Norman Hyde has a lifelong enthusiasm for Brit bikes and Triumphs in particular, with the Hyde Tridents and Bonneville twins finding customers around the world following the eventual closure of the old Meriden works in the 1980s.
But the Hornet is a modern day recreation of the sporting single – the sort of model every Brit bike maker once wanted in their range.
With a Harris brothers designed chassis and a 60bhp, tuned variation on the Austrian Rotax motor, this Hornet could certainly buzz along.
The sting ? It cost ten grand..
Small, buzzy, fierce and one of the entertaining bikes on the road commented Roland Brown of the single-cylinder Hyde Hornet having enjoyed a badly behaved spin in 1995 on a classy and deceptively rapid special.
The first few spots of rain on my visor provided a perfect excuse for one last, rev-happy thrash on the Hyde Hornet. Heading back towards Norman Hyde’s base in Warwick on the little blue single, the early warning of a huge black cloud overhead inspired me to up the revs on the straights, leave my braking later and take the still-just-about-dry corners a little faster until finally I arrived back moments ahead of the inevitable downpour that put a permanent damper on the day’s bad behaviour.
That last race against the rain got my throttle hand and gearchange foot working even harder, but if there’s any bike that needs no excuse to be ridden balls-out it’s the Hyde Hornet. If anyone out there still thinks of single-cylinder motorbikes as sensible, slow-revving plodders, then this small, buzzy, fierce and perfectly-named Hornet would soon put you straight. It’s one of the peakiest, most demanding bikes around. On the right road it’s also one of the most entertaining.
The Hornet is a combined project from two of Britain’s best-known specials builders, Norman Hyde and Harris Performance. Hyde, the former Meriden Triumph development engineer, drag-racer and sidecar land-speed record holder (on an 850cc Trident), has produced several neat project bikes during his 19 years in business, notably the Harris-framed Harriers based on Triumph’s old Bonneville twin and Trident triple motors.
Harris may be best known these days for certain 500cc GP bikes but, long before all that, brothers Steve and Lester made their name with the steel-framed Magnums that were arguably the ultimate Japanese-engined specials of the ’70s and ’80s. This project came about after Hyde, a strong supporter of club- and national-level racing, had put to Lester Harris the idea of a cheaper, steel-framed version of the alloy-framed Harris single-cylinder racebike.
Lester, who had already considered building such a bike, had been unsure about its commercial viability. But Hyde’s interest, coupled with a demand from the German Harris importer for a roadster along similar lines, inspired Lester to draw up a frame to hold not just the aircooled, sohc Rotax unit, but also with slight tube variations Honda’s Dominator, Suzuki’s DR and Yamaha’s XTZ lumps.
Styled by Harris, the finished roadster has got to be one of the most beautiful the Hertford crew have ever built. Slim and classy from the tip of its carbon-fibre front mudguard to the tiny twin tail-lights in its single seat unit, the roadgoing Hornet has a rare elegance that springs directly from its minimalist construction. It’s small and utterly singleminded, with no indicators, no mirrors, and no pretence at being anything other than a thinly disguised racebike on the road.
Much of that impression of simplicity comes from the frame, which consists of 32mm diameter high-tensile steel tubes, and is largely visible below the Hornet’s half-fairing. In contrast the swing-arm is a beefy aluminium structure, working a vertical piggy-back Ohlins shock. Front suspension is a pair of multi-adjustable 43mm forks that are donated, like the three-spoke 17-inch wheels, by Yamaha’s FZR400RR. The same bike supplied a pair of 280mm drilled front discs, which are gripped by twin-pot Lockheed calipers.
Rotax’s aircooled, four-valve sohc engine comes in a variety of forms, starting with a basic 598cc roadgoing lump that produces a claimed 45bhp at 7500rpm. At the other end of the scale is the Austrian firm’s race motor which, with an Omega-pistoned 660cc conversion, produced 72bhp in last season’s development Hornet. That bike was built and raced by Steve Campbell of Leicester-based Racetec Engineering, who will also be in action on it this season (Dave Pither takes over for road events including the TT).
This Racetec-built motor is an in-between lump, combining the electric-start roadster motor’s standard 98 x 81mm bore and stroke with a race cam, ported cylinder head and skimmed barrel that lifts compression ratio from 9.5:1 to 10.5:1. With a 40mm Dell’Orto carb (the racer uses twin Keihins) and twin-pipe exhaust system, Campbell estimates the max output at just below 60bhp not bad for a bike that weighs just 156kg with a full tank of gas.
