There are many marks along motorcycling’s march forward that denote a point of progress. Initially little more than a steam-powered pushbike, the motorcycle has first lovingly embraced the internal combustion engine, then settled on basic chassis design before making massive progress in braking and suspension to a point of arrival called convention.
Early breakthroughs by the British, French and Germans were later capitalised on by the Japanese from the 1950s onwards. More recently tastes have reverted back to European flavours in this post millennium age.
We’ve only been riding the things for 150 years, but the most staggering advances have been made in the last 30 years – a quantum leap made in the last decade or so. Anything before this can be seen as mild evolution of a mode of transport compared to this recent revolution; there have been small steps, incremental gains, with little in the way
of a back-to-the-drawing-board mentality.
The very earliest machines looked not dissimilar to bikes from the Sixties and Seventies thanks to hamstrung technology and the dominance of the auto industry sucking up talent, ideas and resources.
“Though 1969’s CB750 is largely considered to be the first superbike, it looks nothing like a superbike that we recognise today.”
After this, however, massive changes in engineering, design, electronics and manufacturing have caused a wholesale change in what a motorcycle is – and what it is ultimately capable of. Though 1969’s CB750 is largely considered to be the first superbike, it looks nothing like a superbike that we recognise today.
The first Suzuki GSX-R750, however, now that’s a game changer. There have since been more revolutionary moments in motorcycling – the first FireBlade, Yamaha’s debuting of the YZF-R1 and the apple cart upsetting BMW S1000RR – machines that have come along every 10 years or so to wholly revise the natural order of things.
These have been real leaps, moments that have set the benchmark and defined the whole industry for the next decade. Quite simply, without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
Now that the Japanese were fully engaged in racing, the Suzuki GSX-R750 was a vision of the future. Weight, power, ancillaries and aerodynamics were all honed to levels unseen on a production bike to create a package that really was ready to race from the showroom – with Mick Grant taking the production TT race and that year’s superstock title in some style aboard a virtually bog-stock Gixer. Kevin Schwantz also did the business in the Transatlantic races of the era, too. Of course, there were issues, but Suzuki managed to get the fundamentals spot-on.
The numbers might not allude to it now, but 176kg and 106bhp married up with half decent suspension and brakes resulted in a weapon to terrorise country roads and tracks the world over. Against the likes of the VF and VFR750, FZ750 and GPZ750, the Suzuki had it all its own way, and constant development and spawning of other models (the 1100 would come a year later, the 600 in a decade then, finally, the 1000) would see the GSX-R marque being the most important over the next 30 years.
Ignoring the first FireBlade, the 1998 YZF-R1 and 2005’s GSX-R1000, all three of which built further upon the philosophy of the original Gixer, the next momentous mark in biking’s time line was the dawning of the electronics era. Officially, Ducati was first to claim this title, with the 1098R being the first proper bike possessing traction control, but the BMW S1000RR took this rider aid to another level – as well as leaving the biking world flabbergasted at the performance levels of the inline four litre bike. This in turn made the Japanese firms’ seemingly incremental efforts over the last two and a half decades seem somewhat half-baked.
“Though there are 30 years between them, there are many concepts that the Gixxer and latest generation Beemer share, the main one being the use of the internal combustion engine.”
Twenty-five years had seen nearly a doubling of power while the use of sublime ancillaries and now race-spec electronics were making these machines easier to ride. What was essentially a supersport chassis enfolding 193bhp should have spelled disaster, but we relished it. Though there are 30 years between them, there are many concepts that the Gixxer and latest generation Beemer share, the main one being the use of the internal combustion engine. The industry may have introduced new materials, manufacturing techniques and uprated components to a bike, but the use of petrol to power it all has remained a critical facet for any machine.
You pour petrol into a tank, the carbs or fuel injectors spit it into the combustion chamber, it ignites after a prompt from the spark plug and in turn moves a piston up and down that turns a crank whose motion is transferred to your rear wheel. It has always been like this.
But, as you may have seen, petrol isn’t getting any good press at the minute. Oil is hard to extract, petrol difficult to distil, its emissions world changing – and fuelling a bike is a science in itself with banks of boffins employed to get delivery of power to the rear tyre spot on. And, at the end of the day, not even the combined intellectual might of the world’s cleverest engineers and scientists has managed to get thermal efficiencies of an internal combustion engine regularly beyond 30 per cent without a whole heap of new technology being applied to the task.
