Friday, May 1, 2015

Rough thoughts - Are Motorcyclists Too Conservative?

This is by no means something that I have ruminated over for days on end but rather a rambling thought. It probably isn't correct but it might end up spurring on some thoughts of your own on the subject...

I was saddened to hear that Erik Buell Racing had hit a wall last week and filed for receivership. As Jensen Beeler of Asphalt and Rubber stated, this does not necessarily mean the end of EBR as an entity, as the receivership process basically tries to reorganise the companies debts and assets in order to see what can be salvaged. I have first hand experience of going through it in Ireland (twice in a football club I was working for at the time), and the club came through both much stronger and is now, perhaps, the most stable football club in the country from a business point of view. The purpose of this post is not to debate the merits, or not, of Wisconsin's receivership laws (as Wisconsin was where EBR were/are based), rather it is to ask the question "are motorcyclists too conservative?".

Erik Buell's products were always a bit different, from his very first bike to the fuel-in-the-frame idea to the strange ZTL rim-mounted braking system. Was this part of the reason for the downfall of EBR? Is it that we motorcyclists are just not imaginative enough? When you really think about it, the motorbike, as a basic idea, has not changed all that much over the last one hundred or so years. There's an engine stuffed in between two wheels with a frame keeping it all together, a chain driving the rear and forks with springs in them at the front. Simple and effective. Buell's products took that basic idea and attempted to make fairly significant refinements to it in order to make their bikes better and more distinctive. They were not giant leaps but they were certainly different enough to make the bikes stand out from a crowd and, maybe, in doing so, people were a little afraid of them.

There are some motorcyclists who like to cling to the idea of being a reincarnated Dennis Hopper, riding across the US on a bike with front forks long enough to use for Olympic high jumping. (Come to think of it those same forks are probably about as structurally stiff too!) While they certainly were not the type of motorcyclists Buell was marketing his bikes too, they are often the group with some of the most money to spend. They tend to be older people who use their bikes as leisure machines rather than everyday transport. As such the bikes, for them, are a novelty. Some fine china plates are novelty items. There's a comparison there if you think about it. Fine china plates do their jobs just fine but are not exactly cutting edge technology either. The low-revving and traditional cruisers favoured by the older crowd impersonating Mr Hopper do their jobs just fine too but to the detriment of the cutting edge technology that Buell was bringing to market.

Indeed, when I talk bikes with someone who isn't all that knowledgeable about them, they tend to bring up images of long straight roads, great weather, Harley's and "living the dream". So then, not only does the general public (from what I can tell) see motorcyclists as all aspiring to own traditional cruisers of the fine china variety, but that exactly is what many older motorcyclists want to do. A funny-front-ender would be anathema to them because it simply would not look the part (even Buell, to my knowledge, did not go there). No forks? That's crazy talk! Rim-mounted front disc brake? More crazy talk!

Now that we have dealt with that section of the motorcycling tent, it's time to deal with the other groups. Are we ALL averse to technology that looks out of place with the idea of a "normal" bike? Maybe, but the reality is more complicated than a binary answer I'm afraid. Sportbike riders tend to be younger and more technologically oriented than our cruiser riding brethren but even with sportsbikes the name of the game has been evolution, quiet evolution, rather than revolution. I mean, how many Bimota Tesi's do you see on your daily commute? (Unfortunately your's truly sees none)
Yes the BMW S1000rr and the Ducati Panigale are loaded with electronics and even semi-active suspension but they use conventional forks, and in the case of the German machine, a conventional frame. At least the Panigale is a monocque design in that it doesn't really have a frame as such, rather it uses the engine as a stressed member and mounts components to both that and the airbox. They don't depart massively from the original idea of the motorcycle that I outlined above. Many engineers agree that forks are really not a great idea for front suspension and steering duties on a bike as they have to deal with too many forces, especially when cornering, and cannot isolate on force from another. You might be thinking about BMWs telelever front suspension design now but did you notice that they made it look like a conventional fork? Why did they do that? And why not perfect it and add that to the S1000rr? Yes it would be a massive engineering challenge but could the answer also lie in the thought that many of riders in their target market would, even if perfected, eschew the strange telelever front suspension system because it was not something they were "used" to?

Even in the field of adventure bikes and dual-sport bikes the focus of innovation has really been on electronics and engine power output. The basic look of the bikes, which a funny-front-end would alter, has been much the same throughout the years. This altered look wasn't really a feature of Erik Buell's creations, for while they were different, they still had classic bike "shapes". This being said I read plenty of comments online where people were happy to question the purpose of the ZTL rim mounted braking system and idea of putting fuel in the frame. In some cases you could almost feel the "I told you so attitude" which I found to be quite sad and which made me think of the original question behind this post, are motorcyclists too conservative?

I am no way close to a definitive answer but but I think there is some merit in the thought that, on the whole, motorcyclists may well be a conservative bunch. They (we) like what they (we) know. New stuff is ok too but only if it's an evolution of what we have and therefore have, in some way, "previewed" it already. For those on traditional cruisers this is often not even the case, as anything that deviates from the look and "feel" of what is regarded a proper cruiser, is deemed sacrilegious. Such attitudes are not exactly useful in helping the industry as a whole to progress. Vilifying bikes like Yamaha's GTS1000 with it's hub-centred steering front end only drives manufacturers away from really experimental designs (ironically the look of the bike, apart from the front, was quite bland but maybe there was a reason for that...). It keeps the public image of motorcyclists the same as the one I outlined above, and stops operations like Buell's from flourishing.

It's true that I have ignored a ton of factors here such as economics, manufacturing scale, reliability and ease of maintenance of the machines themselves for the user but still, there's food for thought there.

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