It is almost axiomatic that the heyday of any technology dependent sport, particularly any form of motorsport that involves internal combustion, is its very beginning. No one, not even the most brilliant of engineers, knows what will work — or, more importantly, what will not — in the beginning. Invariably they will, until they find out better, try to adapt some form of existing machinery to whatever the new rules might be. Oh, the same axiom says that eventually, as all the engineers learn pretty much the same lessons, said solutions will coalesce on but a precious few — witness the virtual hegemony the V4 enjoys in MotoGP these days. But until they do, their search for speed looks pretty much like the wild, wild West of crankshaft configurations.
That’s certainly true of superbike racing. Amazing machines all, modern superbikes appear like cookies cut out of the same mold. Paint modern superbikes all the same colour and the average race fan couldn’t tell one from another without a program. Strip them of their bodywork and their badging and, save for the Ducati with its V4 engine, even the technologically savvy might have a hard time distinguishing Yamaha from Honda and vice versa. The fact is — again, save for the Duke — that the entire WSBK field differs more for their tuning (cam timing, valve angle and compression rating) than their engineering. For those who see racing as the pinnacle of technological development, modern superbikes are, frankly, boring as snot.
It was not always thus.
In fact, in the beginning, superbikes, as a racing series, was started by the AMA circa 1976 to capitalize on the exploding popularity of large-displacement motorcycles invading North America; racing was pretty much a run-what-ya-brung rodeo of unlikely contestants. Oh, modern enthusiasts would recognize a few of the now ubiquitous inline fours, but despite their now acknowledged technological superiority, they were often beaten to the checkered flag by a hodge-podge of now-shunned oddball twins. As I said, what is now well-known — that you need at least four high-revving pistons to win a race — was not nearly so apparent when Reg Pridmore was racing around without knee pucks on his leathers (or a back protector underneath).
And no book captures this technological diversity better than Superbike: An Illustrated Early History by Kevin Cameron and John Owens. We all know Cameron — an elite tuner in the ‘70s and a Cycle World contributor since, well, forever — but Owens is more of a mystery.
Until you start leafing through Superbike that is. What you will find inside, if you’re old enough to have lived through superbiking’s origins, is a familiar compendium of photos from some of the great magazines of the day; the incomparable Cycle, the blessedly still-alive Cycle World, and the era’s racing digest, Cycle News. For motorcyclists of a certain age that grew up in this era of glorious nonconformity, Cameron and Owens’ Illustrated Early History is, from the very first page, like opening a diary into your own worship of the motorcycle.
Eddie Lawson is on the cover, Wayne Rainey not far behind and the first (of many) pictures of Freddie Spencer captures how perfectly his “aw, shucks” choir-boy innocence masked the ferociousness of his relentless ambition. And that’s even before you’ve gotten through the authors’ bios.
Leaf further and you’ll find familiar reminisces of Reno Leoni’s odd-duck Moto Guzzi (ridden by Mike Baldwin), the thoroughly reinvented Butler & Smith BMW flat-twin (engineered by the brilliant Udo Gietl and ridden by Pridmore) and, of course, the legendary “California Hot Rod” ridden by Cycle’s editor-in-chief Cook Neilson and tuned by fellow Cycle alumni Phil Schilling. There are also, because this is a most comprehensive historical reference, some surprises. Who, for instance, knew that Erik Buell rode a Duke? But there he is on page 37, flat on the tank of the Tesone Enterprise 900 SS. Hell, there’s even a picture of Freddie Spencer — yes, that Freddie Spencer — riding an equally Italian Ducati.
But if Owens’ amazing pictures remind us of an era almost forgotten, it is Cameron’s words, as always, that explain it. On top of all the descriptions of who’s who and what’s what, it is Cameron’s trademark pithy explanations of the how that made me truly love this book. His discourse on the difference between 4-into-1 and 4-into-2-into-1 exhausts are why he remains a legend amongst motojournalists (it has to do with a second negative pressure wave caused by the latter’s second joining of pipes). His analysis of inline versus V4s (referencing Honda’s VF750F Interceptor) should be required reading for anyone who thinks they understand motor-cycle racing.
Indeed, just a collection of his insights could probably fill another book. In the meantime, we have this, one of the best — if not the best — motorcycle coffee-table books I have ever read. If you love motorcycles, buy a copy. If you’re looking for a gift for a bike-mad friend, they will be forever in your thrall. It really is that good.
Superbike: An Illustrated Early History costs US$75 (US$90 signed by both authors) and is available from superbikebook.com.