Memorable MC Bridgestone Hurricane

February 18, 2009
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Bridgestone Hurricane
A very sophisticated bike for its time but the bottom line would ultimately end Bridgestone’s motorcycle branch.

I must confess that I have a problem with riders who go around calling bikes, “She” and “Her”. No one in the galaxy is more passionate about their bike than I am about our Matchless G.50 – my winner for the second year running of MCUSA’s Bike of the Year competition – but I still don’t want to take it to bed for a night of passion.

So that’s my inviolable rule, but the Bridgestone Hurricane Scrambler is the one motorcycle which would get me to break it. The “Hurricane” is the Cocker Spaniel puppy of the bike world – all big smiles, heart-meltingly cute face, gleaming fur and just so, so, so willing to please. You just want to sit on the couch with a cup of coffee and stroke it whilst you watch “On Any Sunday” for the thirty-five-thousandth time.

Like the Cocker Spaniel the Hurricane is a keen worker too and will do everything its looks promise – and more.

The trade name Bridgestone comes from an Anglicization of the firm’s founder’s name, Shojiro Ishibashi. Translated into English, Mr. Ishibashi’s name is “Stone Bridge”.

Mr. Ishibashi was Japan’s first manufacturer of rubber-soled footwear and began mass production in 1925. After the Second World War, Bridgestone began making a massive range of rubber products – and the success of a nascent motorcycle industry caught their attention, probably because they were already significant bicycle manufacturers.

The first Bridgestones were ultra lightweight, 26cc motorized bicycles feeding post-war Japan’s need for practical commuter vehicles. By 1964 things had changed with Bridgestone producing a range of high quality lightweight motorcycles. With the closure of the Tohatsu and Lilac factories, Bridgestone found themselves in the position of being able to employ clever, experienced designers who would set the benchmark for innovation.

The Tohatsu engineers in particular had a major influence on the development of Bridgestone motorcycles. Although now almost an unknown name, Tohatsu (Tokyo Hatsudoki) held 3% of the Japanese domestic motorcycle market in 1961. Tohatsu was a cutting edge manufacturer and made the world’s only production 50cc twin-cylinder road race machines as well as a gorgeous, disc-valved, twin-cylinder 125cc racer. When the factory folded in February 1964 it was on the point of launching a full blown Grand Prix effort headed by Englishman Dave Simmonds – who later went on to win Kawasaki’s first ever World Championship in 1969. Tohatsu’s loss was Bridgestone’s gain.

Bridgestone Hurricane
While easy to keep running, the production of these special motors were costly compared to conventional piston.

Bridgestone’s idea was to fill a niche in the market place for a premium quality, lightweight motorcycle. Nothing would be spared in terms of design or quality of parts. Drawing on Tohatsu’s race experience, the factory manufactured a series of sophisticated disc-valved motors. These engines were far more efficient than the piston port engines produced by Suzuki and Yamaha which wasted much of the charge in each cycle because the inlet and exhaust ports opened at the same time.

On a rotary valve engine, the port timing can be asymmetrical which gives much better combustion. This efficiency can be used to make the motor produce more power or, in the case of road bike, better fuel efficiency and more torque.

The chrome cylinder bores – a first on a production street bike – were also a direct lift from racing and provided exemplary heat transfer and also a very useful weight saving.

However, a disc-valve engine is potentially wide – because the carburetors feed straight into the sides of the crankcase – and it takes clever engineering to ensure that the motor is not disconcertingly tubby across its waistline. Bridgestone did this beautifully.

The engines were bomb-proof with roller, needle, and ball bearings used in such profusion that they were up to the same standard as full blown race bikes. Unlike European engines of the day, which still required the rider to pre-mix the oil in the fuel, the Bridgestone engines had reliable automatic lubrication: keep plenty of two-stroke oil in the tank and the motor would run forever.

If there ever was a problem, the power-plants were simple and cheap to repair: truly, engines which covered every base except one – they were much more expensive to manufacture than piston port engines.

Bridgestone Hurricane
Racing quality brakes were just one of the many standard features.

The cycle parts on all Bridgestones were a whole order of magnitude better than anything else on sale at the time. Interestingly, if one visits classic shows today many bikes have been grossly over restored and the only bikes which were up to the standard of these show bikes straight from the production line were were Bridgestones! Everything about the bikes absolutely oozed quality from the superb paintwork to the state of the art brakes. Quite simply, you couldn’t buy a better finished production bike.

Twin leading shoe brakes were the best available at the time and the Hurricane carried a neat little 6-inch unit on the front which was right up to racing standards.

In 1970, motocross in the USA was still in its infancy and a lot of riders fancied the “Scrambler” look – no doubt in the sadly optimistic hope that they would be the next Steve McQueen. Bizarrely, some riders even took bikes like the Hurricane at face value and tried to ride off-road with them. This was a seriously optimistic view of life because the little 177cc engine gave only 20 hp and this came at 8,000 rpm. Let the revs drop much below 4,000 rpm and the motor would bog down.

However, there was a race version available for the serious Bridgestone fans and this bike dominated the lightweight class at drag races all over the US and even won at Daytona.

With all this quality and performance, why isn’t Bridgestone still up there with Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha? The myth is that the big Japanese manufacturers met the Bridgestone management in a dark, smoke filled Tokyo bar and warned that they would stop using Bridgestone tires if the factory continued making bikes. The bike manufacturers’ Yakuza hit men stubbed out their cigarettes on the foreheads of the poor Bridgestone execs and bike manufacturing stopped forthwith.

It’s a really good story but sadly, like all the best tales, it’s pure myth. Bridgestone bikes suffered from high prices and a very poor distribution network. In Britain, they were sold nationwide through just one dealer – and he was primarily a Honda main agent. Many countries did not even have a single agent.

Bridgestone Hurricane
The Bridgestone Hurricane was truely a high quality bike, but the price and dealer network would ultimately spell the end of Bridgestone motorcycles.

They were also expensive too. A 350 Bridgestone was only slightly cheaper in price than the big, sexy, and high status 650cc Triumph Bonneville. Everyone wanted Bridgestone sophistication and quality – but few riders wanted to pay for it. That’s the same story which killed off Brough, Vincent and Munch.

However, the crunch was quite simply factory space. Manufacturing bikes took up valuable space which could be used for making tires and so they were chopped. No gangsters, no secret meetings, no threats in plain brown envelopes: quite simply a lack of square feet on a factory floor.

Riding a Hurricane today is still a big thrill and, if you are prepared to tolerate a dire shortage of spare parts, owning a Bridgestone has got to be at the top of the classic motorcycling tree.