Unless of course the march of progress is no more than a well orchestrated fox-trot, you know – two steps forward, two steps back.

Take suspension for instance ~ and you’d better take it ‘cause that’s all I got: The high performance sport bikes of the early ‘60s had all manner of acronyms emblazoned on their fork legs which basically added up to the fact that anti-dive control, adjustable pre-load, damping and even ‘heat compensation’ gizmos had been engineered into their front ends. In truth, much effort end ingenuity lay behind these devices, but it was equally true that derived as they were from race technology lots of them provided damn-ail benefit to the average road rider. Now we all know that racing does indeed improve the breed. But somewhere between Kenny Roberts and Joe Soap the best suspension system in the world had to be diluted for you or I rode around the Hammersmith roundabout with HRC forks legs on our VFR7SOF we’d probably come off the bugger anytime we applied the front brake in earnest. The trouble was that modifying these undoubtedly accomplished racing solutions for domestic use meant sacrificing one of a number of their original benefits, and the compromises that ensued left us with systems that were either ineffective, effective only at low operating temperatures (i.e. for a short while), or required the rider to execute a complex equation of dial and valve settings every time the road surfaces, vehicle load… or his mind changed.

It therefore comes as little surprise to me that these twiddly bits seem to be quietly disappearing from today’s new and revamped models. Two recently ridden examples illustrate my point: Suzuki’s new GSX1100F abandons the R-version’s anti-dive and air-valves, as does the older but equally impressive XJ900 Yamaha.

Taking the last first, the bike was originally launched in an all-singing, all-dancing display of high-tech hubris at the Suzuka Circuit in Japan. Well do I remember the po-faced claims that were made for the bike’s sophisticated suspension (this was before mono-lever rear ends had really caught on big-time, remember). And well do I also remember that whatever settings I dialled into the forks of my particular test bike, it still waddled on hard braking into corners.

Now, of course, the anti-dive !s no longer a feature of the XJ900, just as Suzuki have chosen to leave it off a brand new, high-performance tourer that from its price-tag alone, would suggest that such an accoutrement would be de rigeur. There are those cynics who’ve already suggested that such omissions are merely economic expediency in the current cold sales climate – and I’m indeed one of them. But in reality, I’m now asking myself are these bikes any the worse off without them?

The XJ900, tested in our next issue, is a fantastically accomplished machine at a bargain price (well at least by the current crazy standards), and I doubt if anti-dive – certainly not the original anti-dive – would improve its performance or my enjoyment of it? The Suzuki, on the other hand, could usefully benefit from a bit more compression and rebound damping, but that could be done far more easily and cheaply than by bunging on the company’s PDF.

These contentions were generated by jumping on and off an XJ900, a GSX1100F, a Norton Commando and a BMW K75S in fairly quick succession. Quite frankly the ancient but well refined Commando had the best balanced front suspension, inasmuch as it suited fast, every-day riding on average roads, although the other three bikes all offered more comfort (due to longer slider travel if nothing else). The K75 with its large damper fitted in just one of the fork legs, dives on braking only slightly more than the two Jap bikes but — and it’s a big but neither of them offered better roadholding.

The conclusion I draw from this is simple, and the analogy tortuous: There are many ways to skin a rabbit, but only one way to eat it – namely with your mouth. That is to say that the refinement of a simple idea is often preferable to complex innovation (and it’s certainly cheaper), and the effects are invariably lost on all but the most tutored or sophisticated palate. We are now seeing this with front suspension, just as we have recently witnessed a certain amount of retrogression in the boiler room with Honda all but dumping complex V-fours and quietly resurrecting the UJ-multi in the shape of their CBRs, whilst Ducati steadily tinker with their V-twins and come up with comparable output figures.

If this is the shape of things to come, then it’s no bad thing … but the techno-junkies that the Jap marketing men have turned us all into in the past decade will have to modify their perceptions of what technological improvement actually means in the real world. Or ­– and Leonard Setright was unbearably fond of chucking in obscure quotations to underline his point — we should take note of Lewis Mumford’s dictum, namely that, ‘For most people, progress means accepting what is new because it is New, and discarding what is old because it is Old’.

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About markswill

For those unaware of my glittering career, I started scribbling for the underground press in 1968 and by complete chance was appointed Music Editor of International Times when I happened to visit their office for the first time in '69 on a day trip down from Birmingham. Naturally I took all of a stoned nanosecond to accept the offer... and it's all been uphill ever since. If you really give a stuff, a full resume of my, er, resume is available on the Career page of my website, www.markwilliamsmedia.co.uk, but for now just be content to know that I'm an opinionated media junkie of a certain age who won't sit still.

6 thoughts on “SIMPLE STROKES FOR COMPLEX FOLKS

    • Thanks Tony, much appreciated… and I’m sure Leonard would say the same if he hadn’t smoked 20 Sobranie Black Russian a day and sadly died of cancer umpteen years ago

      Like

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