“The difference in power output of the two bikes can be accounted for by three decades of progress.”
That means that for every 10 drops of fuel that fire a bike, seven are lost in the generation of heat that doesn’t propel the bike forward (it either disappears down the exhaust or through the engine’s cylinder walls and the like through to the cooling system) – and that’s for a massively efficient engine without factoring getting the ruddy petrol in the first place! Power and efficiency are cozy bedfellows, and the principles that allow better fuel consumption can often be twisted to extract more power from an internal combustion engine, and that’s exactly what Etsuo Yokouchi, the original lead GSX-R750 designer and Dr Christian Lander, the S Thou’s powerplant engineer went after. The difference in power output of the two bikes can be accounted for by three decades of progress.
But what happens when you reject the fundamental principle of a bike’s propulsion unit? If you’re ditching a machine to be powered by petrol, how do you replace it? There are options out there – from hydrogen to the flux capacitor – but the only realistic alternative to petrol to propel a bike is electricity – and we’re not talking about going for a ride being followed by a 100-kilometre extension cable.
It won’t have escaped your attention that electricity is the most advanced option available to us yet. There are mainstream cars available in the showroom that are powered either in part or completely by batteries. As ever, motorcycles have been slow on the uptake, but thanks to the efforts of events like the TT Zero race the use of batteries has been increasing in a competitive field, and now you can go to a dealer, particularly if you live in California, and purchase a bonafide electric bike that isn’t just some sort of mountain bike with a battery tacked on to it.
“Energica is an offshoot of the respected CRP Group, a Modena-based company with 45 years of engineering and racing experience behind them.”
Among an exclusive group of manufacturers is Energica, an Italian firm that has done the lot – both provided the propulsion unit and designed a bespoke machine around it (not just housed it in another machine’s chassis).
Energica is an offshoot of the respected CRP Group, a Modena-based company with 45 years of engineering and racing experience behind them. The Ego is one of now three bikes available in the range, and is available in shops in the UK, being distributed through Moto Corsa in Salisbury and sold at Ed Cosker Motorcycles in Herefordshire, whose most pleasant surroundings we found ourselves at, armed additionally with a 1985 Suzuki GSX-R750 and a current BMW S1000RR to experience first hand the superbike’s march of progress.
“The swathes of carbon fibre fairings partially hide a steel tubular trellis frame, while the upside-down swingarm is a work of art.”
Every element, bar one, points to a beautifully designed, immaculate motorcycle. There’s a set of chunky Marzocchi forks at the front, at whose ankles sit a brace of Brembo calipers. The swathes of carbon fibre fairings partially hide a steel tubular trellis frame, while the upside-down swingarm is a work of art. At the rear there is a Bitubo shock and OZ rims grace both ends.
Every element looks like a real weapon – especially if you’re trying to stare it out with those two spotlights glaring at you. It’s only when you look for an exhaust, or the wiring and plumbing for the bike, or, if you’re playing intimate attention, a clutch lever, that you’re left scratching what you normally scratch when you’re bamboozled. There’s a tank, but no filler cap.
Ed (he of Cosker fame) runs us through the novelties of the bike before we’re let loose on it; the starting procedure, where to plug the lead in, how to select reverse. Eh, reverse? Yes, and here’s the thing. Batteries may be very good at powering a bike, but they weigh a lot. The Ego hits the scales at 258kg, and that’s with all the weight saving componentry applied elsewhere.
The other figures associated include a ’Busa-busting nearly 200Nm of torque that’s ladled on generously as soon as you touch the throttle. Horsepower figures are supersport racebike high, at a claimed 136bhp, and there’s a 150km range – so long as you’re not caning it silly. There are 12,000 charges in the battery and if it’s as flat as a pancake it’ll take 3.5 hours to charge, or 30 minutes for 85 per cent.
Once you’re aware of these you learn to live with them. I’m almost converted. And then I take it off the side stand. Man alive, it’s heavy. I try and paddle back to get it to face the right way, but don’t get anywhere. That’s when Ed reminds me of the reverse option, so a few fiddles later I’m serenely backing away from the showroom and turning myself to face the road.
“With a simple twist, I’ve rocketed to the national speed limit in a little over three seconds.”
