Backmarker: Old Meets New at 2011 Isle of Man

June 2, 2011
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Peter Gagans 1911 Indian replica is based off the design that won the first Senior race at the Isle of Man and will be piloted by Dave Roper at the upcoming 2011 event.
Peter Gagan’s 1911 Indian replica is based off the design that won the first Senior race at the Isle of Man and will be piloted by Dave Roper at the upcoming 2011 event.

TT Notes: Something Old, Something New

When Dave Roper leads off the TT’s Lap of Honor this year, he’ll have his work cut out for him staying ahead of the pack. Not because he’s slow by any means; he’s an ex-TT winner in his own right, and almost certainly one of the fastest riders of bikes ‘of a certain age’. But the hand-shift 1911 Indian he’s riding will be a good fifty years older than the average bike in the field. It’s a replica of the one used by Oliver Godfrey to win the first Senior race over the Mountain course.

The Indian belongs to Peter Gagan, a 71 year-old Canadian living in Vancouver who told me, “I’ve always been involved with old bikes.” Peter bought a 1912 Indian when he was 15 years-old. He figures he’s owned about 150 bikes over the years, and that his 52-year membership in the Antique Motorcycle Club of America makes him the longest-surviving member. “I can’t ride it in the parade myself,” he told me, “because the riders have to have raced on the Mountain Course.” That’s why Roper got the call.

Peter has been mulling over the idea of building a replica of one of the TT bikes for quite some time. “Lots of people have built up eight-valve board-track racers,” he told me, “but no one had taken a poke at a TT bike.” Over the years, he built up an archive of photos and technical information about those Indians. Even though they were works bikes, they were made up out of mostly stock parts, the difference was that the parts were configured in a nearly-unique combination.

Dave Roper will have a lot to contend with as he rides Gagans 1911 Indian  including a left-hand throttle  a clutch lever on the right handlebar  a hand shift and two rear brakes.
Dave Roper (pictured) will have a lot to contend with as he rides Gagan’s 1911 Indian, including a left-hand throttle, a clutch mounted on the right, a hand shift and two rear brakes. Anyone who has ridden one of these turn of these bikes will tell you, it is no small feat. Let alone race the IOM TT.
Dave Roper: Being invited to lap in the Parade of Honor sounds like great fun  but this is more like lapping the course while simultaneously rubbing your stomach and patting your head!
The original Indian motocycle logo; the company dates itself to before wed even settled on the spelling of the word motorcycle.

In 1911, Indian made a big twin that displaced 1,000cc and which came with a two-speed gearbox. The company also made a 596cc little twin that was built to a price and had a single speed. Interestingly, at the time the Senior rules allowed 585cc multis to compete with the 500 singles, as singles were considered to have the advantage. (In the days of automatic intake valves, larger cylinders had more suction, and the system worked better. With the development of mechanically opened intakes, a fairly new thing in 1911, that advantage disappeared.) In order to make the little twin eligible for the race, Indian sleeved the motors down. About 12 years ago, Peter found just such a little twin motor and a two-speed box for sale at the Banbury Run swap meet in the UK. He took the motor back to Canada and set about tightening the loop of a 1911 big twin frame so that it would fit the smaller motor. TT rules specified that all bikes racing on the Mountain had to have two brakes. Most entrants put a brake on the front wheel, but Indian built a wider, double-brake rear hub. It worked so well that it became standard fitment the following year. Peter widened the rear fork of his 1911 frame to fit a 1912 rear hub. The race bikes had a dropped handlebar, and the gearshift was located closer to the steering head, where it would be easier to reach in a racing crouch.

Gagan, a Canadian, has arranged for an American to ride his bike on the Isle of Man, which is a bit of a weird triangle but it’s perhaps appropriate. In 1911, Indian’s assault on the Mountain was led by Jake de Rosier, an American board track ace who was born in Canada.

