My top 10 favourite motorcycles: part 3

We’ve covered the top nine bikes, leaving only tenth and the mysterious second spot to cover here in Part 3. Tenth place goes to perhaps an unexpected choice: a purple and white 1972 Yamaha YR5 350. I had just come back from my first trip to the US that summer, working as so many students do on a J-1 visa, and I’d saved some money for my next year’s university fees. My mother kindly said she’d cover those, and I happened upon this Yamaha in the showroom of Gem Motorcycles in Ranelagh, Dublin. It had just 200 miles on the clock from new and the previous owner had crashed it. The damage had all been repaired and it looked like new. I paid £350 for it (about $850 at the exchange rate in 1972) and it was awesome!

The 350cc two-stroke accelerated like a bat out of hell compared with many of the bikes on Irish roads at the time: Honda CB250s, Yamaha 125s, Bridgestone 175s and a fair number of British twins. My friend John Giblin was the very proud owner of a Triumph 500 and was flabbergasted when the YR5 left him for dead at the lights, not once but every time. People were still coming to terms with the fact that smaller, lighter and peppier Japanese two-strokes were the new game in town.

The Yamaha took me from Dublin to London and back for a summer job in 1973, and when I graduated and moved to England to take up my first job in 1974, I bought another one, in orange and black, and rode it from London to Rome in two days in 1975, a journey of about 1,200 miles (1,900 km). It was a joy to ride through the mountain passes along the way, and while these days the basic seat and minimal fuel range would make me think twice, I was 21 and all I knew was that I wanted to do the trip. Ah, the folly of youth!

That completes my personal top 10 – almost. I need to give one bike an honourable mention. During my time as a motorcycle magazine journalist, I went to the British motorcycle industry annual test day at the Military Vehicle Engineering Establishment at Chobham in Surrey. This comprise an oval track with a little bit of banking where you could really use the engine performance of 1970s superbikes. The attending journalists could try pretty much every bike available in the UK, and this particular day I did just that: Harleys, Yamahas, Hondas, Suzukis, Kawasakis. The event was almost over and I’d had my fill of the latest one-litre machines when I bumped into a really nice guy I knew, Mike Jackson from Norton. “Have you tried our bikes?” he asked. I hadn’t, I admitted. “The track is empty – take one out now,” he offered, and I did.

The Norton Commando Interstate 850 that I took out, resplendent in its black livery with gold pinstriping, was an utter revelation. The infield of the circuit included a section of hilly, twisty road called the Snake River Pas, or something like that, and it was an excellent test of any bike’s handling. The Commando lapped it up, flicking from side to side like a 250, accelerating with gusto, braking perfectly and generally giving me 15 minutes of sheer joy.

I handed the bike back with profuse thanks and told Mike it was the best bike I’d ridden all day, including the XS1100, GS1000, CBX and many others. “Would you please tell everyone else,” was his parting request. I did, indeed, although I couldn’t help feeling that this was a factory bike, fettled by factory engineers, its swinging arm expertly shimmed, oil leaks banished by official edict. Ownership might be a bit more problematic. But it was a hell of a bike. If you get a chance, try a good one. Even the new 2016 version, though pricey, looks the biz.

So what is the mysterious second-place bike in my personal top 10? Those five bikes that tied for joint third spot gave it a hard time, but for me there was only one choice: the original Honda Valkyrie. I saw one parked in a London street shortly after it came out and was instantly impressed. Here was the natural successor to all those unfaired Gold Wings I’d loved, only with a 1,500cc flat six engine and a mild custom-bike look and feel. I first sat on one at the BMF Rally in Peterborough, which I visited in May 2000 with my daughter Charlotte. It felt plush and looked great, and I resolved to buy one.

Newvalkyrie

 

The opportunity arose a few months later in Hong Kong, where I was working for a couple of years. Hong Kong ain’t all that big but I rode pretty much every inch of it on that ’97 red-and-white Valkyrie, many times over, and never tired of it. Every time I fired it up it felt like an occasion. So as soon as I landed a job back in the UK two years later, an almost-new 2000 model in black became my regular ride. It took me around the UK, to the west of Ireland and down to Rome, and every journey felt special, even though the custom seat never felt as comfortable as I’d have liked.

