The second part of the series in which design guru Glynn Kerr reviews motorcycle design development and evolution over the last half a century
AS THE FLARED TROUSERS AND platform shoes of the 1970s gave way to big hairdos and shoulder-pads, the ’80s brought along their own values. If the ’60s were about liberty and revolution, the ’70s were a development of those movements. by the ’80s, freedom of expression was a given and open to commercial exploitation. the radical thinkers, instead of philosophizing in pot-smoking circles, were now running corporations. gordon gekko told us, ‘greed is good.’
While progress during the previous decades was more visible, the advances in computer technology during the ’80s meant that much of the new technology was under the surface. Sure, we benefited from the arrival of the home computer, even if the early ones were rather limited; my Sinclair ZX81 had an unthinkable one Kb of free memory and, no, that’s not a typo. the mobile phone arrived, too, even if it was the size and weight of a house brick. CDS took over from vinyl discs in the
audio world, while Vhs battled it out with Betamax for video domination. But how these things actually worked was beyond the understanding of the average consumer. repairing this electronic wizardry became nearly impossible and certainly not cost-effective, so consumer goods became increasingly disposable. as this technology found its way into transport, your local mechanic simply replaced components rather than mending them.
Computer technology made a gradual impression on the motorcycle world, first through electronic fuel injection which made its début on the 1980 Kawasaki Z1000h and Z1000 classic in the us. despite being listed at 20 per cent over the price of the similar carburettor-fitted Z1000 ltd and weighing marginally more, the Classic impressed with its faultless fuel delivery and lack of manual choke. even so, it was mainly over concern for future emission legislation that Kawasaki went down the EFI route. today it is the industry standard.
By 1988, BMW had introduced the first motorcycle ABS as an option on the K100 series. as with EFI, ABS has since become widespread across the market and is now fitted as standard to all BMW models. Impending legislation is set to make it compulsory in many countries for motorcycles above 125 cc.
another marker of the ’80s was the transition from twin rear springs to the monoshock. With the exception of a few trail bikes from Kawasaki and Yamaha, my 1980 all-model motorcycle catalogue depicts twin rear springs throughout. By the 1990 catalogue, the only remaining double-dampers were mostly to be found on traditional classic or custom bikes. the few companies that hadn’t moved with the times, such as Moto Guzzi, really stood out.
one short-lived ’80s trend Guzzi did unfortunately indulge in was the 16-inch front wheel. the promised sharpening in handling could be better expressed as nervousness and the habit was short-lived (although the honda CBr900rr fireblade made a brief success of it during the 1990s). eventually, almost everyone, honda included, agreed that 17-inch was the better choice for street bikes.
In terms of general trends, motorcycles started to become wider in the 1980s, tyres included, creating that elusive third dimension the earlier bikes lacked. the categories became more diverse with more focused subdivisions, such as the adventure tourer group, which boomed thanks to events such as the Paris-dakar rally. Wins in 1984 and 1985 by the Belgian, Gaston rahier, who was barely taller than his bike, helped sales of the r80 G/s, which, during its later stages of development, went on to become the target model for all would-be competitors. By the end of the decade, honda’s XrV650 africa twin and Yamaha’s XtZ750 superténéré could be added to the list of multi-cylinder adventure tourers.
regular street touring models were also finding their own niches. the honda Gold Wing, which started life in the 1970s as an oversized naked bike, sprouted a full fairing, hard side panniers and a top-case, as did harley-davidson’s electra Glide. the full dress tourer was a particularly american invention, designed for comfort on the long open roads with barely a bend in sight. handling was a more important factor for the euro-tourer, which had to navigate mountain passes as well as carry two people and their luggage. again, BMW were the leading player in this arena, with the existing r100 rs and rt being developed into the four-cylinder K100 equivalents. early plans had the engine in a boxer configuration, but the arrival of honda’s Gl1000 put an end to that direction.
the category that really took off, though, was the supersport group. although a handful of bikes with racetrack looks had appeared during the ’70s, these had been low-volume and fairly specialist models that had failed to start a real trend. however, the ever-increasing output of Japanese multi-cylinder engines was not matched by their handling, so a handful of companies, such as spondon, harris, egli, Moto Martin, and, ultimately, Bimota, developed a lucrative business building sturdy frames to carry the extra power. With them came a road racing look that was as close to the track bikes as was legally permissible.
Just as with Craig Vetter’s touring fairings, it didn’t take long for the original equipment manufacturers (OEM) to figure out they could do this themselves and Japanese frames began to improve, thanks in particular to extruded aluminium sections. the 1983 honda Vf750f (V45 Interceptor in the us) was one of the earlier attempts to address frame stiffness while simultaneously making the frame an important styling element. But the whole game was upped several notches when suzuki introduced the GSX-R750 at the 1984 Cologne IFMA. While the honda was essentially a sports touring design, the suzuki was unashamedly a full race bike for the street, based loosely on the Gs1000r works racer. to emphasize the connection, the base model was complemented by the GSX-R 750 racing, starting off the whole the “rr” nomenclature in the process.
the GSX-R is widely recognized as having started the whole race replica category. It was the first serious production model of this type offered by a major OEM, providing reliability and a widespread dealer network at an affordable price. But it had one more profound impact on motorcycle design in general. It defined a supersport bike as having, by necessity, a direct visual
link to road racing. from then on, anything else was classified as a sports tourer.
