Once upon a time in the mid-1980s a mate of mine bought a race-tuned Suzuki GS750. This bike had Yoshimura 850cc pistons, race-spec cams, bored out carbs, a flowed head and a proper Yoshi 4-into-one exhaust. Back then you were more likely to come across a unicorn in your local town than a dyno, so he had to estimate the horsepower, which, I remember he conservatively put at ‘around a million’.
I still remember riding it. Not much happened at low revs but it was easy enough to potter around on. Not much more in the midrange either and then all of a sudden, the full million horsepower came in all at once – it was brilliant, even if it did only do about 18mpg. I’d love to know what happened to that bike.
For much of this year I rode around on KTM’s 1290S Adventure. Using that old Suzuki as a benchmark I’d estimate the KTM makes at least two million horsepower. Thing is, it is also incredibly strong at very low revs, even stronger in the midrange and then stronger still with the throttle wide open. On one occasion I spent half an hour in the middle of nowhere, trying my hardest to ride it flat out in third gear for more than a mile at a time and failed. Even nowhere isn’t big enough. Ninety minutes after that I was filtering through morning rush hour in Leeds city centre; gliding between cars and buses on the teeniest throttle openings with instant power available in every gear. When I came to fill up on the way home, the KTM was averaging 57mpg.
Think about that for a moment. If you are lucky enough to have spent any time in the 80s and 90s riding the first generations of modern big twins (think Ducati 900SS, 851, 916, Honda Firestorm, Suzuki TL1000S) you’ll know that…
Modern fuel injection and more importantly, modern ignition systems are phenomenal things. Building a 1301cc v-twin that makes two million horsepower is an . Building such an engine that will even run at all in rush hour conditions would have been the stuff of dreams even 20 years ago. Making that happen and getting the same mpg as the despatchers’ favourite NTV650 from the mid-90s is just unbelievable.
We might all moan about Euro 4 and emissions requirements, but if the result is that our bikes run better throughout the rev range, are more economical and cleaner too, then count me in for Euro 5, 6,7 and 8 please. And it begs the question again, why are bikes still not tested for emissions levels? There’s an underhand attempt to ban bikes from big cities right now by lumping them in with other older vehicles paying the Ultra-Low-Emissions-Zone charge in London next year. Other cities are already looking into taking up the scheme and right now, motorcycles have no way to fight back because there are no official figures for motorcycle emissions.
I’m pretty sure that because most bikes require a tiny amount of throttle to get their minimal weight of rider and machine moving, and require even less throttle (which equals less fuel, which equals less emissions) to maintain that momentum, which they do so much better than cars anyway because they don’t get stuck in queues, then the overall emissions, , emitted over a typical motorcycle journey must be tiny and surely the sooner we start demonstrating this, the better.
And then there’s the next step.
Who’ll be the first to make a proper hybrid motorcycle? My money would have been on Honda because they have the Dual Clutch semi-auto gearbox that makes sense with this technology and as far as I know the same sandwich van that calls at the Honda factory also stops at Mugen, so the two sets of engineers must have the odd chat over a cheese roll.
The benefits from an efficient hybrid system would be even more beneficial to bikes than cars. The latest plug-in hybrid cars (VW/Audi’s system is a great example of this) have a modest battery pack and small, turbocharged petrol engine. They can run solely on electric power for around 20 miles and in hybrid, where they switch between electric and petrol mpg figures increase by around 50 per cent. Or they can run petrol only and charge the on-board battery at the same time. you can have an electric car with zero emissions in town that can charge itself out of town if you can’t find a plug socket and run as a fuel-efficient hybrid the rest of the time.
The reason hybrids are so fuel efficient is because the point where a heavy car uses most fuel (and creates the most emissions) is when you move off from rest. Once all that weight is moving, fuel consumption is relatively low. Hybrids use the electricity to get it rolling and bring the engine in once moving.
And the bit about the VW system is that there’s a ‘GTE’ button where you get the full power (and full torque delivered instantly) of the electric motor and the petrol engine at the same time for quick bursts of strong acceleration for overtaking etc.
Imagine if the new Gold Wing had been an 800cc petrol engine with a small electric motor and battery pack. An electric bike that can do 25 miles on sparks alone in town, can recharge itself from the engine or a plug socket and should easily average 70mpg in hybrid mode while putting out minimal emissions. The technology isn’t that far away and, for a big tourer (or even better, a maxi scooter), where weight isn’t as much of an issue, the system would make a lot of sense.
To do this needs a shift in mindset from the manufacturers away from bikes being expensive lifestyle lee- items and a return to being useful and the smart way to get around.
This technology is still relatively pricey, but the benefits (both emotional and practical) are worth it. But the best bit is the PR bonus. By playing the electric game in a smarter, consumer-friendly way they get customers used to the ideas and benefits of electric vehicles while developing the next generation that might as we want them to.