Sunday, September 14, 2014

The British Motorcycle Empire

This is the story of when British Motorcycles ruled the World. Today's modern high-perfor-mance motorcycles owe a great deal to classic British bikes. Most of the names are gone now, out of business due to a combination of management incompetence and an inability to keep up with the competition's innovation.

The British manufacturers failed to modernize their factories, their bikes, and their business practices. High volume manufacturing of Japanese bikes produced lower prices, while their engineering quickly overtook the classic British designs. It was primarily just a failure to keep up with the times. In many ways, following the British examples of style and performance, Honda and others refined, improved, and modernized the entire motorcycle business. Riders today owe a great debt to these Anglo pioneers. It is a shame that the famous British brands have all but disappeared, except in the memory of motorcycle buffs.

The first true sport bikes were 1950s British motorcycles like the Triumph Tiger T110 and the BSA Gold Star. They also dominated off-road competition for two decades. The first modern superbikes were the Norton Commando and the Triumph Trident, the Trident triple being the first modern, multi-cylinder motorcycle, beating the Honda 750 Four to market by several months.

And “café racers,” possibly the first “choppers,” were invented in England on the frame rails of Triumphs, BSAs, Nortons, Enfields, and the rest. In the 1960's, the “British Invasion” wasn't just about Rock & Roll, it was about great British Motorcycles.

Motorcycle’s history is also tied to the United Kingdom with the famous Isle of Man TT. Many a significant speed record and many a successful advertising campaign began with this storied race.

The International Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) Race is a motorcycle racing event held on the tiny British island, Isle of Man, that was, for most of cycling history, the most prestigious motorcycle race in the world. Motor racing began on the Isle of Man in 1904 with the Gordon Bennett Eliminating Trial. In 1907 the famous TT race was established by, among others, the Collier brothers, owners of the Matchless motorcycle company. Racing discontinued in 1939 due to the war and was reestablished in 1947.

The small island located between England and Ireland is also known simply as “Mann.” Don’t ask me why the Brits have so much trouble deciding how to spell it!

(Actually it comes from the “Manx Gaelic” language and means “mountain” or “island” and can also be interpreted as “man” or “men.” In any case, both “Isle of Man” and “Manx” are certainly terms embedded in motorcycle history thanks to these British fore bearers.)

The motorcycle event was part of the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) Motorcycle Grand Prix World Championship during the period 1949–1976 before being transferred to the United Kingdom after safety concerns and run by the FIM as the British Grand Prix for the 1977 season. The Isle of Man TT Races became part of the TT Formula 1 Championship from 1977 to 1990 to preserve the event's racing status. From 1989 the racing has been promoted by the Isle of Man Department of Tourism as the Isle of Man TT Festival. The great race goes on with the 2015 event starting on May 30.

Although my buddy Woody would refer to “TT” as “tavern to tavern,” it actually meant “tourist trophy.” Whether these customized café racers were truly designed for speed and racing or just the intention of the riders to park them outside the nearest tavern or coffee shop to “look cool,” they were part of the mystique of British bikes.

I’m reminded of the quip where a man walks into a bar and asks another man if that is his Harley parked outside. When the second man responds, “yes,” the first than asks, “Oh, so are you an accountant or a dentist?” Which is really mean. The rider could be an architect! You know that "you meet the nicest people on a Harley." It wasn't just the Japanese bikes that established that modern truism. From Marlon Brando to Steve McQueen, they weren't on a Harley, but a Triumph.

Let's list the famous Triumph and other British bike riders. Some known by me are: Lee Majors, Marlon Brando, Bob Dylan, Steve McQueen, Elvis, Brad Pitt (and Cate Blanchett), Robbie Coltrane, Jay Leno, Paul McCartney, Clint Eastwood, Evil Kneivel (he rode Harleys and other brands too), James Dean, Tom Laughlan (Billy Jack), Pamela Anderson, Diane McBain (Mini-Skirt Mob), and of course Les Harris.

Leslie Frederick Harris is the British businessman and motorcycle enthusiast who helped resurrect the Triumph Bonneville after it failed in 1983. The British press often refers to him as "saviour of the British motorcycle industry." He even had a go at resurrecting the Matchless brand, but that didn't pan out, and he died in 2009 at the age of 69.

Add in some more current names such as Alanis Morissette, Nick Cage, Steve Jones, Matt Adler, and Michael Chan … and don't forget "the Fonz" before Henry Winkler started selling reverse mortgages. Easy Rider may have showcased Harleys, but the Brits got their good press too.

Some rode in "real life" and some rode on film. Many did both. In the movies and on TV we saw James Brolin as Dr Kiley in the old B&W TV drama Marcus Welby and Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House on House on cable. The list goes on: Kate Hudson and Mathew McConaughty, Robbie Williams, Christina Aguilera, Heidi Klum. Richard Geer, Ann-Margaret, Tony Francisco, Dean Martin, Anthony Quinn, Antonio Banderas, and Harrison Ford. Plenty of leading men (and ladies). Even Wallace of Wallace and Gromit fame rode a Brit bike. Oh, and one more: Mickey Cheatham.

Yet, despite all this, a brilliant history, leading market share, and some of the best engineers in the biz, the British Motorcycle Industry self-destructed in the 1970s and 80s. But interest in them has been greatly renewed of late, so much so that new motorcycles are being produced today by several legendary British marques like Triumph, Norton, and Royal Enfield.

Matchless, AJS, and AMC

I’m starting with a company that will appear time and time again as we trace the history of the many British brands from birth to death. Yet this company is only recognized by serious motorcycle students. It is the British “AMC.” No, not American Motors, the former producers of such fine motorcars as Rambler, Metro, and Jeep before they disappeared into Chrysler Corporation. This is the British company “Associated Motor Cycles.”

The first Matchless motorcycle was made in 1899, and production began in 1901. Matchless Motorcycles was the brand name of Collier & Sons, the father Henry Herbert Collier and his sons Charlie and Harry. In 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, the Colliers Brothers acquired AJS Motorcycles from the Stevens' Brothers. (A. J. Stevens & Co. Ltd, from 1909 to 1931, the early brand held 117 motorcycle world records.)

Then in 1937, Matchless acquired Sunbeam Motorcycles from Imperial Chemical Industries who had taken over the troubled company. This left the Colliers owning three different marques of motorcycles: Matchless, AJS, and now Sunbeam, each famous brands on their own account.

On October 12, 1937 the company re-registered as Associated Motor Cycles Ltd. as a way to encompass all three brands. Things went well under the new arrangement. By the close of the 1930's, AMC was being well-managed and was in sound financial shape.

Matchless Motorcycles were so well respected for their quality and reliability that several other companies, both within and outside the motorcycle industry, contracted Matchless to provide their engines. The most famous of these would be Brough Superior, regarded as perhaps the finest motorcycle of its day and made famous by Lawrence of Arabia.

During World War Two, all civilian motorcycle production halted and AMC, along with everyone else, began producing motorcycles for the British War Department. These AMC products were all branded “Matchless.”

Norton and BSA were the primary suppliers to the British Army since the Triumph factory was bombed in 1940. Bad for Triumph, good for Associated Motor Cycles, who had been trying to win a major military contract. AMC produced a fairly advanced machine to British government specifications and made over 55,000 bikes during the war.

With all this prosperity, it was time for the AMC empire to expand. This began an era of acquisitions. It started in 1947 with the takeover of the Francis-Barnett company of Coventry, who were building Villiers-powered lightweight motorcycles. They followed up with the 1950 takeover of the James Motorcycle Company, Birmingham.

Next was the crown jewel: Norton Motorcycles in 1953. But this one was different. Unlike James and Francis-Barnett, Norton had real market reputation and brand, so AMC wanted to focus on this fame. It was decided to leave the existing management in place and allow Norton to operate as a separate entity, albeit part of the AMC empire. In retrospect, the entire move to acquire Norton wasn't all that that well thought out. Other than the Norton Dominator, their entire product line was obsolete, with much investment required.

In August 1954, Managing Director Charlie Collier, the last of the original Collier family who started the Matchless company, died at age 69. He had devoted his life to the company and had great knowledge and skill that the company would sorely miss. A few weeks later, H.J. (Ike) Hatch, AMC chief development engineer, passed away at age 68. Later in 1954, AMC announced they would discontinue their factory racing efforts, although they would continue to support a few selected privateers, riding the AJS 7R, Matchless G45, and Norton Manx. Through the efforts of Jock West, AMC succeeded in restoring the Norton brand, starting with the Dominator 88, then the Dominator 99.

Jack Williams had filled the void as chief development engineer left by Ike Hatch's death. He was instrumental in the improvement he made to the AJS 7R and in bringing the Matchless G50 to production. In a road test of their new Matchless G11CS Sports Twin 600 by The Motor Cycle magazine, after achieving nearly 104 mph on a closed circuit, they they tore the engine down for inspection, revealing it to be in excellent condition. It was a true marketing coup for AMC.

By 1959, AMC had acquired the Brockhouse Engineering Group, who themselves had purchased the ailing Indian Motor Cycle Co. of Springfield, Mass in 1951. Indian had discontinued production of it's legendary V-twin in 1953 and had since been engaging in importing British motorcycles to America, including Norton, Vincent, Royal Enfield, AJS, and Matchless. This arrangement ended in 1960. The US distributorship was awarded to Berliner Corp. in New Jersey. Berliner also imported Zundapps from Germany and Ducatis from Italy.

AMC had been producing the Matchless and AJS Motorcycle lines for years. The two brands shared essentially the same basic machinery, with a few detail and cosmetic changes to differentiate them. Similar to Ford and Mercury or Dodge and Plymouth, there were little difference between the two bikes other than the logo on the tank. So, when Matchless launched its first vertical twin, AJS soon followed with a sister-bike. The first twins were the 498cc Matchless G9 and it's twin, the AJS Model 20, introduced in 1948 at the Earls Court Show.

These were bumped up to 593cc in 1956, creating the Matchless G11 and AJS Model 30, then again to 646cc in 1959 for the G12, and again to 745cc in 1965 for the Matchless G15.

