Lord Hesketh’s ill-fated foray into motorcycle manufacture is one of biking’s best-known heroic failures. However, Frank Melling suggests that the big V-twin’s time might finally have come…
Lord Hesketh’s ill-fated foray into motorcycle manufacture is one of biking’s best-known heroic failures. Has the big V-twin’s time finally arrived?
There’s a much quoted adage from the ocean racing yacht world. ‘How do you make a small fortune from yacht racing?’ ‘Start with a big one!’ If the adage applies to super yachts then it is even more apposite for a privately-funded Formula 1 car racing team. If you really want to up your game, become a motorcycle manufacturer when you have absolutely zero expertise or prior experience. Then you really can whizz through some serious piles of cash. This is just what Thomas Alexander FermorHesketh, the Third Baron Hesketh, managed to do… and with some considerable aplomb.
Lord Hesketh inherited 3300 acres of Northamptonshire countryside including the Grade I listed Easton Neston House, Towcester racecourse and the entire village of Hulcote. After briefly working as a stockbroker in San Francisco, Lord Hesketh returned to Easton Neston to manage the family estate. He had a refreshingly novel approach to money: spend as much as you reasonably (or unreasonably) can, as fast as possible. In 1972, he established Hesketh Racing, which was run by a suitably polished ex-racing driver and secondhand car dealer, Anthony ‘Bubbles’ Horsley. Two years later the team made its first F1 appearance at the 1973 Monaco Grand Prix. In typical Hesketh Racing style, they arrived in the harbour via the Lord’s yacht.
There was a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter to avoid the queues of peasants waiting to get into race meetings and a pinstriped Rolls Royce as a pit car – much classier than the
vans which lesser teams used. Lord Hesketh felt that accepting sponsorship was vulgar, and so he financed the whole £350,000 racing project (around £2½ million in today’s money) entirely from his own personal wealth. Although far less than other F1 teams’ budgets this was still a lot of money.
However, by late 1975 even the very wealthy Lord Hesketh was beginning to feel the pinch and so wound up the team.
His next venture demonstrated three very important lessons. Firstly, people will take any amount of anything for free but it’s different matter if they have to spend their own money. While free champers and canapés flowed, the queue of Hesketh’s mates stretched all the way down the Easton Neston drive. Things were different when he wanted money for his new project: an English Super Grand Tourer (ESGT) motorcycle in the style of a Brough Superior or Vincent. From day one the exercise was underfunded.
Similarly, lots of rich, sophisticated people would have had a Hesketh free of charge but it was a very different story when it came to getting those same wealthy people to part with their money. At launch, the Hesketh was a walloping 30% more expensive than the truly upmarket king of the ‘super grand tourers’, the BMW R100RS. The BMW was already ridden by merchant bankers and the upper classes, as well as high-mileage dedicated motorcyclists. Could the Hesketh be 30% better?
The final lesson was perhaps the hardest of all. Production engineering is nothing, but nothing, like making tiny numbers of prototypes or racing cars. The project was reportedly touted around City of London investors, based on building 5000 units a year. That sounds like a good number in terms of amortising production costs but it’s also fantasy-land high for a start-up project. Based on a 49 week production year, 5000 units represents 102 bikes every week – fourteenplus a day. That’s seven before lunch and seven afterwards, all heading relentlessly for the delivery bay – day after day and week after week.
To make this number of motorcycles (or anything else for that matter), you need a real stock control system; purchasing managers chasing down every penny of production costs; homologation engineers to ensure compliance, and actual staff to look after all the utterly essential minutiae of running a factory. All of this is a galaxy away from the free-wheeling can-do atmosphere of racing engineering.
The initial idea for the ESGT allegedly came from Harvey Postlethwaite, who designed the Hesketh F1 cars. Mr Postlethwaite was a bike fan and thought that there was a vacant slot in the market for a true English Super Grand Tourer, laden with top spec equipment and covered with inch deep layers of nostalgia. With the ghosts of Vincent and Brough Superior – and it’s worth noting that both of these luxury brands originally failed – hovering over the workshop at Easton Neston, the bike had to be a traditional British V-twin. No-one at Hesketh could design this engine, so the job was put out to unofficial tender and the well- established British Weslake company got the contract.
Weslake was highly respected in the car racing world, having built a very successful V12, and they also had experience of motorcycle manufacturing. In 1968, they had made a 490cc conversion for the BSA B44 moto-crosser and then later a 500cc four-valve speedway engine which carried Peter Collins to the 1976 world title. The Weslake speedway engine was designed by Ron Valentine, and he came up with a rather clever 1000cc V-twin which used two, four-valve 500cc speedway engines on a common crankcase. If you intended to make a 1000cc, four-valve ESGT you would go to someone who had already proved that they could do the job – superficially, Weslake looked like a good fit. But in fact…
The Weslake engines were all race motors and, whatever other manifold weaknesses racers have both intellectually and emotionally, we are good with engines. We know about careful, pre-race warming and we know about maintenance and meticulous oil changes too. Road engines, and their users, are very different. A road rider might hammer the man-bits off a bike, or potter round the country lanes at 50mph or nip down into town on a blisteringly hot summer’s day when the traffic barely moves. A road bike engine has to do all these jobs without going bang.
