Backmarker: James Parker’s New Mission

September 8, 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.'

Steve Rapp and Mission Motors won the electric bike race at Laguna aboard.
AMA racer Steve Rapp takes the Mission R to the top of the podium at Laguna Seca’s TTXGP race.

In July at the Laguna Seca USGP, Steve Rapp – riding San Francisco-based Mission Motors’ Mission R bike – won the TTXGP race for electric motorcycles. (You’ll recall that Steve Atlas flew the MotoUSA colors in the race, on the Brammo entry.)

For eight laps round the 2.24-mile Laguna Seca circuit, and eight trips up the 300-foot climb to the top of the Corkscrew, Rapp silently lapped the Mission R at speeds that would have put him solidly mid-pack of the AMA SuperSport race. For the first time in history, an electric motorcycle was as fast (at least over about 20 miles) as the best of the internal-combustion 600s.

The Mission R isn’t just fast, it’s gorgeous too. When photos of the bike first appeared last winter, there were plenty of hardcore sportbike riders who suddenly thought, “Wow, maybe electric motorcycles really are cool.” The stunning design put my friend James Parker in the spotlight again. After all these years, he’s still best known as the designer of the RADD front end on the ill-fated Yamaha GTS1000 of the early 1990s.

Since Parker has spent most of his life on a mission (pun intended) to replace the telescopic fork, I asked him about the decision to fit a high-end Ohlins unit to the Mission R. He sighed and told me that he’d sketched up a version with his RADD front end but, “We just decided to do one thing at a time, and we had our hands full making the electric drivetrain work. We didn’t want to throw in another variable.”

The GTS1000 is now approaching its 20th birthday. It was probably the first bike from the ’90s to definitely achieve modern classic status. In 2006, the U.K. magazine BIKE dubbed it one of the 50 coolest bikes of all time. That’s a small consolation to Parker, who would rather have seen it become a commercial success which would have ushered in an era of motorcycles that weren’t all forked up. Here’s how it happened, and how things got sidetracked.

Parker was trained as an industrial designer, not an engineer; that’s one reason the motorcycle industry has always looked askance at him. But he had a very technical bent as a young club racer in southern California in the 1970s. He raced his own bikes (he built his own frame for an RD350 motor) and hung out with Art Friedman from Motorcyclist Magazine. He rode and wrenched on Motorcyclist’s endurance racing KZ550 project bike.

“Back then, forks were nothing like they are now,” he told me. “I became fascinated by the ELF bikes. I wanted to understand why they didn’t work better. So I got some really good side-view photos of those bikes and scaled them; I drew up a set of plans and reverse-engineered de Cortanze’s design.”

Parker was certain that the ELF bikes were plagued by bump steer, and realized that a telescoping steering shaft would solve that problem. Around that time, he also learned that filing a patent was expensive; he could either afford to race, or patent his ideas. So in 1982, he hung up his leathers and settled in at his drafting table.

Parker  at his home in New Mexico  with his personal GTS1000. Hes never given up on the RADD front end. Hes currently working on a Moto2-eligible version of the design and told me about other cool projects that must - for now - stay off the record.
Parker, at his home in New Mexico, with his personal GTS1000. He’s never given up on the RADD front end. He’s currently working on a Moto2-eligible version of the design and told me about other cool projects that must – for now – stay off the record.

American Honda was interested enough to loan him a 600cc dual-sport bike to use as a test mule. He fit that bike with his first RADD suspension unit, street wheels and tires, but got word from Honda that the company was committed to de Cortanze, and that they would not pursue anyone else’s alternatives to the fork. Parker then took the 600 to every other motorcycle company with an office in SoCal.

Yamaha was interested enough to take it to Willow Springs, where they had a new hire doing a little testing. That kid was Wayne Rainey, who rode the RADD-equipped dual-sport and told Yamaha that it had the plush ride quality of a Cadillac, but that he could slide both ends of the bike predictably. Even now, there’s a note of awe in Parker’s voice when he talks about having a rider of such talent test his creation.

In 1987, Motorcyclist Magazine was approaching its 75th anniversary and wanted something special for the cover. Parker approached Yamaha and its secretive GKDI design facility in California. Yamaha said, “If you’ll guarantee us the cover of Motorcyclist, we’ll give you a bike and assign GKDI to create special bodywork.” Motorcyclist Magazine said, “If you can deliver a cool-looking bike, we’ll guarantee you the cover.” In a few months, Parker and GKDI produced the MC2, based on a Yamaha FZ750.

It appeared on the cover of Motorcyclist and Parker took it to the Milan show, where it sat in the Nava Helmets booth. It also appeared on the cover of half a dozen other magazines, including Riders Club, in Japan. A year later, Yamaha signed a two-year deal with Parker giving them access to his patents for the purposes of R&D and testing. In 1990, Yamaha licensed the patent for use on a new, flagship sport-tourer based on their 1000cc Four.

Parker traveled back and forth to Japan a few times during that period, and had a sinking feeling long before the GTS1000 was ever released. “I saw the clay and thought, ‘Oh $#!+'” he told me. “It looked massive.” When the bike finally appeared in metal, the visually bloated styling added insult to the injury of its actual weight. And to make matters even worse, the steering was heavy – particularly at slow speeds.

Parker had chronic communications problems with Yamaha. “I never saw the bike without bodywork,” he recalled. “I wore a coat and tie to meetings, and they thought I was an executive. So they’d wheel the bike into a boardroom; there were never any tools around so I couldn’t take the bodywork off to really see what they’d done. There was no way they’d let me down into their workshop.”

It wasn’t until after the bike was released that Parker finally measured one up, and realized that they’d made the upper arm [of the front suspension] too short, so that rake and trail increased with steering angle. That caused the heavy slow-speed steering.

“The GTS1000 project originated with Yamaha Europe,” Parker recalls. “They wanted it to have a new front end, but they also insisted that it have a catalytic converter, electronic fuel injection, and ABS; stuff that made it heavy and expensive. There were two factions within Yamaha, one that wanted to see the GTS1000 succeed, and one that wanted to kill it. When it was a commercial failure, the faction that wanted to kill it won out.” It was even less successful in the U.S. market, where it only sold for a couple of years.

This bike represents the culmination of all the companys learning in both electric powertrains and motorcycle engineering.
The Mission R looks the part of a proper Superbike racer, with its performance at Laguna Seca resetting the bar in the electric motorcycle world.

One of the ironies of the motorcycle business is that while risk is a big part of the motorcycle’s appeal to young men, and while the motorcycle industry produces products with increasingly radical performance, the industry itself is profoundly conservative. So after the brief experiment with Parker’s RADD front end, Yamaha in particular and the motorcycle industry in general basically concluded, ‘Funny front ends? We tried that, and it was a flop.’

Anyone who spends any time at all talking to James Parker will forever look askance at the telescopic fork. It’s a profoundly bad design, but it’s a bad design the motorcycle industry understands and is familiar with. I wouldn’t be surprised if the front fork actually outlasts the internal combustion engine. But if gasoline burning bikes are replaced by electric ones, Parker – as designer of the landmark Misson R – may finally usher in a major revolution in motorcycle design. It just won’t be the one he expected.

No, for the foreseeable future, we’re all still basically forked.