2011 Birmingham Bike Show

Frank Melling | November 29, 2011
2011 Birmingham Bike Show
Attendance at Britain’s biggest bike show increased by 14% in 2011 despite continuing struggles with unemployment.

What a difference a year makes. In 2010, hardcore bikers trudged wearily through the snow and ice to support Britain’s biggest bike show whilst exhibitors wanted to cut their throats with depression – if they could have been bothered to find a knife.
 
This year, however, fans streamed into the National Exhibition Centre sporting t-shirts and summer leather jackets as Britain basked in its warmest autumn in more than 30 years. Not surprisingly, attendance at the show shot up by 14%. Truly, this extended autumn has been the saviour of the British bike industry.
 
Exhibits apart, there were two parallel stories at this year’s Birmingham show. First, there is still a tremendous interest in bikes and motorcycling. There was a wonderful range of riders and would be riders, from fat, bald old wrinklies like me to teenagers champing at the bit to get on the road. This is tremendously encouraging and brought a real sense of cheer to everyone in the motorcycle industry.
 
Sadly, there was also a marked lack of money around. It’s not only because unemployment is rising exponentially in Britain, but those who still have a job are looking over their shoulders and worrying about when they too will be visiting the Job Centre.
 
In practice, this meant that discount selling was rampant at this year’s show as bankrupt stock from companies who didn’t get the math right was dumped into the market place. In the short term this is good for the consumer – top quality race leathers at 66% discount has got to be an astonishing bargain – but those very same discounts are really hurting the wider bike trade and that’s worrying for the long term.
 
Again, there were two stories running in parallel at the show – the sensible and the dream. Clearly, being a hardcore bike nut I have to start with the dreams. No matter

2011 Birmingham Bike Show
The stars of the show were Ducati’s 1199 Panigale (above) and MV Agusta’s all-new F4 RR sportbike (below).2011 Birmingham Bike Show

what your opinion of Italian bikes, the two totally ‘sell-your-first-born-child-to-own-one-of-these’ bikes of 2012 were the Ducati Panigale and the latest manifestation of the MV Agusta F4.
 
First up was the Ducati. Sadly, pictures do not do it justice and fail at capturing the breath-taking beauty of the Panigale – especially in its Tricolore trim. There were pools of drool on the carpet as Ducatisti wondered at the 198hp, fly-by-wire control, slipper clutch and eight levels of traction control.
 
None of the massed ranks of fans thought about the $37,000 British purchase price, but were far more concerned about posting their children for sale on e-bay to raise the cash.
 
Of all the Panigale’s amazing range of tricks, the one which completely and utterly amazed me was the size of the engine. It is unbelievably tiny – a technical tour de force which, if reliable, will become the benchmark for motorcycle engineering.
 
The stroke is maybe the most stunning piece of the engine. There are no cylinder barrels aside from two tiny extensions to the crankcase, in which the enormous 112mm pistons merely flutter in the 60.8mm stroke on connecting rods the length of an office pen.
 
Alan Jones, Ducati UK’s amiable Press Officer, said: “Forward orders are really good. Our dealers are taking orders at an incredible rate and we’re certain that we will be sold out of our 2012 allocation of every Panigale model.”

Good as the Panigale is – and believe me it is utterly awesome – my choice would still be the MV Agusta RR.
For a start, I know from riding earlier F4s that the all new 998cc engine will result in performance that can only be bettered if the rider is strapped to a Cruise missile and fired from the deck of a friendly warship.
 
MVs are not only science fiction fast – but feel like it, too. MV is claiming 201hp at a shade over 13,000 rpm, and you can rely on this figure feeling like 200 genuine ponies beneath your legs.
 

2011 Birmingham Bike Show
Discounts were everywhere this year as struggling businesses unloaded leftovers.

The handling will be just as good as a Ducati too, with 43mm nitride coated Ohlins NIX upside-down front forks and an equally trick Ohlins shock looking after the rear end.
 
So, the Ducati and MV will be very evenly matched in terms of speed and handling, but it is my personal opinion that the F4 just nudges out the Panigale in terms of looks. The whole bike is just so neat and elegant that one can spend all day looking at it.
 
The MV is also quite dramatically cheaper – if ‘cheap’ can be used in any sensible way when applied to either of these bikes. A British buyer will pay a mere $27,000 for the MV, and therefore require the sale of only one child.
 
Both the Ducati and MV will surpass 200 mph, so all that you need is a reasonably empty stretch of county highway, the full co-operation of your friendly State Troopers and an immense amount of riding ability in order to enjoy the potential of your Italian stallion. Will any of this common sense dissuade the potential purchaser? Not for a moment.
 
Competent in its opposition from BMW and the other big four Japanese manufacturers in terms of performance, the Italian duo are going to dominate the hyper sports market in 2012 – and that is for certain.
 
Moving back to the real world, the other big story from Birmingham is the growth of the AT sector. Somehow, the Japanese have simply failed to understand this market – not only in its rationale, but also its heart and soul.
 