New Valkyrie 2 (2) (2014_05_08 03_36_25 UTC)

My wife sat on the back across some pretty bumpy roads between Dublin and Galway and commented that the seat and suspension weren’t as comfortable as they could be. In the queue for the car ferry back to Holyhead in North Wales, I saw a new Suzuki M109 and a Triumph Rocket III. Both riders professed themselves delighted with their respective steeds, so after five years of owning the black Valk, I traded it in for a Rocket III Touring.

IMG_0275 (2014_05_08 03_36_25 UTC)

On a test ride it felt spacious, comfortable and very torquey, and I was up for a change. The Triumph took my wife and me across Europe and acquitted itself reasonably well, laden with 59 pounds of clothes and camping gear, but I didn’t bond with it the way I had with my Valkyries. The 2,300cc triple felt and sounded a bit rough, especially at low speed; vibration would numb the outer three fingers on my right hand; and the fuel gauge was useless. Yet when we rode two-up down the via Appia Antica in Rome and the tarmac suddenly gave way to the boulders that had clearly formed the original road in Roman times, the Rocket didn’t complain. What I needed was a trials bike, or at least a motocrosser, but the 348 kg (dry) Triumph handled it all with amazing aplomb. And it rarely failed to attract admiring glances due to its vast size. People would ask about the engine and whistle when told it was 2.3 litres.

We shipped it to Abu Dhabi when work took us there but ultimately I felt that a Valkyrie was essential, so I sold the Rocket and bought my third Valk, a 2002 model, in black, with just 10,000 miles on the clock. It felt like putting on a pair of favourite old boots. It took us around the Peak District two years ago and down to the south of France last summer, and this year it’ll take us to Austria.

What’s the big appeal? It’s roomy for my 6 foot 2 frame; reasonably comfortable in the seat department; handles like a bike 200 pounds lighter; and the engine makes any speed feel effortless. Winding it up through the gears produces turbine-like smoothness, accompanied by a cross between a whistle and a wail. It also looks like a large naked motorcycle should look, following traditional lines with smooth curves. I’m not a fan of the angular look of the 2015 Valkyrie and its ilk.

So the black Valk will take us around the UK and Europe until I get too old to manoeuvre it, and the Rune will probably stay in the family for ever, as much a work of art as it is a form of transport: two worthy holders of the first and second places in my all-time top 10.

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My top 10 favourite motorcycles: part 2

In deciding on my favourite bikes (ones I’ve actually owned or road-tested over a decent distance), I’ve placed the Honda Rune at the top of the tree.  Five bikes are joint ties for third place (see Part 1), so I need to name my number 2 choice for second place, plus eighth, ninth and tenth.

I’ll return to second place later, but what comes eighth? That’s easy: the Honda GL1000 K2, for a particular reason, but also all the variations that came afterwards, right up to the current Gold Wing 1800. My own photo library is in Dubai and I’m in South Africa right now, so I’m a bit limited in the copyright-free photos I can access, so the photo here is (I reckon) a US-spec K1 model, but very similar visually to the K2.

Honda Gold Wing K1

Why the K2? Well, I tested one about two days after I laid down my own hard cash for a brand new BMW R100 “autumn special” with the S handlebar fairing and in that rather nice metallic green. That purchase, on 1 August 1979, was based on the enormous fun I’d had riding the new 1979 BMW range with seven other European journalists in California and the American south-west in February that year.