Matchless built a very good vertical twin, at least when compared to the other British marques. Things like a center main bearing and full-length studs fastening the head and barrels, were unique at the time. They were sound machines and should have done better in the market place. As far as AMC bikes go, however, most of the attention was being lavished on the Norton models, as they were seen to have the best chance of success.

It seems that AMC got caught in the same time warp that swallowed up every other once-successful British motorcycle maker. When things were going gangbusters in the 1950's, they failed to reinvest any of the money into new designs or modern manufacturing equipment. They seemed content and intent on soldiering through by buffing up ancient outdated designs. That might have worked had it not been for a person name Soichiro Honda, who showed the motorcycling world what was possible. Suddenly, every British design looked sadly out of date.

Another thing that hurt AMC was a loss of direction, caused by the deaths of the Colliers and the exodus of much-needed talent like Bert Hopwood and Jock West.

In 1960, after roaring success in the 1950's, things had sunk so low that shareholders revolted and demanded changes in management. Financial losses continued. In 1962, AMC announced it's new “Standardization Program” in which they would close down several plants and merge production of Norton and other brands.

Always known as one of the most blatant brand-engineers, having placed both AJS and Matchless logos on essentially the same machines for decades, the implications of “standardization” were immediately obvious to the motorcycling public. It disenchanted many brand-loyal enthusiasts who never returned.

There were other engineering failures and management changes, including involvement of the British government officials. By 1965, the model lineup included mostly a jumbled collection of AJS, Matchless, and Norton engines being swapped into Jubilee and Featherbed frames, trying to hit the magic combination.

By 1966, AMC slipped into receivership. In September, Manganese Bronze Holdings took it over, renaming it Norton Matchless Ltd. This later became a part of Norton Villiers, who a few years later would also take over the ailing BSA empire, including Triumph, renaming itself Norton-Villiers-Triumph (NVT).

By 1967, the last of the Matchless-AJS motorcycles were built. From then on, of all the companies that Associated Motor Cycles had originally thrown into the pot together — Matchless, AJS, James, Francis-Barnett, and Norton — only Norton would survive, for a few more years, at least.


Sunbeam was a British manufacturing marque that produced bicycles, motorcycles, and cars from 1912 to 1956. Originally independent, it was owned by BSA from 1943. Sunbeam is perhaps most famous for its S7 model, a balloon-tired, shaft-drive motorcycle with an overhead valve in-line twin engine. Rather advanced for British bikes.

In 1937 the Sunbeam motorcycle trademark was sold to Associated Motor Cycles Ltd (AMC) which continued to make Sunbeam bicycles and motorcycles until 1939.

In 1943 AMC sold the Sunbeam name to BSA and Sunbeam Cycles Ltd came into being. Three Sunbeam motorcycle models were produced from 1946 to 1956, inspired by BMW motorcycles supplied to the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. They were followed by two scooter models from 1959 to 1964.

When Sunbeam production came to an end, BSA sold the remaining stock of parts to Stewart Engineering, and this company is now the sole supplier of spares for late-model Sunbeam motorcycles. The Triumph Tigress, also sold as the BSA Sunbeam, was a scooter designed to have good performance and handling for the motorcycle enthusiast. These final Sunbeam two-wheelers discontinued in 1965.


Ariel Motors was a British motorcycle manufacturer based in Bournbrook, Birmingham. It was one of the leading innovators in British motorcycling. The company was sold to BSA in 1951, but the Ariel brand survived until 1967. The last motorcycle-type vehicle to carry the Ariel name in before disappearing entirely was a short-lived 3-wheel tilting moped launched in 1970.

The original company was established in 1870 by James Starley and William Hillman. They built wire-spoke wheels under the first British patent. This allowed them to build a lighter-weight "penny farthing" bicycle which they named 'Ariel' (the spirit of the air).

The Ariel Square Four with a 500 cc engine designed by Edward Turner first appeared for the 1931 season. Around this time the company went into receivership and then a new company was formed. The Square Four became a 600 cc. The Square Fours had overheating problems with the rear cylinders which resulted in distorted heads throughout their history. A redesign in 1937 resulted in a 995 cc OHV version designated the 4G.

In 1951 Jack Sangster sold Ariel and Triumph (bought in 1936) to the Birmingham Small Arms Company group (BSA), and joined their board. Ariel began making the 500 cc KH model and the 650 cc Huntmaster, with engines based on BSA parallel twins. Reliable and capable of 100 mph, the Huntmaster proved popular with sidecar enthusiasts.

By 1956 Edward Turner became head of the automotive division, which then included Ariel, Triumph, and BSA motorcycles, as well as Daimler and Carbodies (the manufacturer of London Taxicabs).

BSA closed the Ariel factory at Selly Oak in 1962 and moved production of the Leader and the Arrow to the BSA factory at Small Heath. Production of the 50 cc Pixie began in 1963. In 1965, Ariel produced its last motorcycle, the Arrow 200 with capacity reduced to 200 cc introduced earlier during 1964 to qualify for lower UK rider insurance. Ariel motorcycles ceased production in 1967.

In 1999 a new company was formed in Somerset, England, using the old "Ariel" name. This incarnation of the Ariel Motor Company currently manufactures the Ace model motorcycle and the Atom, a road legal high performance sports car that looks a bit like a Formula 1 or Indy race car, although a two-seater. Since both bike and car are powered by Honda engines, I don't include this latest versions of Ariel as part of the British tradition, but a modern merging of national technologies.

Royal Enfield

Royal Enfield was the name under which the Enfield Cycle Company made bicycles, motorcycles, lawnmowers, and stationary engines. The legacy of weapons manufacture is reflected in the logo, a cannon, and their motto "Made like a gun, goes like a bullet.” Use of the brand name Royal Enfield was licensed by the The Crown (U.K. royal government) in 1890. The original Redditch, Worcestershire based company was sold to Norton-Villiers-Triumph (NVT) in 1968.

In 1893, the Enfield Manufacturing Company Ltd was registered to manufacture bicycles, adopting the branding Royal Enfield. In 1948, a groundbreaking development in the form of rear suspension springing was developed, initially for competition model "trials" models (modern enduro type machines), but this was soon offered on the road-going model Bullet 350 cc, a single cylinder OHV. This was a very popular seller, offering a comfortable ride. A 500 cc version appeared shortly after. A later 1950s version of the Bullet manufacturing rights and jigs, dies and tools was sold to India for manufacture there, and where developed versions continue to this day.

In 1949, Royal Enfield's version of the now popular selling parallel twins appeared. This 500 cc version was the forerunner of a range of Royal Enfield Meteors, 700 cc Super Meteors, and 700 cc Constellations. Offering good performance at modest cost, these sold widely, if somewhat quietly in reputation. The 700 cc Royal Enfield Constellation Twin has been described as the first superbike.

During the onslaught of the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers in the late sixties and early seventies, the English factories made a final attempt with the 1962–1968 Series I and Series II. Made largely for the US market, it sported lots of chrome and strong performance, completing the quarter mile in less than 13 seconds at speeds well above 105 mph. It became very popular in the US, but the classic mistake of not being able to supply this demand added to the demise of this last English-made Royal Enfield.

Established in the 19th century, it would appear that Royal Enfield along with Triumph is the only motorcycle brand to span three centuries, and still going, with continuous production. A few of the original Redditch factory buildings remain (as of 2009) and are part of the Enfield Industrial Estate.

From 1955 to 1959, Royal Enfields were painted red, and marketed in the USA as Indian Motorcycles by the Brockhouse Corporation, who had control of the Indian Sales Corporation (and therefore Indian Motorcycles) and had stopped manufacturing all American Indians in the Springfield factory in 1953. But Americans were not impressed by the brand engineering and the marketing agreement ended in 1960, and from 1961, Royal Enfields were available in the US under their own name. The largest Enfield Indian was a 700 cc twin named the Chief, like its American predecessors.

Royal Enfield motorcycles had been sold in India since 1949. In 1955, the Indian government (not to be confused with the American “Indian” brand”) looked for a suitable motorcycle for its police and army. The Bullet was chosen as the most suitable bike for the job. The Indian government ordered 800, 350 cc model Bullets, an enormous order for the time. In 1955, the Redditch company joined Madras Motors in India in forming Enfield India to assemble, under license, the 350 cc Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle in Madras (now called Chennai). Under Indian law, Madras Motors owned the majority (over 50%) of shares in the company. In 1957 tooling equipment was sold to Enfield India so that they could manufacture components.

Royal Enfield India manufactures and sells in India, and also exports to Europe as well as America, South Africa and Australia. Recently Royal Enfield has undergone a major retooling particularly in the engine department on their flagship 500 cc model. This retooling has sparked such an interest in these bikes that they have started double shifts at the plants.


Norton Motorcycle Company (formerly Norton Motors, Ltd.) is a British motorcycle marque, originally from Birmingham, UK, founded in 1898 as a manufacturer of "fittings and parts for the two-wheel trade.” By 1902, they had begun manufacturing motorcycles with engines purchased externally. In 1908, a Norton-built engine was added to the range. This began a long series of production of single and eventually twin-cylinder motorcycles, and a long history of racing involvement.

In 1902, Norton began building motorcycles with French and Swiss engines. In 1907, a Norton ridden by Rem Fowler won the twin-cylinder class in the first Isle of Man TT Race, beginning a sporting tradition that went on until the 1960s. The first Norton engines were made in 1907, with production models available from 1908. These were the 3.5 hp (490 cc) and the “Big 4” (633 cc), beginning a line of side-valve single-cylinder engines which continued with few changes until the late 1950s

Norton struggled to reclaim its pre-WWII racing dominance as the single-cylinder machine faced fierce competition from the multi-cylinder Italian machines and AJS from the UK. In the 1949 Grand Prix motorcycle racing season, the first year of the world championship, Norton made only fifth place and AJS won. That was before the Featherbed frame appeared, developed for Norton by the McCandless brothers of Belfast, and used in 1950 on the legendary Manx Norton and raced by riders including Geoff Duke, John Surtees, and Derek Minter. Very quickly the Featherbed frame, a design that allowed the construction of a motorcycle with good mass-stiffness distribution, became a benchmark by which all other frames were judged.