2011 Birmingham Bike Show
Our man Melling wasn’t wowed by Kawasaki’s Versys 1000.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with Kawasaki’s all new Versys 1000. It’s not that the bike won’t take you twice around the world without missing a beat – after all, it’s derived from the rock solid Z1000 – but rather that it looks as if someone in management said: “Quick, let’s chuck a big AT together because this is a hot sales ticket!”
 
There are bits stuck everywhere on the Versys and the only reason for buying the bike will be because it is cheap and practical. But in fact, it is neither. The front exhaust pipes in particular will last mere seconds the moment the bike is taken off-road, and at $14,000 it’s almost at Tiger 1050 prices – and the Triumph is a much better bike.
 
Kawasaki’s woes are about to get even worse because Triumph’s all new GS challenger, the 135hp Explorer 1200, is about to be launched at a slated price of only around $3,000 more than the Japanese bike, and this will really put the Japanese firm on the back foot.
 
I felt more sympathetic to Honda’s Cross Runner because the factory has had a real try at making what they perceive to be an AT bike. Again, it’s another parts bin special – this time based on the very fine VFR 800 VTEC. Like the Versys, it’s not so much a bad bike but rather one which is not good enough. In this case, the Cross-Runner will get hammered by the AT bikes from Triumph and BMW – especially when money is tight and customers are spending their hard earned pounds, and dollars, with meticulous care.
 

2011 Birmingham Bike Show
2011 Birmingham Bike Show
A custom-built 997cc DOHC Twin completed this classic British beauty by Gerry Lisi, owner of Metisse Motorcycles.

Currently, the best AT bike coming out of Japan – and by a good margin, too – is Suzuki’s baby V-Strom, which really does tick all the boxes for a motorcycle in its price range. One has to wonder how long it will be before Japanese management give their designers a proper budget, a blank sheet of paper and tell them to produce a world-beating AT bike.
 
Apart from the Wee Strom, the other Japanese AT bike which is outstanding is, sadly, not available in the U.S. If you are a hardcore adventure rider, than there is no better bike in the world than the Yamaha XT660Z Tenere. Tough as an Abram tank and dripping with outer Mongolian desert-busting testosterone, the ‘Ten’ is still one of my all-time favorite machines.
 
You might think the reference to a design on a blank sheet of paper was merely a string of words from MCUSA’s resident wrinkly – but you’d be wrong. I spent a wonderful half-hour with Gerry Lisi, the owner of Metisse motorcycles – and came away feeling better about myself, the world and the universe at large. Gerry wanted his own engine for his own motorcycles, so he got a piece of paper from the desk drawer and drew one – just like that.
 
Gerry wanted a modernized version of the traditional British parallel Twin and came up with an eight-valve, 997cc dohc with Twin counter balancers. That’s not state of the art engineering and there are many of us who’ve had similar dreams, but not the courage to put them into practice. Here’s where the story gets really interesting, though. Britain is the home of the car racing industry and we are knee-deep in companies capable of manufacturing small batches of extremely high quality components. You can, for a price, have literally anything automotive made – and very quickly, too.
 
With these resources available, Gerry had his sketches transformed into CAD drawings and a finished engine was soon on the test bed. Currently, it is producing 97hp @ 8,000 rpm. “We had a play with it and 147hp was there almost instantly – and reliably,” said Gerry.
 
There is also a very user-friendly 70 ft. lbs. of torque on tap at only 7,000 rpm, and in the classically styled Metisse chassis the whole design weighs less than 400 pounds.
 
Customers will someday be able to specify what power they want from their engine.
 
The chassis is very British in the classic Metisse tradition. T45 bronze tubing welded and nickel plated takes you straight back to the 1960s – and it’s all the better for that.
 

2011 Birmingham Bike Show
Norton CEO Stuart Garner: “We’re definitely over the hill. Bikes are leaving the factory steadily and things are getting better every day. I am looking forward to 2012 with real confidence.”

Now the story gets really interesting. A brand new Metisse will cost the customer around $27,000 – almost exactly the same as an MVF4RR. The MV is faster, handles better, is more sophisticated and is just about everything else – except one thing.

Gerry expects customers to come to the Metisse factory and sit down with him, personally, and discuss just what they want from their new bike – power, handling, appearance et al. Gerry will then build a unique bike to their exact specification.

I just can’t see an MV owner rocking up to the MV factory in Varese and asking Giovanni Castiglioni to stop the production line and change the handlebars of an F4 so that his left wrist is a little more comfortable.

Another British success story is Norton. There is no argument that the little factory, based in the grounds of the Donington Park race circuit, has faced tough times. The task of building your own bike is immense and the devil is in the details. It’s not the cylinder heads or the frames which are the problem, but the hundreds of tiny parts, all of which have to be homologated. In the case of the 961, there are more than 500 individual items – some 250 in the engine alone – and every single one has to be designed, sourced, brought in on schedule and installed onto a finished bike. Lack one single item, and you don’t have a bike to sell – it’s that basic.
 
Now that the supply chain is in place, expect deliveries of the 961 Commando to really get moving. Norton CEO, Stuart Garner, said: “We’re definitely over the hill. Bikes are leaving the factory steadily and things are getting better every day. I am looking forward to 2012 with real confidence.”

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Frank Melling

Contributing Editor |Articles | 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.

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