More bikes that could have sold like hot cakes, but were cast iron hang gliders in the marketplace.
Motorcycling in the ’90s in Australia was in a pretty poor state when it comes to participation. The slide began in the ’80s, but the long-term revival that sees record numbers of both riders and bike sales didn’t kick in until the mid-’90s.
This saw a fairly conservative start to the decade in terms of models released, but things hotted up as sales grew later in the ’90s.
So, the motorcycling outlook started badly, but got better.
The truth is though, there were some pretty serious sales failures. Sometimes warranted, sometimes not so. Let’s look at a sprinkling of bikes that simply didn’t cut the mustard with the Aussie bike buying public during the ‘90s…
Kawasaki must have been tempted to throw its hands up in the air and wander off into the middle distance (which, when you look at its performance from about the time of the GPZ’s release through to current day, it may well have).
The GPz moniker had represented the Big K’s hero sports offerings right through the ‘80s. Rekindling the brand designation in 1995 with a bike that was a little down-spec to a world that now had much lighter and more nimble offerings like Honda’s FireBlade – it saw a very lukewarm response from Aussie buyers.
To keep costs down, Kawasaki opted for a steel backbone frame, rather than an extruded aluminium twin-spar unit. The liquid-cooled 1052cc, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine owes it roots to the venerable ZZ-R1100, but with 4mm smaller carbs and no ram-air, the whole deal was aimed at improved midrange power to please the sport touring fraternity.
Kawasaki claimed 95kW at 9500rpm and 98Nm at 7000rpm. Reasonable figures.
The whole deal felt a little budget-built. Fit and finish was a little scratchy, especially around the dash area, the front suspension non-adjustable and handling was at best reasonable due to the bike’s 242kg dry weight.
While the idea seemed good on paper – cash in on a much loved model designation with relatively modern technology – the bike failed to resonate with a wary bike-buying public that wanted more from that famous GPZ name.
In the late ‘90s, BMW knew it could no longer ignore the popularity of cruisers around the globe. So, in 1997, the R1200C burst on to the world scene.
And BMW spared no expense getting the thing noticed, gaining more brand-exposure than the bike deserved via an advance promotional placement in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. Well, while tomorrow may not have died for James, it certainly did for the R1200C.
Rest assured, somewhere on the planet there is a warehouse wall to wall with what is left of the 40,218 examples produced by the Munich firm. The bike had love-it or hate-it styling that really set it apart.
With the brand’s relatively new single-arm Monolever swingarm rear suspension and the fully exposed Telelever front suspension with its separate spring/damper unit, the thing looked like it had been designed by a committee. I actually remember writing of the bike at launch, ‘It will be nice… When it’s finished’. Cruel, but I was in the majority.
BMW increased bore and stroke over the earlier 1100 engine, but knocked back valve sizes in the Boxer 1200C engine. The result is more bottom end, but a third less peak power than the 1100. Make it slower? Odd choice right there. You start to see why the bike was shunned here in Oz.
When BMW ended production of the R1200C line-up, Dr. Herbert Diess, (then) president of BMW Motorrad cited a prime reason for the bike’s discontinuance as the apparent unsuitability of the 1170cc, 45kW engine to then current market tastes and the unavailability of a suitable engine for further development, but did not rule out BMW pursuing a reinterpretation of the cruiser idea at a later date. The final model of the R1200C to be produced was the commemorative Montauk model, of which 350 examples were built.
Moto Guzzi Centauro
Moto Guzzi has always been, well, different… The Mandello del Lario based Italian manufacturer has offered avantgarde styling ever since it began messing about with motorcycles way back in 1921.
We’ve come to expect and embrace the unique offerings from the Guzzi mob. In that light, let’s investigate the Centauro of 1997.
The Centauro is based on the Daytona RS, evolving from the earlier model Daytona using the same frame and four-valve-per-pot, fuel injected, 992cc engine. The five-speed box is complemented by the same double uni joint shaft you’ll find on the Daytona and 1100 Sport.
The bike was offered at a pretty hefty $21,295 new and that put it into an elite class – the cashed-up buyer. It asked a lot, given its looks were stylishly Euro-quirky. That didn’t make it ugly, but a buyer was making a statement that excluded all but the extrovert.
You got a lot for the money though. Suspension is WP Racing gear, 40mm upside-down forks and a remote reservoir monoshock on the back. Compression and rebound damping adjustment is available at both ends, with an allowance for preload on the rear.
Brakes saw four-spot Brembos on the front (320mm discs), and a twin-spot item at the back (282mm disc). The classy Marchesini wheels were fitted with Pirelli Dragon rubber.
This one attempted to cross the wide gulf between sports and cruising. On that front, it was a little before its time and it suffered in the showroom because of it.
Laverda 750S Sport
Laverda made a return to mainstream motorcycle production in the mid ‘90s, bringing out a host of offerings, based around the twin-cylinder 500 Montjuic from way back in 1977.
The 750S Sport was released in 1997 at $16,495. It was powered by a liquid-cooled, fuel-injected 747cc parallel twin.
The bike dripped with lovely quality Italian hardware. Paioli suspension Brembo brakes and Termignoni carbon exhausts to name but three items.
At 185kg dry, it was a true sports bike and no-one ever complained about the handling of the 750S. A 225km/h top speed, rock solid sports operation from a brand with real integrity and prestige, coupled with the best bits in mainstream motorcycling. Sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?
So, why didn’t the thing sell like hotcakes? Well, the answers lie in a trio of areas. First of all, the dealer network was pretty sparse for Laverda and marketing was pretty limited. So, getting one was an issue from what was basically a boutique brand at that time.
The engines proved unreliable and that probably hammered home the last nail in the Laverda coffin. Plus, who wanted a parallel twin in sports bike guise at that stage? After all, V-twins and in-line fours were winning everything there was to win in road racing circles. It was really catering to a very limited market at the outset.
It’s a great shame that the Laverda phoenix never gained lift off though. It’s one of motorcycling’s great brands.
The TDM850 first saw the light of day Down Under in 1991 at a price of $14,999. Yamaha aimed the bike as a sort of dual sport, and the bike can lay claim to being one of the first to enter the relatively new (at the time) big bore dualsport sector.
It had strong on-road manners and a degree of off-road ability. An 18-inch front wheel and long travel suspension helped there.
The engine was sourced from the Tenere and bored to 849cc. For the 1996 model the bike received a 270 degree crank, which was also used in the much-loved TRX850. The firm’s Deltabox frame kept the whole shebang together.
Parallel twins have a reputation for vibration, Yamaha got around this by fitting a pair of counter-rotating balance shafts which all but cured the TDM of this affliction.
The main problem with the bike was looks. Many consider the TDM to be pig ugly, citing the swoopy half-fairing as the main culprit. This didn’t stop the bike selling in big numbers in Europe, where it was a big favourite.
While interest in the bike never replicated that of European markets, owners here often go on to buy the TDM a second time. It has a dedicated, small following.
Snag’s career in motoring journalism spans 29 years with stints at major bike mags Australian Road Rider, Motorcycle Trader and AMCN along with contributions to just about every other outlet worth a hill of beans. He was editor of Unique Cars magazine and hosts his legendary podcast ‘Snag Says’ when he gets off his date.