In a time where consumers are repeatedly accusing the motorcycle industry of a lack of innovative design, let’s look at some of the best motorcycle inventions that the public just wasn’t ready for. Like it or not, the motorcycle industry and their top designers have been trying to evolve the humble motorcycle since the first engine sputtered into life, but the general buying public isn’t always up for new ideas. Think of the how stagnant the design of modern sport bikes has become – because not a lot has changed over the last decade – and that’s more down to consumer buying habits rather than a lack of design evolution.
Think of Yamaha’s new bold and bizarre Niken three-wheeler: powered by the FZ-09 engine that we already know and love, Yamaha have injected a bit of intrigue into the design by bolting two wheels on the front. And the general reaction is “No. Just no,” and that’s without many of us giving it a chance. It looks like it’s a blast to ride and could help make motorcycling more accessible to a wider range of people. But nah, it’s just too different – so the idea will probably fade into obscurity, no matter how good it actually is or was.
While we would heartily encourage any rider with a passion for motorcycles to give the Yamaha Niken a test ride before they pass judgement, we know that we can’t reach everyone. However, what we can do is show off a list featuring some of the best motorcycle inventions of the past that never managed to go mainstream. Some of these weren’t viable from day one, some of them were just ahead of their time – but there are a few that should’ve been taken on board at the time but the world just wasn’t ready for them. So, without further ado, here are 10 examples of forward thinking motorcycle technology that just never took off.
Motorcycle Inventions That The World Wasn’t Ready For
Wankel Rotary Engine Motorcycles
There are two reasons why the Wankel rotary engine should have been an important step in the motorcycle industry: firstly, the Wankel rotary engine itself offers incredibly smooth power delivery thanks to the lack of pistons and shoots out massive power figures from its small size; secondly, if you’ve got a basic grasp of British English, you’ll know that the word “Wankel” is a comedy gift that keeps on giving. Despite those two excellent reasons, the Wankel rotary engine was a motorcycle invention that was doomed to fail, but it didn’t go down without a fight. There was a Suzuki Wanker motorcycle, and Norton also managed to get their Wankels to production, and Yamaha had Kawasaki made working prototypes, but despite their best efforts, the weird three sided rotor piston-thingy was never destined to hit the big time. And now because of stricter emissions laws, they probably never will, either.
Well, automatic transmission isn’t exactly a wild innovation, but it has failed to evolve into any significant in the motorcycle industry…Sure, we’ve got no shortage of 125cc twist and go mopeds, and there are a couple of big boy maxi scooters, but when you think of an automatic motorcycle – thinking of “motorcycle” in the conventional sense of the word – then there aren’t many options to choose from. Despite how convenient and user friendly an automatic transmission is, very few motorcyclists are convinced. We’ve written up about automatic motorcycles before and it seems like the most popular automatic on the list is the Honda CTX, which gives riders the option of having an automatic or semi-automatic gearbox to play with, and it seems like having the option to manually shift gears is what makes it more appealing than the rest of the bikes on the list. That’s before we even get started on electric motorcycles either. By nature, most electric motorcycle are automatic thanks to their direct drive electric motors – and that bothers a lot of traditional motorcyclists. Some manufacturers are even adding conventional gear-selecting options to try and appease the purists…Automatics definitely don’t have many fans in the United States, despite the logic behind their design.
Ah, hub-center steering: the most enduring piece of motorcycle technology that never seems to take off – no matter how many concept designers and CGI wizards try to make it a thing. If you want to draw up a concept that ticks all of the right boxes, you’d better make damn sure that it has hub-center steering. It’ll never be made anyway, so why not? It has been tried, it has been proven, and amazingly it really works and works well, but it has never caught on. Even though telescopic forks are fine, designers have desperately tried to sing the praises of the hub-center arrangement and sounding off on the benefits of separating suspension and braking. It’s too wild anyway. Let’s be honest, we all like looking at the Bimota Tesi, but we’d never actually buy one, would we?
Single Front Forks
Here’s another classic concept motorcycle “repeat offender,” – the single sided front fork. Like a single rear shock, or a single sided swing arm, the lonely mono-fork arrangement can work just as effectively as its double sided brethren, and it can look the part too. In fact, some manufacturers have taken the idea from concept to prototype, and some companies have even gone all the way to production. For the former, think of Honda’s NAS concept, or Suzuki’s Crosscage…but for the latter, the real production machines, the oddball Gilera CX125 has to be the textbook example of weirdness. As far as crazy motorcycle technology experiments go, the mono-fork isn’t that outlandish but there really isn’t much point to it either.
Yep, active suspension – not to be confused with semi-active suspension that everyone’s going crazy for at the moment. There’s quite a big difference between the two, and it’s easy to get confused but here’s the real crux of the issue: Semi-active suspension and similar motorcycle accessories that you’ve seen in action on bikes like the Kawasaki ZX-10RR or Honda’s CBR1000RR SP models isn’t much like active suspension at all. Semi-active suspension uses old fashioned mechanical parts like springs and dampers that get adjusted and altered to adapt to the conditions – it’s always a step behind. Real “active” suspension that really improves your motorcycle stability control and handling first appeared back in the 80s in Formula 1 and it could’ve been awesome had it not been banned from racing. You see, active suspension uses hydraulics or electromagnets to literally lift a wheel to help reduce the shock of a road disturbance, rather than reacting to the road conditions. At the time, it wasn’t a technology that could’ve translated well onto two wheels because it was a bit too bulky, but with time and effort it could’ve revolutionized motorcycling. It was a conceptual hit though, as you can see here on this old Suzuki Falcorustyco design idea.