De Rosier began his career as a bicycle racer, and then became the first highly paid works rider, racing for Indian on board tracks across America. He was favored to win the TT, and arrived on the island well in advance to practice. He crashed heavily two or three times, and was knocked cold at Waterworks. Despite that rocky start, his 46-minute opening lap was impressive. In the end, though, he had tire and mechanical problems, and later was disqualified for outside assistance.

Luckily, Billy Wells (the U.K. Indian importer) had arranged for three more bikes for his own British riders, Oliver Godfrey, Franklin, and Moorhouse. They finished 1-2-3. Charlie Franklin followed de Rosier back to the U.S. He became Indian’s chief designer and went on to create the Model 101 Scout.

Also at the 2011 Isle of Man TT will be Lennon Rodgers MIT EV team  which developed an electric motorcycle for the competition out of a S1000RR chassis.
Also at the 2011 Isle of Man TT will be Lennon Rodgers’ MIT EV team, which developed an electric motorcycle for the competition out of a BMW S1000RR chassis.

“I want to jump on it as soon as I get there,” Dave told me. “I need some practice riding it, because it has a left-hand throttle and a right hand twistgrip for the ignition retard and valve lifter. It has a hand clutch lever on the right handlebar, a hand shift, and while it has no front brake it has two rear brakes; it remains to be seen how effective either of them are. It’s also likely that I’ll have to adjust the carb on the fly.”

Being invited to lap in the Parade of Honor sounds like great fun, but this is more like lapping the course while simultaneously rubbing your stomach and patting your head!

“Both Godfrey and Franklin averaged 47 miles an hour for the five laps of the TT in 1911,” Dave continued. “So I imagine that they must have hit 75 or so. On the one hand, that’s fast enough to put on a show for the fans, but on the other hand, it’s fast enough to get hurt.” Dave told me that he’s been studying old photos to put together a period look that offers a modicum of protection. Jake DeRosier rode in form-fitting tights, which are definitely out of the question. But Charles Franklin rode in a double-breasted leather jacket, which would be a possibility. Godfrey raced in a wool pullover, which Dave might emulate, while wearing low-profile leathers underneath. He asked a friend at Arai if they’d consider painting an open-faced lid to look like a leather helmet. Arai also makes a leather-covered lid for equestrian use, and that may be a possibility too.

Dave Roper  left  and Lennon Rodgers  right  will be competing with radically different technologies over the mountain course.
Dave Roper (left) and Lennon Rodgers (right) will be competing with radically different technologies over the mountain course.
Peter Gagans 1911 Indian contrasted with Lennon Rodgers MIT EV project.

Indian put its victory in the 1911 TT to good use in marketing campaigns, and in fact the next couple of years were the wigwam’s best, in terms of units sold. Hendee, however, pushed Hedstrom to make an even more technologically advanced bike with electric lights and an electric starter. That may have contributed to Hedstrom leaving the wigwam. The ‘electric’ bike was a disaster and within a couple of years, Hendee had been pushed out of his own company.

Although Dave may ride Peter Gagan’s Indian on Manx roads before the parade lap, he plans to do most of his shakedown riding at Jurby, on the northwest side of the Island, where there is a disused RAF airfield. It’s open to TT teams in the days leading up to the TT fortnight. He’ll have the oldest bike there, and my friend Lennon Rodgers will have the newest one. Lennon heads a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student team which has spent the last six months building an electric bike for the TT Zero race. He graduated from MIT with a Masters degree in engineering a few years ago, and moved to Pasadena to take a job at the famed Jet Propulsion Laboratories. (Insert your own ‘rocket scientist’ joke here.) He had an R1 for a while, but in 2008, after commuting by bicycle in L.A. smog, he decided that he needed a non-polluting vehicle that would put him on slightly more even terms with traffic.

