Plastic Engines?

Here’s something I didn’t know.  There’s a compnay that’s been around for several years, and it makes plastic internal combustion engines.  The New York Times reports on Matti Holtzberg, an engineer in New Jersey, whose been building these things for quite a while.

Apparently, back in 1984 and 1985, he even raced a Ford Pinto with a plastic engine, and its only failure in the International Motor Sports Association’s Camel Lights series was a busted con rod–a bad part from a supplier (I wonder if it’s the same one that supplied the con rods for the Aprilia RSV4 Rs that went TU during the press launch?).

Anyway, the guy took an 88HP Pinto, pulled the 415-lb hunk of Ford iron from under the hood, and replaced it with a 152-lb plastic engine that put out 300 HP.

Obviously, there are difficulties replacing steel and aluminum in current engines.  And, of course, with aluminum engines, the plastic–polymer, actually–bits would only cut the weight by 30%.  Still, 30% is a signifigant savings. Imagine, if you will, a 250HP motorcycle that weighs 340 pounds.

Uh.  Hmmm.  Actually…that’s kind of scary.

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2010 Kawasaki Concours14 First look

Pete Brissette of Motorcycle.Com got to spend a day with a brand new 2010 Concours14 that had all the trimmings, including Kawasaki’s new linked ABS system and Traction control.  He really liked it, for a number of reasons.

First kawasaki really seems to have listed to their customers about what was good and bad on the 1st-Gen C14.  The top complaints were heat management and wind protection…not enough of either.  Both issues seem to have been addressed, with a completely new front fairing design, and a taller, wider windscreen that even  has a bit of a Cee bailey-type lip at the top.

Second, Kawi stuck factory grip heater on it (they look like they come from exactly the same parts supplier as the ones on my FJR), dumped the useless little tank box, and put a real storage box in the front of the fairing.

But the big news is the linked ABS and traction control. The linked ABS system runs as follows:

But what really sets the new linked-ABS apart is the rider-selectable level of linking. For starters, ABS cannot be disabled, but by pressing the orange K-ACT button (bike must be stopped to select modes) the rider can choose the “high-combined” effect in Mode 2 or the lesser-combined effect in Mode 1.

K-ACT mode selection impacts the amount of front brake application (only one of the two front calipers are involved regardless of Mode 1 or 2) when applying only the rear brake. The amount of linking applied to the rear when using the front brake remains constant.

I can’t say I’m a big fan of this type of linking system.  I prefer the BMW partially linked system, where the rear brake doesn’t engage the front at all, while the front lever engages both.  I realize this is probably a simple matter of preference, but I don’t want the front end to dive when I hit the back brake.

The traction control system seems like a neat safety feature, as long as you remember that it is just a safety feature.  It’s not the Troy Bayliss Ducati 1098 system that’s designed to make you faster.  It’s the “you’re getting a little crazy, let’s apply some sanity” system.

By controlling airflow (via secondary butterfly valves in the throttle body), fuel delivery and ignition timing, three parameters as opposed to the two of competitors according to Kawasaki, the system limits engine output when it senses the rear wheel spinning faster than the front.

And for those wondering, yes, it is a wheelie nanny, but only when enabled. Phew!

Most impressive was how seamlessly and unobtrusively KTRC performed. When power is cut, it isn’t done abruptly, nor is reapplication of power. Rather than a stumbly on/off throttle experience, the bike simply feels like it has a fraction of its available power.

All in all, it looks like Kawi has made an already well-received bike even better.

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2010 Aprilia RSV4 R Unleashed, Collapses

Aprilia introduced the slightly lower-spec street version of its V-4 RSV4 race bike, the RSV4 R, to the press at the Mugello Race Track in Italy.   According to Hell For Leather:

The RSV4 R is not Japanese. It will not make a beginning rider feel like Superman.  it will make them feel like a meek nerd who gets sand kicked in their face.

