Wheel alignment

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Innovation ain't what it used to be!

I suppose that having ridden for more than 40 years, you notice trends and can compare them with past periods of time. Looking backward doesn't mean I yearn for the bikes of yesteryear though as today's bikes are clearly superior in most respects.

To obtain performance increases in modern bikes, for the most part; it seems to mainly involve buying bolt-on goodies from specialist sources from around the world with perhaps less personal innovation to get that all-important boost or edge.

However, I have a (maybe half-baked) theory!  Less money and lack of easy access to tuning equipment or expertise may have driven greater self-reliance and an innovative approach in the past.  Nosing through some bike photographs I took a few decades ago, I thought I'd post a few of them and comment on some of the innovative features on these bikes.  With one exception, they're drag bikes, partly because I was campaigning a short-stroke Triumph drag bike called Icarus at the time (see: Growing up a bit) but also because they're a great example of interesting ways of pursuing outrageous performance!

Super Nero

The Vincent V twin-powered Super Nero was what might be described as the ancestor of "modern" drag bikes in Europe.  Its builder, George Brown, was a talented road racer in his earlier days who worked at the Vincent factory at one stage in his career. It's hardly surprising therefore that he chose this power plant for a series of  bikes, culminating in Super Nero.  George was a sprinter, as opposed to drag racer, preferring the battle against the clock over numerous distances as opposed to against a competitor over the quarter mile. The Vincent V twin had its origins in the mid 30's and it's testament to George's development skills, aided by a big supercharger  and alcohol-based fuel that Super Nero set a number of world and national records throughout the 60's in both solo and sidecar configuration. Over 4 decades later, Super Nero's performance is still incredible.  Over the flying quarter mile in 1968, he averaged 182 mph in both directions to set a new world record and in 1970, he averaged 190 mph in gusty and wet conditions.

His persistence in continuously improving Super Nero was legendary and his tenacity was further demonstrated by taking on the international motorcycling body, the FIM.  The FIM had an arbitrary age limit of 55 for international competitors and George had already exceeded this whilst he was still chasing international records.  His persistence paid off and the age limit was lifted, allowing George to set his 182 mph record at the age of 58!  Truly innovative and inspirational.

Alf Hagon's JAP

Alf Hagon was a champion grass track racer who got into quarter-miling in the early days of the sport in the UK.  Alf's bike also used a V twin with pre-WW2 origins; a British JAP.  His innovation was to build the bike as a real lightweight (some might say flimsy!) to increase power to weight ratio and whilst the early version had a 2 speed gearbox, the final version had a single speed countershaft and spectacularly smoked its slick for almost the entire quarter mile!  Alf also showed considerable balls by laying over the exposed cylinder heads, especially as drag motors can be likened to hand grenades with the pin pulled!  His ingenuity paid off in spades when in 1967, he achieved the Holy Grail of quarter-miling at that time, the first ever sub-10 second bike run on UK soil.  Even more remarkably, it was on a runway in indifferent condition, not a specialist drag strip.  Later that year, he became the first motorcycle in history to set an official 2-way quarter mile world record in the 9's.

Alf didn't rest on his laurels though. In 1968, he took his bike with higher gearing to a British air base with a 9000ft runway.  On what was essentially an unfaired bike with minimal suspension, he clocked a staggering 206.54 mph; becoming the first Englishman to exceed 200 mph.

It's funny how innovation seems prevalent  with V twin motors!  As well as Englishmen George Brown and Alf Hagon, Kiwis Burt Munro and John Britten also enjoyed considerable success on the international stage with their V twins; albeit some decades apart!

Pete Allan's Twin Triumph

Although twin-engined drag bikes made their 60's debut in the USA, Pete Allan was arguably the first UK drag racer to have one which ran both competitively and reliably.  Coupling the two motors together was not a straightforward exercise because of power pulses putting enormous stresses on the drive chains but Pete's beautiful engineering largely overcame this.  The American twins of this era were normally aspirated and used nitromethane to develop big dollops of horsepower.  Pete's bike used both nitro AND a big supercharger to produce outrageous horses!  The photo clearly shows the massive intake to the supercharger and the pressure release valve between the two engines (the rear engine has the head reversed to minimise intake piping and fuel condensing).  The pressure release valve also had considerable value as a safety device in event of a backfire when starting the bike on rollers!  Pete Allan emigrated to Australia in the early 70's and also competed at the highest level there. He's still well-known for his non-riding involvement in the drag and custom bike scene.

Twin-engined bikes are still on the drag race scene but are arguably more of an oddity than performing right at the top.  Probably the most famous and successful twin drag bike of all was The Hobbit, campaigned by John Hobbs from 1975 to 1979.  It had twin superchargers fed with nitromethane and at its peak, was covering the standing quarter mile in a fraction over 8 seconds with terminal speeds of around 180mph.  All this from engines which had their roots as early British road bikes!

