Eight Hard to Handle Motorcycles You Could Never Keep On the Road
It sounds obvious, but a motorcycle is variably unstable in the roll axis. If you step off it and let go of the handlebars, it flops over on its side. That’s one front in the war designers and engineers are engaged in; overcoming that natural low-speed instability. A motorcycle, while it becomes more stable the faster you ride (up to a limit), will reach a critical speed at which the front tire can no longer provide enough side thrust to stabilize it in a vertical attitude while cornering, and that’s the other front of the designer’s battle.
As you ride in a straight line down the road, a motorcycle is always essentially, trying to fall over to one side or the other. The front wheel of a motorcycle aligns itself with the direction of travel.
In general, the more “trail” a motorcycle needs to remain upright, the worse the handling will be. Trail is the distance between an extended line projecting from the steering axis to the pavement and a line extending to the earth’s surface from the center of the front axle. Trail normally falls in a range from 3 inches to 4.5 inches but it can extend into the ridiculous on choppers with “raked out” front forks. It’s that huge trail which makes choppers truly evil in the handling department. They run just fine in a straight line, but slight deviations from that line at speed can result in truly epic “tank slappers,” or uncontrollable wobble.
It’s the balance in front to rear tire traction and steering geometry which keeps your bike on the road. Engineers tasked with creating racing machines generally select the smallest front tire that will still provide enough braking force to do the job. If they didn’t need to use the front tire to stop the bike, you’d see thirteen-inch front wheels on motorcycles to improve turning.
All the information about how a motorcycle “feels” is transmitted through the handlebars and the footpegs. The ideal is to achieve “neutral steering,” a motorcycle with the correct balance of front to rear traction and weight distribution.
If those things don’t happen, you have the problems encountered while riding the bikes on our List of Handling Shame below…
- Early 1980’s BMW’s With an aging suspension design, weak and too-flexible frames, heavy cast-iron cylinder liners (which were ultimately replaced with plated aluminum versions) old heavy and lame ATE swing caliper brakes on the front wheels, BMWs were falling well behind the standard of the latest Japanese bikes. To answer the detractors, heavy flywheels were replaced with a stamped steel clutch carrier which cut down the rotating mass and allowed the engine to operate more smoothly. By 1980, BMW motorcycles were ponderous, slow, poor handling beasts, but the company addressed those issues and quickly got back in the game.
- Kawasaki 750 Triples. Weighing in at 748 cc and featuring a revolutionary three cylinder, 2-stroke engine design, the “Widowmakers” were the fastest street bikes yet seen – in a straight line. On the downside, and it was a major downside for a machine capable of stunning speed and acceleration, the brakes and handling may well have marked an all-time low in design. While they were introduced to the market in 1972 and sold well, the original model line was dropped from Kawasaki’s roster in 1976 in favor of bikes you could actually take around a corner. I had one myself and while it was a thing of beauty in a drag race, it was a nightmare through the corners and on wet pavement, it was positively brutal to ride.
- Honda CX 500 A truly beautiful bike which is slowly coming into favor with custom builders, the CX500 was horribly top-heavy and an absolute bear to maneuver at low speeds. Made from 1978 to 1983, the CX 500 was beloved for it’s smooth engine, but incorrect crankshaft main bearing specifications led to a major recall of the line. Like the Moto Guzzi models before it, the CX500’s eccentric crankshaft rotation (a horizontal-v configuration) meant the machine would twist noticeably to the right when you came off the throttle. It was also far too easy to lock up the rear wheel when changing down through the gears.
- Moto Guzzi Like the CX 500, the engine design of the early Guzzis, while it was smooth as silk, introduced some quirky handling effects on acceleration and deceleration. In addition, some early Moto Guzzi models included rubber mounting of the handlebars which ultimately made them very unstable at speed. The movement introduced in the handlebar mounting scheme made them feel loose and disconnected in cornering. Not exactly what you want…
- Kawasaki 500 H1 On their introduction in 1969, the 500 line suffered from the poor handling and woefully sorry braking of the larger 750’s. Their light weight also resulted in an unintended, but highly-prized, consequence. A ton of high-end torque meant riders could bring the front wheel up – in all three of first gears. Good for hooligans, not so good in many other respects…
- Harley Davidson Sportster, 1981 Long forks set at a steep angle and a top-heavy design mean that Sportsters from this era are fine in a straight line, but their handling through long corners was disastrously bad due mostly to poor suspension. The fork and steering geometry was also deeply messed up, and while they looked exceptional, it was the design which provided those looks which sent many a sportster sliding out over the high side.
- Honda C50, 70, 90, 110 While these Honda models are the best selling bikes of all time, their step-through, moped-like frames were inherently nasty on handling. The automatic transmissions on the early models were prone locking up the rear, and the bike’s suspension was so buttery soft that the wallowing, oscillating, bouncy ride put lots of riders off the road. One good thing about them was that, while they featured horrific handling, they weren’t fast enough for it to matter much…
- Suzuki GT380/550/750 The GT series Suzukis suffered from miniscule ground clearance, excessive engine width, front disc brakes which barely functioned and a noodle-like swing arm. The front end would deviate so wildly on hard acceleration that tank-slappers were nearly inevitable for less experienced riders, and the rear shocks provided such outrageous amounts of damping that they rode like bucking ponies. Truly horrible. Epic in their lack of rider feel.