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Bike Profile - Posted 4th December 2009

Hesketh V1000 and Vampire - Part 2
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It ain't quite a British Bulldog, but the Hesketh motorcycle still demands respect. Despite near-fatal flaws and fiscal foolishness, it simply refused to lay down and die. Rowena Hoseason rides a Hesketh...

It's hard to truthfully say how the Hesketh performed when it was first launched. The closest I got to one was at the UK's International Motor Cycle Show in 1984 (I think) when I actually sat on a showboat Vampire. I wasn't quite old enough then to have my bike licence!

So I can't tell you too much about how the original bike rode, and whether it was really as bad as the history books tell us. I do know that history sometimes gets written by the wrong people... and that the modern experience of riding a Hesketh will almost certainly bring a smile to a Europhile's face. The later V1000 bikes built by Hesleydon and Mick Broom (and the earlier ones which have been upgraded with the EN10, EN12 and further modifications) show off the Hesketh as it was meant to be - and as it could have been if it hadn't galloped into production with unseemly haste.

Red is better... Hesketh V1000

You hit the starter button - no kickstart, praise be - and there is an initial clamour as if the Hesketh's skeletons are still kicking around inside somewhere. But then the cool lube reaches all those valves and the din subsides, leaving behind it a bop-bop-bopping Veetwin beat. The zorsts make a good noise on the move, too...

Clamber on. There's no doubt that the seat is high, and it is wide. Novice motorcyclists may find these attributes problematic, and it's a fact that only giant spiders can paddle a Hesketh around at a standstill. Experienced riders who are used to manoeuvring a motorcycle with its throttle and brakes - or if need be by walking alongside - won't have a problem. And you learn not to park facing down into a gulley!

Engaging first gear produces no more shock and awe than nudging a 1980s Kawasaki four into action. Cog-swapping on the move isn't slick-slick Honda-quick, but the modified Hesketh gearbox need not hang its head in shame. I've encountered far worse - like the one on the first Victory cruisers, for example - and if you can get the hang of a Moto Guzzi shift or an airhead BeeEmm Boxer box then you'll have little trouble with the Hesketh's 5-speeder. Be deliberate and firm - never brutal. Don't force it; feel it.

Immense solidity of engine makes massive frame look spindly... Hesketh V1000 Rear Cylinder

Similarly, you don't need to thrash the throttle to get the massive motor moving. The flywheels may be relatively small, but the giant gears transfer torque by the tonne once they're spinning. Then, when the substantial crank and conrods are pounding away, the Hesketh's pace evens out to a continent-crossing lope. First gear is tall - really tall. You don't need to rush into second or hustle the throttle wide. Let the big Vee gather momentum until it reaches the point of prime performance, at around the 5000 to 6000rpm mark. You'll want to stay here all day, tapping into the 70ft/lb of torque to smoothly surge past the traffic, and motor on and beyond.

The transmission will still tug a touch if you let the speed drop dramatically in top gear - but you have to be really trying to get serious misbehaviour. It'll pull smoothly from 40mph in the highest ratio without a judder. There's some subdued vibration at low revs; rather less than a Guzzi but a little buzzier than an oil-head Beemer. You feel it through the bars, but it wouldn't force you off the saddle before you've emptied the tank. Those narrow, 26-inch handlebars keep your elbows fairly tucked in, but the vast 5.5-gallon tank is well sculpted so that your knees tuck in and you can exert exact pressure and leverage where you want it...

And that's just as well, because the V1000's long wheelbase gives a distinctly 1980s feel to the steering. Although at 1510mm the V1000 is 10mm shorter than both Laverda's RGS and Suzuki's 1100 Katana, it's still longer than a Ducati Monster by an entire country mile. The length of the Hesketh and its 1980s contemporaries make all three supremely stable and sidewindresistant, although you pay for that stability in the speed of the turn. You need to bring body weight into play in the turn and always, always power it out. The Hesketh can and will run out of ground clearance - so don't think you have an infinite degree of lean to play with! But the V1000 was never a sportbike and it shouldn't be viewed as one. It's a high-speed, high performance gentleman's conveyance in the traditional style; ideal for swift single riding or two-up touring, with its fabulously comfortable saddle and more than enough torque to handle a pair of full grown adults and all of their kit. Total tourists might go for a Vampire, but somehow the V1000 represents the aristocratic best of the breed, to me. And I can't wait to try the 1200...

