WhichBike? – June 1980
I think everything I wrote in this column was long ago vindicated by the demise of Hesketh and the dimming of David Essex’s star… talk about the Curse of Williams. But four decades later it also has a grim resonance when one thinks of the more recent departure of Norton…
“IT DON’T THINK ANY OF US SHOULD be too hard on the bike,” said Rodney Gould who, as an ex-world champion racer, could be forgiven for being tougher on a new competitor than most people. But Mr Gould and I were conversing amongst the elegant portals of Easton Neston, country seat of Lord Hesketh, where minutes earlier his business partner, Mike Hailwood, had helped unveil his Lordship’s much-vaunted 1000cc production roadster. It was this machine that was the subject of Gould’s verbal fingerwagging.
Red rag to a bull, of course.
Hah! Actually I’m all in favour of the Hesketh, or at least the idea of it. The 90degree vee-twin is a welcome alternative to serious European sports machinery produced by Laverda, Moto-Guzzi, BMW et al, but I’m afraid everybody is getting swept up in a welter of patriotic fervour when assessing its merits as either the salvation of the British bike industry (a glib hope applied with equanimity by the weekly comics (MCN and the long deceased MotorCycleWeekly – MW) every time NVT paints its Easy Riders a new colour or Meriden fit a revised exhaust system to the Bonnie), or more seriously, a viable opportunity for the average well-heeled Joe to own something better than a Suzuki, Kawasaki or Honda of similar capacity.
In his opening speech, the redoubtable Lord Hesketh emphasised that this was not a one-off fantasy to tempt the cheque book of some ingénue backer into turning it into an instant museum piece, but a pre-production model that was tried, tested and very much ready to roll once proper manufacturing facilities had been set up. This I do not doubt, but how sound is the concept of the Hesketh in marketing terms? Will anyone actually want to buy it on its stark qualities as a high performance motorcycle for the ‘eighties?
Well there are plenty of vee-twins available, some of them capable of propelling their owners at speeds marginally in excess of the 130mph suggested (though not, wisely, claimed) as being the Hesketh’s terminal velocity. Disregarding the market’s fatuous reliance on manufacturers’ and road-testers’ claimed top speeds as purchasing decision makers, I’m concerned by the fact that Hesketh claims this speed is achieved by 86bhp at 6,500rpm. The Ducati 900SS Desmo needs just 68bhp to go 140mph, and the Moto-Guzzi Le Mans II, 75bhp to hit around 130. Admittedly these machines are lighter and their engines have to rev higher to match or exceed the Hesketh’s top whack, but this only focuses attention on what I consider the most dubious aspect of the new bike’s highly exalted British-ness.
Firstly, the Hesketh’s specification is really little more sophisticated than that of the equivalent Laverda, BMW or Guzzi. A couple of extra gauges and a clever rear-end hardly make it more desirable than, say, the Guzzi with its linked braking system and shaftdrive. Laverda have a hydraulic clutch available and BMW have fairings and extra instruments. But this may be nit-picking when considered against the heart of the bike itself, the Weslake vee-twin.
Why is it necessary to endow an engine which peaks at only 6,500rpm and produces optimum torque 1,500 revs lower down with double-overhead cams? They absorb energy and add weight. Perhaps they also add sales-appeal, eh? And why does the engine run so slowly anyway, when other European manufacturers of big twins and triples have clearly proven that their engines can safely peak two or three thousand RPM higher? I hate, but am not afraid, to say this, but I fear the answer may be that the Weslake is an inherently unreliable engine, certainly their earlier motorcycle engines were notoriously failure-prone. And keeping the revs down and the torque up may’ve been an expedient compromise between performance, durability and once again, saleability.
One chap who’s actually ridden several prototypes admitted to me that Hesketh had to virtually re-build all the engines delivered to Easton Neston by Weslake because they were so, er, ill-fitting. Later he collared me and asked me not to publish what he’d told me, but I honestly think it would be irresponsible not to tell you that the Hesketh, whilst it might be an admirable project in numerous ways, may also be a flawed one. (Unsurprisingly, I got a lot of stick for this at the time – MW)
The finish on the engines also left something to be desired, especially the rev-counter drive housing which looked as though it had been machined up the morning of the launch. I also considered it vaguely suspicious that no engines were started whilst we were ogling the ironware. No rorty roar to further fire the patriotic pride was a distinct downer as far as I was concerned. (There were a few squeaks however, when Motor Cycle Weekly’s dapper hack, G. Sanderson, was refused entry to the lig ‘cause his paper had broken the shock-horror embargo by 24 hours. Anyone would’ve thought that Lord Hesketh was declaring home rule for Towcester and war on Japan instead of launching a machine that will probably capture nothing more than 0.00049% of the world market.)
It’s only occasionally that the motorcycle press en masse enjoys the unbridled largesse of Britain’s cultured minority, although in the hey-day of BMW’s efforts to up-grade the biking image some four years ago or so, we got to sup champagne, munch paté de foie and break out the kipper ties quite frequently. I was therefore amused to see so many of my peers (ouch) straightening their knots and desperately tying to regain lost ‘h’s in the company of some genuine motorcycling gentry, many of whom were actually paying for the extremely generous piss-up. Eventually the sight of so many forelocks being metaphorically tugged in unison depressed the crap out of me, not because of any misplaced sense of socialism, but rather that the whole spectacle promised unilateral, if not fawning approval of the Hesketh. I’ll repeat that I don’t wish to demean the fundamentally admirable aspects of the machine and the dedication and despatch which lie behind its appearance. I just hope that it doesn’t end up like another Silk or Quasar due, at least in part, to the myopic indulgence of the media and the trade.
Actually an even unkinder analogy would be the preposterous Silver Dream Racer which David Essex is currently pledging his all to at a cinema near you. ‘Pudgy Dave’, as we close friends and colleagues affectionately call him, encourages your sympathies as the penniless road-racer who via the most unlikely set of circumstances imaginable, manages to acquire a mysterious bolide capable of circuiting Brands Hatch considerably faster than the factory Suzuki of smart-arse World Championship contender Beau Bridges… who also looks far too corpulent to convincingly pilot a 140bhp motorcycle. Bridges has a nasty reputation for ungentlemanly (and occasionally homicidal) behaviour on the track and what appears to be an incestuous relationship with Christina Raines. Into this sordid menage a trois (i.e. Bridges, his ego and Ms Raines), the recently bereaved Essex unwittingly marches, full of derring-do and pints of lager. Aboard his shiny new steed and with a figure trimmed by a fortnight of jogging round a disused air-field in South Wales (N.B. the same location used in the forthcoming ‘Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ movie for Malcolm McLaren’s flight from the reality of his crumbling business empire… is this significant?), Master Essex can do little wrong, and indeed quite a lot of nights, (T-shirt rights, album rights, poster rights etc., etc.)
Naturally this lengthy flic wastes no opportunity in promoting Essex the musician — he wrote the totally disposable soundtrack and can also be heard warbling an equally unmemorable ballad at one point. There is also an extremely thin patina of “humour” pervading the dialogue, doubtless an attempt to divert the audience’s attention from the ludicrous plot and otherwise facile script. A teeny bop ‘Carry On Bike Racing’ would just about sum it up. Nevertheless ‘Silver Dream Racer’ has two redeeming features: the racing footage really captures much of the adrenalin edginess of throwing a_high-performance bike round a race track circuit; and the stereo soundtrack (if your local fleapit, is in a position to offer you such a thing) complements this element of the film magnificently.
In the end though, the Silver Dream Racer proves to be only fractionally more durable than its name suggests; a dream that quickly fades. Now what was I saying about the Hesketh?
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