McCandless' finished design was expensive, as it required over forty feet of the best Reynolds steel. It was a welded twin loop with a swinging arm fitted with their Norton's own design of shock absorbers, with a heavily braced cross-over headstock. The British company, Reynolds Cycle Technology a bicycle manufacturer well known for its tubular steel alloy production including the famous Reynolds 531 Steel alloyed with Manganese and Molybdenum and the current Reynolds 953.

Norton also experimented with engine placement, and discovered that moving the engine slightly up/down, forward/back, or even right/left, could deliver a "sweet spot" in terms of handling. Motorcycle designers still use this method to fine-tune motorcycle handling.

In 1951, the Norton Dominator was made available to export markets as the Model 88 with the Featherbed frame. Later, as production of this frame increased, it became a regular production model, and was made in variants for other models, including the OHV single-cylinder machines.

Manx Nortons also played a significant role in the development of post war car racing. At the end of 1950, the English national 500 cc regulations were adopted as the new Formula 3. The JAP Speedway engine had dominated the category initially but the Manx was capable of producing significantly more power and became the engine of choice. Many complete motorcycles were bought in order to strip the engine for 500 cc car racing, as Norton would not sell separate engines.

The racing successes were transferred to the street through café racers, some of which would use the Featherbed frame with an engine from another manufacturer to make a hybrid machine with the best of both worlds. The most famous of these were Tritons — Triumph twin engines in a Norton Featherbed frame.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the racing successes Norton was in financial difficulty. Reynolds could not make many of the highly desired Featherbed frames and customers lost interest in buying machines with the older frames. In 1953 Norton sold out to AMC. In 1962 the Norton factory in Bracebridge Street, Birmingham was closed and production was moved to AMC's Woolwich factory in southeast London.


Villiers Engineering was a manufacturer of motorcycles and cycle parts, and an engineering company based in Villiers Street, Wolverhampton, England. Prior to the turn of the century (the twentieth century, not the current), Villiers was manufacturing parts for the Sunbeam Motorcycle Company.

The were well known for the quality of their products. Manufacturing more parts than were needed by Sunbeam, they also sold to other companies and were a very prolific producer of engines.

Villiers developed and patented the cycle free-wheel, which every cycle manufacturer required. The production of free wheels reached its peak just after WWII, as the company produced 80,000 per week or 4 million per year. Most readers would recognize this mechanism in their bicycle’s where it allows one to coast and not have to pedal while the rear wheel coasts on its own.

Villiers manufactured a range of single and twin two-stroke engines (from 98 cc to 325 cc) for light motorcycle and vehicle manufacturers until the 1960s.In 1956, Villiers produced its two millionth engine. In 1957 Villiers absorbed JA Prestwich Industries, makers of the famous and popular J.A.P. engines.

In the early 1960s, the company was taken over by Manganese Bronze, and in 1966 together with AMC became part of Norton Villiers.


JA Prestwich Industries, was an English engineering company named after founder John Alfred Prestwich, which produced cinematographic equipment, internal combustion engines (for which the company was generally abbreviated to "J.A.P."), and other examples of precision engineering.

John Alfred Prestwich (1874 – 1952) was an English engineer and inventor. He founded the company in 1895 and was a pioneer in the early development of cinematography projectors and cameras.

From 1904 to 1908 complete motorcycles were produced by J.A.P. based on the development of the first overhead valve (OHV) motorcycle engine to be produced in the UK.

After that the factory concentrated on supplying its engines to other manufacturers, including Brough Superior, Triumph Motorcycles, A. J. Stevens & Co. Ltd, Enfield Cycle Co, Hazlewoods Limited, Zenith Motorcycles, and HRD Motorcycles, the forerunner of Vincent Motorcycles. Machines that incorporated its engines included the AJS Model D, fabricated for the Russians in the First World War.

J.A.P. exported significant numbers of engines to foreign motorcycle manufacturers including Dresch and Terrot in France, and Ardie, Hecker, and Tornax in Germany.

J.A.P. engines continue to used in motorcycle racing, and most commonly speedway or dirt track.

Motorcycle speedway, usually referred to simply as speedway, is a motorcycle sport involving four and sometimes up to six riders competing over four counter-clockwise laps of an oval circuit. Speedway motorcycles use only one gear and have no brakes and racing takes place on a flat oval track usually consisting of dirt, loosely packed shale, or dolomite (mostly used in Australia and New Zealand). Competitors use this surface to slide their machines sideways, powersliding or broadsiding into the bends. On the straight sections of the track the motorcycles reach speeds of up 70 miles per hour.

Speedway uses a unique type of motorcycle, governed by the FIM's "Track Racing Technical Rules." In the past, bikes with upright engines were used. With their very low mounted pegs, tiny fuel tanks, and frames and wheels that look more like bicycle than motorcycle, speedway bikes look very unique. As speedway bikes do not use brakes, the clutch is used as a release mechanism at the start of races. FIM regulations state that the motorcycles must have no brakes, are powered by pure methanol, use only one gear, and weigh a minimum of 170 pounds, still a very light bike.

Speedway racing is popular in Europe and in California with several large tracks, but there are tracks in New York and Indiana too. A very specialized form of racing, modern speedway isn't as popular as it once was in the hay-day of J.A.P engines.

BSA and Norton-Villiers-Triumph

The Birmingham Small Arms Company Limited (BSA) was a major industrial combine, a group of businesses manufacturing military and sporting firearms; bicycles; motorcycles; cars; buses and bodies; steel; iron castings; hand, power, and machine tools; coal cleaning and handling plants; sintered metals; and hard chrome process.

At its peak, BSA was the largest motorcycle producer in the world. Loss of sales and poor investments in new products in the motorcycle division, which included Triumph Motorcycles, led to problems for the whole group.

BSA produced the first Sunbeam bicycle catalogue in 1949 and produced its own “4 Star” derailleur gear with an associated splined cassette hub and 4 sprocket cassette. BSA bought New Hudson motorcycle and bicycle business in 1950 and followed this up in 1951 with the purchase of Triumph Motorcycles which brought Jack Sangster onto the BSA board. The effect of this acquisition was to make BSA into the largest producer of motorcycles in the world at that time.

The Group continued to expand and acquire throughout the 1950s, but, by 1965, competition from Japan (in the shape of companies like Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Suzuki) and Europe from Jawa / CZ, Bultaco, and Husqvarna was eroding BSA's market share. The BSA (and Triumph) products were no longer aligned with the markets; mopeds were displacing scooter sales and the trials and scrambles areas were now the preserve of European two-strokes.

Some poor marketing decisions and expensive projects contributed to substantial losses. For example, the development and production investment of the Ariel 3, an ultra stable 3-wheel moped, was not recouped by sales; the loss has been estimated at £2 million. Furthermore, BSA failed to take seriously the threat that key-start Japanese motorcycles might completely destroy the market for kick-started BSA motorcycles.

In 1968, BSA announced many changes to its product line of singles, twins and the new three-cylinder machine named the Rocket Three for the 1969 model year. It now concentrated on the more promising USA, and to a lesser extent, Canadian, markets. However, despite the adding of modern accessories, for example, turn signals and even differing versions of the A65 twins for home and export sale, the damage had been done and the end was near.

Reorganization in 1971 concentrated motorcycle production at Meriden, Triumph's site, with production of components and engines at BSA's Small Heath. At the same time there were redundancies and the selling of assets. Barclays Bank arranged financial backing to the tune of £10 million.

Upgrades and service bulletins continued until 1972, but the less service-intensive Japanese bikes had, by then, flooded the market on both sides of the Atlantic. The merger with Norton Villers was started in late 1972, and for a brief time a Norton 500 single was built with the B50-based engine, but few if any were sold publicly. The 500 cc BSA B50’s enjoyed much improvement in the hands of the CCM motorcycle company allowing the basic BSA design to continue until the mid to late 1970s in a competitive form all over Europe.

Clews Competition Machines or CCM for short, is a British motorcycle manufacturer based in Bolton, England. CCM was born out of the collapse of BSA's Competition Department in 1971.

By 1972, BSA was so moribund that, with bankruptcy imminent, its motorcycle businesses were merged (as part of a government-initiated rescue plan) with the Manganese Bronze company, Norton Villiers, to become Norton-Villiers-Triumph with the intention of producing and marketing Norton and Triumph motorcycles at home and abroad.

In exchange for its motorcycle businesses, Manganese Bronze received BSA Group's non-motorcycle-related divisions—namely, Carbodies, the taxi cab producer. Although the BSA name was left out of the new company's name, a few products continued to be made carrying it until 1973. The final range was just four models: Gold Star 500, 650 Thunderbolt/Lightning and the 750 cc Rocket Three.

However, the plan involved the axing of some brands, large redundancies, and consolidation of production at two sites. This scheme to rescue and combine Norton, BSA and Triumph failed in the face of worker resistance. Particularly the Triumph employees who protested the changes and held a two-year sit-in until the English government took notice. Norton’s and BSA's factories were eventually shut down, while Triumph staggered on to fail four years later.


Triumph Engineering Co Ltd was a British motorcycle manufacturing company, based originally in Coventry and then in Solihull at Meriden. A new company, Triumph Motorcycles Ltd based in Hinckley gained the name rights after the end of the company in the 1980s and is now one of the world's major motorcycle manufacturers.

The company began in 1885 when Siegfried Bettmann emigrated from Nuremberg, part of the German Empire, to Coventry in England. In 1884, aged 20, Bettmann founded his own company, the S. Bettmann & Co. Import Export Agency, in London. Bettmann's original products were bicycles, which the company bought and then sold with its own brand name. Bettmann also distributed sewing machines imported from Germany.

In 1886, Bettmann sought a more general name, and the company became known as the Triumph Cycle Company. A year later, the company registered as the New Triumph Co. Ltd. now with funding from the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company. During that year, Bettmann was joined as a partner by another Nuremberg native, Moritz Schulte.

In 1902, the first Triumph motorcycle is produced, powered by a 2.2hp Minerva engine and subsequently known as No. 1. By 1927, the Coventry factory, now consisting of 500,000 square feet and employing 3000 people, produces 30,000 units per year. In 1937, Triumph’s car and motorcycle businesses were split, and Edward Turner was appointed as chief designer.

Motorcycles were produced at Coventry until World War II. The town of Coventry was virtually destroyed by the "Coventry Blitz" (September 1940 to May 1941). Tooling and machinery was recovered from the site of the devastation, and production restarted at the new plant at Meriden, West Midlands in 1942.