In other words, if you don’t know how to ride–and well–it’s not a “fun” bike.  Hard to steer, stubborn handling, etc.  If you push it to the limit, however, it’s apparently a blast.  As long as you know what you’re doing.

Unfortunately, it seems that if you push it to the limit, other problems arise.  The press launch of the new bike had to be cut short when “five of the bikes suffered terminal con rod failures” out of the 30 pre-production models present.  This now gives Aprilia the number one spot in press launch fiascos, pushing ahead of Buell’s 2007 1125R press launch, where all the pre-production bikes had fuel mapping problems.  At least the Buells didn’t have to be deadlined, causing the event to be shut down.

Aprilia says they’ve traced it to a manufacturing fault, and that the production bikes will be just spiffy.

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2010 Honda VFR1200F First Ride

Since Motorcycle-USA’s Ken Hutchison was already in Japan for the Tokyo Motor Show, he was conveniently available to go out to the Sugo racetrack and hop aboard the new VFR1200F at the press demo.  In return, he’s provided us with a nice first ride review that’s pretty comprehensive.

I’m not going to steal his thunder by quoting extensively from his review, but I was interested to read this bit about the new Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT):

When riding the DCT bike it’s clear that the system is dialed in. There are two modes to can select from while on the fly, D-mode for regular or street riding and S-mode for sport riding. In D-mode the bike shifts well-before it starts making real power. Instead, it just chugs along, shifting gears and accelerating in a mellow manner in order to maximum fuel efficiency and minimize strain on the rider. Don’t be misled into thinking the auto clutch is a snoozer. In S-mode the motorcycle is as fun as the standard version. To my surprise the bike shifts in a very intuitive manner, making both up- and downshifts precisely and effectively on the track to the point where I was comfortable letting the bike do the work while I focused on enjoying myself on the winding, twisty Sugo race track. The VFR never initiated an unwanted shift, and yet if you don’t agree with the gear it chooses then simply select a different gear with the paddle shifter. The bike reverts to manual mode as soon as you intervene.

It’s interesting to see this, personally, because I ride a Yamaha FJR1300AE, the one with the YCC-S electric clutch system.  It operates similarly to the Manual” mode of the Honda DCT, but I’ve really developed a love/hate relationship with it, and I’m ready to go back to a standard transmission bike.

The YCC-S has its positive points.  Upshifts are generally speedy and so seamless you don’t even have to let up on the gas to shift.  It’s also nice in city commuting traffic.  But, it also has its problems.  Downshifts are slow, and require attention, because kicking the shift lever, or flicking the handlebar shifter doesn’t necessarily result in an instant downshift.  Or, sometimes, any downshift at all.

And the YCC-S really does want to try and kill you in parking lots.  The clutch engages/disengages at around 2500 RPM.  Or 2700.  Or 2300.  Whatever.  So, you often find yourself at slow speed, maneuvering into a parking lot when the clutch engages, and you lose all power to the rear wheel–which is not something you’re keen to happen when you’re leaning over at 5 MPH.

So, I’m curious about Honda’s DCT system.  It appears to work fine on the track, but I’m wondering how easy it is to live with when pulling into the local Albertson’s or Safeway.  My experience with the YCC-S makes me wonder if it’s really all that great.

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2009 Tokyo Motor Show

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Motorcycle-USA’s Ken Hutchison is at the Tokyo Motor Show this week, and he’s got a round-up of the show at MC-USA;s web site.  You can read it here.  I have.  What a bore-fest this thing sounds like.

Kawasaki’s not even there.  Harley-Davidson is there, but Buell Motorcycles make up a big part of their display, which makes them look sort of stupid.  Again.  I’m surprised they didn’t force Erik to go, and just stand there weeping publicly, while Harley executives bashed a couple of 1125Rs with sledgehammers.

Other than that, it sounds like everybody was showing off “Green power, maaaan!” and “Save the planet, maaaan!” technology.

