Six years ago, this British design was going to be the future of superbikes. So where is it?
The trouble with bold claims is they can come back to haunt you. If you say you’re making the fastest, lightest and best-ever handling motorcycle, for example, people might be forgiven for asking, six years later (five after an auspicious London show debut) where it is.
It is six years later for Ecosse Spirit.
In 2007, the firm promised to re-establish the fundamental principles of motorcycle design with its F1-inspired ES1 superbike.Until then, superbike development had focussed on giving us more and more power. But that was wrong, we were told.
By instead improving aerodynamics and reducing weight, the ES1 would get to 240mph using an existing superbike engine. Designer Dick Glover, formerly of McLaren’s F1 team, had done computer simulations.
Glover’s creation would take everything we took as given about motorcycle design and cast it gleefully out of a window. It would make all the rules redundant and invite them to reapply for their jobs.
It would have no frame, forks or headstock. Two swing-arms, one for the rear wheel and one for the front, would bolt directly to the engine bottom end. The handlebars would be connected to cylinder head and front wheel by linkages, in a hub-centre steering arrangement.
The air-box would be where you’d normally find the headstock. The fuel tank would be under the rider, who would sit much lower than on a conventional superbike.
The design allowed the bike to be narrower. The rider’s legs could be closer together, and tucked completely into recesses in the bodywork. Having two drive chains, one pulling the other, cleared space for the rider’s feet to be closer together too. As well as helping aerodynamics, that meant his feet could be lower, giving him more space without compromising lean angle.
Suspension came from F1-inspired torsion bars, more compact than coils springs. Having no forks meant easier airflow to the radiators.
It all made perfect sense. Conventional designs, with their frames and headstocks, putting the rider’s feet and knees face-on into the wind, suddenly seemed crude. We wondered why no one had done what Glover was suggesting before.
Computer drawings showed how, viewed from above, the ES1 would have perfectly smooth, straight lines, from a narrow front to even narrower tail, a highly aerodynamic shape. The rear wheel was solid-sided to further improve airflow.
Glover pointed out that in 30 years, the power of superbikes had doubled while their weight and drag had remained relatively static.
His computer analysis showed the ES1 had a frontal area 28% smaller than a Suzuki Hayabusa’s and less than half the aerodynamic drag of a conventional superbike.
It would weigh just 120kg, even with an inline-four engine, perhaps from Suzuki’s GSX-R1000. With 170bhp, it would hit 220mph. A little tuning, to 210bhp, and it would reach 240mph.
Glover predicted it would lap the Barcelona circuit a second faster than a conventional bike with identical power.
It was all about optimisation of space, according to the Ducati 996 rider. “If you look at an F1 car, you will see that every possible space is used,” Glover told MCN at the time, while brandishing a coffee cup. “If I wanted to add a component this big to a current F1 car, it would mean redesigning a large amount of the car, as the space is used so efficiently. But I could probably tape 10 of these under the fairing of my Ducati without changing a single part. That’s a lot of wasted space and by removing it we can make the whole bike more efficient.”
Glover wasn't the only impressive name behind the project. Ecosse Spirit's chief designer, Andy le Fleming, had formerly created Ferrari F1 cars, including the sport's first carbon fibre gearbox.
The firm took its name from a partnership with Ecosse, which already made exclusive low-volume machines in the US, including an expensive V-twin sports bike, the Heretic.
The set-up seemed perfect for Glover to achieve his goal of building the first 10 bikes in 2008, and changing motorcycling forever.
Even GP legend Kevin Schwantz was convinced. He said: “With the right engine and some development work it could be a success. It’s easy to dismiss people who try to change so much about traditional motorcycle design but it might be the next step everyone is looking for.”
Within weeks Glover announced the project had received backing from Norwegian designer and billionaire Bard Eker, part owner of supercar manufacturer Koenigsegg, who was going to produce full-scale models for wind-tunnel testing.
Six weeks after that, the non-running wind-tunnel model was unveiled to VIPs at the US MotoGP round at Laguna Seca.
The speed of development seemed to indicate the seriousness of the project. Wind-tunnel tests were due to commence. A prototype would be on the road by early 2008.
In January 2008, the wind-tunnel model was shown to the public for the first time, at the MCN London Motorcycle Show, but now production wasn’t due until 2009.
Show-goers were cautiously welcoming. Charlie Clerke, from London, commented: “It’s good to see technology moving forward and it’s very eye-catching, too.”
And that was pretty much that. By December of 2008, the firm still lacked the funding to build a running prototype. The project was up against what was then still referred to as the ‘credit crunch’.
Glover said talks with major manufacturers had been “disappointing”.
“They’re not necessarily welcoming to ideas from outside,” he said. “The Japanese manufacturers in particular really didn’t want to talk, citing contamination of their own intellectual property.”
But the team remained optimistic. Glover indicated there was a new potential backer.
Le Fleming said: “A working prototype could be made for a lot less that £1milion and we could probably build it in around a year.”
They didn’t. Six years after those first optimistic predictions, and a full eight after the project began, the ES1 is still a wind-tunnel model. Its streamlined shape is useful only for remaining stationary in the event of a hurricane. The type of wind it’s most likely to deflect is from the bottoms of passing Ecosse Spirit personal.
The firm says the project is on “indefinite hold” but defiantly maintains it was not a failure.
Wendy Atchison, co-founder and marketing director of Ecosse, said: “The ES1 project didn't fail. It was shelved due to time constraints of one of the key contributors.”
That contributor is Glover, who Atchison says is now fully occupied with his day job at McLaren.
She said: “The ES1 project was started by Dick Glover in 2005 when he worked for McLaren Racing. He had a special arrangement with McLaren for a couple of years that created time to pursue the ES1 project as a personal dream to create a ground-breaking motorcycle design, which he worked on with Andy le Fleming, now at Mercedes GP. A relationship was then formed with Ecosse.
“In 2007, Dick moved to McLaren Automotive as Technical Director.”
Since then Glover has been fully tied up with supercar development. “Dick's work in McLaren Automotive has filled his time 150% over the last six years and unfortunately there has been little time to think about two-wheeled projects,” said Atchison.
Glover said: “My passion for motorcycles is as strong as ever and there is nothing I would like more than to get back to the ES1 project with Ecosse when the opportunity arises.”
Atchison added: “Patents for ES1 technology have been granted in a number of territories and will form the basis for commercial re-launch of the project when the time is right.”
She said Ecosse was also working on a “new design to address the same market”. “More on that as it develops,” she said.
We’ll hold the front page, we didn’t say.
Adrian Morton, British designer of the Benelli Tornado and MV Agusta Brutale F4, F3 and most recently Rivale, said he wasn’t surprised the ES1 had not made it to production.
He said manufacturers stuck with producing superbikes with frames because of the “risks involved” in dispensing with well-established design tradition.
“You’ve only got to look at the Yamaha GTS1000,” he said. “When that came out in 1993, it was the most radical thing on the road, in terms of frame and suspension technology.
Unfortunately the conservative touring market it was aimed at just didn’t believe in it, regardless of the potential technical advantages over traditional forks.
"Unless you’ve got Valentino Rossi using ‘alternative’ technologies or solutions at the pinnacle of racing to demonstrate technological credibility, people unfortunately perceive it as just being a bit odd and more often than not won't by in to it.”
Morton said that, in any event, using the engine as a frame was “not such a new thing”. As with most supposedly cutting edge solutions, similar ideas “are more often than not to be found in the history books of motorcycle design,” he said.