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Hesketh 24 first ride

By Phil West -

First rides & tests

 13 August 2014 11:30

The British revival rumbles on. Or in this case THUNDERS. And then some.

Hesketh is the latest UK heritage motorcycle brand to be reborn, (following Triumph in 1990, Norton in 2009 and Ariel last month). And, with numerous others in development (Brough, Matchless and Metisse), having a union flag on your bike’s tank is clearly a fashionable place to be right now. Isn’t it funny how times change? There’s even rumour of a BSA return.

But, although the Hesketh name can’t quite match the allure of some of those marques and its first bike, this ‘24’, has little in terms of mechanical originality or world-beating dynamics, on the strength of our first ride it does have style, character, quality and exclusivity.

But first, a little background: For those not completely savvy, Hesketh Motorcycles was originally launched by playboy aristocrat Lord Hesketh out of his Easton Neston, Northamptonshire country pile in 1980.

He’d gained fame through his Formula 1 team in the mid-1970s (the springboard for James Hunt’s success as recently portrayed on the silver screen in Rush) and following the closure of that team, Lord H wanted to use the team’s skills and facilities to revive the failing British motorcycle industry.

Unfortunately, success was, er, marginal. 1983’s first bike, the Weslake 
V-twin-powered V1000, although handsome, was unreliable, cumbersome and poorly reviewed – culminating in the company going into receivership after producing just 139 machines.

A new company, Hesleydon, was then formed to build a faired, touring version, the Vampire, but the faults remained and that company folded as well, after just 40 machines in 1984.

Thereafter, former development engineer Mick Broom defiantly kept the marque ticking over, supporting owners, refining the bikes and even producing limited numbers of complete new machines before retiring and selling out to Paul Sleeman in 2010.

Yet, despite limited success and minimal numbers of bikes (barely 200 have been built over those three decades), that long period of continuity has still cultivated a significant caché in the Hesketh brand.

And now  Sleeman and his team, recently relocated to a small but credible boutique shop/factory in Redhill, Surrey, are determined to take the new Hesketh concern into a new, bold era.

The limited-edition ‘24’ is the firm’s statement of that intent. As such it’s unashamedly designed as a headline-grabbing device and one that, by being produced in such small numbers (just 24 will be made) is arguably irrelevant to most of us anyway.

But it’s also vital in announcing the new concern and acting as the connect between old Hesketh and new. As far as Sleeman and his team are concerned, the ‘24’ is just the start: plans for a follow-up, possibly V6, sports-tourer are already on the table with ambitions to produce up to 50 hand-built machines a year.

And on the evidence of this first ride there’s credibility in those ambitions. Even though still a prototype and thus inevitably rough around the edges, the ‘24’ is impressively finished and complete.

There’s no makeshift components such as sidestand or rearsets of the like you’d usually find on development mules; (almost) everything, including indicators and clocks work, and it starts on the button.

It’s also impressively finished. Whatever you may think of its ‘bullish, retro F1-cum-V-twin musclebike’ looks, there’s no denying it’s well done.

The saddle is hand-stitched Italian leather; the bodywork crisp and glossy, and the clocks inset into a carbon dash shrouded by a V1000-alike cowling. Only the slightly plasticky switchgear lets it down.

The ‘24’s also very brash and bold. This is a shouty, noisy, slightly show-off bike which is a little at odds with the understated, cool, classy lines of the original V1000.

Sure, there are enough connections here for the ‘24’ to be a credible successor – the V-twin, the cowl shape, the classy Hesketh ‘signature’ on the cases – but by marrying it with Hunt/F1 style it’s become altogether more lairy and brash.

What’s more, by using a US-built engine it’s got shades of American hotrod, too. So what you end up with is a machine crammed with a whole raft of influences: classic Hesketh, ’70s F1, American cruiser and performance hotrod.

It’s almost too much. A bit like going to the buffet and piling your plate with everything at once, roast beef and pizza, gravy and meatballs… Rich? Certainly. Delicious? I’m not so sure.

The riding is just as intense. From the moment you climb on board you’re instantly aware this is no wallflower, no gentle giant. The tapered one-piece Fat Bars are wide, straight and a fair way ahead, streetfighter-style, the stretch forward over the white tank quite long. Already the 24’s fairly intimidating.

Thumb the starter and it earthquakes into life, the massive V-twin thundering and shaking, its ear-bleedingly loud twin underseat pipes blarting and shouting. Jeepers creepers. What would Lord H have thought?

Carefully, we nudge out onto the road. Though most of the weight is carried fairly low, nimble it’s not. The ‘24’ is long, heavy with not much steering lock. Plus, of course, it’s a £35K bike I really, really, really don’t want to drop.

The riding position, too, is more extreme than expected. Those flat bars conspire with full-on rearsets to cant the rider into an aggressive, wrist-pummelling posture.

Though powerful and punchy, the ‘24’ drives rather than leaps. This is a big, heavy rhino of a bike and never lets you forget it. It’s loud, bristly, extreme, hot and scary.

Straight lines are, quite literally, a blast and (once some slight gearchange glitches are ironed out) could prove addictive, true hotrod style.

Thankfully it’s got the brakes (and then some) to haul it back down, afterwards. The twin radial Beringers are true superbike standard and immensely fierce, if anything too strong.

Corners are a little bit trickier. Being long and lazy (the stubby front end is slowed with a steering damper) any cornering with gusto needs tee-ing up well in advance and then tillered and wrenched over with the rear wheel following along something like a trailer.

Don’t be fooled by the glitzy 
Öhlins and more, this is no sportsbike. In fact, though welcome, those slick suspenders are largely wasted.

That’s one of the slight conundrums with the ‘24’: its overly aggressive, sporty riding position is, as they say, writing cheques its chassis can’t cash, it gives an impression of being a sporty bike, when it’s not.

I reckon it might work better if the whole riding position was backed off then it’d be both more comfortable and more in keeping with the abilities of the chassis.

But I can’t really criticise anything more than that. Yes there are pre-production imperfections but all, I reckon, could be pretty easily ironed out. Then, what you’ll be left with is not just the revival of another British great, but also something unique.