It was clearly a case of the scenery and the luxury of the whole trip influencing my judgement. We’d stayed a night in the Beverly Hilton, ridden the whole range of new Beemers for more than a week through California to Tucson, Arizona, with a brief side-trip into Mexico at Nogales for myself and Cyril Ayton of Motorcycle Sport. We stayed at a dude ranch, flew down the Grand Canyon just below the rim in a light aircraft and then out over the rim in a helicopter. We’d set off in the morning and ride at our own pace, keeping an eye out for the vast Winnebago motorhome that would have set off earlier and be ready ti serve barbecued steak and a cold beer at lunchtime. To this 25-year-old Irishman, it was exotic. The BMWs did feel wonderful, too, and I grew particularly fond of the RT and the T. I decided I’d buy one as soon as I could afford it, and the R100 autumn special was just within my reach by late July.

The Gold Wing K2, though, proved more to my liking. It was smoother, quieter mechanically, had more power and a better power delivery, and generally felt more civilised in every way. Adding insult to injury, it was £20 ($30) cheaper than my new BMW. I rode it back to my house in Singlewell, Kent, late one night from central London and remember writing that I had to fight the urge to keep on going to Dover, catch some hypothetical late-night ferry and ride on to greet the sunrise in France. That’s the effect it had on me. Sadly, it also meant that the BMW lost its allure overnight and never really regained it; I sold it within two years.

The Gold Wing (from memory, 36 years later) handled acceptably. I’ve ridden sharper-handling bikes, obviously, and no one would mistake it for a sports bike even by the standards of the day, but it handled well enough to meet my needs. I recall that it exhibited a slight weave at speeds over 120 mph, but so did almost all the heavy superbikes of that era. But in real-world use, it felt so right. So did the subsequent K3, and the GL1100 that followed. I always preferred the naked versions, but the fully faired Aspencade that I borrowed for a memorable ride from Los Angeles to Steamboat Springs was a pleasure to ride. In the desert heat of Nevada, however, the fairing merely directed all the engine heat on to my legs and made me year for the unfaired model again.

That 1982 trip was to research my book, called Gold Wing. Honda US kindly loaned me a brand new Aspencade, in a sort of brown/gold/bronze combination.Here’s a silver version.

Honda Gold Wing Aspencade

I remember reading that it was available with a radio and a cassette player. I hoped I’d get the one with the radio-cassette, and brought an Eagles tape with me to play en route, but was disappointed to find mine had a radio only. That’s the sort of thing that gets referred to these days as a First World problem!

I remember reaching my destination, the annual Gold Wing Road Riders’ Association rally known as Wing Ding, in the ski resort of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It was summer now, and the town was wall-to-wall Gold Wings. I went to the hotel complex used as the event headquarters and was directed to the second floor of a multi-storey car park, as the ground floor was already full. The second floor was virtually empty, and I parked randomly in its vast expanse. When I returned to the bike that evening, I was amazed to find it surrounded by about 20 or 30 other Aspencades, all identical! The model was so new to the market that almost no one had had time yet to customise theirs, as is the norm for most Wing owners. Mine being a loaner, I had no idea what the licence plate number was, so the only way I could find mine was to insert the key in the ignition switches of several bike in the general vicinity: after trying about four or five, I finally found mine!

So yes, I have a soft spot for Gold Wings, always have, always will. The fact that the bike only made it into eighth place speaks volumes for all the others higher up the table, although the Rune is probably the ultimate Wing and it is in top slot, so justice is served.

Ninth place? The 1977 Yamaha XS750 triple. I’d read all the road test reports and decided that this was my ideal bike, two years before I’d ridden my first Gold Wing. Powerful enough for its day with 69 bhp, shaft drive, affordable, and with that special feel that only triples can deliver.

Cycle cover 001

I loved that bike. It took me two-up to France, Switzerland, Italy, Ireland and served as daily transport in the UK for a couple of years. It was fun to ride, handled adequately for my needs and was comfortable by the standards of the late ‘70s. It was my first shaft-drive bike and I loved the hassle-free nature of no chain. Mine was in silver and blue and I remember being envious of my friend Keith’s larger model which was in a fetching shade of red. But during the time I owned it I was testing a lot of larger, 1,000cc bikes, and I knew I wanted the power and performance they offered. That led to the green Beemer.

What comes tenth, and what’s in second place? Read part 3, coming soon.