I think that a further problem was that the original Weslake V-twin was designed to run on alcohol, and this keeps engines very cool. By contrast, the Hesketh engine used standard pump fuel with its 36mm Dell’Orto carbs, and was expected to perform well in a very wide range of conditions: it didn’t. From the outset, the motor did not make good power, the rear cylinder ran hot and the porous crankcases leaked copious amount of oil. Then things got worse…
As an SGT the new Hesketh was expected to have shaft drive, à la BMW. Why wouldn’t it? Because BMW had already threatened to sue the chopsticks off Yamaha for patent infringement, when they had tried to use a shaft drive system suspiciously like that emanating from Bavaria. Hesketh intended to use the same design as Yamaha but, wholly sensibly, took fright. The final drive fix wasn’t really a solution at all. The gearbox was converted to chain drive and proved to be a clonky, imprecise affair.
The V1000 chassis was good. If there was one area of expertise where Britain still ruled the world in 1980 it was in making bikes which handled and steered. The bronzewelded Reynolds 531 frame – bright nickel plated in the best tradition – worked well. Top quality, state of the art 38mm Marzocchi forks and equally high quality, 11-inch Brembo disc brakes made the best use of the chassis. Astralite alloy wheels (the rear one was a new, specially-developed 17-incher) carried the very first V-rated Avon Venom tyres.
Even so, the V1000 was a truly enormous lump of motorcycle. The bike has a near 60” wheelbase and the seat height is 32”. This is a fine configuration for an experienced adult, male rider. However, forget it if you are under 5’ 10”. Indulging in stop-start riding is a seriously tricky activity. At 220kg, the V1000 isn’t a bike for dragging around car parks either. This is an SGT and needs to live exclusively on the open road.
As the most expensive production bike on the market there should have been attention to the finest detail – but there wasn’t. The instrument cluster looked very downmarket, and this was a constant reminder to owners that although the Hesketh talked well, it wasn’t quite there.
The first time I saw the bike was at the Birmingham Bike Show. The whole Hesketh stand was roped off and access was via a big, tough looking security bloke. You either had an invitation and were permitted entry, or you presented your business card and hoped for the best. Behind the velvet, Lord Hesketh smiled and entertained. After twenty minutes I gave up and went to the completely open and very welcoming Honda stand to admire their new GL1100 Goldwing. This really was a high speed, gentleman’s SGT.
At launch, the media greeted the new Hesketh with extremely restrained enthusiasm. British moto-journos faced a huge emotional problem. Triumph was effectively dead, as was Norton, and we desperately wanted a new flag carrier for the Union Jack. Sadly, Hesketh wasn’t to be the answer. I never rode a Hesketh at the start of its life but I did so about five years later. An upmarket car dealer that I knew had taken one in part exchange. The bike was exactly in keeping with its reputation: under-powered compared with the Japanese opposition and
with a crude, old fashioned feel about it.
Back to the story. The prototypes were produced on Lord Hesketh’s estate, and Mick Broom became one of the key players s in the Hesketh story. ‘We were based in the e stable block. I was employed as developme ent engineer and we steadily lurched on from disaster to disaster. The Hesketh was going to be the superbike of its time, so we chose a big V-twin as it mirrored the Vincents and Brou ugh Superiors.
‘It took about three months to put the fir rst bike together, but the design was already done beforehand. We launched the bike in 1980, outside the big house. Mike Hailwood d was there along with all the world’s press. They loved the bike and thought it was what the country needed, but the fact was we launched it so we could find someone to invest in the project. We didn’t have the manufacturing skills, only the design ones. But no one came out of the woodwork to back us. Then the City launched its venture-capit tal scheme and was looking for companies to back. They gave Lord Hesketh the backing.’
After the first few bikes, production was moved to a new factory in nearby Daventry y where the big USP was an all-new CNC wor rk station capable of producing very high qua ality machining. This was state of the art at the time. Unfortunately, the rest of the works was far behind and, in particular, the qualit of castings for the new engine was dreadfu ul. Eventually, a total of around 250 V1000s trickled out of the two assembly areas.
The money ran out and, despite various attempts to keep the V1000 alive, it fell to Mick Broom to look after the machines which had been made and to incorporate what are called the EN10 (followed by EN12) modifications. These effectively cured the leaking crankcases by adding a ‘sock’ to seal the joint where the camchain case met the crank, and made the gearbox useable. New main bearings were specified which could handle the stresses of the big engine. Broom Development Engineering continued improving the Hesketh design, serviced and maintained the existing motorcycles, and built complete machines until the company changed hands in 2010. This brings us to our test bike.