Over at Yamaha the big presentation featured the ‘Art of Engineering’. In this philosophy the hot topics were the Smart Power scooter and bicycle-styled experimental vehicles on display in front of the true core of Yamaha’s business: The V-Max R1, Road Star cruiser, new YZ450F and, of course, the world-conquering YZR-M1 MotoGP machine.

Apparently everybody there was really agog over this:

Yamaha ECf
Yamaha ECf

Wow.  I just keep looking at it, because I keep trying to think of something I hate more.  And I can’t.

I have no doubt the Japanese love it, though.  They probably think it’d be a really fun way to wind down after finishing their latest rape comic.  Or maybe an easy way to zip home instead of being packed into the subway like sardines during their commute.  Just a silent, environmentally-friendly way to get home, followed by watching a TV game show that involves contestants sitting in freezing water while their testicles are crushed in an electric vice.

Yeah, the Japanese enjoy a lot of weird crap, so I bet they adore this monstrosity.

2010 Honda Furys

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Yes, I know that the plural of “fury” is “furies”, but I’m referring to the model name, not the state of rage, so the title is OK.  But, it is still plural, because Honda has added two new Fury models to accompany the original VT1300.

2010 Honda VT1300CR
2010 Honda VT1300CR

The VT1300CR is a more relaxed version of the Fury.  The handlebars are swept back more for a more relaxed rider stance. The front of the frame has been lowered as well, so that, while the extreme rake angle still juts that front tire way out in front, it’s got a less extreme chopper look than the high neck that the original Fury sports.  The fenders are bigger, and more sculpted, but the tires are smaller (and wider), moving from a 21″ front and 18″ rear to a 17″ front and 15″ rear.  They’ve also moved the speedometer onto the tank, instead of mounting it between the bars.

2010 Honda VT1300CS
2010 Honda VT1300CS

The VT1300CS is a shorter, thinner bike than the CR, with 4.72″ shaved off the wheelbase, and 5.8″ off the width.  It also has smaller, less flashy fenders, but, while it keeps the 15″ tire out back, it goes to a 21″ tire in front.  It still has the low neck of the CR model, but narrower, less pulled back handlebars.

I’m not a big fan of the Fury, in general, but I know a lot of people like them.  And my chick thinks they’re cute.  It’s also one of the few big-boy bikes she can actually pick up off the stand, and flatfoot when she gets it up.

But that boring old 1300cc VTX mill just doesn’t do it for me.  This really seems like a bike that screams for one of the Big Twins.

EICMA 2009

The big motorcycle show, Italy’s EICMA, will be happening in 20 days. Traditionally, this is a show that always brings some surprises for the new year.  So, what’s up this year?

Obviously, Aprilia will be rolling out the RSV4 and RSV4-R.  That’s a no-brainer.

BMW might be an interesting presence this year.  The rumors of what is going to happen with the R-Series bikes has been rampant, with everything from a new 1300cc boxer, to the 1200cc boxer getting an update with the 130HP DOHC motor ported from the HP2.  I’ve written about the GS getting that motor, but there are rumors that the whole R-series will be getting that upgrade as well, which would make both the GS and RT extremely attractive.  And with 130HP, the lighter-weight RT would approach the performance of the FJR, making it a true sport-tourer.  The 1300cc K bikes and the S1000RR are old news already, so the only conceivable surprise would come from a revamping of the R Bikes.

Ducati’s new 1200cc Multistrada and Hypermotard 796 will be there.  We’ve already seen the Hypermotard.  And we’ve seen the new Multistrada, too, except with lots of duct tape hiding the fairing.  The removal of the duct tape will be Ducati’s big event.