Vic Phillip's Impulse drag bike

In the early-mid 60's,  Japanese 4 cylinder road bikes had yet to be launched but it was clear that multi-cylinders could offer significant horsepower advantages compared with twins or singles.  One of the early believers was Vic Phillips who built a sidecar drag bike using a tuned 1000cc Hillman Imp motor.  I lost touch with progress early in its development but as with the other bikes and builders mentioned here, it was a highly innovative approach with limited resources.  What's more, the standard of engineering was superb, one example being the flawless hand-made fairing.  The photos were taken by me at Santa Pod dragstrip, close to where I used to live prior to emigrating.

Money sure helps, but it's sheer hard work and clever thinking which carries the day!

Impulse from the front

Ag's Barra (Angus McPhails Barrow translated from Scottish English!)

When sprint/drag bikes are mentioned, the mental image is of big capacity monsters producing equally monstrous horsepower.  However, there are a number of smaller capacity classes where arguably; it is harder to achieve a favourable power to weight ratio compared with the big 'uns.  Angus McPhail raced a tuned 250cc Arial Arrow.  Conscious of the need to shed as much weight as possible to offset the relatively modest power of the 250cc engine, Angus went for a tiny hand-crafted monococque alloy frame, tiny wheels and equally tiny front suspension to minimise weight.  At least he didn't have far to fall if things went pear-shaped!

I'm a bit hazy on exactly how fast the bike was but if I remember correctly, it set a number of British records over several distances.  However, the main point was that it was yet another example of ingenuity rather than money yielding good results.

The next photo is of Icarus, my ultra-short stroke supercharged Triumph.  Details  HERE
(photo taken by Pete Miller).


The final example of ingenuity is not a drag bike, it's a circuit racer developed by the Triumph Factory.  The name has been proudly carried forward nearly 4 decades to grace Triumph's current 675cc sports bike:

The 1960's 500cc Triumph Daytona Factory Racer.

The Daytona 200 has been America's premier motorcycle race for several decades and it's fair to say that the earlier days were a Harley Davidson benefit with the factory-backed bikes cleaning up virtually every year.  The US bike market was where Triumph had its greatest sales and a win at Daytona would have a huge impact on increasing market share.  Doug Hele, chief development engineer of the Triumph factory and a US dealership set about building a twin carburettor 500 based on the Tiger 100 which was light, powerful, having a low drag coefficient to take it to around 150 mph and be very manoeuvrable for the tight infield turns. In 1967, Gary Nixon blitzed the field to take line honours and to celebrate, Triumph released the first Daytona road bike the same year.

The photo taken at Mallory Park in the UK shows a works Daytona raced by chief tester Percy Tait.  Note the huge amount of tread on the race tyres and the foam-lined brackets to isolate the carburettors from vibration and fuel foaming.  The bike's light weight and superb handling gave Percy many short circuit victories against the likes of Agostini on the MV Augusta 500 as well as other aces on factory machinery.  In 1969, it was even entered into the Belgian GP as a one-off which Percy led for several laps; eventually finishing second to Giacomo Agostini.

Well, there we are - money undoubtedly helps, but it's smart thinking (REAL engineering!) which can win the day when the money isn't there!


  1. Great post Geoff, hats off to all the total loons in this piece, Alf Hagon being a case in point (I have watched you tube videos of drag bike engines letting go and smacking the poor rider in the chest).

  2. Thanks Mr.B! Yep, loons is absolutely the right word. A friend I used to race with had his cylinder head come off what was left of the crankcase and it was only the twin frame tubes that prevented probable serious injury.

    Somewhere yet to be discovered in the house, I have 35mm slides from the '69 Isle of Man TT, the early Transatlantic match races and much more besides. I'll post some of ém up when I finally get round to finding them.

  3. was there ever a street nero?ever?i mean,i remember at school in 68 the norton atlas becoming legendary,pre commando,but the nero has allways been a mystery.Almost as invisible as the new commandos are now

  4. Hi Anthony,
    Nero was the name which George Brown gave to his sprint bike. There was never a street Nero as such but the engine was based on the legendary British Vincent 1000 V twin road bike.

    If you're interested in the original Commandos, a friend still has the original 750 Commando which he bought as a 18 year old, plus a heavily modified 850 running on avgas which he races in NZ post-classic events. You can see the photos in this post: http://geoffjames.blogspot.co.nz/2015/03/scooterbob-in-nz-coromandel-peninsula-nz.html .

  5. great page...!!! Remember you well from the Pod....All good engineers emigrate.....Pat...


    1. Hello Pat, how cool to hear from you! I still keep a weather eye from time to time on what's happening at the Pod. We had Pete and Jane Miller stay with us in 2015, Ag McPhail's brother and wife in 2018 and we fleetingly met a Pod spectator from that era in NZ when he and his wife were touring NZ last year. Old connections never die! I only retired from motorcycles last year, so it was a good run 😁.
      Every good wish,


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