The V1000 was always too heavy to be a sportbike, anyway, but the upside of the Hesketh's muchmaligned mass is a feeling of sturdy solidity. Its dry weight of 233kg doesn't even feel horribly heavy any more (not that it should have felt too awful even in the 80s, when bikes like the Laverda RGS were tipping the scales at 244kg). Compared to the current BMW R1150R which weighs 238kg, the Hesketh is bang on the numbers. Great weight is only a real problem if the bike is poorly balanced or squirrely at low speed, and the Hesketh is neither of these things. First gear will get you all the way to 40mph if you want it to; it'll certainly chug you around a car park without a hitch.

Marzocchi shocks, Brembo brakes, Astralite wheels... Hesketh V1000 Rear Wheel

Where amazing magnitude can be a problem is when you come to stop. Once a big motorcycle like this is really rolling then it does help to have some serious stoppers at hand to bring everything to a sudden halt. No worries, at least not by 'classic' standards. The V1000's twin front 280mm Brembo discs bite deep indeed - so deeply that they can give the older forks a hard time. I imagine that the upgraded front brake adds greater control, but on this bike you don't make panic stops a regular occurrence unless you like feeling the front end squirm underneath you! The single rear disc has been criticised for being overly sharp, which makes it all but useless for its wet weather duties.

Ride a V1000 for a day (better still, two - better yet, an entire week), and you'll discover its secret. Bikes, even big bikes, have become toys these days. Disposable toys. The Hesketh is a serious motorcycle, a throwback to the old days. Wellridden, the Hesketh is a motorcycle which will always reward its rider. This is no twist-and-go, devilmay- care lightweight consumable. It's no mass-produced, computerdesigned wind-tunnel-tested automaton. It's a hand-built British V-twin with more than its fair share of heart, soul, and suffering. Caught up in all that metal and might is more character than the collected works of Charles Dickens.

But - I say again - would you really want to own one? If you can't quite afford a new one built to order, then good secondhand V1000s, with minimal miles and all the mods, now sell for around 6000 in the UK. And that mighty Vee isn't considered to be properly run in until it's travelled 8000 miles or more, so even after two decades there's plenty of life left in these big old beasts. Spares parts supply is good; one owner had his V1000 run over in a car park and needed a new exhaust, seat, master cylinder, footrest and brake lever - and all these items were available from stock. Mick Broom, the expert, tells you what to looks for: 'When buying a secondhand Hesketh it is important to find out the history of the motor.' If you contact him with the engine number, then Mick will be able to tell you whether the bike has been treated to the correct upgrades. Superfi cial guides to condition are less revealing, he reckons; 'Mileage and year mean nothing. We don't keep a lot of paper records but know of most Heskeths if advice is needed.'

Hard to find an angle where the Vampire looks good... Hesketh V1000 and Vampire
Hesketh stuff on :

Once you've found your Hesketh then get it on the road and 'just ride it,' recommends Mick; 'as this is the best way of sorting it. They like to be used and we have no problems with the bikes that are used every day, unlike the ones that have been in the shed for a while.' Remember to make sure you have the correct pressure in the tyres, and balance the carbs correctly. Nothing to it! Perhaps the most persuasive argument for owning a Hesketh is that it comes complete with a combination of cachet and performance which few other motorcycles can match. It's a modern classic, pure and simple. How many other motorcycles can you buy which have the signature of a genuine English Lord cast into the engine cover?

Part of the problem with a Hesketh is that it's extremely hard to pigeonhole. It's a bit like a Laverda triple... but not quite. It's something like a fi rst-generation Hinckley Triumph, but not entirely. It shares several attributes, good and bad, with both Moto Guzzi and BMW big twins. Yet it isn't quite like any of these. Maybe it's most like a Buell... and maybe not! Even the Hesketh's most stalwart supporter, Mick Broom, admits that the bike is never an instant winner. 'You have to get used to a Hesketh,' he says. 'You won't like it immediately, but we encourage longer evaluations by the customers if at all possible. The 1200 will come with a health warning - there is a very serious chance of falling in love with it!'

The world didn't much like the Hesketh at first. But after twenty years, it's grown on us. If nothing else, you have to give the Hesketh credit for sheer dogged determination. Perhaps there is a bit of the bulldog in it, after all.

Site-Seeing

If there really isn't enough info here to satisfy your Hesketh craving, then try:

  • The Hesketh Owners' Club www.owners.heskethmotorcycles.co.uk

    Words: Rowena Hoseason Photos: Bob Clarke

    This article was originally published in RealClassic magazine, which is only available by subscription. You can order a single back issue of the magazine here or an older one here, but they're selling out fast...


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