Invention and insanity make cosy bedfellows
From Cyril's memoirs dated 27 August 2005
Ah, innovation! Motorcycles have often led the way in the search for more power, less weight and greater efficiency and the man in the street is lucky enough to be presented with the polished result of many years' research (there are some dishonourable exceptions, of course, such as Morbidelli's hilarious V8 and poor old Bimota's ill-judged V-Due). But over the years I've seen great men brought to their knees by the immense strain of research and development, and I’ve witnessed projects which, frankly, can only have been the fruit of troubled minds.
You may remember me telling you of Peter Cartwright, he of shaven dog and V5 lawnmower infamy. Well, on release from psychiatric hospital Peter was, for many years, shunned by the motorcycle industry and he hit rock bottom, his considerable engineering skills pitifully wasted in the sewage industry. However, in 1986 Peter won a Guild of Mechanical Engineers competition to develop an alternatively-fuelled power unit, the winning engine to be fitted in a new Honda-designed road bike. This was an exciting project for Peter, but I’m sorry to say that the results were predictably disastrous.
Things seemed to start well enough, but when no one had heard from him for a month, and following complaints from neighbours about the smell, police broke down the door to Peter's semi-detached house in Crawley. They were driven back by the stench and flies. Years in the sewage industry had influenced Peter’s thinking in a shockingly direct manner and, convinced he could create an engine to run on gases produced by composting human faeces, he’d got himself into
rather a mess.
Never the tidiest of workers, much of Peter’s carpets and walls were smeared in his ‘wonder fuel’. His own body’s production being insufficient for his experiments, health inspectors found what can only be described as an innovative but ultimately rather disturbing ‘turd catcher’ installed in the manhole in his garden so as to harvest his neighbours' motions. Dear oh dear. Peter still writes to me from his secure accommodation, but I've always handled the letters carefully since he will insist on using a distinctive brown ink.
And Yamaha's Deltabox chassis, now deservedly an icon, had a painful development. Though the history books show the preliminary Alphabox and Gammabox frames, we never hear of the mysterious Betabox. And with good reason. The Betabox shunned early work on a perimeter frame in aluminium and instead looked to do away with metals altogether, favouring modern plastics (though we're talking modern by early 1980s standards). Barry Sheene, a skilled mechanic and development rider, was involved in the first serious tests of the Betabox chassis at a secret session at Pau in France. When the engine reached full working temperature the plastic frame, while not exactly melting, certainly became worryingly pliable, bending alarmingly. By the time the bike returned to the pits it resembled a pregnant sow, its midriff sagging until the belly pan was almost on the floor. Sheene dismounted and summed up the future of the Betabox in his beautifully direct style, saying, "The Betabox? It’s not even stiff enough to f*** the designer up the arse with it." Barry had a great way with words.
Then there was the time a certain German manufacturer experimented with a new type of seat foam for extra comfort over long distances. However, it turned out that this foam, a by product of the sap of the South American quilombo tree, gave the 20-strong team of test riders such a fearful rash and inflammation 'down below' that it was branded the sitzenscrotenscratchenbloten (how do those Germans keep it so succinct?). Once the testers were released from the clinic they made a ceremonial bonfire out of all the known saddles and topped it off with an effigy of the seat’s chief designer. However, the intended celebratory atmosphere was rather tempered by the fact that everyone was still rather sore and those not hobbling about with an exaggerated John Wayne gait were sat on medical rings filled with cooling gel. Add to that a blaring soundtrack of the finest German heavy metal and I have to say it’s not the best barbecue I’ve ever been to.
Finally, I must mention the ill-fated Ariel Aqua-Skoot. Oh yes, wet bikes and jet skis are now commonplace, but when Edward Jones took to Coniston Water on a June morning in 1955 he was breaking new ground. Unfortunately, he also broke his neck in an effort to control the 500lb monster as, taking on water at a disastrous rate and the 600cc four-stroke twin revving to the heavens, it careered towards a family picnicking on the shore. His shrieks warned them in time, but the impact of his face with the family-sized pork pie was such that he had to be formerly identified by a tattoo of Norman Wisdom on his right buttock. Mind you, a by-product of the research into the Aqua-Skoot can be found today in the weather-proof seal used under the starter button on Suzuki’s GSX-R1000. So old Eddy’s death wasn’t completely in vain.