MV Agusta has had the same model lineup of two bikes–the F4 and Brutale–for the last decade.  This year looks to be a little different, however.  We’ve already seen the two new Brutale models, so, while they’ll no doubt be there, no one will care.  What we haven’t seen is the revamped F4, other than the teaser image MV released several days ago, So I expect that to be unveiled.  But what we really haven’t seen are the two entirely new models that have been rumored over the last month or so.  The 675cc triple that has shown up is spy shots, and the company’s new Superbike, which is expected to lead MV Agusta back to participation in WSS or WSBK racing.  We don’t even know if it’s a completely new model, or WSBK-compliant F4 model.  But, after a decade with the same old line-up, MV might be the surprise of the show this year.

Neither Honda now Yamaha will be there, which, in Honda’s case seems a bit odd, since their new VFR1200F has just debuted, and it’s supposed to be the basis for a whole new line of motorcycles from Big Red.  So, it seems strange that they won’t be at EICMA so show it off.

Triumph will be there, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the new Street Triple R show up, with its new black and gold paint scheme, reminiscent of the John Player Special motorsports paint scheme of beloved memory.

But, surprises aside, with thingsas bad in the motorcycle manufacturing and sales world as they are, it seems that this year will mostly be a low-key affair, which the absence of two of the Big Four won’t help.

BTW, I wonder if Harley-Davidson will be pulling the Buell 1125R from the show?

Motorcycle Sales: Dismal

The most recent sales figures for motorcycles don’t look good at all.  The industry is taking a shellacking unlike anything I’ve seen since ’81-82.  As of the third quarter of this year…

…motorcycle sales totaled just 434,370 so far this year, down from 771,950 in the first 9 months of 2008 for a drop of 337,580, which makes overall sales down 44%.

I wish i could say things were going to get better soon, but I don’t believe that to be the case.  For instance, take our current 9.8% unemployment rate.  If we counted employment stats like they did prior to 1973, that reading would actually be 17%.  Those are depression numbers.

And, speaking of the depression, everyone thought things were going to get better and better in 1931.  There was lots of happy talk about the economy, just like there is now. I’d like to think that’s as far as the parallel goes, but I wouldn’t bet money on it.

motorcycle sales totaled just 434,370 so far this year, down from 771,950 in the first 9 months of 2008 for a drop of 337,580, which makes overall sales down 44%.

Grasping at Straws?

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The announcement of Buell’s shut-down by Harley-Davidson is still spreading ripples through the motorcycle world.  But, closer to Buell’s home, city and county officials are looking into trying to save the Buell manufacturing facility–and the local jobs it supported–in Walworth County.

If Erik Buell is interested and able to participate in a new venture, the Walworth County group will explore further steps, including trying to talk with Harley and seeking potential investors, Burkhardt said.

“We’ve had very preliminary contact from an investment group out of the Chicago area and also out of the Minneapolis area,” he said.

They only face two hurdles.  First, no one at the Walworth County Economic Development Alliance has spoken to Erik Buell, so they have no idea if he’s even interested or available in working out such a deal.  Second, harley-Davidson doesn’t seem interested in having these sorts of discussion at all.  They just want to kill Buell.

Bob Klein, Harley’s director of corporate communications, reiterated that Harley is “discontinuing the Buell product line rather than selling the business because of how deeply integrated Buell is into our business systems and distribution network.”

That sounds…plausible.  But I don’t think it’s the whole truth. Indeed, it’s not even the same story that HD was spinning a few days ago.  Then, the decision to close Buell down was based on the very positive tax implications a shut-down would have, vice trying to sell the division.

And, while I certainly don’t want to assign impure motives to anyone at HD, there is a flavor of schadenfreude about the way the MoCo is handling this.  Maybe it’s my imagination, but I can’t escape the sense that there’s some secret glee in Milwaukee over getting rid of Buell.

But, whether its the tax code, or sheer viciousness, the Walworth County effort doesn’t look like one that’s destined for success at the moment.

If. Erik Buell is interested and able to participate in a new venture, the Walworth County group will explore further steps, including trying to talk with Harley and seeking potential investors, Burkhardt said.

“We’ve had very preliminary contact from an investment group out of the Chicago area and also out of the Minneapolis area,” he said.

