Saturday, 12 May 2012

Never mind the bhp...where did mpg go?

Couple of folk approaching their full motorcycle licensing entitlement have asked me what bike they should get, and surprisingly all are looking at classic middleweights that cost more than a nearly-new modern equivalent. So what's going on?

First up is that a Morini 350 or Honda 400/4 looks like a manageable motorcycle, rather than the alien hover-scooter look modern Japanese "nakeds" seem to go for. The cool young things admire the Davida/Belstaff/Lewis Leathers look, and with a few exceptions (Hinckley Bonneville, Guzzi V7) there are no new bikes that complement that sort of image.

Second though is the monster prices we're paying for fuel. I filled up at £1.39 a litre last night - well over £6 a gallon. Gone are the days of riding with a fiver inside your boot for fuel. Yet the V7 I rode in Italy last summer struggled to get near 50mpg even ridden gently around Lake Como, despite having no more performance than a 500 Imola of 30 years ago that would easily top 55mpg. "Emission regulations" was the excuse offered by the Guzzi dealer who rented it to me. Really? My far more heavily regulated Fiat 500 is at least as economical with petrol as the V7, and will still top 100mph.

The motor industry must love this - in the name of saving the planet we must build more vehicles using ever more exotic materials (platinum for the catalytic converter, lithium for the batteries) and making everything heavier in the name of safety and cabin space. But at least the cars are getting more economical - the Austin A35 I learnt to drive in amazed my father with its 30-plus mpg which I thought it was appalling given there was no discernable acceleration. At the time my 400/4 would mange 45-48mpg even when thrashed as only a teenager can. In fact it seems to me that every motorcycle over 250cc I've ever ridden has done 40-something mpg. Maybe this was fine and dandy in the days of cheap fuel - yet these days sub 40mpg seems acceptable in the name of absolute bhp.
I started to thing about this when I was running a 450 Desmo on the Giro. Hammering after the big bikes it would still happily top 60mpg. Ditto an MV Agusta 350 Sport. So I dug out some period rod tests, which confirmed these are typical fuel consumption figures for these motorcycles, not the result of my aged, limp wrist. Yet back in the day nobody commented that performance middleweights were giving the sort of mpg normally associated with Japanese two-stroke 125s. Instead the testers grumbled that the bikes weren't as fast as 400 two-strokes. But that was then, this is now. If motorcycling wants to attract new blood (which it's been claiming it wants to since at least the mid-1970s) the industry needs to build what buyers want, and right now that means motorcycles that look the part and are cheap to run. How cheap? Well the Guzzi Lodola 235 that Richard rode through the Dolomites in the latest issue of Benzina managed 140mpg. Yes, one-hundred-and-forty miles to each gallon. Sure, you might want a slightly higher top speed than 65mph, but somewhere between the 450 Desmo's 63mpg/100mph and the Lodola's 140mpg/65mph is a sweet spot that is perfect for our straightened times. Pinching styling cues from those motorcycles would be a good idea too. When I put this to someone in the industry, they poo-poo'd the idea. "We need big numbers" he sneered. OK, Royal Enfield (selling a period-styled 500 that does 85mpg and 80mph) is trebling production. Big enough numbers? Oh yes.


  1. right on - my 500 morini returned 4.3l/100 consistently and my guzzi sp with 32 dells (off a ducati) gave 4.6-4.8

  2. Right on Henry - Franco Lambertini said in an interview in Benzina #4 that the 500 Morini was designed to be even more economical than the 350 - not necessarily faster

  3. my jota never did any better than 10 l/100 km, it's usually at 12. that's just horrible. I can't begin to count the times i had to limp it on reserve with a feather touch to the throttle to avoid a long walk.

  4. It's possible to build a 100+mpg motorcycle only the fuel type has to change. Word in the car industry is that the petrol engine is nearing the end of its life.