Practical Sportsbikes (UK)
SPECIAL BREW: BLACKBIRD
Subtle, light as can be, with very desirable power and torque numbers, Pete Cornell’s Blackbird is, without much serious doubt, best of breed
What a concoction. Power, torque, looks, finish, presence, we could go on...
When you’ve spent a large part of your life engineering nuclear energy, it follows that you might develop an appetite for large, safe, abundantly powerful motorcycles. Pete Cornell (64) has been into bikes for most of his conscious life, and having ridden a stock Blackbird since 2000, he decided to build a very unstock ’bird.
“The goal was more than 200bhp, and less than 200kg,” he says. “When I conceived the idea and started the build in 2008 there weren’t that many bikes putting out 200bhp at the rear wheel.” And it had to be a Blackbird. “I got into Blackbirds because I wanted to get my girlfriend Bernadette, now my wife, onto a bike. Blackbirds can go distances, and they’ve got a good seat. So we did some trips to France – and now she’s got a Fazer 800, and she’s an IAM observer.” Result.
Pete’s daily rider ’bird has now got 124,000 miles on the dials. “I just get on it and ride it – anywhere,” he says. “Go to work, go to Europe, two-up, no problem. I’ve done all the maintenance on it since it was 3000 miles young.and apart from the usual Honda charging problems, all I’ve had to do is put one new valve shim in, and swap another pair over. If you do the basics right, they just keep going.”
“But I wanted something to keep me busy with the spanners,” says Pete. “Because the daily rider never needed anything major doing to it.” He found a written-off ’03 Blackbird that had been down the road on its left side – heavily. “It was in a sorry state, but I know how tough they are.”
It’s hard to imagine a stronger candidate for some serious engine work. But there were other considerations too. “The front suspension is the weak point,” says Pete. “It’s built down to a price, so it’s typically over-sprung and under-damped, a bit jarring to ride. they have to make it safe for a 17st bloke doing 180mph – and for someone like me. It’s funny: people say I don’t look like a Blackbird rider, probably because I look more like a sparrow on the back of a hippopotamus, but manufacturers have to make compromises.”
Pete was in no mood to make compromises. Not with the chassis, not with the engine. “I had a long chat with Richard Albans of TTS Tuning at Silverstone and he asked me if I’d thought of supercharging it. So they used my bike
“I WANTED SOMETHING TO KEEP ME BUSY WITH THE SPANNERS BECAUSE THE DAILY RIDER NEVER NEEDED ANYTHING DOING TO IT”
as a mule and gave me a really good price for the job. I wanted it to be smooth, because I’d ridden a Blackbird without the balancer shafts, and obviously I wanted more power.we reckoned the engine was strong enough to produce 350bhp before it grenaded, but that would have been way more than I was looking for.”
Drive for the Rotrex C15 unit is taken off the righthand end of the crankshaft via toothed belt. Inside, the engine employs Carrillo connecting rods, forged 2mm oversize JE pistons, and a pair of Kent cams, ground for more duration, slightly more lift, but with less aggressive ramps. The motor now displaces 1199cc.
“The best bit about this engine is the torque figure – and more specifically the curve,” says Pete. “The peak of 102lb.ft at 5900rpm is great, but it’s the 80lb.ft it makes at 3500rpm that’s the key. It means you can ride the bike like a big scooter if you want, just stick in top, twist and go.”
Big power comes with attendant cooling issues and Pete knew he had to use every trick in the book to keep elevated engine temperatures in check. In went a larger capacity Serck radiator, with two SPAL fans blowing through it: one thermostatically-controlled, the other on a manual switch.the other marginal gain was ceramic-coating the full Akra system to keep heat in before it exited via the can. “It works, too,” says Pete. “You can come back 10 minutes after a ride and put your hand around a header pipe. Heat was an issue, but it’s no longer a problem.” Any forced induction engine benefits from charge-cooling too, so Pete plumbed-in an intercooler and mounted it above the larger rad.
With more than enough urge from the blown engine, Pete turned his attentions to the running gear: “I’ve aspired to be an old git in a shed for most of my life, so this was my big chance with the suspension.” A 919 Fireblade swingarm was Pete’s choice for the rear, and he knew there’d be a huge amount of maths and physics involved in making it work. “It was an engineering challenge, yes,” he says. “The new ratio took some working out, then making new triangle plates was easy enough. Put it this way, if someone came to me tomorrow and asked me to work out a system for them, I’d just say NO. I could have just gone to K-tech and they’d have the experience to work it out pretty quickly, but then I wouldn’t have achieved anything myself.”
Up front, Pete settled on a ZX-12R fork and yoke set-up. “They’re the same length,
“I’VE ASPIRED TO BE AN OLD GIT IN A SHED FOR MOST OF MY LIFE”
and they have to deal with a similar mass to a Blackbird, so there was no point in going down any other route. I revalved them and fitted 1.0N springs to suit my weight. I could have tried Fireblade forks, but they’re shorter – so why make life more difficult than it needs to be?” he says. “Fork swaps, or front ends, are usually easy… it’s getting everything around them looking right that’s the hard bit. Getting the ignition barrel and the
HISS (Honda Ignition Security System) working involved some very intricate bracketry. It really was trial.” When a man of Pete’s undoubted resources calls it a trial, you can only imagine the levels of grief involved.
Once the major challenges were dealt with, it was time to go to town on what for Pete, were easy wins. He’d already fashioned his own ’bars from titanium, so front and rear wheel spindles were next, along with spacers, and the exhaust can hanger.this was where incremental weigh loss would be key to getting below the 200kg bar. Magnesium alloy Dymags, copious titanium fasteners, and a full Brembo brake system with M4 monoblock
“I TAUGHT MYSELF ANODIZING SO I CAN MUCK ABOUT WITH LOTS OF DANGEROUS CHEMICALS”
calipers were chucked at it – and the weight target was almost met.
But Pete’s meisterwerk was yet to come – the titanium sidestand. “It’s probably the most pointless thing I’ve ever done,” he laughs. “But it’s 100mm longer than stock, so the bike doesn’t fall over with the 11mm increase in rear ride height.the standard stand weighs 528g, mine weighs 404g.that was my most desperate measure to keep mass down.”
The build took one year.the bike now tips the balance at 199kg wet. “I learned a lot with this bike,” says Pete. “I taught myself anodizing, I did all my own powdercoating and plating too, which means I can muck about with lots of dangerous chemicals, and I’ve turned this bike into what I wanted – a modern Blackbird with more power, less mass, and a better front end.”
And now he’s achieved his aim, what’s next on the intriguing Pete Cornell agenda? “Well, I wouldn’t change it for anything,” he says. “Hayabusas have always looked pig-ugly to me, and a ZZR1400 doesn’t really give me anything more than my standard Blackbird, which doesn’t owe me a penny. I wouldn’t gain much except having a more modern bike.”
He does, however, have a Suzuki DR800 ready to attack. “I bought it two years ago. It’s almost scrap, but an 800cc single couldn’t be more different to what I currently ride, so I’ll do something with that.the trouble is I work in standard size garage, with a lathe, and other tools in it, but a friend’s recently got some storage ready, and I’m full-up here, so who knows what’s to come…”