The Triumph Speed Twin designed by Edward Turner before the war was produced in large numbers after the War. Efforts to settle the lend-lease debts led to nearly 70% of Triumph's post war production to be shipped to the United States. Post War, the Speed Twin and Triumph Tiger 100 were available with a sprung rear hub, Triumph's first attempt at a rear suspension.

Privateers put wartime surplus alloy barrels on their Tiger 100 racers and won races, inspiring the Triumph GP model. By 1950 the supply of barrels was exhausted, and the GP model was ended. The American market applied considerable demand to reverse this action, and a die cast, close finned, alloy barrel was made available. The alloy head made the valve noise more obvious, so ramp type cams were introduced for alloy head models to reduce the noise.

Another motorcycle based on the wartime generator engine was the 498 cc TR5 Trophy Twin, also introduced at the 1948 Motor Cycle Show. It used a single carburetor, low compression version of the Grand Prix engine. Britain won the prestigious 1948 International Six Days Trial. The Triumph works team had finished unpenalized.

To satisfy the American demand for motorcycles suited to long distance riding, Turner built a 650 cc version of the Speed Twin design. The new bike was named the Thunderbird, a name Triumph would later license to the Ford Motor Company for use for a car model. Only one year after the Thunderbird was introduced, a motorcyclist in Southern California mated the 650 Thunderbird with a twin carb head intended originally for GP racing and named the new creation the Wonderbird. That 650 cc motor, designed in 1939, had the world's absolute speed record for motorcycles from 1955 until 1970.

The Triumph brand received considerable publicity in the United States when Marlon Brando rode a 1950 Thunderbird 6T in the 1953 motion picture, The Wild One.

The Triumph Motorcycle concern was sold to their rivals Birmingham Small Arms Company by Sangster in 1951. This sale included Sangster becoming a member of the BSA board. Sangster was to become Chairman of the BSA Group in 1956.

The production 650 cc Thunderbird 6T was a low-compression tourer, and the 500 cc Tiger 100 was the performance motorcycle. That changed in 1954, with the change to swing arm frames, and the release of the alloy head 650 cc Tiger 110, eclipsing the 500 cc Tiger 100 as the performance model.

On September 6, 1956, at Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, American racer Johnny Allen secured the motorcycle land-speed record on a heavily modified Triumph T110 with a top speed of 214.17 mph. This success led to the development of the Tiger T110's successor — the Triumph Bonneville. Soon the T120, a tuned double carburetor version of the Triumph Tiger T110, came to be known as the Bonneville.

As Triumph and other marques gained market share, Harley became aware that their 1 liter-plus motorcycles were not as sporty as modern riders would like, resulting in a decreasing share of the market. The Triumphs were models for a new, "small" Harley Davidson as a result: the now-fabled Harley-Davidson Sportster, which started as Harley's version of a Triumph Bonneville. With its anachronistic V-twin, the Sportster was no match for the Bonneville, but the Harley proved a solid competitor in US sales and eventually also in longevity.

During the 1960s, despite internal opposition from those who believed that it would reduce the macho image of the brand, Triumph produced two scooters; the Triumph Tina, a small and low-performance 2-stroke scooter of about 100 cc with automatic clutch and a handlebar carry basket, and the Triumph Tigress, a more powerful scooter available with either a 175 cc 2-stroke single or a 250 cc 4-stroke twin engine for the enthusiast.

In 1969 Malcolm Uphill, riding a Bonneville, won the Isle of Man Production TT Race with a race average of 99.99 miles per hour per lap, and recorded the first ever more than 100 miles per hour lap by a production motorcycle at 100.37. For many Triumph fans, the 1969 Bonneville was the best Triumph model ever.

During the 1960s, 60% of all Triumph production was exported, which, along with the BSA's 80% exports, made the group susceptible to the Japanese expansion. By 1969 fully 50% of the US market for motorcycles more than 500 cc belonged to Triumph, but technological advances at Triumph had failed to match those of the foreign companies. Triumphs lacked electric start mechanisms, relied on push-rods rather than overhead cams, vibrated noticeably, often leaked oil, and had antiquated electrical systems; while Japanese marques such as Honda were building more advanced features into attractive new motorcycles that sold for less than their British competitors.

Triumph motorcycles, as a result, were nearly obsolete even when they were new. Further, Triumph's manufacturing processes were very labor-intensive and largely inefficient. Also disastrous, during the early 1970s, the US government mandated that all motorcycle imports must have their gearshift and brake pedals in the Japanese configuration, which required expensive retooling of all the motorcycles that didn't match this requirement for US sale.

The British marques were badly equipped to compete against the massive financial resources of Japanese heavy industries that targeted competitors for elimination with long-term plans subsidized by the Japanese government. Triumph and BSA were well aware of Honda's ability, but, while the Japanese were only making smaller engined models, the large engine market was considered safe. When the first Honda 750 cc four cylinder was released for sale to the public, Triumph and BSA had trouble. A 3-cylinder engined motorcycle was developed to compete against the Japanese fours: the BSA Rocket 3 / Triumph Trident.

The parent BSA group had losses of £8.5 million in 1971, £3 million for BSA motorcycles alone. The British government became involved. The company was sold to Manganese Bronze Holdings, which also owned Norton, AJS, Matchless, Francis-Barnett, James-Velocette and Villiers. After many consultations with the factory personnel explaining the consolidation necessary to compete with the Japanese, in September 1973 Norton-Villiers-Triumph group chairman, Dennis Poore, finally announced the closure of Meriden works effective February 1974. Of 4,500 employees, 3,000 were made redundant.

Worried about unemployment and having their products given to a rival firm, the workers at the Meriden factory demonstrated against a relocation to Small Heath, Birmingham, the BSA site. They staged a sit-in … for TWO YEARS! With political aid of the newly elected Labour government and, in particular, the then-minister for trade and industry, Tony Benn, the Meriden worker's cooperative was formed, supplying Triumph 750 cc motorcycles to its sole customer, NVT.

After the collapse of Norton-Villiers-Triumph in 1977, the cooperative bought the marketing rights for Triumph with more government loans, later becoming Triumph Motorcycles (Meriden) Limited. The venture, with only two 750 cc models, the Bonneville and Tiger, started well with a successful variant, the 1977 Silver Jubilee Bonneville T140J and by 1978 was the best selling European motorcycle in the vital USA market.

Meriden introduced several new models during its last years, but none were able to stop the decline, worsened by a UK recession and a continuing strong pound harming their US market.

In 1983, the debt-ridden company briefly considered buying the bankrupt Hesketh Motorcycles, and even badged one as a marketing trial. Despite also touting a 900 cc prototype water-cooled twin at the 1983 National Exhibition Show to attract outside investment, Triumph Motorcycles (Meriden) Ltd itself became bankrupt on August 23, 1983.

Triumph Motorcycles (Hinckley) Ltd is the largest surviving British motorcycle manufacturer. When Triumph went into receivership in 1983, John Bloor, a former plasterer who acquired his wealth from building and property development, became interested in keeping the brand alive, and bought the name and manufacturing rights from the Official Receiver. The new company, initially Bonneville Coventry Ltd, ensured that Triumph has produced motorcycles since 1902, winning it the title of the world's longest continuous production motorcycle manufacturer. A licensing agreement granted to motorcycle spares manufacturer, Les Harris, kept the Triumph Bonneville in production until 1988 when Triumph re-initiated a new product line for 1990 and 1991. Triumph now makes a range of motorcycles reviving model names of the past, including a newly designed Bonneville twin with a 865 cc engine and including a model, T-100, that duplicates very closely the style of the old ’65 Bonny. (This author rides a 2014 Bonneville T-100 "Black.")

Earlier this year, while visiting my sister in Montana, I noted a UPS delivery that said “B.S.A.” on the box. Wondering if the famed brand was back in business selling motorcycles, I looked closer. Of course, B.S.A. stands for Birmingham Small Arms, and the box was a rifle scope her son had ordered.

No, it’s still up to Triumph to continue the heritage of the great British bikes. The Magelli brand of small bikes comes from the U.K., but this is a new company formed in the 21st century. Norton limps on as the so-called “Donnington Park Revival,” and makes around 500 to 1,000 bikes in its current factory, which has been expanded, so we may yet see that storied brand return to the US market. Rickman Motorcycles, a brand started in the ‘60s, is still in manufacture and best known for putting Honda engines in racing frames.

So that really leaves the Triumph company to be the final representative of the British Motorcycle Empire. Perhaps echoing the history of the British Empire, the flag has fallen around the world … and now we await the result of a vote to determine if Scotland will move for independence. As a wise person once said, “The only constant is change.” But it is still hard for us older folks whose memories are now classified as “history” to accept this maxim.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Honda Gold Wing

For the third time, lightning from the Japanese Isle hit the US. This time it was a small but growing part of motorcycle demographics, the highway cruiser, that was struck.

These long distance bikers would roll their two wheels down the Interstates and highways, often riding 400 to 500 miles a day. Typically riding a Harley “Dresser” or BMW, these bikers would load up their possessions into bags and compartments, frequently accompanied by a lady rider on the back or on her own ride, or gathered with a group of friends, they would tour the American highways.

This new, large, and very highway worthy offering from Honda revolutionized the segment just as the 750 cc Four had changed the high performance market. Although the CB750 was big enough for long distance drives and Honda did produce models with fairing and bags to compete with the aftermarket business that flourished making any large bike into a highway cruiser, this new model, even in its most bare factory configuration, was set up to be a touring bike.

The new 900 plus pound motorcycle, eventually equipped with electric reverse, was at home on the highway. From the quiet yet powerful engine to the large gas tank, the Gold Wing was an accomplished touring bike right off the factory floor. Again many firsts are established and the direction of motorcycle evolution was again redirected. In the following years hundreds of thousands of these special, high end, and fairly pricey bikes were sold and are still being sold today. Total sales are more than 640,000 "Wings," most of them in the U.S. market.

(Sales are also strong in Western Europe, Australia, as well as Japan, but it is the US, and especially amongst we aging baby boomers that the Gold Wing has won over hearts and minds.)