Predictably the Hornet feels tiny as you throw a leg over the low seat, flick the ignition switch inside the left of the fairing, fiddle under the left sidepanel for the inaccessible fuel tap, and reach forward to pull on the choke lever on the left clip-on. The riding position is uncompromisingly racy, but despite my beanpole dimensions I didn’t feel drastically cramped, although I had no chance of tucking behind the screen and got a surprisingly clear view of the Dominator clocks by looking down through the perspex.
Immediately I pulled away it was clear just how far removed from a traditional, slow-revving single this bike was. At low revs the motor felt a bit flat, although it was quite driveable in the first few gears. But the moment the tacho needle hit 6000rpm the Hornet took off like a kid with a nest of the large buzzing insects down his pants, leaping forward with enough oomph to lift the front wheel in first, and picking up revs so quickly that it was a job to change up again before the needle flicked past the 7200mph redline.
Far from feeling like an old thumper, the Hornet resembled a small-bore two-stroke in its desire to be caned at all times, and kept in its powerband by frequent use of the gearbox. When hammering down the Warwickshire lanes in the lower gears, with the exhaust note thrapping back at me off the walls and hedgerows, the single was in its element. The balancer-shaft motor was pretty smooth at all but the highest revs, too (though a long motorway journey might have convinced me otherwise).
Revved hard through the gears, the Hornet stormed past an indicated ton with great haste for a single, and would have topped out at a genuine 120mph (at least with a slightly more aerodynamic rider on board). On faster roads, though, this five-speed motor’s tall top ratio combined with the narrow power band to make the Hornet hard work. Changing up into top at the redline dropped the revs back below this tuned lump’s 5000rpm flat-spot, resulting in a complete lack of acceleration.
It was necessary to hold onto fourth deep into the red in order to keep the motor singing and that wasn’t always possible when faced by hills, curves and traffic. Hyde had intended to fit Rotax’s six-speed race box to this bike, but had hit supply problems. With this level of tune the extra cog would be ideal, although the Austrian firm also makes a five-speed box with a shorter top ratio. (Rather that than the other option, of sticking with the more flexible 45-horse motor.)
It seems strange to have got this far through a Harris test without even mentioning handling, but rest assured that this stiff-framed, well-suspended and impossibly small and light bike was brilliant in corners. After much deliberation, Lester Harris stuck to the racer’s steering geometry for the road bike, which means an ultra-steep 23 degree head angle and 90mm of trail. Coupled with a wheelbase of just 1340mm, that made for a bike that could be flicked down into bends so fast it made my ears pop.
The radical geometry didn’t make the Hornet unstable, though. Steering was neutral, the firm FZR forks and 17-inch Avon tyre provided plenty of front-end feedback, and the single felt as though it would have matched any bike on earth through a set of tight bends. My only problem was being too big and ungainly to hang off properly; most riders would doubtless be fine. The bike’s only problem was a sudden head-shake on one bumpy straight, and with the power held on it recovered quickly despite the lack of a steering damper.
Other stuff generally did its job well, too. The rear Ohlins was ace, the Avons gripped hard, and the Hornet had more ground-clearance than the average ice racer. Old twin-pot Lockheeds are almost museum pieces these days, but they halted the Hornet’s flight quicker than a toughened-glass window. Even the teeny rear disc came in useful once, when I had to stop for a right turn with my arm stuck out sideways. (Indicators and mirrors are available for those who want them.)
All in all the Hornet was a hoot, and I ended up back at Norman Hyde’s workshop cold (not much wind protection), cramped and grinning like a maniac. As a practical, everyday bike it’s a non-starter. As a classy and deceptively rapid special that would make even a few Fireblade owners look foolish on the right road (though they would return the favour with interest elsewhere), it’s got a lot going for it, although the hand-built single’s price £9995 on-the-road with a standard motor; £10,895 as tested is inevitably high.
Get motorcycle insurance for the Hyde Hornet, with Carole Nash.
Engine Air-cooled single-cylinder
Claimed power (bhp) 45bhp at 7500rpm
Compression ratio 10.5:1
Transmission Five speed
Front tyre 120/70 x 17in Avon AV22F radial
Rear tyre 160/60 x 17in Avon ST23 radial
Front wheel 3.50 x 17in; cast aluminium
Rear wheel 5.50 x 17in; cast aluminium
Front suspension 43mm telescopic, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension One Ohlins damper, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping
Front brake 2, two-piston Lockheed calipers, 280mm discs
Rear brake Double-action caliper, 210mm disc
Top speed 120 mph
Fuel capacity 18 litres
Current price £9,995