Special frames – Chapter four

Recounting more special frame builders from the 70s private sector

Be it teacups or tractors, somebody will try to make a better version. The practice is human nature to some yet completely foreign to those without the interest or talent. This is no slam on the non-inventor, for surely they’ve spent their time on much more lucrative endeavors. As told in tales of old, those engineer/fabricators intent on improving two-wheel performance count for a lot, considering the impact special frame models have had on production bikes. Driven by passion and promise, many of these welding, grinding and machining artisans didn’t account for the dirty work, but that all became clear when the cash dried up. Firms like Rickman and Bimota are remembered with honor for pressing on to commercial success, but far, far more talented builders remain too far under the mainstream radar. In this space, we’ll look four at of them.

Speaking of the mainstream, it’s difficult to understand the lack of interest in special frame classics, especially given the reverence earned by the greats. On a semi-modern scope the practice gained traction after Dave Degens (or whoever it was) created the first Triumph/Norton hybrid. As the 1960s progressed Fritz Egli in Switzerland and England’s Rickman burst onto prominence, each to attract the same customer with a different approach. Originally drafting his now famous backbone tube for a racing Vincent, success and wins hatched a new customer base for Egli, who wrapped the same mathematical principals around a myriad of engines. The results were unanimous, and production flowed. Remembered best for its Métisse, Rickman started in the dirt but finished with roadsters, powered primarily by British engines until the Honda four was released. Extra points for those who understand the impact Japan’s wave of powerful multis had on the special frame industry, and the list of talent that emerged is deep. Some of these I’ve covered previously, the following is a sample from a much larger compilation that’s not yet finished.

Moto Martin Honda (France)
Labeled fairly as a classic French artisan, engineer Georges Martin transformed a passion for motorsports into market respectability. Don’t let the Martin’s sweeping glitter and extravagant appointments fool you, this is a serious sports bike. Like many, his initial designs followed the Egli pattern with a large tube backbone, but in time Georges moved on to develop his own perimeter space frame. Demand faded by the mid-80s when Japan’s big producers adopted special frame technology into production (most notably Suzuki’s GSX-R) but not before Martin added his own line of wheels, and other special parts to produce full coverage endurance replicas. Credited for the late 80s ‘South France’ street-fighter look, many, including Ducati (Monster 900) drew inspiration from Georges and his Moto Martin sports bikes.

Lifted from the French-based forum (www.fmsp.net) this example represents Martin’s original ideas and application well. Flashy plating covers Reynolds CoMo tubing on the Egli clone frame, hanging a tuned, 8v SOHC Honda 750. This engine, and the Kawasaki 900 dominated experimental builds in the 70s and 80s, and truly had the most to gain. The owner displays exceptional talent here, working a Wiseco 836cc kit into a late F2 four then adding components from Marzocchi and Brembo to the chassis. Praised by veteran Martin builders as a faithful rendition of Martin’s original (advert in blue >) the finished machine had a troublesome amount of vibration through the fork. After inspection the front JPX cast wheel was deemed irreparable. That’s a lesson special frame owners know well, and the reality behind the Moto Martin and similar kit bikes is no two are exactly alike. Just the ticket for the rugged individualist with a passion for speed…and a well-stocked machine shop on hand.

Werner Fallert BMW (Germany)
Many regard Japan’s takeover of the moto-industry in the 70s and 80s a golden age for superbikes, and the numbers do little to dispel that claim. When Euro makers like Ducati, Laverda and Moto Guzzi countered the heat increased, leaving only BMW slightly left of center stage in the pure performance game. Both the R75 (1970) and R90/S (1974) were among the best available when introduced, but the limelight didn’t stay in one place for long. Bursting with unrivaled innovation some of history’s most memorable machines were from that decade, and Berlin’s sporting twins are among them. Despite its acclaim as a long haul traveler, the outright speed-through-the-gears disadvantage confounded BMW’s sports riders, and the factory’s response was to make its production machines progressively heavier and slower. For German tuner Werner Faller, this was unacceptable.

Nearly everything I’ve learned about Fallert and the FM 1000 came from work released by Motorrad magazine in Germany, which is also the original source of these images. The focus begins with the special projects Fallert completed at the BMW car and motorcycle dealership he founded in 1964, then extended towards building a stronger BMW for those who wanted one. Higher rpms generate more horsepower, so Fallert ditched the standard OHV/pushrods to remake a modern version of BMW’s overhead cam RS54 Rennsport works racer. Most web studies suggest Fallert based his redesigned twin on the R100, but that may have been for press purposes. It’s likely the older, ‘Slash’ twins were in the mix too, and Fallert’s line of high performance accessories fit both. The 4v heads fitting overhead cams are driven by shafts and bevel gears from a train of gears in the front cavity. The oil pump and most of the crankcase was retained but not much else. 96mm bores bump capacity to 1000cc and with special 45mm DellOrto carbs, engine output increased to 110-hp @ 8500 rpm. Last versions used 5-degree canted cylinders on special blocks, making the engine a true 170-degree v-twin. Mounted in a highly modified BMW frame, Fallert’s FM 1000 could touch 160-mph.

