A chance sighting of the Suzuki ‘Doctor Big’ triggers a walk down memory lane for design guru Glynn Kerr, especially with respect to the ‘integral’ aspects of design evolution
RECENTLY, I CAME ACROSS A press photo of the Suzuki 750 DR ‘Big’ (or ‘Doctor Big’, as we used to call it). It’s a bike I’d completely forgotten about, so it was a welcome reminder of this model’s significance. First introduced at the Paris show in 1987, this big single made quite an impact on the design world, with an integral front mudguard which blended in with the tank, and included some dummy air intakes to boot. Although it took some adjusting to at the time (the addition of a second ‘real’ mudguard which hugged the tyre made the upper ‘beak’ purely decorative), in retrospect, the execution was actually quite successful. Yes, it was a bit slab-sided, but so was the rest of the bike, so all was well.
Seeing it again for the first time in many years, it came as a surprise how well balanced it now looks. And more significantly, how it started a trend, which Suzuki themselves seemed unaware of at the time. This, in turn, allowed a rival in the newly developing direction of adventure sports to entirely take over: the oil-head BMW GS series.
Two years after its introduction, Doctor Big grew from 750 to 800 cc, and even appeared with a full touring kit, including hard panniers and a top-box. This reflected the real-world function of this upcoming segment — a goanywhere touring bike, with a gritty, macho image. But instead of developing this direction, Suzuki dropped the ball and went with the softer DR650 SE. The DR 800S soldiered on in some markets until 1996, by when it was looking decidedly down in the tooth. It would be many years before Suzuki re-entered this market with the V-Strom, and not until 2015 with an integral front mudguard, by which time everyone else had jumped on the bandwagon.
Not that integral front mudguards were entirely new when Doctor Big was unveiled. The 1929 Majestic — and, to an extent, even the 1918 Ner-A-Car — had them, although we may be pushing the definition of a motorcycle at this stage. Both examples were trying to be as close to two-wheeled cars as they could get.
In the mid-1950s, racing models from Moto Guzzi, Gilera, NSU and a few others fused stubby front mudguards with the upper bodywork, possibly out of a desire to reduce unsprung weight. These were often referred to as Dolphin fairings due to their apparent visual similarity. Maybe, in the 1950s such shapes could be perceived as having similar aero (or hydro)-dynamic qualities, but in our own enlightened times, these devices look more like a surprised duck, and a stuffed one at that, than a lithe dolphin. The clearance from the front tyre demanded the rigid mudguard sit high enough to avoid contact with the tyre at full damp and full lock, which turned the front of the bike into big parachute. This did the opposite of either looking or being aerodynamically effective.
But art, design, and technology all have a common thread that mutually encourages their existence in time, while also sometimes limiting their development. Aerodynamics was a huge design movement in the 1930s, when even static objects got the ‘streamlined’ treatment, irrespective of its relevance to the application. After the bleak reality of the wartime years, aerodynamics made a slow comeback in the 1950s. GP bikes started to look at streamlining once again, and the notion of integral bodywork seemed a logical progression. In addition to mudguards, half-fairings were merged with the tank, with MV Agusta tentatively joining in the fun. Then, along came the bathtub fairing, which cloaked the whole bike inside a small, squashed Zeppelin, entirely independent of the rest of the machine, and integration was no more.
Worse still, bathtub fairings themselves were banned in 1958, mainly out of concerns of instability and the
Art, design, and technology all have a common thread that mutually encourages their existence in time, while also sometimes limiting their development
effect of side-winds, at which point, racing lost interest in the whole thing. The few, notably British, production bikes which had caught on to the trend — the Ariel Arrow, the Vincent Black Knight, and, later, some Triumphs — were also rendered obsolete by the move. Their motivation for bodywork integration and aerodynamics was to protect the rider from the elements, rather than to increase the top speed, but the decision of the GP regulators had a knock-on effect, even so. Integral bodywork made regular maintenance more difficult and, besides, the bikes no longer looked like those of the heroes on the track. Triumph persevered for a while with the rear bathtub enclosure and, up to 1966, with a slimmed-down ‘bikini’ version, but it was not popular, especially in the US markets. It would be another decade before fairings made any significant return, and another two before manufacturers started to look towards integration again.
