In the 124 years since Hildebrand & Wolfmüller created the first production motorcycle, the machines we ride have become increasingly homogenised. Whether you ride a Honda or a Yamaha, a Ducati or a Harley, the chances are that the layout of your motorbike will be more or less the same.
Pretty much every motorcycle built since the 1950s has featured telescopic forks, but that doesn’t stop manufacturers from trying to reinvent the wheel every now and again.
Yamaha’s soon to be released NIKEN is the latest such creation, with two wheels up front to give what Yamaha claim will be outstanding stability. But what about those novel creatures that have gone before? In honour of the new NIKEN, Insidebikes takes a look at five machines from the modern era which have foregone their forks and gone against convention.
The first recorded usage of hydraulic telescopic forks on a production motorcycle was on the BMW R12 and R17 of 1935 but, in the early 1990s, the Bavarian company introduced a new style of front end that combined conventional looking telescopic front forks and control arm wishbone fixed to the engine, in lieu of a lower triple clamp. It was dubbed ‘Telelever’.
At first glance the Telelever doesn’t look so unusual but, look closely and you can see the suspension function tucked in between the forks and the engine. The Telelever front end wasn’t universally well received but was introduced to all of BMW’s new oil-cooled R series range in 1993. The theoretical advantage, as with most swingarm based systems, is that the fork dive was said to be reduced because the wishbone absorbed the braking forces.
Early riders often complained that the system lacked feel but the concept has been finessed and remains in use today on the R1200GS and R1200RT models, while the K-series models also utilise an unconventional design with its ‘Duolever’ front end that is similar to the Hossack type suspension used on the Fior and Britten race bikes of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Like the NIKEN, the MP3 features two front wheels at the front and one at the rear.
The concept was designed to make for a scooter that was safer and more secure than a traditional two wheeler, but still agile enough to hit the city traffic. It was a huge hit in continental Europe, while the fact that some versions were classed as a tricycle meant that they can be ridden (or should that be driven?) on a full car licence – opening up a whole new customer base.
Compared to regular scooters, the MP3 (and the not-dissimilar Peugeot Metropolis) are expensive and quite cumbersome to ride, due to the car style wishbone suspension.
Yamaha too had a go at the three wheeled scooter with the 125cc Tricity. Its front end set-up, similar to that on the NIKEN, is much lighter than Piaggio’s trike and makes for a more fun riding experience, even if it is a little underpowered.
Talking of Yamaha, in 1993 they launched the GTS1000 – a FZR1000-powered sports tourer with a unique aluminium single-sided swingarm up front instead of conventional forks. This used a diagonally mounted shock to absorb the bumps, while a separate strut took care of the steering.
In many ways the GTS was a bike ahead of its time, with fanciness like fuel injection, anti-lock brakes and a catalytic converter – so common today that they barely get a mention, but headline grabbing stuff 25 years ago.
The set up was designed to create great stability, particularly under braking, and to that end it was a commendable effort. Bike dealer and road racer Steve Linsdell actually stuck a 750cc superbike engine in one and got some very decent results at the Isle of Man TT on one.
In many ways the GTS wasn’t bad at all, but weight (274kg), power (capped at 100bhp) and cost (£9,990 when new, around £20,000 today) all went against it. Indeed that cost, combined with the fact that motorcyclists are generally a conservative bunch, did for GTS1000. It lasted almost six years before the supremely conservative FJR1300 took up the sports touring mantle in the Yamaha range, although the rarity means that the oddball GTS1000 is surprisingly sought after on the second hand market.
They say that racing improves the breed and no look at funny front ends can be complete without checking out some of the weird and wonderful race bikes which have shunned convention with their front ends.
In recent years we have seen the French Transfiormers machine make a few wild card appearances in the Moto2 world championship, as did the even more bizarre carbon fibre monocoqued Brough Superior (a rebadged version of British engineer Paul Taylor’s Taylormade machine). Both of these Moto2 racers have ‘innovative’ front suspension set-ups, while Fior and Britten also both used the Hossack style suspension that would see production in various BMW machines.
The bikes that many still think of as innovating the most were the ELF designs of the 1980s. The French national oil company worked with former Renault designer Andre de Cortanze to develop a new concept that virtually eliminated the chassis and which gave a lower centre of gravity, lower weight and (like all of the other concepts here) reduced fork dive.
The engine was effectively a stressed member upon which the front and rear swingarms were attached. Wheels could be changed quickly due to the car style hubs, which was perfect as early bikes were raced at the big French 24 hour endurance events, but the concept really came to the public consciousness when Honda powered ELFs were raced in the 500cc Grand Prix world championships.
In 1986 British ace Ron Haslam was signed to race the ELF3. Powered by factory versions of the three-cylinder Honda NS500 engine (Honda bought into the project and would eventually use the Pro Arm single sided swingarm on their own bikes), Haslam scored a host of top 10s to finish the season ninth in the standings. Haslam also won the non-championship street race in Macau on the ELF3.
Despite the success, the ELF project was nearing its end. The ELF4 of 1987 used Honda’s V4 engine but lacked competitiveness against the improving competition, and the project was eventually shelved at the end of the 1988 campaign.
Even by the standards of Italian motorcycle manufacturers, Bimota has had a pretty traumatic history.
Having fallen from their glory days providing the poster bikes of the late Seventies and early Eighties, the Rimini company tried to find another way to make it back to the top of the exotica.
With the mainstream manufacturer’s chassis technology having caught up with the Italians’ high end designs, Bimota introduced the Tesi, which used a hub centre steering set-up which, like so many other designs here, aimed to eliminate front suspension dive under braking, by separating the steering, suspension and braking functions.
In a way it worked, but set-up lacked feeling for the rider and the technology never made it to the mainstream. Despite this, Bimota persists with the concept and retains a Tesi model in the range, the latest being the Tesi 3D, while the ultra exclusive Vyrus range also uses an evolution of the Bimota design.
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