According to a report published in Motorrad’s archives, Wolfgang Kayser chipped in to design a six-speed gearbox, all fitting an engine now residing in an all new tube spaceframe from Werner Dieringer, chief engineer at Kreidler. Some FM 1000’s show Lectron carbs or Dell’Orto instruments, and all I’ve seen (in print, as presented by Fallert) use some combination of BMW parts. This includes the factory Sachs fork, twin shock swingarm, rear drive and Brembo brakes. I have no information on the wheels. Fallert’s now-trademark white painted body fits over and shows traditional Bol d’Or era lines. Note the heavy-radius drawn on the tail section, dramatic cylinder cutouts, and integrated winkers. Fallert passed away some years ago and complete machines are very rare, but one could knock off a fairly decent replica given the goodies available. More important? The FM 1000’s impact at BMW proves the effort wasn’t wasted, and the hi-performance Boxer twin remains a production staple.

Bruno de Prato Ducati (Italy)
Magazine readers might recognize the name Bruno de Prato as European correspondent for popular titles like Cycle World, but journalism is only one of the hats Bruno has worn. Born in Italy the young enthusiast developed an interest in how things work, eventually moving to the USA to further his education. After earning his degree in mechanical engineering at university in South Carolina, De Prato returned to Italy to take a position under Dr. Fabio Taglioni at Ducati – this, just as development was beginning on the first 750 L-twin. Following that, Bruno moved into journalism full time, as was often the lone source of Euro bike news for readers in the United States. So, while many (rightfully) laud Ducati’s prized 750/900 Super Sports as a period-pinnacle of speed, style and mechanized soul, De Prato’s heated exchanges with Taglioni about design and application moved the chief engineer to issue a challenge to his strong willed understudy: Can you do better?

De Prato’s reply was the Eagle 1, which began with a 750cc round case Desmo and the engineer’s drawings for a new frame. These plans were taken to Fritz Egli in 1973 for assembly, and while the Swiss master didn’t see the need for De Prato’s additional downtube mounting points (totaling four extra) the frame was constructed as designed. Later, both Egli and Taglioni found it impossible to argue with the results. Less size, weight, and equal weight distribution were the goals, and more than three inches were chopped from the SS wheelbase. The steering angle was steepened to 27-degrees, fit with a Ceriani fork and trick Campagnolo Hydroconic brake. Both unique and recognizable the Eagle’s alloy body was styled after De Prato’s favorite Harley road racer. Wet weight: under 400-lb. Bruno reported the mood at Ducati’s NCR special project shop as ‘cool’ during assembly, and after the ultimate rejection De Prato hung a borrowed plate on the otherwise illegal Desmo and rode it home.

As mentioned previously, upon leaving Ducati for magazine projects in Italy De Prato was approached by an investor who not only wanted to purchase the Ducati for racing, but keep Bruno on as a managing consultant. It is reported Ducati refused to touch the Eagle 1, but did supply a built 900cc twin from NCR’s racing stock. According to De Prato the machine was uprated with a stronger 38mm Marzocchi fork assembly, Brembo iron brakes and a fairing. Their first time out, De Prato and team were thrilled when the blue Eagle 1 shot past the leading NCR factory racer at the Misano 1000-kilometer, but racing biz issues caused the investor to lose interest and the Eagle was sold off. Recently surfacing again after being restored and delivered to Bruno for inspection, his moving recollection of the Eagle and its full development can be read here.

Harris Performance Kawasaki (England)
If the idea of blasting down a perfect road on a vintage Zed racer sounds worth doing, you might want to remember the name of Harris Performance. Then again, those still reading no doubt recognize the brand and might know some history, but popular as Harris was and still is, the firm’s accomplishments are vastly underrated. Info published on the Harris website once listed over 2000 of the Magnum special frame kits sold, ranking Harris among motorcycling’s engineering elite. They’ve done it all; consulting, managing and designing one-off creations for factory race teams in Japan, GP frames and vastly expanded applications for chassis technology. Many contacted Harris purely for racing purposes, but more than a few were made street legal. As was often the case for street legal special frame builds, items carried over from the donor motorcycle included the harness, instruments and switches.

Compared to slick production hardware the Harris, along with the other machines featured in the chapter display a creditable lack of creature comforts, but you’d expect nothing less from a pure performance build. Factoring in that many special frames were assembled from kits often uncovers an unwelcome amount of homespun interpretation, meaning those interesting in riding this type of vintage exotica need a higher than average amount of dedication. That alone may explain the lack of widespread market interest, but in the USA it was simply a lack of press coverage. That’s a pity, because what one can expect riding or building a special frame bike is a personal invitation into the designer’s mind. Still appealing to some (count me in that group)  the thrill of exploiting the excellence of a classic inline wrapped in a classic racing chassis is far more than a simple speed advantage. This is as true now as it was in 1979, proving the quest for excellence is never a wasted effort. Nolan Woodbury

%d bloggers like this: