The 10 Worst Motorcycle Innovations

For every great idea in motorcycling – disc brakes, electric starting, ABS, traction control and so on – there have been dozens of blind alleys that the manufacturers have gone down in an effort to bring something different and potentially game-changing to motorcycling. Some have been genuinely bad, while others deserved to catch on but, for whatever reason, failed to make the impact their inventors hoped. Many of these innovations have been attached to motorcycles that were otherwise great and, thankfully, they didn’t ruin them but were quietly dropped when no-one was looking.

10 Roofs

BMW C1 publicity shot

How do you protect a motorcyclist from the elements and accident injury? Leave the bike and drive a car would be the logical answer but far too many engineers have decided that that is too simple and so have tried to reinvent the motorcycle to incorporate a roof. The BMW C1 is the highest-profile example and the increased safety aspect can’t be denied, with seat belts strapping you into the car-type seat and the roof protecting you from the worst of any rain falling, although not as effective with spray from other road vehicles. Other examples featured fully-enclosing bodywork with either stabilizers or gyroscopes to keep the thing upright when at a standstill. It all seems a bit unnecessary, really when someone has already invented a fully-enclosed passenger vehicle that can stand on its own.

9 Under Seat Exhausts

Side profile of red Ducati 916

Looked at today, when the emphasis in motorcycle design is on mass centralization, the thought of locating heavy exhaust mufflers high up and far back underneath the seat seems incomprehensible. Not only does it create a nightmare of exhaust header routing involving far more tubing than is necessary and adding a ton of unnecessary weight, you are also placing large, hot items right underneath the seat: who ever thought that was a good idea? Blame the Honda NR750 for bringing the layout into the mainstream, Ducati for placing them on an iconic and influential motorcycle and the rest of the motorcycle world for perpetuating the design folly for at least ten years in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

8 Single-Sided Swing Arms

Honda NC30 showing off its single sided swing arm

Honda ‘invented’ the single-sided swing arm for its RC30 model, in order to speed up wheel changes in endurance racing which, you have to admit, is a bit of neat thinking. The problem is that a single-sided design has to be a lot bulkier and heavier than its dual-sided relative if it is to provide the same stiffness. Ducati notably copied Honda’s idea for the 916 but the fact that it reverted to a double-sided swing arm for the 999 speaks volumes, only to be forced to revert to a single-sided unit for subsequent models because the public demanded it and, let’s be honest, they do look absolutely fantastic!

7 Shrouded Disc Brakes

Honda CBX550F2 with shrouded disc brakes

Honda really does seem to have too much time on its hands if the number of blind alleys it has gone down are to be believed. Not content with equipping the 1969 CB750 with the first production motorcycle front disc brake, Honda then set about trying to make it better. Because disc brakes are completely exposed, that means they can get wet when it rains, which reduces the braking performance. By completely shrouding them, Honda hoped to overcome this problem but all they managed to do was create more problems: the brakes were prone to overheating and a complete nightmare to service. The idea was quietly dropped after a couple of years.

6 Turbos

Honda CX500 Studio shot

While a good idea for cars – boosting the performance of small displacement diesel engines and pepping up other small-engined cars, too little performance was never really a problem for motorcycles, unless it was designed specifically to be slow. The Japanese ‘Big Four’ manufacturers all tried to keep up with each other in the 1980s by bolting on turbochargers to really boring models, such as the Honda CX500/650 or the Yamaha XJ650T. The thing is, they didn’t really offer any advantage and were heavy and installation was complex, while turbo lag was always a problem: you really don’t need a large gob of power coming in when cranked over in a corner and neither do you want nothing when attempting to power out of a corner. The fact that there are no turbocharged motorcycle engines today tells you all you need to know about the idea.

5 Hub-Centre Steering

A static shot of the Bimota Tesi H2 on the shore

Despite their excellence after years of development, sliding telescopic forks are not a very elegant engineering solution: getting one component to handle suspension and steering duties will mean there is always a compromise in how well the fork can do both at the same time. In addition, the fork compresses under braking, compromising its ability to suspend and absorb road undulations and, as it compresses, it alters the chassis geometry. On paper, hub-center steering and the attendant swing-arm front suspension layout is much, much better but, despite several manufacturers trying it (and some continuing to use it), it has never caught on. Because of the linkage from handlebar to wheel, the steering can feel vague and imprecise, with reduced lock, while weight is increased as is the cost. Telescopic forks might be inferior from an engineering point of view, but we’re not likely to see the back of them any time soon.

4 The Safety Sphere

A spectacularly ridiculous idea conceived by Canadian engineer Réjean Néron. Obviously inspired by automobile airbags and James Bond, the idea was that, in the event of a sensor sensing that you are about to fall off your bike, you will be instantly surrounded by an inflated ball which will protect you. Now, while we accept that sliding uncontrollably down the road isn’t the best thing, it’s better than rolling uncontrollably into oncoming traffic or down a hill or off the edge of a cliff, all the time having no idea where exactly you are going from within your opaque cocoon.

3 Pillion Seat Straps

Motorcycle pillion strap

We can’t be the only ones who wondered what those straps on the pillion seat are for. Turns out they are for the pillion passenger to hold onto to prevent themselves falling off – a grab handle, if you like. It would be an admirable idea but for the fact that they simply don’t – and can’t – work. First of all, have you ever tried to shove your hands down between your thighs when sitting on the back of a bike? Then, have you tried to take a hold of the strap with gloved hands? If you do manage this, then the siting of the strap means you have absolutely no leverage on the strap and, even if you did, it feels as if one good tug will break it free of its mountings. No wonder you’ve never, ever, seen anyone using them as the makers intended.

2 Vibrating Cheek Pads

Vibrating helmet cheek pads for motorcycles

Blind-Spot Detection systems are becoming popular on motorcycles as electronics become ever more sophisticated, with warnings being flashed up on the rear-view mirrors, right in the rider’s eye line. Good idea, that. However, an early system replaced warning lights with – wait for it – vibrating pads that sit against the cheek inside your helmet, which were activated by a sensor sensing an object in your blind spot. How any rider would not be fatally distracted by something vibrating against their skull was apparently never considered which is a bit of an oversight, especially as it was set off even as an overtaken car or truck disappeared behind you and posed no threat.

1 Rotary Engines

Suzuki RE5 brochure showing bike in red, facing left

On paper, like so many of the ideas on this list, a rotary engine is perfect for a motorcycle: compact, light, simple and powerful – every engineers dream, in fact. However, a rotary engine is also prone to overheating so needs complex cooling solutions, which means cost and weight. They are also not very fuel efficient and, like a two-stroke, produce a lot of emissions from the tail pipe. Norton had its last day of glory when its rotary-engined 588 racing bike won the 1992 Senior TT on the Isle of Man against all the odds and this produced a wave of favorable sentiment among British motorcycle enthusiasts but, in reality, the 588 sunk any chance of Norton surviving. If only they’d taken a good look at the failure of Suzuki’s rotary-powered RE5, motorcycling history of the 1990s onwards might have been very different.


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