Harley Davidson Kills Buell, To Sell MV Agusta

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I wish I could say I was surprised this morning to finally see the news made public that Harley-Davidson was going to sell MV Agusta, and shut down Buell’s operations.  But, I wasn’t.

Let’s address the MV Agusta deal first.  I never really understood exactly what the MoCo thought it was getting when it purchased MV and Cagiva.  Turns out I’m not alone in that, since apparently nobody at Harley-Davidson did either.  Cagiva was a financial basket case, and MV–though it had a glorious racing past and venerable reputation–had been reduced to a boutique maker of a small number of motorcycles.

And once HD had finished crowing about buying it, they proceeded to do…nothing.  No press releases.  No earth-shattering changes.  They just let it sort of sit there.  They owned it, but once they did, they didn’t seem to know what to do with it.  So now, they’re selling it at what is probably going to be a deeper discount than they purchased it for, so it seems like it was just a multi-million-dollar bath for Milwaukee.

Oh, well, it’ll make a nice write-off against tax, I’m sure.

As for Buell, I’ve already gotten into some detail in the post linked above as to why the MoCo had completely bungled the management of Buell.

A brief tour of BadWeb, the Buell biker forum, today shows that the Buellers are no more receptive to hearing bad news about the company–nor any more prone to think about it realistically–than they were last month when I wrote that my sources indicated to me that Buell was probably going to be shut down.

It’s full of fantasies about some sort of demonstration to make HD reverse its decision.  There also seem to be a number of analysts who write that this is an insane decision for the MoCo, because losing Buell will destroy Harley.

That’s just fantasy.  Quite apart from the fact that Harley is doing a fine job of destroying itself by confining itself to an aging customer base, the fact is that Harley killed Buell a long time ago through their mismanagement of the brand.  Killing Buell is a symptom of HD’s problem, not the cause of it.

The company says they are doing this to concentrate on their brand, by which I assume they mean continuing to market even more aggresively to their shrinking, aging customer base.  As one industry wag put it to to me today, “How many more 52 year-olds looking for their first bike can they find?”

As far as Buell contributing much to harley financially, well, that’s just absurd.

In 2008, HD’s annual report states that they sold $313.8m in general merch, making up 5.6% of corporate revenues. Buell Motorcycles, on the other hand, made $123.2m in revenues, or 2.2% of corporate revenues. According to the company 10k statement for 2008, Buell accounted for 4,000 of HD’s 222,200 motorcycle registrations. Of the 686 HD dealerships in 2008, more than half of them don’t even sell Buells.

In other words, Buell accounted for 0.2% of HD motorcycle sales, and the MoCo made twice as much money selling orange dog scarves and rhinestone belts for girls than from the sale of Buell motorcycles.

So, the idea that keeping Buell motorcycles will make up for…well…anything at Harley Davidson is so at variance with the actual facts as to qualify as sheer fantasy. Let’s not pretend that Buell has either the user base or financial performance to rank as a serious part of Harley Davidson.

I guess it does show, though, that some people personalize their motorcycle brand very deeply.

I guess my take-away for those people is that sometimes, when people write negative things about your favorite motorcycle brand, it’s not because they hate it.  Sometimes, they write it because it’s true.

Just something to think about.

In 2008, HD’s annual report states that they sold $313.8m in general merch, making up 5.6% of corporate revenues. Buell Motorcycles, on the other hand, made $123.2m in revenues, or 2.2% of corporate revenues. According to the company 10k statement for 2008, Buell accounted for 4,000 of HD’s 222,200 motorcycle registrations. Of the 686 HD dealerships in 2008, more than half of them don’t even sell Buells.

So, the idea that Buell motorcycles will make up for…well…anything at Harley Davidson is so at variance with the actual facts as to qualify as sheer fantasy. Let’s not pretend that Buell has either the user base or financial performance to rank as a serious part of Harley Davidson.