Those of us who tinker with our bikes have had to adapt to ever-advancing technology. Spannerman charts the long and winding road and predicts a dystopian future.
Privacy is dead. INFO MOTO’s research tells us you’re over 50, earn about 75 grand a year and you’re male. It means you grew up in the great years of Japanese domination of the motorcycle market. We know you loved the bikes of your youth (many of you are buying them back again) and we also know you respect that past.
The fact that you subscribe to INFO MOTO indicates that you’re not just a rider but want to be more completely involved in the riding experience. You want to know how your bike works, you want to know how new technology can improve it and you want some idea of how to fix it when it breaks.
Like the rest of us in the industry, you’ve witnessed significant changes in motorcycle design and technology. Your motorcycle life was born alongside Honda’s mighty 750 Four in 1969, the same year in which Triumph produced arguably its best Meriden Bonneville. At the time, many believed the Honda 750 was just too complicated and would never sell.
Compared with something like BMW’s current S 1000 RR, the single-cam Honda was a stone axe. Why many riders thought that way was the expectation that, like their experience with their Triumph twins, much workshop time would be needed to keep the Hondas running well. The year 1969 was a watershed and introduced engineering reliability to bikes which still resonates today.
Maintaining the rage
Just because reliability arrived, it didn’t mean owners could abandon regular service and maintenance. The fact that you could pull the magic ‘ton’ on your K2, park it for the evening and do exactly the same thing the following day did come at a cost. Similarly, a quick blast from Sydney to Perth was now possible so the need for regular oil changes became greater, not less.
The CB750 Four was very home-maintenance friendly. The engine had points ignition until 1978 and required some skill to keep the timing right. There were eight valve clearances to check and four carburetors to balance. On the plus side, the engine and gearbox shared the same oil so one change did both.
The original 750 Four engine produced 67hp. To put that into context, the FJ Holden family car produced 64hp. Unfortunately, the 750 Four was perhaps a little too user-friendly. If you listened to INFO MOTO’s podcast with John Rooth, you’ll have heard the story of how he bought a Four in his youth, gave it an oil change and rode it daily for two years without touching it again.
AllMoto’s Guy Allen has publicly wondered where the thousands of Honda Fours sold actually went. Many were ridden by new riders to a state of terminal exhaustion.
Rush to progress
The Honda Four ushered in the common use of disc brakes. Yes, they were more efficient than a poorly maintained drum brake but they eventually replaced drums completely because they became cheaper to manufacture than drums. Fuel injection has a similar history. It was a technically superior fueling system but it’s universally used now partly because it’s cheaper to produce than carburetors.
Kawasaki’s Z900 of 1973 pushed the envelope to include double overhead camshafts and an output of 82hp.
While they had the power, Japanese-manufactured bikes, particularly the large capacity models, had a poor reputation for handling. That changed in 1977 with the introduction of Suzuki’s GS750. It can be argued the better reputation of European bikes of the time was largely because they were too underpowered to stress their own chassis but the GS750 demonstrated you could have both: power and poise.
The relentless competition for more power, though, wasn’t being matched by engineering innovation. The large-capacity Kawasaki’s of the early ‘80s were notorious oil burners and the factory accepted that anything up to one-and-a-half litres per 1000 kilometres was within specification. Imagine that.
The solution was a combination of technologies starting with liquid cooling which allowed closer tolerances in manufacturing. Advances in metallurgy resulted in highly wear-resistant cylinder bore coatings and this combined with shorter strokes to produce engines with very high power outputs but with the ability to start challenging the service life of car engines.
Carry that weight
In the golden years of the ‘80s, performance bikes became heavier and tyre sizes grew to match. The introduction and widespread use of computers led to CAD (computer-assisted design) which allowed designers to engineer components to meet performance demands without exceeding them.
The term ‘over-engineered’ disappeared from the designer’s dictionary and reduced weight became the mantra. The downside to this was if you crashed and subjected your bike’s chassis to forces it wasn’t engineered for, you’d write it off. A similar crash on a 1970s motorcycle would generally be laughed off by both the rider and the bike.
Now and beyond
So here we are rolling into 2023. While there is a discernible move back to classic styling, the engineering on everything currently on the market is thoroughly modern. Maintenance tasks have been significantly reduced. Electronic ignition means you no longer have to check ignition timing at each service. Fuel injection only requires you to keep the system clean and balanced for it to operate effectively. Bearings and bushes are sealed from new and don’t require regular lubrication. Spark plugs can last 100,000km. Modern valve actuation systems mean you might only adjust valve clearances once or twice in the life of the engine.
If problems occur, error codes are produced in the engine management system which can be downloaded and dealt with at your local dealer. So are we now in an era where we just buy and ride? Not quite.
Bike owners still have to deal with the consumables: tyres, brake pads, batteries, globes, air filters and oil changes. With most bikes these tasks (with the exception of tyres) can be undertaken at home and those who learn to do it well will end up having a much richer relationship with their ride.
After 130 years, most motorcycles still have their rear wheels driven by chains or belts and these need to be monitored and adjusted to get the most service life from them.
Riders still have to decide amid the clutter of sales information which lubricants are best for their bikes, which replacement tyres are most suitable for their particular purpose and even which type and grade of fuel will give them the best results.
If your bike is a ‘keeper’ or you start indulging in older bikes, the list of tasks grows exponentially. The things you can and should do expands to changing brake fluids, replacing pads, measuring rotor width, replacing chains and sprockets, changing front fork oil and replacing batteries.
If you’re in it for the long haul, you’ll be checking and adjusting valve clearances and possibly even replacing clutches. Modern workshops are becoming increasingly reluctant to work on older bikes so the incentive is there for you to learn how to do it yourself.
The elephant in the room is, of course, the move towards electric bikes. For environmental reasons, the internal combustion engine (ICE) which we have always known and loved will go the way of the Raphus cucullatus (dodo). The death throws have already started with some cities in Europe now not allowing motorcycles over 10 years old to be ridden in built-up areas.
By 2035 it will probably be impossible to buy a motorcycle with an ICE. It won’t worry many of us because we can keep riding the ICE bikes we have now until they wear out or can no longer be serviced with replacement parts. Oh, and traditional garages selling petrol will become harder to find as well.
Your kids will have electric mobility devices which they plug into your home solar battery each night with power provided by the sun. The home mechanic will have little to do apart from replacing tyres and brake pads and the power will be free. Cool, eh?
But wait. Back in 1969 the tabloid press went nuts about the fact that the Honda Four could (allegedly) do 125 mph. Nobody seems to have noticed yet but the performance potential of electric motorcycles is massive. Motorcycle participation in the Pikes Peak hill-climb in the US was abandoned in 2019 for safety reasons but the fastest time ever set by a motorcycle was on an electric bike in 2013. It won the motorcycle class by over 20 seconds which, in motorsport terms, is a lifetime.
The electric sports bikes currently being developed have the potential to be (much) faster than any ICE bike. You can only hope no government bodies find out until it’s too late…