I creep forward, with tiny increments of throttle offering walking pace in return. I’m turning right onto the main road, so gingerly adding a little more gas to get to my side of the carriageway. I get the bike stood up straight. Then, bam, 100 per cent throttle. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucking hell. It goes. It goes fast. It goes really fast. This is amazing. With a simple twist, I’ve rocketed to the national speed limit in a little over three seconds. I didn’t have to feather a clutch, worry about knocking it up from first to second, there was no wheelie to control (sadly, due to the weight), no screaming exhaust to piss off the neighbours, just pure, unadulterated acceleration. My eyes are on stalks looking at the clocks meaning I fail to appreciate the corner coming up, so nudge my right bar a bit to get it back into the right lane – and receive no movement in return.
The force that provided the propulsion is also that which makes steering harder work than normal. Moving a quarter of a ton about on the hoof, plus me, is no easy task, even with racy profiled Pirelli rubber on. On what I consider the best road I can imagine for a test ride, the weight of the bike slowly evaporates and my giddiness is replaced by concentration on the job. With flowing roads such as these, the bike makes a willing partner. Speed is added easily with no messing about with gears, and shedding upto 30kmph into these types of turns is no issue for the Brembo radial calipers. A little energy can also be recouped here as there is a Kers-type system, But that doesn’t stop the ‘fuel’ gauge from dropping a percentage point every few hundred metres at this exuberant pace.
A set of temporary traffic lights turning amber ahead requires slowing to a standstill in a hurry. This exposes how hard the brakes have to work, but it gives me a chance to express how impressed I am with the bike to Mossy, who’s been riding behind me on a BMW S1000RR. I challenge him to a race from the lights, and up to 80kmph I’ve got him, easy. Beyond that, he’s a blur…
“I figure that it’s Mossy who he wants to shout at for making so much noise, but the Energica also emits a whine from the motor and some noise from the drive chain and rolling rubber, so I could have some explaining to do.”
The next comparison made is when we go back and forth taking some shots. Carefully U-turning in a junction next to a house, I get worried when a bloke walks out of the house on a mission to talk to me. I figure that it’s Mossy who he wants to shout at for making so much noise, but the Energica also emits a whine from the motor and some noise from the drive chain and rolling rubber, so I could have some explaining to do. I hang around, taking one for the team.
Expecting a lashing, the bloke wants to know why he isn’t hearing my bike scream away when he’s delighting at the Beemer’s stock note and spends the next 10 minutes gawping at the Ego in wonder. He’s not the only one, and when we return to Ed Cosker’s I blather superlatives about a bike that I had little expectation of. The only weakness is its weight, and any early adopters will find 90º bends and the like challenging.
I charged up to a few to get some decent angle for the pictures, and with no real engine braking and the Brembos having their work cut out, you do get a few panicked moments on the brakes, then tipping all that weight in you hope that the tyres don’t capitulate. We plug the bike in back at the shop to top it up for later and head out on the past and present.
“This is almost as authentic as a first generation GSX-R750 gets, although a few nerds might complain at the polished fork legs or use of Allen bolts in the brake calipers.”
In truth, I should have started with the Suzuki GSX-R750, but my excitement levels at riding something new were peaking. Saying that, this Slabby is effectively brand spanking new, what with it being rebuilt at last year’s Motorcycle Live. This is almost as authentic as a first generation GSX-R750 gets, although a few nerds might complain at the polished fork legs or use of Allen bolts in the brake calipers. We’re in geek territory now…
Whatever, this was the father of all current superbikes. I sit in it, heave my feet onto the pegs, stretch out to the bars and the position I’ve found myself in is as alien as anything I’ve ridden in the last decade – this feels more like the Grandaddy.
The ergonomics are crazy, as if no-one ever thought in the Eighties that having some weight over the front was a good idea or that your knees might actually want to be housed somewhere. I spend the next few kilometres trying to figure out what the least uncomfortable riding position is and resign myself to the Suzuki’s foibles. I can’t believe this was ever a successful endurance racer (it won Le Mans at its first attempt).
I turn it on, to be greeted by… nothing. No pumps, no servos, no Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat on the dash. I’m back in an analogue world, and it feels truly liberating. The motor, however, feels as fresh as a daisy and is so happy to be revved hard, generating impressive momentum in the process.
The carbed fuelling is just about cock-on across the range, and the only giveaway of the bike’s age is its fluffiness until it’s warm and the slow speed with which the rev counter rises in the foothills of power. Gears slip in nicely, the engine tingles personal parts modern machines don’t and there’s a stack of midrange just waiting to ooze out.