In 1974, the first Gold Wing, the GL1000, was introduced at Cologne, Germany. It reached the U.S. market in early ’75. The ’Wing is the first Japanese production four-stroke to be water-cooled. It also features shaft drive and is one of the first production bikes to be fitted with a fuel pump. The pump is required because the “tank” in the normal position is actually an electronics bay and conceals the radiator overflow, while the real fuel tank is under the seat to help keep the center of gravity low.

Often written as the “Goldwing" or “GoldWing,” how ever you spell it, it is considered the finest of Interstate bikes right up there with the smooth BMW touring bikes and the best Harley and other V-Twin highway models.

The Society of Automotive Engineers of Japan includes a Honda Gold Wing GL1000 manufactured in 1974 as one of their 240 Landmarks of Japanese Automotive Technology. Through 2012, Honda GL models have appeared eighteen times in the Cycle World list of “Ten Best Bikes.”

Over the course of its history, the Gold Wing has had numerous changes to its design and production. In 1975 it had a 999 cc (61.0 cu in) flat-four, 80 hp engine and eventually grew to a 1,832 cc (111.8 cu in) flat-six with 118 hp. In 2012, the GL had a fairing with heating and an adjustable windscreen, saddlebags and a trunk, a seat-back for pillion rider, satellite navigation and radio, a six-speaker audio system with MP3 and iPod connectivity, anti-lock braking, cruise control, electrically assisted reverse gear, and an optional airbag, none of which were present when it was introduced.

I remember the first Gold Wing I rode. The owner proudly showed me a little trick. With the bike on its stand, he balanced a nickel on the top of the fuel pump, and then revved the engine. It was so smooth and vibration free that the nickel didn’t fall. That’s amazing — THERE’S A FUEL PUMP! Modern motorcycles often come with fuel pumps, mostly hidden inside the gas tank to support fuel injection. But this was another first for motorcycles back in ’75 when regular carburetors were the norm.

Gold Wings were manufactured in Marysville, Ohio from 1980 until 2010, when motorcycle production there was halted and transferred to Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan in 2011.

It all began back in 1972 when Honda assembled a design team to explore concepts for a new flagship motorcycle, something Honda R&D had deliberated over ever since the CB750 was introduced. The project leader was Shoichiro Irimajiri, who in the previous decade had designed Honda’s five- and six-cylinder Grand Prix motorcycle racing engines (as well as the RA273E V12 engine for Honda in Formula One auto racing) and then helped with the development of Honda’s car business. Irimajiri-san was thus an apt choice to create an amalgamation of disparate technologies — automobile engines and multi-cylinder race bikes.

A related event was the introduction of the CVCC clean-burn auto engine at the 1972 Tokyo auto show. The CVCC was Honda's first liquid-cooled engine to go into production; Honda cars as well as motorcycles had all been air-cooled up to that time. Soichiro Honda was not easily convinced that liquid-cooling was superior to air-cooled engines (which he had worked on for 50 years), but younger engineers eventually prevailed.

When the Gold Wing flat-four with shaft drive debuted in 1974, it combined technologies from previous motorcycle designs, as well as existing automotive technology. Following the traditional BMW Motorrad layout, a wet-sump unit construction boxer-twin using shaft final drive, goes back to the BMW R32 model that began production in 1923. Many other similar designs and four-cylinder boxer engines were produced before and during the War and after.

In automobiles, the four-cylinder boxer power-plant goes as far back as the early 1900s. In the 1970s flat-four engines were being manufactured by Subaru, Lancia, Alfa Romeo, VW, and Porsche as 4 and 6 cylinders, and used in aircraft as the Porsche PFM 3200 motor, as well as Citroën. The Citroën engine is worth mentioning because it was used (with only a few modifications) to power the BFG 1300 (French) touring bike, which was also popular with the French police in the 1980s.

The Gold Wing was the first production motorcycle from Japan that had a four-stroke engine with water cooling (needless to say, the first for Honda) but the Suzuki GT750 with a water-cooled, two-stroke triple, preceded the GL1000 by four years. Two-stroke water cooled engines from The Scott Motorcycle Company go back at least as far as the 1920s.

The primary market for the Gold Wing was the potential long distance rider needing a motorcycle suitable to the task. In North America that required comfort for the long haul: wind protection, smooth ride, comfortable seat, storage for the necessities, and power in abundance. The secondary market was to be in Europe where riders, constrained by nearby borders, were more interested in performance over long-distance luxury.

In the early 1970s, Americans with an inclination to cover vast distances had few manufacturers to choose from: Harley-Davidson (Electra Glide), Moto Guzzi, and BMW. The Electra Glide was a comfortable, yet high-maintenance, and high-vibration bike with fanatically loyal riders. Even so, Harley faced some serious competition from Moto Guzzi's then-new 850cc Eldorado.

The BMW was smoother, more reliable, but as expensive as the Harley, and better suited to a weekend trip than crossing a continent. Large Japanese bikes of the time, such as the Honda CB750 and the Kawasaki Z1 were relatively inexpensive, but troubled by vibration, by the need for drive chain maintenance, and by gas tanks too small for their thirsty engines.

The Gold Wing was aimed at a market segment that did not yet exist: American riders not likely to buy a Harley or BMW but who would open their wallets for an affordable machine offering comfort, endurance, low-maintenance and a high-torque, smooth, quiet engine. Honda would ultimately be quite successful in attracting a new kind of long-distance rider.

One little detail that always interested me was these sort of “floor boards” Harley dressers had instead of pegs for the riders. Harleys came with these large foot rests which were often converted to pegs by performance riders and customizers. (My Honda 550 four had custom floor boards when I bought it used. I converted it back to pegs and sold the boards and some other chrome goodies for $100.)

The Gold Wing came with these same comfortable platforms. While the pegs are good for racing and turning round tight turns and jumps, a highway cruiser was looking for long distance comfort that comes from a restful resting place for the rider’s “dogs.” It takes more than saddle bags and a windshield to make a highway cruiser!

The success and popularity of the GL1000 spawned many new and improved Honda models starting with the GL1100 which changed the bore and stroke to increase torque, adding a “dresser” version, and changing gear ratios to keep up with new products from competitors that had larger engines. This was the first Japanese "turn-key tourer," called the Interstate model (GL1100I) with a factory-installed full fairing, saddlebags and a removable trunk, plus a long list of optional extras including a stereo system.

The GL1200 came out in 1983 with a 1,182 cc (72.1 cu in) engine, improved fairing, and “taller” gears. Honda refined the Gold Wing's fairing so that it would looked like a basic part of the bike and not as an afterthought. The new model Interstate (called De Luxe in Europe) had an automotive-style instrument panel up front and increased luggage capacity in back. Honda continued to adjust the gear ratios to perfectly match the weight and use of the bike.

These relatively minor updates were followed by the new GL1500 in 1987 that increased the power with a 1,520 cc (93 cu in) SOHC, flat-six. This engine pushed the power to the century value, measuring an even 100 brake horsepower. Various other improvements were made from brakes to camshafts and carburetors, as well as continued modifications of electronic accessories, fairing, and saddle bags.

In 2001, the GL1800 was the first new model in 13 years. The engine for this model increased to 1,832 cc (111.8 cu in) and 118 hp, and was fuel injected. At the same time, the weight of the bike decreased from that of the GL1500. This was done by making the frame out of high-strength aluminum. This was an extruded frame, and was composed of only 31 individual parts (almost half the number of the previous frame). This engine design has continued to the current models, however the so-called "second generation" GL1800s have plenty of incremental improvements including better saddlebags, fairing, and even improvements to the heat vents for the rider's legs. The latest versions of satellite nav and radio have also been added.

An article in Top Speed magazine described the latest GL as, "A true limousine on two wheels, the Gold Wing comes fitted with airbags, ABS, Comfort Package, heated seats, and feet warmers, features without which any normal rider wouldn’t be able to put the number of miles that this bike is capable of." ABS braking was an option, added because of the increased power of the new engine, from 99 bhp to 117 bhp.

These various engine and model updates through the years were produced in model variations called the “Interstate” and “Aspencade.” The primary differences was in the seats, fairing, and other luxury amenities that I won’t try to list because, frankly, I’ve lost track.

Back in 1997, Honda brought back an incarnation of the "Standard Gold Wing," renamed the Valkyrie in the US, and produced F6C in the rest of the world. It had a higher performance engine, based on the GL1500, in a cruiser-style frame. Producing many variations of this Valkyrie line with engines from the "Gold" and dropping some models that didn't do as well in the marketplace, Honda continues to produce variations of Valkyrie as well as models with saddle bags and windshields. Going beyond the naked bike genre, with as much as 150 pounds less than the more "dressed" models, the Valkyrie's horsepower-to-weight ratio puts it clearly into the muscle bike class.

So though the Gold Wing is now in its fortieth year of production, it continues to be enhanced and updated, so it is not a stale series. Honda has improved and enlarged the original design, its engine, the accompaniments, the technology, and the style to respond to use and industry trends. Although the ground-breaking 750 cc Four is no longer built, Honda provides other large displacement choices for the buying public besides the Gold Wing such as the V-Twin, VTX models with upwards of 90 hp.

In 2013, Honda brought out a new variation on the traditional Gold Wing, itself being available in two models, The F6B and F6B Deluxe. The F6B is basically a greatly stripped down version of the standard Gold Wing with most of the chrome trim being 'blacked out', giving the F6B a look that should appeal to many cruiser buyers. The storage options has been modified and even shrunk a bit from earlier versions, but otherwise, the same as the full blown Gold Wing that came before. Honda continues to "tune" and update their largest engine line to keep current with the latest styles and technology.

While at the “Little America” truck stop along I-80 in Wyoming recently, I inspected a modern Gold Wing. What caught my eye were the two boxes above the handle grips, each with something like ten switches. I pondered why so many switches are required on a motorcycle. My bike only has two: a cutoff switch and a headlight dimmer. But then I realized this bike has cruise control, radio and music player, heater, and air conditioning. (I’m just kidding about the A/C. The rest is the truth — I swear.) How bikes have changed. This was, in reality, a two-wheeled car. In fact, three-wheel Gold Wings are quite popular. That way you don’t have to put your feet down at a stop.