He set out to build an electric motorcycle from readily available parts, giving himself a budget of $3,000. The first iteration of the bike used lead-acid batteries racked on the rolling chassis of a Chinese Lifan 200cc commuter bike. With a range of about 30 miles and a top speed of 45 mph, it solved his commuting problem and prompted him to return to MIT to pursue a PhD. in Mechanical Engineering, with an interest in greener and more efficient transportation.

In conjuction with Motorrads top R D engineers  the MIT EV crew came up with a design for the 2010 Isle of Man  but delays forced the project back another year.
In conjuction with Motorrad’s top R&D engineers, the MIT EV crew came up with a design for the 2010 Isle of Man, but delays forced the project back another year.
As a result of MITs prestige the team received support from high-tech companies including A123 founder  Yet-Ming Chiang.

He snagged a research position on MIT’s EV team right about the time that the first TTXGP race on the Isle of Man was hitting the news. The original 1911 race over the Mountain course proved that early internal-combustion powered motorcycles had become practical vehicles. The 37.73-mile course length – and the climb up the mountain – still present a daunting challenge for early-stage technology like electric motorcycles. Lennon realized that the TT Zero race had the makings of a great school project. Instead of being graded on a curve, an MIT entry would be graded on about 140 curves. He recruited a small team of undergrad students; Mark Jeunnette, Radu Gogoana, Randall Briggs.

MIT is a real hotbed for stuff like electric motors, battery technology, and computer software, but there are only a handful of schools that specialize in motorcycle vehicle dynamics, and it’s not one of them. To play to the team’s strengths, it needed an existing rolling chassis. I worked with Lennon to hook MIT up with an existing motorcycle manufacturer that could, hopefully, provide the cycle parts (easy) and the CAD software that would allow the MIT team to design an optimal battery pack. That was the hard part, since any cooperating OEM would think of that software as very confidential IP. Erik Buell was very interested, but shortly after we talked about it, Harley-Davidson shut Buell down. Honda didn’t return my calls. After BMW’s North American offices shot us down, I emailed Berthold Hauser (who was, at that point, still in charge of BMW’s Superbike project) and asked him to introduce us to BMW’s R&D group in Munich. A few weeks later, I sat in on a phone call between two of Motorrad’s top R&D engineers and Lennon. It occurred to me that if I had any one of those guys’ brains, I’d just throw my brain out.

Even after BMW’s R&D department had agreed to participate in the project by supplying an S1000RR rolling chassis and the software, the office in New Jersey continued to respond to my emails with blandishments that this was not the kind of thing BMW would ever do. “But BMW is involved,” I explained. “Your R&D department has already taken on the project. In fact, Lennon’s in Munich right now making a presentation on rapid charging of EVs.”

An off-the-shelf motor controller from Kelly Controls was used along with a pair of air-cooled  brushed  DC  Lynch motors.
An off-the-shelf motor controller from Kelly Controls was used along with a pair of air-cooled, brushed, DC, Lynch motors.

“Oh no,” BMW’s U.S. office explained to me, in the tone of voice you’d use to explain something to a small child. “BMW would never get involved. We only race production-based bikes, and besides we build all our race bikes in-house.”

I did not bother pointing out that I did, literally, write the book on BMW’s racing history and that BMW had recently gone through a long MotoGP design exercise that was farmed out entirely to Oral Engineering, in Italy. Or that none of the famous Paris-Dakar race bikes were made in house. And that the last time a BMW had officially raced on the Isle of Man it had been made entirely in the U.K., by Chrysalis.

Eventually, an utterly exhausted carrier pigeon must have made it from Munich to New Jersey with news that corporate wanted to support the MIT project, but it took so long to actually get the chassis out to Boston that the initial plan, to race in the 2010 event, had to be pushed back a year – in fact the team barely finished the bike in time to ship it to the Island for the 2011 race. Although one key part of the assignment – designing the battery pack – could get underway as soon as they had the CAD software, all of the assembly and systems integration was condensed into the final six months.