Part of the race replica image was a track-like colour and graphics scheme, all bar the sponsors’ logos. this has a knockon effect across the industry. soon, motorcycle graphics had become more complex and sophisticated, necessitating a whole new genre of graphic designers to handle the task.
two-strokes were already becoming a dying breed at the turn of the decade. By the end, Yamaha were the only major payer above 125 cc, soldiering on for five more years with the TZR 250 and RD/RZ 350. the two-stroke went out in a blaze of glory, however, with three of the major Japanese manufacturers introducing their own manic race replicas. honda introduced the ns 400 r, suzuki the rG500 Gamma, and Yamaha the rd500. only Kawasaki bowed out, despite their earlier success with two-stroke triples, the 250-cc Kr1 being their most powerful model during this era.
another short-lived phenomenon of the ’80s was the turbo craze, which saw all the big four falling over themselves to outdo their rivals. honda had the CX500/650 turbo, Kawasaki the Z750 e1/GPz turbo, suzuki the Xn85, and Yamaha the curiously styled XJ650 lJ/seca turbo. however, the appeal of a mid-size bike with full-size power was never truly realized, with weight, heavy fuel consumption, and added complexity being among the complaints. the biggest issue was turbo-lag, making these bikes a handful when ridden enthusiastically. Insurance companies viewed them all as accidents waiting to happen and priced policies accordingly. the larger, naturally aspirated bikes got faster and lighter, making the turbo models redundant. as quickly as they appeared, they were all gone.
the 1980s were an exciting time to be involved with motorcycle design, but, at first, the rules weren’t at all clear. the 1980 suzuki Katana, created by target design, a trio of ex-BMW staffers, had turned the world upside down by addressing the entirety of the motorcycle rather than the various elements in isolation. they also created the
downforce line which, to this day, remains the most dominant styling feature on a motorcycle, cruisers excepted. the lines slope downwards towards the front, creating a density by the front wheel and giving lightness to the tail. the lines follow the engine’s cooling fins, which are the single most important styling cue on a motorcycle and which, since the honda 750 four, have been slanted forwards at varying angles.
towards the end of the decade, the manufacturers predicted the end of the race replica craze, but it never happened. honda’s projection beyond pure racing resulted in the oval-pistoned nr750, while for similar reasons, Yamaha commissioned me to develop Project hydra, which remained a styling study. In reality, the rr begot the rr-r and the race replica continues to this day.
the ’80s were infamous for the “yogurt pot” design tendency when even the great Massimo tamburini clothed his creations with acres of plastic, with barely a mechanical component in sight. the ducati Paso was hardly his finest moment. honda took it a step further with the PC800 “Pacific Coast”, but this was at least targeted at the touring rider. the Paso was supposed to be a supersport confection, but the strictness of the race replica rules hadn’t kicked in yet. While the category definition was sorting itself out, the Paso joined the Katana in the what-am-I-trying-to-be games.
to an extent, the ’80s were, perhaps, the heyday of the motorcycle industry, with the Japanese manufacturers at their mightiest and new releases announced with regularity. honda introduced nearly 40 all-new models from 1981-4 alone, the company’s rivals doing their best to compete. their failures almost outshone their successes, but not quite. It would be another 20 years before other nations threatened their lead.
Above: Kawasaki introduced electronic fuel injection in 1980Right: The 16inch front wheel was a short-lived fad, although Honda brought it back briefly in the ’90s
Left: Full touring bikes like Honda’s Gold Wing replaced Vetter fairings and cases with their own confectionsRight:The Suzuki GSX-R 750 Racing, launched in tandem, gave the stock street bike added credibility Above: The 1985 Suzuki GSX-R 750 was the first mass-produced race replica
Top Left: Honda started the two-stroke RR fad with the NS400R Above: Race replica two-strokes were a short-lived grand finale for the oil burnersLeft: Suzuki’s RG500 Gamma two-stroke Right: The Honda CX500 Turbo – and the later 650 update – was the only one not to sport a transverse four
Top Left: Yamaha RD500LC two-stroke was the ultimate development of the genreAbove: The turbo was another red herring of the ’80s, though much sought after by collectors todayLeft Below: Straight-edged styling on the Yamaha XJ650T made an attempt to look futuristicBelow: So far as performance was concerned, the Suzuki XN85 failed to live up to the hype
Top Left: The Kawasaki Z750 Turbo was arguably the most formidable of the bunchTop: Honda Design Chief Mitsuyoshi Kohama with his earlier creation at the Paris show in 2003Above: The Suzuki Katana changed motorcycle design for ever, even though it was not a sales success at the timeBelow Left: Honda PC800 “Pacific Coast” exemplified the late 1980s’ “yogurt pot” design trend, with everything shrouded in plasticBelow: The Honda NR750 predicted the end of the race replica, which never happened