If there’s one race that can really appreciate beauty, it’s the French. Look at their women, their art, their fashion, their food and – just to make doubly sure – have another look at their women again. Finished? It’s no wonder our Gallic chums wear sunglasses even when it’s not sunny.
And now our cross-Channel cousins have produced something else worth an appreciative ogle – a sports bike. Let me just repeat that. It’s a sports bike. Made in France. Hahahahaha.
When you’ve finished guffawing, let me explode a few myths about France. One is that Napoleon was a 5ft 2in short arse. He was actually nearer 5ft 6in. Another is that French music is all Sacha Distel and Charles Aznavour. Have you heard Daft Punk recently? And, of course, everyone knows they can’t produce motorcycles.
OK, they haven’t had much success mass-producing bikes. But they have got a name for prettifying existing machines into all manner of specials. Just head to Paris on a Saturday night somewhere in the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower and you’ll see hundreds of French-built body kits and parts for bikes like Blades you hadn’t even dreamt of. It was only a matter of time before someone thought, hang on, why don’t we make use of all this creativity and start getting serious?
We’ve already had Voxan, which trickled out a few bikes in Europe. Now say bonjour to the VB1 Sport, a 100-per-cent French affair first previewed at the Paris Show last year. The Boxer factory that created this lithe animal is based in Toulouse, but uses engines from the Voxan factory further down in Avignon.
Think of it as a French-built Bimota. Expensive, exclusive and rare. A bike with its own frame, bodywork and style, but someone else’s motor. And like the not-exactly-common Italian bike, expect a severe outbreak of rubbernecking if you manage to pull up to your local meet on one. Remember how impressed you were the first time you saw a 996 or an MV Agusta. Well, no-one could walk past this without asking what it is and how fast it goes, monsieur.
And that’s just how I feel when I see the VB1 gleaming in the sun on a hot, dry Toulouse morning. It may not be Italian, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. It’s certainly different. The headlights look similar to the ones TVR has started using on its new range of cars. There are Italian brakes and forks and an underslung rear shock that makes sure the bike carries its weight low and improves its centre of gravity. The fat, tubular frame could almost be from a Triumph and there’s a touch of some of Bimota’s better styling in the bodywork. And those underseat pipes? Well, you know where that started, and it wasn’t France.
Underneath the skin is a thumping great 955cc, 72° four-stroke V-twin. Currently it knocks out 100bhp, as the first 200 bikes are being sold exclusively to French customers, who are restricted to that figure. But wait for it, because something even more interesting is heading our way. Boxer will launch a 126bhp version called the Super Sport at the Paris Show next month which it expects to export to other countries, including the UK. It will feature Ohlins suspension, carbon-fibre bodywork and a full MIG exhaust system. The fuel injection is also remapped for the extra power and there are new camshafts, too. But for now we’ve got the flamboyant 100bhp VB1 Sport to give us a taste of what’s to come.
It has taken Voxan 20 months to get the bike into production since it was rushed together for the Paris Show. To start with, the motors and their Magneti-Marelli fuel injection systems are shipped in from Voxan’s Café Racer in 100bhp French-legal form. Also bought in is an underslung WP rear shock and 43mm Paoli upside-down forks, plus Brembo front calipers and front discs and a Nissin rear brake caliper.
When those components arrive at the factory, the stainless steel frame, fibreglass bodywork and swingarm are sitting waiting for them. The bodywork is built in-house and was created in conjunction with British designer (and occasional MCN artist’s impression man) Glynn Kerr. For now the " carbon " pieces you can see are made from plastic, but the 126bhp version will have the genuine article everywhere.
The swingarm is bought in from Voxan and stiffened with carbon and Kevlar, then repainted in a pleasing gun-metal colour for production bikes rather than the bland grey of the prototype VB1 Sport we tested. But if that’s the only complaint you can throw at this bike’s looks, the Italians had better look out – there’s a revolution going on north of the border.
Once assembled, the finished product weighs in at a remarkable 180kg (396lb). That’s no mean feat for a 1000cc fuel-injected V-twin. Just ask Ducati – the 996 is more like 208kg (458lb). Boxer has achieved this partly by giving its bike a bare bones appearance. It’s also helped by the new Voxan engine, which carries its
oil in the frame. There are no creature comforts on this bike, either. But who needs a clock when you have a glorious summer’s day, a sexy sports bike and the seductive sights and smells of southern France to drink in?
When you first sit on the VB1, though, you get mixed messages. The look of it says race tracks, lean angles and twisty back roads, and with a 1435mm wheelbase and a 24.5° steering head it changes direction fast. But it somehow doesn’t feel settled in its sports bike role.
You find yourself sitting quite far forward, looking out on to the sparse metal dash, with an expanse of seat behind you to tuck into on longer motorway runs. But the bars are too flat. They put a lot of weight on your wrists and shoulders because of where your bum is and feel more roadster than sports bike.
But one advantage of riding a prototype is the ability to change stuff before production, and Boxer boss Thierry Henriette says the bars will be pulled back and made lower.
Other complaints while we’re at it? The instruments, made by the same people who knock out the clocks for the Ducati MH900e, look amazing, almost like they’re taken from an old aeroplane. But you sit too far over them to be able to see the digital speedo and handsome white-faced tacho, while the strip of warning lights are too hard to make out in bright sunshine.
Other than that, you get a feeling that this is a well-built, properly tested bike rather than a stand-alone special. Everything seems to fit well, there are no annoying rattles and the whole thing is a tribute to the art of quality control.
Despite the riding position, it handles superbly. It’s light, nimble and more than capable of taking on what the twisty roads around Toulouse throw at you. Stability is good, too, with the quality suspension floating serenely over uneven surfaces.
It even seems fail-safe if you overcook it a bit. Most modern bikes sit up and oversteer on the brakes when you get it a bit wrong going into a turn, but the Boxer keeps on turning – light, easy and flickable, yet stable, too. It’s the sign of a well set-up bike with everything in the right place – even though the weight distribution of 47.5 per cent front and 52.5 per cent rear seems a bit odd.
A normal sports bike is more 52 per cent front and 48 per cent rear. But unconventional as it is, it works and would be great to put round a race track with a little stiffening up of the suspension.
It’s pretty damn good on the roads, too. It’s slim and agile and you can get through a set of steep mountain turns as quickly as something like a 996. But the engine would struggle to keep up on the straights in its current France-friendly state of tune. It’s only putting out 100bhp and you can tell the bike could take a lot more than that. Bring on the 126bhp version. At the moment, it’s more like riding a Firestorm than the more punchy SP-1.
Yet it feels longer and more spacious than an SP-1 without being hard to change direction. And despite the bars, it’s more comfortable to ride than both of them. The power will be plenty for many people, anyway, especially as what is there is made smoothly without any real snatch from the chain. It also comes in great big dollops low-down, and you can get on the power hard without upsetting the sublimely neutral handling.
And the beautiful sound makes up for the merely adequate performance. With the offbeat note booming through the MIG exhausts, everything seem 10 times more invigorating.
It’s all a bit too invigorating if you’re riding one in jeans. Try that and you’ll look like you’ve just done your turn on the barbecue. Even in leathers your right leg gets fried. That’s thanks to a combination of the frame rail and the close-running exhaust pipe which heats up the griddle, or the oil in the lower frame casting it plugs into. However, small niggles like that are bound to be sorted as the firm gets feedback from riders.
Let’s not get carried away – Voxan won’t be challenging Ducati and Aprilia any time soon. But at last the French superbike is born, and that’s plenty to be going on with. They can keep Sacha Distel, though.