“We had a real made-for-TV drama here in last few days,” Lennon laughed. “Our first motor controller barfed when we put the bike on the dyno. Luckily we had a spare, and have since dialed down our power a bit.” In a way, it’s perhaps good that the MIT EV team’s first serious moto project was forced into such a short time frame; it basically forced the team’s hand when it came to using off-the-shelf components as opposed to stuff developed in-house, and that in turn probably increased their odds of finishing the race. As recalcitrant as BMW was, it was interesting for me to be an insider in an official MIT project, because it made me realize that MIT alumni form a sort of global high-tech mafia. The companies they run will all help MIT students, and often open their kimonos to reveal technology that’s not yet in the market.

The design was taken to New Hampshire International Speedway for testing where Lennon Rodgers got a feel for the bike.
The design was taken to New Hampshire International Speedway for testing where Rodgers first got a feel for it.

The foremost of these allies was A123 founder Yet-Ming Chiang. Using BMW’s CAD software, the team was able to pack the S1000RR frame with 12 KwH-worth of A123’s prismatic cells. In order to keep things relatively simple, the MIT team chose to adapt an off-the-shelf motor controller from Kelly Controls, feeding current to a pair of air-cooled, brushed, DC, Lynch motors. The motors were siamesed by engineering a common shaft for both of them. That’s a proven configuration, very similar to the bike that won the first TTXGP race on the Island.

Even maximizing the use of freely-available and proven components, the MIT team just got its bike finished in time for Lennon and another team member to test it at a Boston Moto track day, at my old home track – New Hampshire International Speedway, in Loudon NH. Although he’s ridden thousands of miles on the road, it was Lennon’s first time riding on a race track, and the technical Loudon layout is not exactly a good mimic of the Mountain course.

So you can see what I mean about MIT, too, needing as much time as it can get at Jurby, where Mountain course veteran Alan Brew will shake down the bike before racing it. (The EVs get only two short practice sessions on the actual course!)

With 12 KwH on tap in its A123 batteries, the MIT machine will probably not be power-limited. That’s about the same amount of power that MotoCzysz used to lap at nearly 100 mph last year. But, as Mission (rumored controller failures on the dyno before the Infineon TTXGP race) and Brammo (motor melt-downs when MCUSA’s own Steve Atlas tested the Empulse RR before its TTXGP debut ) have proven, there’s a lot that can go wrong when you’re trying to convert that much amperage to torque.

“I looked at the results,” Lennon said, “and while there were something like fifteen teams entered last year, by the time you get down to the fifth-place team, their average speed was only 65 miles an hour. So clearly just keeping your bike running at all is not that easy.”

Just as the internal combustion engine did for racing  MITs EV team hopes that its electric bike can pave the way for future high-performance designs.
Lennon Rodgers and his MIT students are hoping to put EV technologies on the map through a high-performance demonstration at the 2011 Isle of Man.

The foremost mechanical risk in an air-cooled setup like the one MIT is using is simply that the motor will overheat. That’s easy for any old-school gearhead to understand. But the sheer complexity of the battery and controller mean that those components, too, can fail – especially on the long, bumpy, max-power TT course.

“There is so much computing, even in the batteries themselves; they’re loaded with sensors for temperature, current, and at any point one of them can say, ‘Nope, I’m not giving you any more power’, and it’s not as if we can go out and find our rider on the course and help him.” Lennon told me. “There are so many other electrical components and circuit boards. If any of them failed even in practice, sure, we could make a new one but it would take days to get the proper components.” So, as I interviewed him before he packed up and headed for the Isle of Man, he was busy inventorying his spares.

Shortly after the very first race on the Mountain course, Indian made a first foray into ‘electrics’ that almost proved to be its undoing. But it seems likely this will be the year that an electric motorcycle will lap the TT course at over 100 miles an hour. That will usher in a new era in which EV sport bikes take a place beside internal-combustion engine bikes, before perhaps supplanting them. It’s safe to say that some of the students on the MIT EV team will play roles in developing those machines.