When Ducati set out to build the 1199 – the most extreme superbike it could envisage – it did everything but address the bad idea at its core. With good reason. The firm’s L-twin engine layout is one of many examples of the rationally wrong ways of doing things that have characterised so many of our most- loved bikes.
Porsche’s 911 draws most of the comment for proving that it’s more important to make the idea right than to have the right idea. But it’s no co-incidence it’s also the most popular sports car in the world. And while we might not have any bike stupid enough to have its engine mounted behind the rear axle, we’ve got winning imperfections down to a tee.
1 Ducati’s L-twin
Making a pile of bhp is like loading soft fruit into a pickup truck: four Prince Naseems will fill it quicker with mangoes than two Geoff Capes will with melons. That’s why neither Honda, nor Aprilia – not even Ducati, as the Desmosedici proved – chooses a twin when it needs to build the ultimate sports bike. Yet unfortunately for the firm, people won’t buy a Ducati if it’s just another white-good four-cylinder superbike. But nor will they buy it if it’s not famously competitive in WSB. Our love for the firm’s tall, long, backward-weighted, awkward to package L-twin engine, whose layout stands in opposition to ultimate power, top speed, durability and agility – reached the state of perpetual emotional orgasm with the 916. And it has driven Ducati to extraordinary lengths (Ditch the frame! Side-mount the shock! Fit CD-sized pistons! Vacuum-pump the crank case!) with the incredible 1199. It’s an effort to make a Japanese R&D chief blanch, but the fact no-one questions whether it was worth it tells you everything we need to know about the L-twin.
Why it’s a bad idea: fours make more power more easily
Why it’s great: L-twins sound and feel better doing it
2 BMW’s boxer engine
Like a man with his knackers out, BMW only needed to look down to explain the odd looks they were getting. Their giblets-out boxer engine single-handedly kept 30-something buyers away from the brand for decades, convinced as they were BMW Motorrad must be some kind of historical re-enactment outfit. Air-cooling had been going out since the war, and making a feature of it with crazy-wide sticky-outy cylinders was simply inviting the fists of playground bullies. Yet it’s proved an indomitable competitor in the only battle that matters – the one for buyers’ money. Which in spite of years of exposure to reductive dyno and journalist shootouts and, not to mention BMW’s own frenzied use of the ugly stick, is a credit to riders’ intelligence, and the real world application of the flexible, friendly, spritely old ditch pump.
Why it’s a bad idea: it looks ridiculous on a Top Trump card
Why it’s great: it’s aways got an answer on the road
3 Underseat exhausts
Mass decentralisation, underseat storage deletion, clothing exhaust-smell impregnation - great sales stories didn’t exactly proliferate from underseat pipes. But then they didn’t need to when they looked this good (not you 999; sit down FZ6). And there was always the in-case-of-emergency argument about ground clearance (viz., ‘Don’t YOU find your progress constantly hampered by decking-out endcans?’). The NR750’s high-slung pair set a template of seductive, somehow aloof modernity that is only now beginning to date; rear-views of 916s have inspired at least as much longing as J-Lo. Aftermarket afterthoughts excluded (Blueflame-abused R1s, hello), while underseats accorded with technical understanding, we’re happy you gave us the horn.
Why it’s a bad idea: makes handling worse and clothes smell
Why it’s great: it’s our equivalent of gullwing doors
4 Single-sided swingarms
Considering how relevant it is (bikes able to go very fast for a very long time) endurance racing gets a bum rap as the redheaded-stepchild of roadracing (recognise any of the sponsors’ stickers?). But singlesided swingarms on the road weren’t necessarily the way to acknowledge its role. Born from a need to swap rear wheels quicker than you ever need to in real life, at the cost of dramatically increasing weight as you attempt to bribe physics into believing one supporting arm is just as good as two (try holding a telly that way) they simply cannot be rationally justified on your bike. But when first the RC30 then the 916 looked so good with their left-hookers, what hope was there for reason ever to remount its throne?
Why it’s a bad idea: There’s a lighter, cheaper, stiffer way of doing it
Why it’s great: It makes a bike look a little bit more magic
5 Monster trailies
Every kilo further an off-roader gets away from a mountain bike, the worse it gets. CCs should be added with reluctance, not abandon. The idea that 50bhp was a laughably puny figure was a road rider misapprehension of galactic scale. Well, we got what we deserved. Vast, over-powered, over-weighted, under-controllable self-esteem scythes that made off-road terrain feel far more frightening than it needed to be. But then that was only ever a pretence. Because what you really wanted to do was Go Touring, wasn’t it? Not in that accountant-abroad Pan European way, but in apocalypse-no-object GS way. And by god, GSs, TDMs and Tigers are good at that.