By the late 1980s, there was a new fad for body integration, almost to the point of denial that the nasty, oily mechanical parts beneath existed at all. That had always been the philosophy with scooters, whose riders wanted simple transportation without the intrusion of the mechanical aspects into their daily lives, just like a car driver. But when that extended to sports bikes, such as the Honda CBR 600F and 1000F, the Cagiva Freccia, the Bimota DB1, and the Ducati Paso, the world seemed to be heading in a new direction. It wasn’t, as it happened, because the customers fought back, demanding that the engineering remain both visible and accessible, and rejecting the increasing propensity for allenveloping plastic. Nevertheless, this was the world into which Doctor Big was born, and compared to its ‘yoghurt-container’ sports siblings, it still managed to retain a feeling of purpose and tractor-like simplicity.
BMW took on the mantle with the R 1100 GS. While having arguably started the whole adventure touring craze several years previously with the 1980 R80 G/S, these earlier air-head models retained a more traditional look. It was only with the 1994 Karl-Heinz Abe designed 1100 oil-head version that the integral mudguard, now symbolic of the GS series, made its somewhat clumsy introduction. Later models refined the concept considerably, up to the sophisticated 1200 version we know today. In the meantime, smaller 650 and 800 offshoots have continued the direction, and their success has inspired rivals to attack the same market for a slice of the pie. Triumph, Ducati, Honda, Zongshen and any number of other adventure-tour wannabes have cashed in on the craze.
BMW may have defined the direction, and later commandeered the look, but it was Suzuki with the 1987 DR 750 ‘Big’ that defined the style.
IAM FROM DELHI AND currently I am pursuing LL B final year. I became fascinated about riding after being inspired by my elder brother, Javed, when he visited Ladakh on his bike in 2010. Since then I have done some extreme rides. In 2016, I made a plan for this ride covering all 29 states in the minimum possible time after approaching the Limca Book of Records.
I had never gone on such a long trip on my own, but I knew it was very much possible. Although a few of my relatives and friends advised me against the ride, my parents supported me both financially and morally and I decided to proceed. Indeed, fortune favours the brave.
I started my self-financed ride on my KTM RC390 on 5 March 2017 from Delhi and completed the ride on 28 March at 11.27 am at Delhi, having covered all the 29 state capitals and five Union Territories, the total distance being 16,143 kilometres. I faced a few challenges along the way, which included the complicated log-book attestation process, made even more difficult by the lack of co-operation from the bureaucracy in Ranchi and Patna. I also ran out of money in Itanagar. To make matters worse, all the ATMs there had no cash; however, my friends there helped me out.
I received great support from the Indian Army (Assam Rifles) who allowed me to stay in their camp when my bike broke down between Silchar and Imphal. It was already dark and the road ahead was very dangerous. Besides, the area was highly militantprone. The Army officers provided me with boarding and lodging with full of courtesy. This will be remembered by me throughout my life.
I would like to commend all the police staff at all the state capitals and Union Territories for providing their attestation easily and for being so supportive. I would also like to thank all my rider brothers from each and every state and city who supported me during my entire ride. Without their support it was not easy to complete this ride.
The DR 750 had clear adventure touring intentions
The 1953 NSU Rennmax with the Dolphin Fairing
The DR 800S soldiered on until 1996
Latest GS series shows huge refinement over earlier incarnations
The 1980 BMW R80 G/S arguably kicked off the whole adventure touring direction — but only later would it follow Suzuki’s design lead
BMW’s first interpretation of an integral mudguard was a little clumsy
The DR Big’s influence has been wide and long-lasting