Two-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, no matter what you want to call it it’s one of the most interesting motorcycle inventions out there – but there are surprisingly few manufacturers taking the idea seriously. Four-wheel drive is all over the car industry, but for some reason it’s not a practical thing in the bike world. Many of the big manufacturers have toyed with the idea – Suzuki dabbled for a while and Yamaha even came up with a cool hydraulic 2WD system that went to production in the form of the WR450F 2-Trac – but it was never taken seriously enough to succeed. It’s a surprise, because we’ve seen many a rider with their rear tire bogged down in the mud, or spinning up on grass and getting nowhere thanks to zero-traction… While the public may not care, the military have seen the value of 2WD two-wheels, and companies like Christini have filled the niche with conversion kits – but they’re hardly an everyday thing. As far as motorcycle inventions go, this one should be a mainstream thing. With the advent of decent electric motorcycles with adaptable electric motors, maybe the 2WD will resurface again in the near future?
Rim Mounted Brake Rotors
What about disc brakes that mounted to the rim? While they’re not the sexiest or more exotic motorcycle inventions out there, there’s a lot to be celebrated about the rim mounted brake arrangement. Erik Buell agrees. In fact, both companies that bore his name produced motorcycles with that unusual set up, and there’s a good reason for it: if you’ve got a bike that goes fast, you’re going to want brake discs with a larger diameter for better leverage, right? By mounting the disc to the rim and putting the caliber on the interior of the ring, you’ve got an ideal braking setup, with more surface area providing improved braking stability control. Unfortunately, Erik Buell was the only real champion of the rim-mounted disc cause, and since the EBR dream is dead and buried it’s unlikely to make a resurgence anytime soon…despite how good the idea is. Chalk this one up as one of those good inventions that never made it.
Direct Injection Two-Strokes
Talking of resurgences and comebacks, how about direct injection two-strokes? For many riders, there’s nothing quite like that ring-ding-ding of a good old fashioned two-stroke. They were fast, cheap, a blast to ride…but not that good for the environment – and because of that reason, they’ve been phased out. Sure, there are still a few manufacturers making a couple of models, but the two-stroke dream pretty much died. Some enterprising marques toyed with direct injection systems, which injected the fuel into the engine after the exhaust port closed, making them about as clean as a four-stroke engine…but even thanks to that awesome idea, the two-stroke still faded away. While there are still some direct injection models out there, they are few and far between. However, that may all change. KTM recently unveiled their plans to produce modern, direct injection two-stroke engines for their new motorcycles. With KTM flying the flag, the humble two-stroke may ride again. This is the top of the list of motorcycle inventions that need to be made – and we truly wish it to succeed.
Cameras Instead Of Mirrors
Using cameras instead of mirrors is another one of those ideas that has long been proposed but never managed to gain traction. In fact, Norton have tried to make this a thing over and over again, and they’re even going to have another go at it with their new V4 superbike. While Norton mentioned that their new motorcycles will come with cameras rather than mirrors, we’re not entirely sure they’re going to be able to make that plan a reality. From a legal standpoint, most governments like their vehicles to have mirrors, so unless the rules change we should expect mirrors to be present rather than fancy cameras. Cameras are cool, but they’re not particularly cheap when compared to a good old mirror – and they’re more difficult to use too. A camera requires constant adjustment to give the clearest picture, and they’re not as simple to re-position should you need to adjust your field of view in a hurry. That’s not to say that they won’t be one of the biggest motorcycle accessories on the market in the near future, but the legislation has to change first. If this new motorcycle technology improves motorcycle safety, then we hope it takes off. Mirrors like these, and adaptive headlights, are the latest motorcycle trends that will probably be mainstream in the future.
Putting a turbocharger on your motorcycle isn’t exactly ground breaking, and the turbocharger is hardly the most interesting of motorcycle inventions, it’s not as popular as you’d think, from a manufacturer’s point of view that is. Hopefully, Suzuki are going to drag motorcycle turbocharging technology into the 21st century with their elusive Recursion project (or GSX-700T if rumors are to be believed). While we’re waiting for the rebirth of the turbo motorcycle, let’s look at some of the models that existed before but never quite made it. There was the Honda CX500 or CX650 Turbo models, Kawasaki had the legendary GPz750 Turbo, Suzuki championed their XN85 Turbo model, and Yamaha countered with the XJ650 Turbo…As you can see, the Japanese thought that going turbo was the future – but that was back in the mid-80s. Unfortunately, the turbocharged dream never really survived past the end of that magical decade and apart from a few fringe models it was all quiet on the turbo front. Fast forward to the present day, and Suzuki may very well be re-igniting our hopes for a turbocharged future…