My all-time favourite motorcycles: part 1

I was out riding the Rune today on a glorious sunny day here on South Africa’s Garden Route, counting my blessings. South Africa is like biking heaven for someone like me who has spent so many years riding in the rain, sleet, snow and ice of the UK and Ireland, endured some horrendous wet weather in unexpected places like France, Italy and Nevada (really!), and feeling the blood almost boil in my brain in the 47-degree heat of Dubai.

Petrol is cheaper than in the UK (okay, that’s not saying much), the roads are relatively empty and there are vast areas of the country that are sparsely populated, which is how I like it. My V-Strom is too heavy to tackle the countless dirt roads that can quickly turn from dirt to rock, but it’s also a wonderful country for off-road riding. Maybe a lightweight trail bike lies somewhere in my future.

I stopped for a while at Keurboomstrand (above) and watched the surf crash on the deserted sandy beach, and my mind turned to the best bikes I’ve ridden and in some cases owned over the past 49 years. Is there a Top 10 in there somewhere?

I decided that the Rune tops the list, even though I’ve only owned it for six weeks. It just ticks all my boxes, period: looks, power, feel. Second place is tough, though. The Honda CBX 1000 was probably the most thrilling of the bikes I rode in my road-testing days, because it looked awesome for its time and felt and sounded so right. Traffic would pull over on motorways without being flashed because that wide engine and six pipes clearly suggested I was in a hurry – even if I wasn’t.

CBX launch (2014_05_08 03_36_25 UTC).jpg

But then there was also the Laverda Jota 1000 triple that I rode back in the late ‘70s; I can still remember the grin that lit up my face when I picked it up from my friend and fellow journalist Bruce Preston’s house and pressed the starter button. The engine was part guttural roar, part howl, and the bike flew like a scalded cat. I recall one scary day when the throttle cable broke in the middle of nowhere, on greasy English country roads, in torrential rain. I had to wrap the broken inner cable around the gloved fingers of my right hand and engage it very gingerly, while steering with my left hand. It was a fierce, quick-action throttle and it took every ounce of effort to ride that bike about 20 miles to a village where an agricultural workshop kindly soldered a new nipple back on to the cable, and the fun could resume.

And there was the outrageous MV Agusta 850 Boxer, a fully faired exotic bike that cost an unbelievable £4,500 (about $7,000) in the 1970s and did a genuine 140 mph, just like the Jota. Only this was an MV, which was rarer than hens’ teeth back in those days. Resplendent in red, white and blue livery, it looked like a million dollars. Fire it up and the sound was out of this world as air was sucked in through four open bellmouths and pumped out through four chrome baffle-less exhausts.

I remember riding it to collect my wife from work one evening in East London (the UK one – there’s another in South Africa). She worked a few floors up in an old building down a long road in an industrial estate, yet she was waiting for my, all booted and suited, outside – she’d heard the bike from a long, long way off! As with many exotic bikes of that era, however, it wasn’t perfect: the clutch cable snapped about 10 metres into the infamous Blackwall Tunnel in East London. The traffic was stopped in the early morning rush hour, and I was faced with making a U-turn and pushing the MV back out to the tunnel entrance, probably earning my own mention on that morning’s traffic bulletins.

And of course there’s the beautiful Ducati SportClassic 1000, which has graced my garage for the past eight years and remains one of my all-time favourite rides. It looks just right, sounds terrific with its Termignoni two-into-one racing exhaust, and is a sheer joy to ride. I say this despite the fact that it spat me off at 120 km/h a year ago, almost to the day, courtesy of an unexpected and unexplained straight-line tank-slapper. I rebuilt myself and the bike and we’re both as good as new, thankfully. I’ve heard that the bike may have been built down to a price and that the wheels are too heavy for the sporty steering geometry, and that replacing them with lighter after-market wheels helps, as does replacing the front forks and rear suspension, but I’m not the sort of person who splashes the cash so willingly. It’s still an awesome bike.

