~Since 2004~
A site about memories, thoughts, photos, and unrepentant opinions about motorcycles and motorcycling after four decades of twisting the throttle.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Sounds of History

Gilera 500/4
Modern racing bikes, especially the MotoGP have and awesome sound but somehow have developed beyond grasp of the ear to sense the passion of the men who design or ride them. Exhaust tuning and unlimited dyno time have created pipes and horsepower undreamed of 30 years ago but sounds that are closer to a 500cc 2-stroke than and a classic 4-stroke wail. The sound is stupendous but a little sterile; techno-sterile might be a good way to put it.

Early Ferrari and MV Agusta engines were said to have "a sound like ripping canvas." That's a tough one to imagine today in our ripstop nylon world. I imagine that on sailing ships of old when a huge mainsail gave way and the canvas burst in a massive edge-to-edge tear it must have sounded like doom and calamity coming right at you. John Surtees on the Moto Guzzi V8, with it's skinny tires, wistful brakes, vicious handling, and dustbin fairing, must have felt and and sounded the same way as the bike and rider fought their way around the guardrail and tree lined grand prix tracks of 1957. Doom and calamity and sound aimed right at you.

Moto Guzzi V8 - Photo: Pietro Venturini
Japan, Inc. has given us wonderful, bullet proof, modern engines that sound very nice but lack any real soul although the Honda GP machines of the 1960s were wonderful sounding machines. The Japanese in their relentless "continuous improvement" engineering may have perfected things too far. In America, Harley's are Harley's and sound good (hey, it's a big v-twin) but when sound and a logo become the main design criteria something innate to the spirit and heart of motorcycling is lost. So it's left to the Italians as always to give us engines today that make a sound that is addictive, coming from motorcycles that are a true embodiment of a human passion for living.

The best sounds today come from v-twin engines. Our Italian friends have not forgotten how to build soul into a bike and into an engine and I have no doubt that exhaust note is an important criteria in determining the final tuning and function of an Italian v-twin. Even the modern MV Agusta four cylinder engine has a distinctly throaty Italian GP sound, no doubt tuned with every intent NOT to sound like a Japanese four.

My Aprilia Caponord has Remus pipes on it and they are much louder and authoritative than the stock Aprilia cans. They are really out of character for "a big trailie" as the Brits call adventure touring bikes. I should take the Remus cans off and return the bike to stock but every time I dive into a turn, blip the throttle for a downshift, and really hear the 60 degree v-twin I get a little farther away from actually going back to the civilized stock exhaust.

Vintagebike.co.uk has a website devoted to, you guessed it, vintage bikes. In the "Sounds" section of the website is a wonderful treasure: Sound clips from great racing bikes going all the back to the 1949 Norton ES2 and 1957 Gilera Four. There are a smattering of modern machines too like the Honda Fireblade and BMW R1150GS so it's a fine opportunity to listen to "then and now" in the racing and motorcycle world. Compare the sound of '49 Norton to the 1150GS and the GS sounds pretty darned nice. Compare the Moto Guzzi V8 or 1967 MV Agusta to almost anything since and you realize that motorcycle sounds may have reached their zenith over thirty years ago. Listen to the sound of the Harley Sportster and you are reminded that it's time to mow the lawn. Yeah, that last comment was a cheap shot but I couldn't resist.

Mike Hailwood on the 1967 MV Agusta is the best sound on the Vintagebike page, better than anything running the tracks today. Modern MotoGP bikes sound too much like modern F1 cars and who wants their bike to sound like a car? The 1957 Moto Guzzi V8 (a 500cc 4-stroke V8 for you newer guys) comes closest to sounding like a modern machine. In 1957 it must have sounded to race fans like something from another planet. 

Moto Guzzi V8 at Goodwood - Photo: James Middleton

Imagine the times the bike raced in, the black leather suits without advertising, cork lined pudding bowl helmets, split lens goggles, 19 inch racing tires on rain slick tracks. Imagine tree lined and walled streets of the Isle of Man or the long course at Nurburgring. No computer tuning, no video feeds from the bike, just a hugely talented and brave rider astride a machine designed by men using slide rules and a passion for bikes and speed as their primary tools. Put some racing castor oil in a pan on the stove and get it hot until the odor prevades the room if you want the full effect.


Helena said...

Love the pictures of the bikes. I'm drooling. When I look out my window in Toronto there is 20 cm snow under ice. Look forward to other stories.

Travis said...

Great post Doug, thanks so much for pointing out those incredible sound clips. One of my fondest memories of riding in a group is of riding for 4 hours behind a Guzzi 1000cc twin and listening to that sweet engine and pipes sing. Those Gileras don't sound so bad either. Do you think Gilera will ever start selling bikes in the US again?

Doug Klassen said...

Hi Travis,

Glad you enjoyed the sound stuff. I was really jazzed when I found it. Not much about the old bikes turns up on TV here and they almost never appeared in the US so the chance to see and especially hear them has been just about zilch. Nigel has done a nice service for enthusiasts by having all those available for download.

As for Gilera, the brand is owned by Piaggio, the company that just bought Aprilia. Moto Guzzi is owned by Aprilia so now belongs to Piaggio also. As the largest scooter manufacturer in Europe and Aprilia's main competitor, Piaggio as the resources to do a variety of things with their brands and even squash their old competitor, Aprilia. So Aprilia's exact fate is cloudy at the moment but given that they've won something like 28 world championships of various kinds and is the second biggest scooter maker in Europe the brand has a lot of cache with the consumer in Europe. Gilera is a very big name in Italy and the rest of Europe and they have recently shown some new designs at various motorcycle shows over there so apparently Piaggio has plans to fully revive the Gilera name. There's even been speculation that Aprilia's big bore bikes might wind up rebranded as Gileras and Aprilia will stick to scooters and small bore GP racing which has been their real forte. I'm not sure the Italians know from one week to the next where their businesses are going so anything is possible. It would be a shame to see the Aprilia name disappear from the 1000cc v-twins because they have developed a solid reputation for performance and bullet proof engines with the people that own them.


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