In response to changes introduced by Honda and other Japanese manufacturers, Harley Davidson developed a very reliable versions of their big twin starting in the mid-80s with the "EVO" engine. In fact, those examples of Milwaukee big iron are still the most common long distance riders I see on the Interstate. BMW is still producing popular cruiser powered by four- and six-cylinder mills. Attempting to match the style and sound of the Harley V-twin, other Japanese models (including Honda) have mimicked the Harley design, but I think that the Gold Wing looks to me like the most comfortable ride available for serious distance riders.

Let me conclude this third article about the Honda motorcycles that have appeared over the last 60 years by reminding the reader that Honda has been a regular manufacturer of "firsts," at least in the mass market arena. Although other brands have contributed to the steady march of technology and engineering that produced the variety of rides available today, Honda has consistently been in the forefront of this advance. Seems to me they even beat Toyota to the first mass-produced hybrid car. However, the Honda model didn't catch on like the Toyota Prius. In my opinion, largely due to the styling and interior room that Toyota has achieved, so it's not "All Honda — All the Time." Other companies and countries have taken their turn at leading the transportation industry with new models and new designs. But, when it comes to motorcycles, the perennial technology leader has been Honda since World War II.

And I’ve been told by people I trust that no motorcycle handles a trailer as well as the big Honda Gold Wing. See, I told you they were just two-wheeled cars. I think that proves my point.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Honda CB750

When Motorcyclist Magazine celebrated their 100th anniversary in 2012, they thought it would be appropriate to choose a "Motorcycle of the Century." They chose the 1969 Honda CB750. They called it "the bike that changed everything."

There are lots of memorable motorcycles that created waves over the years, many people have their own favorites, but it was the Honda CB750 that rearranged the entire motorcycle market as soon as it came out. Honda offered comfort, reliability, and performance, all combined into a single package at a great price. Competitors stood there, slack-jawed, as they watched their own product mix get stale overnight.

As one motorcycle journalist described it referring to the then new Harley Sportster released the previous year and the holder of the title "superbike" prior to Honda's announcement: "The Sportster went from performance king to non functional bar hopper in just over a year. It hardly changed at all, really, but the world around it changed dramatically. It would have been interesting if Harley Davidson had taken up the challenge and pushed performance, at least in the Sportster line, instead of falling back on tradition and image. What might have been?"

British bikes, already struggling with problems started a steady decline. Kawasaki responded with the Z1 in 1971. A four cylinder, four-stroke, 750 cc bike was going through top-secret development prior to the release by Honda. The success of Honda's four caused Kawasaki to postpone the Z1's release until its displacement could be upped to 903 cc and sold as a 1000 cc-class machine. As the saying goes, "the rest is history," and the motorcycle market took off, never to be the same, but it was the CB750 that made it happen.

Honda's transition from the 1958 Super Cub to the 1969 "super bike" included a 250 cc and a 305 cc bikes called "Dreams." Although they resembled motorcycles from Harley and British manufacturers, they shared the front suspension and pressed steel frame from the Cub.

The most traditional bike in Honda's early product line was the 305 Super Hawk. The Honda CB77, or Super Hawk, was a 305 cc (18.6 cu in) vertical twin motorcycle produced from 1961 until 1967. It is remembered today as Honda's first sport bike. It is a landmark model in Honda's advances in Western motorcycle markets of the 1960s, for its speed and power as well as its reliability, and is regarded as one of the bikes that set the paradigm for modern motorcycles.

Robert M. Pirsig rode a CB77 Super Hawk on the trip he made with his son and their friends in 1968 on a two month journey from their home in St. Paul, Minnesota to Petaluma, California and back, which became the basis for the novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. The novel never mentions the make or model of Pirsig's motorcycle, focusing more on his companion riders' BMW. Pirsig was, as of 2007, still the owner of his Super Hawk.

The Honda CB450 "Black Bomber" was the first truly "big" Honda motorcycle with a 444 cc parallel twin, dual overhead cam engine producing 43-45 horsepower (by extension, that is more than 100 hp per liter (1,000 cc) of displacement, another engineering milestone.

Appearing first in 1965 with a four-speed K0 model, and progressing through a series of models with various improvements and styling changes, notably a redesigned fuel tank and 5 speed transmission in the 1968 K1 model.

Honda (UK) planned a publicity event by entering Mike Hailwood as one of the riders in the Motor Cycle 500 mile production race at Brands Hatch during July 1966. Instead, Hailwood completed demonstration laps on a CB450 before racing began as it was unable to compete in the 500cc category, the FIM deeming it was not classified as a production machine as it had two overhead camshafts.

The basic CB450 engine was modified and installed in the Honda N360 car and the exported N600, the precursor to the Honda Civic.

Honda updated their product line in 1968 with the CB350, a 325.6 ccc (19.87 cu in) OHC parallel twin cylinder, four-stroke motorcycle produced through 1973. With its reliable motor and dual Keihin carburetors, it became Honda's best-selling model. More than 250,000 were sold in five years, with 67,180 sold in 1972 alone. In 1968 it was the best-selling motorcycle worldwide. The CB350 evolved during its production run with cosmetic changes and improvements to the suspension and brakes.

These early twins set the stage for the 1969 Honda unveiling of the CB750 at the Tokyo Motor Show in late ’68, although it didn’t hit the market until early the next year. It is impossible to overstate the impact this bike made, as the first modern mass-market four, and the first volume production bike to come with a disc brake.

Honda triggered a speedy evolution of motorcycle technology with its pioneering of the four-cylinder layout. It brought a reliable ride that many riders had not yet experienced in 1969.

The Honda CB750 is a motorcycle built in several model series between 1969 and 2003, and also in 2007. It is recognized as a milestone in Honda's successful introduction of the transverse, overhead camshaft inline four-cylinder engine that, ever since, has been the dominant sport bike configuration. Though MV Agusta had sold such a model in 1965, and it had been used in racing engines before World War II, the CB750 is recognized as the four-cylinder sport bike that had a lasting impact and is often called the first superbike. The model is included in the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Classic Bikes.

Cycle magazine called the CB750 "the most sophisticated production bike ever" upon its introduction. Cycle World called it a masterpiece, highlighting Honda's painstaking durability testing, the bike's 120 mph top speed, the fade-free performance of the braking, the comfortable ride, and excellent instrumentation.

The CB750 was the first modern four-cylinder machine from a mainstream manufacturer, and the term superbike was coined to describe it. The bike offered other important features that added to its compelling value: electric starter, kill switch, dual mirrors, flashing turn signals, easily maintained valves, and overall smoothness and freedom from vibration both underway and at a stand still; later models (1991 on) included maintenance-free hydraulic valves.

Unable to gauge demand for the new bike accurately, Honda limited its initial investment in the production dies for the CB750 by using a technique called permanent mold casting (often erroneously referred to as sand-casting) rather than die-casting for the engines. Exceeding expectations, the bike remained in the Honda lineup for ten years, with sales totaling over 400,000 in its life span.

Until well into 1970, CB750s were made without die-cast engine cases. In truth, die-cast cases were lighter, stronger, and more oil tight. But it’s the early, "temporary-cast" models that are prized by collectors.

The venerable four spawned many copies, both larger displacement and some refined smaller versions such as Honda's own CB500 and CB550 fours. It was on the back of a CB550 Four that I made a journey from Colorado to Lewistown in the summer of 1976. I remember sitting in a bar with my friend Jack Barney … a member of the local county mounties. Just then his radio spoke up that there was a suspicious motorcycle parked outside with Colorado plates. Jack replied to the voice that he was questioning the suspect at that time.

Although that smaller Honda Four was a jewel around town, I have to admit it was a bit small for the long ride up I-25 through the Wyoming wind and the Montana hills. On my return trip a week later I recall intensely wishing it had a windshield.

Even though single and twin cylinder powered motorcycles are still most common, four-cylinder and even six-cylinder bikes are now spotted regularly on the highways and Interstates. The history of motorcycles included engines with more than two cylinders in the early days, but the two-cylinder models had dominated production up to this point. Both racing and street riding changed after the Honda four came out.

To quote from an SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) technical paper written in 1969, "Combustion engines with up to 48 cyl have been built. It is shown that this is neither accident nor fanciness when high specific power output is involved. As is demonstrated on hand of equations [sic], the subdivision of a certain displacement into larger numbers of smaller cylinders brings about a substantial increase in power."

So the engineers agree. The manufacturers agree. The racers agree. The riders agree. I agree. Twins are cool, but "more is beter." It's a philosophy I've always tried to live with … that and "the one who dies with the most toys wins!"

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Honda Super Cub

The Honda Super Cub, in its various versions: C100, C50, C70, C90, C100EX, C70 Pass-port and more, is a Honda underbone motorcycle with a four stroke single cylinder engine ranging in displacement from 49 to 109 cc (3.0 to 6.7 cu in).

An underbone motorcycle uses structural tube framing with an overlay of plastic or non-structural body panels in contrast with monocoque or unibody designs where pressed steel or tubular steel serves both as the vehicle's structure and bodywork.

Underbone may also refer to a class of small light motorcycles that use the construction type, known variously as step-throughs or scooters.

An underbone cycle may share its fuel tank position and tube framing, along with fitted bodywork and splash guards with a scooter while the wheel size, engine position, and power transmission are like those of larger motorcycles. Underbones are popular worldwide, especially in the developing world.

Although the Super Cub was a step-through design with a small engine, I wouldn’t call it a “scooter” since the rider put his or her feet on pegs rather than a floorboard and the tires were much larger than most scooters. I always called them “motorbikes” to differentiate the Cub from a larger motorcycle.

The Super Cub has been in continuous manufacture since 1958, with production surpassing 60 million in 2008. That makes the Super Cub the most produced motor vehicle in history.

The Super Cub's US advertising campaign, "You meet the nicest people on a Honda," had a lasting impact on Honda's image and on American attitudes about motorcycling, and is considered a classic case study in marketing.

The idea for a new 50 cc (3.1 cu in) motorcycle was conceived in 1956, when Honda Motor's Soichiro Honda and Takeo Fujisawa toured Germany and witnessed the popularity of mopeds and lightweight motorcycles. Soichiro Honda was primarily the engineering and production leader of the company, always with an eye towards winning on the racetrack, while his close partner Fujisawa was the man of finance and business, heading up sales and formulating strategies intended to dominate markets and utterly destroy Honda Motor's competitors.

Fujisawa had been thinking about a long term expansion strategy, and, unlike other Japanese companies, did not want to simply boost production to cash in on the recent economic boom in Japan. A small, high performance motorcycle was central to his plans. Upwardly mobile consumers in postwar Europe typically went from a bicycle to a clip on engine, then bought a scooter, then a bubble car, and then a small car and onwards. Fujisawa saw that a motorcycle did not fit in this pattern for the average person, and he saw an opportunity to change that. Soichiro Honda was at the time tired of listening to Fujisawa talk about his new motorcycle idea; Honda came to Europe to win the Isle of Man TT race and wanted to think about little else.

Fujisawa and Honda visited Kreidler and Lambretta showrooms, as well as others, researching the kind of motorcycle Fujisawa had in mind. Fujisawa said the designs had "no future" and would not sell well. His concept was a two wheeler for everyman, one that would appeal to both developed and developing countries, urban and rural. The new motorcycle needed to be technologically simple to survive in places without up-to-date know-how and access to advanced tools or reliable spare parts supplies. The common consumer complaints of noise, poor reliability, especially in the electrics, and general difficulty of use would have to be addressed.

Because Honda was a large company growing larger, it need a mass appeal product that could be produced on an enormous scale. The design had to be sorted out before production began, because it would be too costly to fix problems in the vast numbers that were to be manufactured. This philosophy was quite the opposite from motorcycle companies in the US and Great Britain where incremental improvement on basic designs several decades old were the norm. Many of these companies operated with a process not much beyond hand-built and mass production was often not at the front of their thinking.

My personal experience with Japanese engineering in the 70’s and 80’s emphasized this fact. While IBM was big on small improvements and engineering changes, the Japanese tended to create a product from a carefully implemented process, and then not change it. Often these little changes would have unintended consequences, and I think the Japanese often had the right idea … do it right the first time and then don't "fiddle" with it.

The scooter type nearly fitted the bill for the Honda corporation, but was too complex for developing countries to maintain, and the small wheels did poorly on badly maintained or nonexistent roads. Another of Fujusawa's requirements was that it could be ridden with one hand while carrying a tray of soba noodles, saying to Honda, "If you can design a small motorcycle, say 50 cc with a cover to hide the engine and hoses and wires inside, I can sell it. I don't know how many soba noodle shops there are in Japan, but I bet you that every shop will want one for deliveries." That may have been a key motivation for the Super Cub's centrifugal clutch and foot shift which freed the left hand.

Once interested, Soichiro Honda began developing the Super Cub on his return to Japan.The following year Honda displayed a mockup to Fujisawa that finally matched what he had in mind, Fujisawa declaring the annual sales would be 30,000 per month, half again as many as the entire monthly two-wheeler market in Japan. His goal was export on a scale yet unseen in the economic disorder of postwar Japan, when most companies' halting trade efforts were handled through foreign trading companies. Honda would have to establish its own overseas subsidiary to provide the necessary service and spare parts distribution in a large country like the United States. To this end American Honda Motor Company was founded in 1959. In 1961 a sales network was established in Germany, then in Belgium and the UK in 1962, and then France in 1964.

The Honda Juno had been the first scooter to use polyester resin, or fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP), bodywork, and even though production of the Juno had stopped in 1954 as a result of Honda Motor's financial and labor problems at the time, Fujisawa continued to encourage research in polyester resin casting techniques, and these efforts bore fruit for the Super Cub.

The new motorcycle's fairing would be polyethylene, the most widely used plastic, which reduced weight over FRP, but Honda's supplier had never made such a large die cast before, so the die had to be provided by Honda. The Super Cub was the first motorcycle ever to use a plastic fairing. Motorcycling historian Clement Salvadori wrote that the plastic front fender and leg shields were, "perhaps the Cub's greatest contribution; plastic did the job just as well as metal at considerably lower cost."

The technology developed in the Isle of Man TT racing program was equally vital to the new lightweight motorcycle, making possible 4.5 hp from a 50 cc four-stroke Honda engine, where the first engine the company built a decade earlier, a "fairly exact copy" of the 50 cc two stroke war-surplus Tohatsu engine Honda had been selling as motorized bicycle auxiliary engine, had only a 0.5–1 hp output. Certainly my first 50 cc bike, a Puch MoPed sold by Sears, got a fraction of the power that Honda could wring from the same displacement. Honda’s first four stroke, the 1951 E-type, had just a little more power than the Super Cub, 5 bhp, with nearly triple the displacement, 146 cc (8.9 cu in). So the Super Cub engine was a marvel of power for such a small size and a leap forward foretelling things to come.

To make the new motorcycle, Honda built a new ¥10 billion factory in Suzuka, Mie to manufacture 30,000, and with two shifts, 50,000, Super Cubs per month. The factory was modeled on the Volkswagen Beetle production line in Wolfsburg, Germany.

Until then, Honda's top models had sold only 2,000 to 3,000 per month, and observers thought the cost of the new plant too risky an expenditure. Edward Turner of BSA went to Japan to see the motorcycle industry in September 1960, and said that investments the size of the Suzuka plant were "extremely dangerous" because he considered the US motorcycle market already saturated.

When completed in 1960, the Suzuka Factory was the largest motorcycle factory in the world, and was a model for Honda's mass production facilities of the future. The economies of scale achieved at Suzuka cut 18% from the cost of producing each Super Cub when Suzuka could be run at full capacity, but in the short term Honda faced excess inventory problems when the new factory went into operation before the full sales and distribution network was in place.

The pushrod overhead valve (OHV) air-cooled four stroke single cylinder, 49 cc engine could produce 4.5 hp @ 9,500 rpm, for maximum speed of 43 mph, under favorable conditions. The low compression ratio meant the engine could consume inexpensive and commonly available low octane fuel, as well as minimizing the effort to kick start the engine, making the extra weight and expense of an electric starter an unnecessary creature comfort.

Though some of the many Super Cub variations came with both kick and electric start, the majority sold well without it, and even the 2011 model year Japanese domestic market Super Cub 50 and Super Cub 110 versions, using up to date technology like Honda's Programmed fuel injection (PGM-FI) and convenience features like a fuel gauge, were not offered with an electric start option.

The sequential shifting three speed gearbox was manually shifted, but clutchless, without the need for a clutch lever control, using instead a centrifugal clutch along with a plate clutch slaved to the foot-change lever to engage and disengage the gearbox from the engine. While not intuitive to learn, once the rider got used to it, the semi-automatic transmission, took the terror out of motorcycling for novice riders. Unlike many scooter transmissions, the centrifugal clutch made it possible to push start the Super Cub, a useful advantage if the need arose. Owners quickly learned you could hold down the foot shifter and rev the engine before releasing the shifter to get a fast start equal to a hand clutch. My MoPed was shifted by pulling in the left-hand clutch lever and then rotating the grip from first to second. The Honda design was obviously superior, especially for a small bike.

The early Super Cubs used a simple 6 volt ignition magneto mounted on the flywheel, with a battery to help maintain power to the lights, while later ones were upgraded to capacitor discharge ignition (CDI) systems. The lubrication system did not use an oil pump or oil filter, but was a primitive splash-fed system for both the crankcase and gearbox, with a non-consumable screen strainer to collected debris in the engine oil. Both the front and rear brakes were drums, and the front and rear wheels were 17" wire spoke with full-width hubs just like a "real" motorcycle.

Honda recommended daily checks of the lights, horn, tire pressure, brakes, fuel and oil level, and a weekly check of the battery electrolyte level. The new engine break in maintenance was done at 200 miles, requiring adjustment of the valve tappets and contact breaker points, and an oil change. Every 1,000 miles the spark plug needed cleaning, and the chain adjustment checked, and every 2,000 miles an oil change, breaker point check, and valve adjustment was due. At 5,000 miles major maintenance was performed, requiring the removal and cleaning of the carburetor, drive chain, exhaust silencer, and wheel bearings. The rider closed a manual choke to aid in starting at cold temperatures. By the standards of the day, this was an extremely simple motorcycle, with minimal maintenance demands, and it earned a reputation for high reliability.


The C110 Sports Cub debuted in October 1960. The C110 was more like a traditional motorcycle that the rider had to straddle, not a step-through. It had a different frame, with the fuel tank in the on top of the frame and in front of the seat, and the frame's steel tube spine ran horizontally from the head tube to the seat. It had a hand clutch and a foot shifter more like larger bikes, but shared the same basic engine with the C100. It had a bit more power, increased from 4.5 to 5 bhp @ 9,500 rpm. An on- and off-road version of the step-through Super Cub came out in 1961. It would be classed as a dual-sport motorcycle today, but Honda called it a trail bike, the CA100T Trail 50.

Such was the success of the Super Cub motorbike in the US and all over the world that many riders today will tell fondly of their first bike, a Honda Super Cub. These bikes hit my hometown in the early ‘60s and seemed like everyone had one. I was envious of the 110 which looked more like a classic motorcycle and it wasn’t long before I owned a 150 cc Honda “Benly Super Sport” twin (CB92). Sharing much of the frame and front shock design with its little brother Sports Cub, this was my first taste of a “real” motorcycle. I actually raced that bike and won a trophy for first place at the Lewistown (King Kam Dragway) Quarter Mile Races. Don’t let the fact that I was the only entry in the 150 cc class tarnish this accomplishment. Now where did I put that trophy?

My brother, Dale, had the 305 cc "Dream." A white one and definitely a respectable ride upon which you would meet the nicest people.

In the end both Soichiro Honda and Takeo Fujisawa were satisfied. Honda got the racing platform and success he yearned and Fujisawa saw the motorcycle trade grow his company into the world leading transportation empire it is today.

I’ll bet they were singing along with the Beach Boys:

It's not a big motorcycle
Just a groovy little motorbike
It's more fun that a barrel of monkeys
That two wheel bike
We'll ride on out of the town
To any place I know you like

It climbs the hills like a Matchless
Cause my Honda's built really light
When I go into the turns
Lean with me and hang on tight
I better turn on the lights
So we can ride my Honda tonight

First gear (Honda Honda) it's alright (faster faster)
Second gear (little Honda Honda) I lean right (faster faster)
Third gear (Honda Honda) hang on tight (faster faster)
Faster it's alright

Monday, September 8, 2014

Moto Guzzi

Moto Guzzi is Europe's oldest continuously operating motorcycle manufac-turer, founded in 1921 on the shores of Lake Como in the village of Mandello del Lario, Italy, where the motor-cycles are still manufactured today. The company is noted for its historic role in Italy's motorcycling manufacture, its prominence worldwide in motorcycle racing, and industry innovations — including the first motorcycle center stand, wind tunnel design, and eight-cylinder engine.

Moto Guzzi won a great many racing championships in its early history, yet none since the late ‘50s. Their final attempt met with ultimate failure and they withdrew from racing, primarily for economic reasons.

Carlo Guzzi's initial engine design was a horizontal single that dominated the first 45 years of the company's history in various configurations. Through 1934, each engine bore the signature of the mechanic who built it. As originally envisioned, the company used racing to promote the brand. In the 1935 Isle of Man TT, Moto Guzzi factory rider Stanley Woods performed an impressive double victory with wins in the Lightweight TT as well as the Senior TT.

Until the mid-1940s, the traditional horizontal four-stroke single-cylinder 500 cc engines outfitted with one overhead and one side valve (also known as IOE, “inlet over exhaust” or F-head) were the highest performance engines Moto Guzzi sold to the general public. By contrast, the company supplied the official racing team and private racers with higher performance racing machines with varying overhead cam, multi-valve configurations, and cylinder designs.

In the 1950s, Moto Guzzi, along with the Italian factories of Gilera and Mondial, led the world of Grand Prix motorcycle racing. With durable and lightweight 250 cc and 350 cc bikes designed by Giulio Carcano, the firm dominated the middleweight classes. The factory won five consecutive 350 cc world championships between 1953 and 1957. In realizing that low weight alone might not continue to win races for the company, Carcano designed the V8 500 cc GP race bike — whose design was to become one of the most complex engines of its time.

Despite these bikes leading many races and frequently posting the fastest lap time, it often failed to complete races because of mechanical problems. Ultimately, the V8 was not developed further as Moto Guzzi withdrew (together with the main competitors Gilera and Mondial) from racing after the 1957 season citing escalating costs and diminishing motorcycle sales. By the time of its pull out from Grand Prix racing, Moto Guzzi had won 3,329 official races, 8 World Championships, 6 Constructor's Championships, and 11 Isle of Man TT victories.

This Moto Guzzi Grand Prix V8, introduced in 1955, was a 500 cc racing motorcycle fitted with a V8 engine using dual overhead camshafts (DOHC). The engine was conceived by Giulio Carcano, Enrico Cantoni, Umberto Todero, Ken Kavanagh and Fergus Anderson just after the 1954 Monza Grand Prix and designed by Dr. Carcano. Power was in the region of 80 bhp at 12,000 rpm, approximately 10–15 bhp more than the rival 4-cylinder MV Agustas and Gileras.

The engine and the bike were unprecedented. The motorcycle proved capable of achieving 172 mph — thirty years before the speed was reached again in Grand Prix motorcycle racing. However, the "Otto Cilindri" (eight cylinder) proved difficult to ride, as well as complex and expensive to build and maintain — bikes suffered broken crankshafts, overheating, and seizing — all in addition to the danger the bike posed to the racers themselves. By 1957 there were two bikes available and no one willing to race the bike without further development and the bike was withdrawn.

A greater success has been their large V-twin machines sold in the US as well as Europe. The Moto Guzzi California (a.k.a. "Cali") is a motorcycle manufactured by Moto Guzzi since 1971, bringing together the company's heritage, their iconic air-cooled 90° V-twin engines, and styling that evokes the classic American Cruiser motorcycle.

The first California was designed with the direct input of the Los Angeles Police Department Traffic Division to be the department's new model of choice. Original features included a left-foot gearshift, a bulletproof Lexan windshield, and a sprung sidestand, along with the requisite siren, radio, extra police lights, and ability to complete a standing quarter mile in 16 seconds or less. The success of the model led to other police departments ordering their own, including the California Highway Patrol.

The company was legally based in Genoa, Italy, with its headquarters in Mandello. The very earliest motorcycles bore the name G.P. (Guzzi-Parodi), though the marque quickly changed to Moto Guzzi. As the only actual shareholders, the Parodi's wanted to shield their shipping fortunes by avoiding confusion of name G.P. with Giorgio Parodi's initials. Carlo Guzzi initially received royalties for each motorcycle produced, holding no ownership in the company that bore his name. In 1946 Moto Guzzi formally incorporated as Moto Guzzi S.p.A. with Giorgio Parodi as chairman.

The period after World War II was as difficult in Mandello del Lario as it was elsewhere in post-war Europe. The solution was production of inexpensive, lighter cycles. The 1946 "Motoleggera", a 65 cc lightweight motorcycle became very popular in post-war Italy. A four-stroke 175 cc scooter known as the "Galletto" also sold well. Though modest cycles for the company, the lighter bikes continue to feature Guzzi's innovation and commitment to quality. The step-through Galletto initially featured a manual, foot-shifted three-speed (160 cc) configuration then later a four-speed (175 cc) set-up by the end of 1952. The displacement was increased to 192 cc in 1954 and electric start was added in 1961.

Moto Guzzi was limited in its endeavors to penetrate the important scooter market as motorcycle popularity waned after WWII. Italian scooter competitors would not tolerate an incursion from Moto Guzzi. By innovating the first large-wheeled scooter, Guzzi competed less directly with manufacturers of small-wheeled scooters such as Piaggio (Vespa) and Lambretta.

To illustrate the delicate balance within the Italian post-war motorcycle and scooter markets, when Guzzi developed their own prototype for a small-wheeled scooter, Lambretta retaliated with a prototype for a small V-twin motorcycle threatening to directly compete on Moto Guzzi's turf. The two companies compromised: Guzzi never produced their small-wheeled scooter and Lambretta never manufactured the motorcycle. The drive train that Lambretta made in their 1953 motorcycle prototype remarkably resembles the V-twin plus drive shaft arrangement that Guzzi developed more than ten years later, ultimately to become iconic of the company.

By 1964, the company was in full financial crisis. Emanuele Parodi and his son Giorgio had died, Carlo Guzzi had retired to private life, and direction passed to Enrico Parodi, Giorgio's brother. Carlo Guzzi died in 1964.

Though Moto Guzzi has employed engines of myriad configurations, none has come to symbolize the company more than the air-cooled, 90 degree V-twin with a longitudinal crankshaft orientation and the engine's transverse cylinder heads projecting prominently on either side of the bike. Unlike the in-line V-twin of Harley and others, the Guzzi engine is mounted horizontally with the angled cylinders sticking out on both sides below the gas tank. Not as wide as the horizontal engines of a large BMW, this configuration contributed to better cooling than an in-line design and still gave ample ground clearance for tight cornering and room for the rider’s feet.

The original V-twin was created in the early 1960s by engineer Giulio Cesare Carcano, designer of the DOHC V8 Grand Prix racer. The air-cooled, longitudinal crankshaft, transverse cylinder, pushrod V-twin began life with 700 cc displacement and 45 hp — designed to win a competition sponsored by the Italian government for a new police bike.

The sturdy shaft-drive, air-cooled V-twin won, giving Moto Guzzi renewed competitiveness. This 1967 Moto Guzzi V7 with the original Carcano engine has been continuously developed into the 1,200 cc, 80 hp versions offered today. Lino Tonti redesigned the motor for the 1971 Moto Guzzi V7 Sport. This engine is the basis of the currently used 750 cc, 1,100 cc and 1,200 cc Guzzi engines. On the negative side, the longitudinal crankshaft and orientation of the engine creates a slight gyroscope effect, with a slightly asymmetrical behavior in turns.

Back in 1928, long-distance motorcycle travel was limited by the lack of an effective rear suspension design. Until then, alternative designs sacrificed torsional rigidity — gaining comfort but severely compromising handling. Carlo Guzzi and his brother Giuseppe designed an elastic frame using a sheet-steel box enclosing four springs, together with a swingarm in tubes and sheet metal.

The first Moto Guzzi bike to employ the suspension was named the G.T. (for Gran Turismo, Grand Touring), and to prove the suspension — and gain publicity for Moto Guzzi — the brothers conceived a challenging 4,000-mile journey from Mandello del Lario to Capo Nord in northern Norway. Despite the very poor condition of European roads at that time, Giuseppe Guzzi reached the Arctic Circle in four weeks. The elastic frame rear suspension was immediately introduced to production machines, transforming the usability of the motorcycle as an everyday form of transportation. In 2006, Moto Guzzi retraced the 'raid' of 1928 to introduce the Norge 1200. The word "Norge" is Norwegian for “Norway".

Another problem solved by Moto Guzzi is that, above a certain power level, the competing forces of drive-shaft arrangements can severely disrupt the suspension of a motorcycle (especially when rolling on the throttle), a phenomenon called "shaft jacking". Moto Guzzi introduced its first anti-jacking system with the Daytona in 1993 and evolved that design though the 2005 V11 Sport. Guzzi later introduced their CARC system, emulating the BMW Paralever design and serving the same function. Kawasaki introduced its Tetra-lever system for similar reasons on the Kawasaki Concours 14 (also known as the 1400 GTR). Arturo Magni (1925–2005) had sold "parallelogrammo" rear suspension kit in the early 1980s to resolve similar anti-torque issues.

Moto Guzzi's current Breva 750, Nevada 750, and California Vintage fall below the power threshold that requires an anti-jacking drive-shaft system.

To quote from their current Web advertisements:

“Since 1921, Moto Guzzi motorcycles have defined innovation and design that is as legendary as the people who ride them. Timeless character, uncompromising craftsmanship, and an independent spirit — this is the soul of a Moto Guzzi Original.“

“The elements of this tradition are one hundred percent Italian: including exotic, eye-catching style, unique technology, and a spirit and character that is impossible to imitate. From the first bike we ever made to today's latest models, every Moto Guzzi motorcycle is and always will be a classic.”

Well said. Long live timeless style, character, and the Italian spirit.