All posts for the month August, 2016

gearchic is doing an awesome job busting the myths of seat heights of motorcycles. I want to go a step further and talk about how seat heights come to be, and why this sucks for smaller riders.

I own two of the most female-friendly bikes that exist – the enduring BMW F650GS single and the Kawasaki Super Sherpa. Both bikes came about their ladies’ bonafides in a round-about way – they were both designed for smaller men.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Design for a smaller population and the smaller population will buy. It’s not quite so simple, because often, a bike has to be made for many sizes of rides, and as the US market is largely made of up large guys, we get bikes designed with large guys in mind. Tweaking a frame for various body geometries is not an easy task, what is given to the torso must come off the arms, the knees suffer at the expense of the hips, and you can see where that is going.

Think of cars for a minute – the designer of the retro Mustang was fired because a 6′ tall male did not fit in the back seat. The average car seat is adjustable to fit everything from a 4’6″ granny to a 6’6″ football player. That can’t happen on a motorcycle, because the degrees of freedom are far fewer and the hard points more numerous.

Big motorcycles happen because of the way the target rider is chosen. The average American male is around 5’10” and weighs something like 200 pounds. The average female is 5’5″ and closer to 145 pounds. Five inches and fifty pounds is a lot on a motorcycle. And if you’re on the smaller side, it’s a lot more.

Kawasaki developed the Super Sherpa for use as a delivery bike in various “second world” markets – places that are mostly first world, but have enough third world sections so as to make life difficult. It was to fit in under the KLX250 and allow Kawi to go after markets where the riders were smaller, but still needed the flexibility and durability of the KLX250. The electric starter, lower seat height, and softer suspension made the bike much more accessible, and while it was never really marketed in the US, it gained a fan base among guys who wanted to get their wives a dirt bike the ladies would be more comfortable on.

It’s a hit, and Sherpas are durable little buggers that ladies love like Cool James. Too bad they don’t really make it any more, and you are limited to finding someone who is willing to  sell one. Mine came in a box and I had to rebuild it, which was worth every cent and hour invested.

A bonus with the Sherpa that seems to go unsung is the height adjustable rear spring. Akin to adjusting preload, it’s yet another reason the Sherpa shines as a smaller person bike. No need to upgrade to get it sized properly, because making it smaller was on the drawing board from day one.

Way back when, BMW was roundly criticized for the early R65 – deemed a girl bike because the frame was smaller and the bike was targeted to smaller riders. The smaller boxer was no help there. Thankfully, the Bavarians were not completely put off the small rider thing, and tried again with the old BMW single – it was designed with a smaller rider in mind. The target rider was a 170cm male weighing about 70kg. That is by any measure a small guy. It’s also a slightly tall lady. Sprung from the get-go for lighter riders, and sized from the get-go for shorter riders, it gets even lower when you equip it with factory low suspension. I had that, and eventually swapped for normal, because I’m a 167cm lady weighing 61kg. I have the preload set to mostly extended, because as I grow as a rider, it gets easier to ride a taller bike and it also gets more fun to enjoy the suspension travel.

I hope that other manufacturers will start to follow BMW’s and Kawasaki’s leads in the use of smaller target riders. There is no denying BMW’s command of frame design for maximum suspension flexibility – they seem to be able to kick out frames that fit anyone with simple suspension swaps. It’s kind of disappointing that Kawi hasn’t put much into the small rider market on the dirt side of late, however it’s clear they can do it.

Let’s bring the smaller target rider to the forefront, and start at the drawing board, instead of trying to patch it up after the fact.

Found this oldie in a dark corner of the interwebs…


Go back to 1964. While GM is not thinking about much besides moving some people around at moderate speed, a few engineers at Pontiac have other ideas. Borrowing from Ferrari (more on that later), they designed an option package for the mild-mannered Tempest. Ignoring GM’s self-imposed displacement limit of 330 cubes, they pulled a 389 cubic inch V8, new steering, and a funky dual exhaust together for an option package they would call “GTO”. As the line grew and matured, a manual transmission, improved rear end, and stronger styling would be added. This first of the sleepers, the GTO would take America by storm, outselling even the wildest expectations of the engineers.