IMAG0532_BURST002_COVER (2).jpg

 

Right up there with the CBX, the Jota, the MV and the Ducati is the Suzuki TL1000S, which sits alongside the SportClassic in my garage. I’ve owned this 1997 model, in green, since 2005 and I bought it in honour of another I’d owned in Hong Kong for all of 24 hours in 2000. That red TL had put a broad smile on my face and boasted the creamiest, silkiest gearbox I’ve ever sampled, not to mention a fabulous sound from its Yoshimura exhausts, but it was totally impractical for my daily use in the bustling traffic of Hong Kong, and so I traded it for a more practical Yamaha XJ1300 and then traded that a month later for a Honda Valkyrie.

The current green TL’s handling has been tamed by a Maxton rear suspension system and has never given me a scary moment, even though ’97 TLs were notorious for, yes, tank-slappers. But here is a bike that is faster than either a Jota or a ‘70s MV and can beat the acceleration of a CBX. If they are your benchmarks (and they have been mine over the years) then the Suzuki beats them all. If you’re used to riding a Hayabusa or a Yamaha R1 or a Firebird, then all of this will seem rather tame. But it’s exciting to me, always was and always will be. I rode mine at 150 mph (240 km/h) once on a deserted highway in the Middle East and it felt smooth and steady as a rock, although there were consequences: the wind opened the three zippers on the rucksack I was wearing on my back, unbeknown to me at the time, and out flew my chequebook and my passport. Losing your passport is not something you want to do while living in a foreign country, believe me. The only good news was that the £10,000 (about $16,000 back then) I’d just withdrawn from the bank to buy a car was safely tucked inside my leather jacket…

So there are five candidates for second place in my top 10, all of them worthy, all of them hugely desirable, and maybe not-so-coincidentally all of them now enormously valuable or appreciating rapidly. But, in truth, second place doesn’t go to any of them. To find out what bike pips them, albeit narrowly, read part 2 – coming soon.

Found: that 1906 Indian

Moving house ain’t the easiest time when it comes to finding things like shoes, important documents or old photos. However, a week after mentioning this Indian in my blog, I found the photo I’d been looking for. That’s the 1906 Indian we rented from the owner (left), standing in front of all the Silver Anvil awards at the New York headquarters of the PR agency Hill and Knowlton. Yours truly is on the right. If you read the blog, you’ll know already that all the creativity and effort were wasted.

Part 3: Indian rebirth 1991 style

Sorry for the delay in posting part 3. I was moving house and the Internet isn’t connected in the new place yet. The story concludes…

Philip Zanghi brought to our first client meeting his 18-year-old son, who was now President of the company, and his 20-year-old daughter, who was head of the clothing and accessories division. They’d both clearly inherited their father’s assertiveness gene, if not yet his girth.

They told us they’d decided to hire not one but two PR firms. Ours would handle the motorcycle launch and everything to do with the bikes and the company; another major New York firm would handle the fashion and clothing side of the business. I pointed out that this was most unusual and would be very confusing for the media, who could find themselves being contacted by two separate agencies to talk about Indian.

Besides, we had people who knew the fashion retail business backwards. It made no sense at all. But Zanghi was adamant. “It’ll keep you both honest,” he said with a grin, implying that the threat of losing the account to the other agency would prevent either one from ripping him off. Coming from him, that was rich, as time would prove.

I had serious misgivings. He was about to hire us, and he didn’t even trust us? But he signed the contract and I thought: “What the heck! This is going to be tough, but it’ll be fun.” Hah!

Zanghi had told us he had acquired a large factory in Springfield, and indeed he had. But this was not where manufacture would take place. Instead, he courted the Governors of both Massachusetts and neighbouring Connecticut to see which would offer him the best incentives to set up the factory in their state. As the weeks wore by, it became clear that a site just across the border in Connecticut was the preferred location. So much for building bikes in Springfield! Zanghi’s solution was that the bikes would be built in Connecticut and shipped a few miles to Springfield for “finishing”.

At one meeting in the vast boardroom of the Springfield offices, Zanghi noticed that one of the spotlights above the huge, highly polished wooden table had blown. Interrupting the meeting, he ordered the company President (remember him? The 18-year-old?) to install a new bulb. We waited while a new bulb was found and said son climbed on to the table in his heavy boots and stretched up to unscrew the old bulb and replace it. This is not how meetings are normally run!

The local media were clearly excited about the imminent arrival of the factory and its attendant 300 jobs. Meantime, I was getting a little bit worried about the bikes. According to Zanghi, they were being tested in Texas. I told him of my eight years as a motorcycle road-tester and my willingness – nay, determination – to help him with the testing. If you’ve reported for years on new bikes that are largely fine but might have been perfect if only the designers had thought of this aspect or that, then the chance to influence the design of a new motorcycle is pretty compelling.

Zanghi kept putting me off, saying the time wasn’t right. Okay, I said, but I’d like to see a photo of the bike. Yes, he promised, that would be taken care of. I reminded him over the next few weeks and was finally rewarded with an invitation to see the pictures at his house in Connecticut one hot Sunday. The temperature was a pavement-splitting 103 degrees Fahrenheit as Pat Carle and I pulled up outside this palatial home, all marble floors and air-conditioning.

Zanghi explained that we’d have to wait a little while – his artist was nearly finished. Artist? For photos? Well, actually, there weren’t any photos but he’d show me an artist’s impression. I had an uneasy feeling about this. If the bikes were actually built and being tested, why no pictures. Maybe they weren’t actually built yet?

While we waited, Zanghi regaled us with tales of his imprisonment years earlier in Italy on “some trumped-up charge” that was all a huge misunderstanding. He described spending weeks chained naked to a cell wall. The vision of some of my past clients chained naked to a wall would have set the pulses racing, but somehow the thought of this man in that state had the opposite effect…

After an hour, a thin young man appeared with a large sketch, which he handed to Zanghi face down. When the artist had gone away, Zanghi held up the drawing triumphantly. “There you are!” he beamed.

I was flabbergasted. What he held up was a large, pencil drawing of a 1953 Indian Chief. The engine made a Ural look modern, the brakes were small drums and the only concession to the late 20th century was a set of indicators attached to the bars.

“Isn’t she a beauty?” he asked.

I was speechless. When I recovered, I said in disbelief: “But that’s an ancient design! What about the titanium alloy? The fuel injection? The anti-lock disc brakes? This is a 1950s bike!”

He looked very uncomfortable, placed the drawing on a table and laid his massive hands over the front and rear brakes. “Look,” he said, “it’s not finished yet. Forget the brakes. Imagine they’re discs.”

At that point, I knew in my heart that this whole thing was a scam. I couldn’t believe that this tracing, excellent though it was, of a 1950s bike was the best he could do. Trouble was, I couldn’t figure out what the scam could be. Zanghi had not, as far as I knew, asked anyone for any money. How could it be a scam? But there was something very fishy going on.

Sure enough, Zanghi didn’t pay his first invoice from my firm when it was due, and despite much chasing still hadn’t paid it four weeks later when the second invoice went out. When I chased him for payment, he went ballistic and all but accused me of fraud and trying to rip him off. It was never intended that he’d pay us until the bikes were in production, he said. We stopped work that day. The invoices were never paid.

The last I heard of Phillip Zanghi was a report in Cycle World that he was back in prison, serving seven years for fraud, although whether he was naked or clothed remained unclear. Motorcycle Cruiser reported that his jail term was for defrauding investors. He certainly did my firm out of $20,000. Oddly enough, the two Indian T-shirts he gave me back in 1991 proved almost indestructible, surviving for more than 20 years before falling apart.

The story of Indian, happily, did not end with Phillip Zanghi. Court battles continued for years to establish legal title ownership of the trademark. The ultimate winner, in every sense of the word, was Polaris Industries, which I should point out had nothing whatsoever to do with the Zanghi era. Instead, Polaris has proved that it has the resources, talent and vision finally to bring the Indian brand back to life.