Riding with Lord Hesketh: CAR+ archive, July 1980

Published: 16 November 2015

► LJK Setright tries out Lord Hesketh’s new motorcycle design
► Hesketh V1000 became the most expensive ‘bike on the market
► ‘A steering oscillation prevented me doing more than 115mph’

One night in the dim and distant 1950s, when Colin Chapman knocked off after yet another spell at the drawing board where he was laying out his new dream car, the Type 14 Elite, he went and knocked up Alfred Woolf on his way home. He had a problem that only the Procrustean intellect of Woolf could solve: the Elite was short of 1.5 inches of headroom, but to raise the roof that much would ruin the shape and to lower the floor that much would reduce the ground clearance below the most optimistic limit. ‘Lower the floor by three-quarters of an inch,’ advised his mentor, ‘and raise the roof by the same amount.’

‘I’m not doing that – that’s a bloody compromise!’ retorted Chapman. The tale is worth remembering, if only to explain the character that illumined early Lotus designs; but it came to mind again recently with the news that Lord Hesketh has finally decided that his new motorcycle should be produced at a rate of about 1000 machines a year. When I visited his establishment at Easton Neston some little while ago, to examine the prototype and discuss its problems and prospects with Mr Horsley, who has charge of the project, the scale of production was still a matter for debate. There was a faction calling for manufacture in really substantial numbers, such as would make the affair truly big business; there was another, with which I sided, advising that output be limited to about three machines a week. This would have the advantages that I have previously noted as working well for Bristol Cars: the salesmen would never be at the mercy of a bad week, indeed they would not sell the machines but allow people to come and buy them – in which circumstances the customers would be well known and could be given superb personal service without the need for a vast and expensive dealer network, could be and would have to be charged the earth, and would have to accept that their purchases were as costly as they were exclusive because they were uneconomically produced. Between the one extreme and the other, the choice made for manufacture of the Hesketh may offer the best of both worlds, or only the worst; depends how to view the ‘bike. If you like Vincents or Ducatis or the Cosworth Ford V8 you should like the Hesketh but it does not necessarily follow. Whatever the faults of those V-twins, nobody would usually complain about any want of stability in their steering; and as for the V8, which is after all four V-twins in a row, it has always been meant to pursue the same course as its driver; but if you try to commit the Hesketh to a straight and fast line, it does not necessarily follow…

When I rode it, the prototype was some way short of finality in a number of details, but at the time it was thought that its Avon Roadrunner tyres would suit it well enough; and they had the advantage, in the constructor’s view, of being British, something which as much as possible of the Hesketh is meant to be. It may not have been entirely the fault of the tyres (which need to be matched exactly to the characteristics of a motorcycle if it is to behave, something that the replacement market does not always consider) but the Hesketh turned out to be another big wobbler when I took it out onto the roads of Northamptonshire to see how it went. Around bends it was superb, notable for the security in which the power could be turned on or the rear brake used in mid-corner without disturbing the bicycle’s roadholding: but on straight roads, a severe steering oscillation prevented me from doing more than 115mph on it. The rider who has done most of the testing, the vastly experienced Mr David Bean whom BSA and Yamaha alike have to thank for much, has exceeded 130mph on it, but he weighs 421b (or 27percent) more than I do, and that can make an astonishing difference to a bike’s directional stability because the decoupled weight of the rider’s torso acts as an harmonic damper to check steering shakes.

The wobble apart, the bike behaved generally well. The good rear geometry which produced such excellent rear-wheel adhesion also contributed to a quite pleasant ride quality, the controls were generally smooth and not too heavy (particularly praiseworthy is an hydraulic clutch-release), and if the gear-change was not perfect it did not count against the machine because new components with less inertia and more positive selection were available on the workshop benches for inspection while I was there.

It is an impressive establishment. Everybody knows about Lord Hesketh’s past involvement in Formula One car racing, going back to that impressive debut year in 1972 when a former F3 madcap known as Hunt the Shunt suddenly matured into James Hunt, a Grand Prix driver of evident responsibility and impressive prowess. Since disappearing from the entrants’ lists, Lord Hesketh has been making motor racing pay handsome dividends, not only in the rent-a-car business but also in monocoque chassis construction for many current F1 ‘manufacturers’ or assemblers and in Cosworth engine overhaul. The very highly accomplished craftsmen and engineers whom he employs could easily apply their skills to motorcycle making, and did; but perhaps those skills were not the only ones that were needed. Mr Horsley (known to millions of GP addicts who had never met him as Bubbles) told me that in the early stages it was felt that a purer design would be achieved if they avoided using people with motorcycling experience, even after they had decided to make a traditional bike rather than the far more advanced and more nearly modern one that I would have preferred to see. Only later did they bring in men who knew something, be it only from practical experience, about two-wheelers; so if the Hesketh frame and bicycle parts struck me as being excessively ordinary, it is not hard to see why. At least there are some nice details, such as the light-alloy-sheet wheels which, unlike others of similar appearance, have wide rims of correct and safe profile.

The Hesketh engine is a very different matter. It falls at least 90degrees short of perfection, because nothing short of infinitely long conrods will dissuade me from thinking that the only proper V-twins are those with their cylinders set 180degrees apart; but the next best angle is 90degrees, and in this the Hesketh emulates the Ducati and does a lot better than the Vincent. In everything else it does very well in its own way, for although the design and prototype build was done by Weslake it was to a Hesketh specification. A feature of this is the combustion chambers, which very closely resemble those of the Cosworth F1 V8; and the known efficiency of that design is justification enough for the Hesketh men to adopt something with which they were already on familiar working terms. The dimensions are not the same (neither are the bore and stroke) in the Hesketh as in the Cosworth, but in its more modest tune the bike engine still delivers something in excess of 50bhp from its litre, while running smoothly and pulling strongly over a very wide speed range indeed. If more were needed, the larger valves and ports of the V8 could be accommodated, and then the V-twin should be formidable.

As it is, it is already interesting and quite promising, if you are looking for something very well made, very simply conceived, and devoid of surprises. It is a touring bike, but a fast tourer, and there is a good chance that a more sporting version will be developed for the sterner soloist. If only production, when it begins next spring, were to be of two a week rather than twenty, each could be custom-built.

By LJK Setright

Thinker, aesthete, engineering evangelist, our most celebrated contributor over three decades