Much like my first tentative corners on the Energica, you have to gently ease your way into spirited cornering. Rubber is modern day stuff, Continental RoadAttack2 Classic Racer tyres, but still on skinny 18in rims that play havoc with your brain when you’re contemplating heroics.
“There’s a lot of feel from the front, even though you feel miles away from it.”
There’s plenty of grip available, but you just need to ease yourself into finding it. Once you’re happy there’s a lot of ability to exploit, and though your legs and arms are in funny places, the dynamics of the machine remain focused. There’s a lot of feel from the front, even though you feel miles away from it. It’s a little surprising to see some adjustability there, too. The revolution is coming.
The brakes take some getting used to, mind. Power is there, but not before it plays a game of hide and seek. Disconcerting initially, once you get over the same panicked moments as on the Energica you learn to temper speed going into a corner. There’s no slamming on the anchors and squaring things off, the GSX-R much prefers coasting in and a consistent line to overcome an arc. When things get rough, the Suzuki also lets you know about it with the suspension’s action, harsh compared to today’s and tomorrow’s units. It’s also a bit on the wobbly side at speed, but then doesn’t that make you feel more alive? It did me…
Out of the three, it’s the bike that gets all the attention, and you can pore over every detail of this rebuilt bike. From the mirrors that magnify to the swathes of electrical tape around the wiring to the orange indicator lights on the dash to the fuel tap and goldfish bowl of a screen – it’s all fascinating stuff.
There are minor irritations for the modern motorcyclist, like forgetting to turn the headlights off, ending up with a flat battery and having a near coronary trying to bump it, but this was all part and parcel of growing up with a bike like the original Gixer 750. You can see that this was the start of something, the blueprint to the future, an example that BMW would take to its logical conclusion 30 years later.
“It has also found fans galore on the road, who marvel at how a 199bhp bike can be such a breeze to pilot.”
The S1000RR is an incredible bike, as any recipient of our Sportsbike of the Year title should be. In many ways the parallels to the Suzuki are clear – what with it bossing production racing at the TT and in superstock classes. It has also found fans galore on the road, who marvel at how a 199bhp bike can be such a breeze to pilot. And it’s not just the electronics working their magic here, it’s intrinsic control born from sound chassis design principles, sublime fuelling and all the trickery behind the semi-active Sachs electronic suspension.
I’m not about to write another love letter to the BMW here, we’ve done that during our SBOTY test and also when we pitched the Beemer up against a race-kitted ZX-10R a couple of months ago. But there’s no getting away from the fact that the S1000RR represents the culmination of every technology going.
BMW manages to get way more from an inline four motor than anyone else, it’s pioneered electronic suspension on sportsbikes with the HP4 leading the way, chassis design is at a peerless level and the integration of electronics has evolved swiftly since they were first introduced to the bike in 2010 to the point now where they’re bang up with the best in the business. Add to that decent service intervals, cruise control, heated grips and a long warranty and no rider in the world back when the GSX-R750 made its debut would believe the advances made.
With the advent of a real alternative to petrol driven machines, we may look back on this period as a crossroads in biking. What’s clear is that the Suzuki GSX-R750 really did start it all. Both in terms of developing the internal combustion engine and housing it in a package that went round corners like never before the Suzuki shows us where we’ve come from – while also demonstrating that it’s still relevant and ready, over 30 years on.
Development since culminates in the BMW S1000RR. It’s hard to imagine where we go from here given the almost infinite ability of the machine. 200bhp, reined in by performance systems and given the best in technology that even the automotive sector can boast is staggering. We really have never had it so good. Propulsion aside, perhaps the next viable avenue of R&D is further research on safety systems, a refinement of rider aids and better integration and enhancement of communication systems.
And what of the Energica? It has an early adopter feel to it, hamstrung by the powerplant it employs. Plug and play it may be, but the restrictions the technology imposes means that it can’t be used in the way I’d want. It may suffice for some, but it just wouldn’t fit into how I ride bikes – yet.
Cut the weight, up the range, add some more speed and halve the price and we’ve suddenly got an amazing proposition on our hands – and one that may not be too far away. The world can’t bury its head in the sand forever, and alternatives need to emerge from both the likes of Energica and the established players for motorcycling to have a future.
And if Energica is right, and it becomes the Triumph, Honda and Ducati all rolled into one of the 21st century, then based on the Ego, we won’t be in a bad place at all.