Gran turismo omologato

Go back to 1962. You will find a Ferrari that wasn’t just a track car. One of the first few supercars, nitro you could take out on a date and bring home without worrying about the aftermath. A car you could drive to work on weekdays and wring out on the track on weekends. True homologation (omologato) was a bit questionable, with only 42 of the required 100 cars (for GT qualification) actually being built. Somehow this was overlooked in the racing circles, and Ferrari went on to torture opponents at race time. The Scaglietti coupe remains one of the most beautiful automotive designs to ever find its way into traffic.

Grand touring, homologated

Homologation is the process of making a car street legal. The Ferrari was homologated to participate in the particular racing class it was destined for. While some may question the roadworthiness of any Italian cars, it is always a concern of the manufacturers to have the cars meet any safety or other regulatory guidelines for driving on public highways by lay drivers. Homologation can mean adjusting the power to weight ratio, adding emissions controls, even modifying the traction control components. Homologation also means proving that the car is a true production model, not a one-off. Hence the 100 car requirement in the case of the Ferrari GTO.

The Pontiac GTO bore little resemblance to the Ferrari GTO. Not a race car, not even race-bred, it was a glorified passenger coupe that could go very fast and do it without attracting attention. With a final production run of over 32 000 in its first year, the homologation requirements for GT class racing were surely met! The Pontiac GTO was also assembled in the opposite direction of the Ferrari – chassis first, drivetrain second. It is generally clear to car enthusiasts that Ferrari operates in the other direction.

I have recently become very interested in homologation, largely because I have only recently learned what it meant. I have also been thinking about the unfortunate and impending demise of the W8 engine in the Passat, so I got around to tracing its lineage.

The W-series program seems to have started with the Nardo, a W12-based GT car which will never see real production. The goal of the Nardo program (named after the track on which many world records for speed were set by the car) was to produce a compact engine that would produce a maximum horsepower to weight ratio. With such a compact and powerful drivetrain available, homologation was the next step for the engineers at Volkswagen.

Street legal road racer

With the largest production vehicle at the time being the Passat (the Phaeton was still on the drawing board), power-to-weight ratio and engine bay limitations were examined and four cylinders were lopped off the W12 leaving the W8. The Passat chassis had been proven out in track circles through the V8STAR series, although not fitted with the W8 motor. A six speed manual transmission was added (likely from the Nardo program considering the weak stock clutches in other Passats) with four wheel traction to handle the power. Big brakes suitable for stopping such power completed the new drivetrain package. With the conveniently 4Motion Passat chassis readily available, the new drivetrain was inserted and a performance beast was born in the form of the W8 Sport option package on the venerable Passat.

Like the Ferrari, the Passat W8 Sport started with a motor. Like the Pontiac, the choice of chassis was an unassuming, nearly invisible family sedan. Given the introduction of the Rabbit GTi some 25 years ago, one would think that VW would remember their past success in making street legal road racers. The irony is not lost on this writer.

I suppose I’m mostly disappointed about the impending demise of the W8 Sport Passat because it was a GTO in both senses – a homologated grand touring machine packed into an otherwise unassuming package. A sleeper of the grandest proportions. I’m particularly upset about losing the wagons. The Americans have never had the guts to produce such an extreme vehicle. The Dodge Magnum is their best effort so far, but there is no stick (or even SMG) option. I find that to be a serious flaw.

I’m also sad that I didn’t realize how much could have been made of the car, particularly in advertising it. The ads for the W8 Passats flat-out sucked, but a phone call to the right people with mention of ‘GTO’ could have been made. I kick myself for not seeing it sooner, not figuring out how to make the program a success in the US. Nostalgia is a powerful tool, and VW has used it wisely in the New Beetle program. Why not haul it out again for this most glorious of cars? I don’t know.

So, goodbye, Passat GTO. You never really were, but I will miss you anyway.

roll video of Nardo taking laps at Nardo.
VO: At Volkswagen, sometimes our engineers get a little creative. This time, they took two thirds of our grand touring car’s drivetrain and one third of our award winning Passat to create the Passat W8 Sport.
CG: Nardo drives through a Passat and turns into a W8 Sport variant.
VO: With eight cylinders, six gears, and our superior 4Motion all-wheel drive system, we like to think of it as the German GTO.
video: PW8S drifts to position on screen.
VO: The Passat W8 Sport. A milk run doesn’t always mean groceries.
offstage VO: Did you tell them it seats five?