Why it’s a bad idea: It’s all-the-gear-no-idea made metal
Why it’s great: It’s comfy, fast enough and good for your ego – all you ever wanted really
6 Five-valve heads
Such a good idea Yamaha quietly dropped it in 2007, five valve cylinder heads (three inlet, two exhaust) promised Lance Armstrong breathing and hummingbird-wing rpm. Only thing is, a bit like clapping with six fingers instead of five, any difference was imperceptible – except to the accountants who for the 22 years of the Genesis-type engine were writing overly large cheques the marketing department really should have been picking up. Because that was the only performance benefit Yamaha was getting from its 20-valve engine – owners sold on packing 25% more tech between their legs than the next man. Though since it made us feel that way, it was kinda worth it all along.
Why it’s a bad idea: didn’t do anything four-valve heads couldn’t
Why it’s great: gave Yamaha that future tech/goes-up-to-11 aura
7 Rotary damping
The big problem with sports bikes is the constant need to live up to them – the pressure to show at least the occasional flash of speed or skill that suggests you’re worthy of such a machine. Suzuki’s TL1000S brilliantly managed to sidestep the problem thanks to the rotary rear damper it co-developed with Kayaba. The idea was to make the shock take up less space, by separating spring and damper, allowing for the short, frisky wheelbase that doesn’t come easily to a v-twin. Only thing was, something went wrong between the theoretically fine design (they’ve been used in F1 many times) and production, which allowed that new-found short wheelbase to do what comes naturally. Which lent the bike such fabled scary slap-happy handling it was never necessary to actually ride it a single mph more than you wanted to. The sheer act of owning one spoke of a man whose disdain for danger, and bull-riding skill, was total.
Why it’s a bad idea: It’s crazy to hope to beat the well-developed world of conventional dampers in one go
Why it’s great: It’s small, advanced... and made the TL the testosterone-pill it was
8 Harley’s nostalgia
Harley started out with the same idealistic dream every major manufacturer did. That success lay in making the best damn bikes it could. Which meant reacting to riders’ needs rather than just their fantasies and adopting technical advances to on-road advantage rather than in reluctant capitulation to competition or legislation. But then they realised they were aiming too high, and there was far more money to be made selling iron-horse self-imagery to the suggestible. Which is how we end up with what Damian Harty, Senior Research Fellow at renowned bike boffin hothouse Coventry University, calls Harley’s “comprehensive mechanical dysfunction”, yet also the only motorcycle maker we have in Interbrand’s Top 100 Global Brands. Bad ideas can be great bike business.
Why it’s a bad idea: everything wasn’t better in 1932
Why it’s great: we all need a last bike
9 Straight sixes
As the fall of capitalism reminds us, the axiom more = better is one worthy of some suspicion. Benelli’s Sei 750 timesed it rivals’ motors by 1.5 in 1972 and ended up going slower than them. But in Honda’s hands, with the CBX1000, six made sense; its power - caviar smooth thanks to six cylinders’ overlapping power strokes - was plentiful enough to offset the penalty of the extra weight, width and complexity. In fact had Kawasaki not led the idea to the toilet and fed it donut burgers with the 300kg Z1300 in ’79, we may not only now be rediscovering the joy of six thanks to BMW’s K1600. Loved for its smoothness, but oh-so prone to the excesses that can ruin it, the straight six is motorcycling’s Elvis.
Why it’s a bad idea: more weight, more width, more carbs to balance
Why it’s great: smoothness you’ll love tender
A well-established consensus says nose-heavy distribution of mass is a fundamental of good motorcycle handling. And what does a V4 do? Leans half its cylinders lack and flicks a vee at the fact. As BMW showed with its S1000RR if you’ve got big ambitions, a blank sheet of paper and no marketing obligations to a particular layout, the only choice is an inline motor. A V4 only makes it harder to get the weight closer to the steering end - the source of all balance and control (see the VFR800’s side-mounted rads for the effort it put Honda to when the VFR had sporting pretensions). And yet. Thanks to the massive goodwill generated by the sweet, sonorous 1986 VFR750 and ensuing RC30 – pitched into the market before handling benchmarks really soared – the expensive to make, hard to package, awkward to service V4’s halo never dims.
Why it’s a bad idea: makes life harder for everyone
Why it’s great: it pushes firms to their heights of ingenuity
Think of any others? Let us know in the comments. You can read new and exclusive features in MCN, like, way sooner, in MCN every Wednesday.