This V1000 was thoroughly sorted out before owner Ron Willis purchased it. Ron said: ‘I always fancied a Hesketh but I wanted one which had everything done to it. This bike fitted the bill perfectly.’
First impressions are always interesting and mine are now very much influenced by the current popularity of retro bikes. Where originally the Hesketh looked dull and old fashhioned compared with the opposition, now it to be right on message. It’s easy to lookk at the V1000 through only a slightly rosetinted visor and think that some new, niche nufacturer has produced the bike. And ile its price might’ve been unacceptably h in 1982 – these days you can buy a new ugh Superior for £60k. Perhaps the V1000 s simply three decades ahead of its time? There is no doubt that Ron’s Hesketh really has been sorted. All air-cooled big twins sortt of wheeze into life and this is what the Hessketh does. Originally, the cacophony whiich emanated from the engine was truly off-putting, but on the fettled Hesketh it’s all rathher interesting and quirky. What isn’t any diffeerent is the height of the bike. I’m 5’ 11” in riding boots and I was just about comfortable wrigggling the bike round in Ron’s drive.
However, there is an interesting shift in perception regarding the bike’s weight. 37 years ago, 550lb was a seriously porky bike: now it isn’t. In fact, finding anything other than a sports bike which is sub-400lb is difficult. Triumph’s Thruxton R, which prides itself on svelte proportions, tips the scales at 446lb, so the Hesketh is no longer enormously portly. From the outset, it becomes apparent that the gearbox works fine. It’s not feather light and laser accurate but, by applying a bit of thought, I never missed a gear during my ride, so it is clearly functional. The power too is very interesting. The Weslake engine was touted as giving 82bhp at a mere 6800rpm and 78ft/lb of torque at a 1000rpm less. Probably, none of the original motors produced these figures in real life because they ran so hot, but Ron’s Hesketh does make better power than a good 850 Norton Commando and so, in the real world, the riding experience is very pleasant. On the fast, English country lanes which formed our test run, the bike burbled along very satisfactorily in the 65mph range, and on a short stretch of dual carriageway another 10mph was instantly available. Best of all, it was just the sort of vintage-y, Vincenty, Brough Superiory power which the Hesketh team promised at the time.
The big chassis also suits the bike. With modern tyres, the ride really was very pleasant as I burbled down the Hampshire country lanes. Everything works really quite well. There are acres of space for the pilot, and the Memsahib too should she deign to ride pillion. The brakes are not up to modern standards, but who would make a hurried stop on a conveyance of the Hesketh’s status? To do so would be thoroughly undignified.
In short, I really enjoyed the whole experience.
It’s not only me who thinks this – there is now a growing interest in becoming a member of the Heskethisti. Maybe 15 years ago, a V1000 was a quirky motorcycling anachronism and prices reflected this. By the time of the Bonhams October 2011 auction, a fully-sorted V1000 with 4197 miles showing on the odometer sold for £6325. In 2016, a 2000 miles from new example sold for £9500 (but no mention was made of the allimportant EN upgrades). When one was listed in last autumn’s Stafford sale, the estimate started at £8000 and ranged to £12k. £10,000 is a fairly standard price for a private sale.
That amount of money covers a range of other desirable classic motorcycles. You could choose a mint Mk3 Norton Commando, or maybe a Mk1 Moto Guzzi Le Mans or a BMW R90S. None of these will carry the Hesketh heritage – but they are all better bikes with extensive specialist spares and service expertise. As Lord Hesketh first noted in 1978, there is always a price to pay for exclusivity!
Above: Quite a high-class start. Pic from the 1980 launch, with Mike Hailwood on the right and Lord Hesketh himself, looking a little pensive Above: The noble lord alone, relaxing on his estate Below: Brochures and publicity materials were top class
The Hesketh V1000 4-valve V-twin is huge and very heavy. It’s fairly clear from this shot how heat retention in traffic became a problem. Very little airflow over the fins unless the bike’s being ridden briskly Above: This is one seriously impressive...
The mighty Hesketh front end is standard for a big V-twin of the era, complete with Marzocchi forks and Brembo brakes
The Hesketh V1000 has the appearance of a very high quality home built special, claims our Mr Melling
The frame is traditional English craftsmanship fabricated from Reynolds 531 tubing and bronze welded
Comprehensive clocks, including a clock, but the instrument set was borrowed from a Honda and failed to impress buyers at the time. Rather less important now, however Above: The intention was to produce a Grand Tourer in the great V-twin tradition....
Inset: The V1000 is big, tall and heavy… Right: …but it is no slouch
No Hesketh pilot is ever short of space. The riding position is roomy and well sorted, although long legs help the rider when paddling in traffic Hesketh V1000. The ultimate British Grand Touring machine?