There have been many attempts over the years to “revolutionize” motorcycle design in some form or another. The basic elements of modern motorcycle design are quite conservative, and have been around for decades. You rarely see anything except hydraulically damped telescopic front forks and monoshock rising-rate rear suspensions. Some attempts have become curious and complex diversions, like the Bimota Tesi and Vyrus hub-centre steering setup or the Yamaha GTS single-sided front swingarm. Some have found success on the track, like the Britten V1000 with its radical suspension setup, or on the street, like the BMW Telelever and Paralever front suspensions.
When it comes to re-designing the layout of a bike, the way the bits are put together in relation to the rider, few have attempted to mess with the old “rider on top, motor in middle, wheels at both ends” formula. Except for legendary American racer and builder Dan Gurney, that is.
Dan Gurney is a household name, if your household discusses American auto racing anyway. He is an accomplished racer, having competed in the highest levels of motorsport including Formula 1, and a well-known race-car builder who co-founded Anglo American Racers (now All American Racers) alongside Carroll Shelby in 1965. Shelby later left AAR, leaving Gurney at the helm – a post he has occupied to this day. The moment that would define Gurney’s career as a builder and a racer would be his Cinderella-story entry into the 1967 Formula 1 championship with the Gurney Eagle – to this day, the only American-made F1 chassis (a Weslake V12 was used for motivation in the ’67 season). Gurney piloted the Eagle himself to a win at Spa in 1967, so far the only victory for an American driver in an American car in Formula 1.
Gurney is known for his tenacity and unwillingness to accept the status quo as much as his driving skill (and height – at over 6 feet tall he is quite a bit taller than the average racer, which necessitated the famous Gurney Bubble on the roof of his GT40 to clear his helmet), and is vocal about his displeasure with the lack of innovation in modern racing due to the neutering of development by strict design regulations and rules. Gurney is a clever tinkerer who values innovation and risk taking in the face of opposition. This philosophy is clear when you look at the design of his feet-forward sport bike, and the only motorcycle to be developed and built by AAR, the iconoclastic Gurney Alligator.
The Alligator began as a pet project by Gurney himself to build a motorcycle that would suit his tall frame. Legend has it that in the 70s he was riding his Montesa off-road and felt like he was too tall for the machine, and his head-forward riding position made him uneasy. He began to look at ways to make himself more comfortable by drastically lowering the seat height. In that moment the idea was born to build a sporting motorcycle with a feet-forward, ass-low seating position. The key would be to maintain the sporty pretences of the machine and keep handling tidy – there are plenty of cruisers with comfortable feet-forward positions, but handling and ground clearance is severely compromised. And they still have relatively high seat heights that keep the rider above the centreline of the chassis, a tradition that has become the norm in motorcycle design where riders are invariably perched on top of a bike to various degrees rather than sitting IN the bike (I always laugh when I read reviews that claim the latest waif-like Superbike has a seating position where you are “sitting in the bike” when the accompanying photos show some test rider dwarfing the machine they are precariously perched over). The Alligator idea is to have the seat as low to the ground as possible to give good handling, not hinder it. It also offers an extremely low and compact centre of gravity that gives the bike exceptional turning qualities and a distinct advantage over traditional designs.
The first prototype was built around a 1976 Honda XL350 in 1980. The A-1 “Grandpa Gator” was an odd machine that used a Honda tank, 350 single, a heavily modified frame, spoke wheels, and what looks like a Harley tail mated to an L-shaped seat. The seat height is only dictated by the required travel of the lengthened swingarm. The frame is a single-downtube cradle at the front with a unique triangulated subframe built from steel tubing at the back to support the seat. The resulting contraption was nicknamed the Alligator for two reasons – the long and low appearance, and the American heritage (alligators are as American as Bud and apple pie).
The A-1 was the beginning of a series of prototypes that would refine the concept and improve performance. While ungainly looking, the concept proved sound. Handling was remarkably good, and performance off the line was an unexpected bonus – with a low CG and 60-odd inch wheelbase, the bikes are practically impossible to wheelie or stoppie. This means that you can whack open the throttle from a stop and the thing will take off like a scalded cheetah without having the feather the throttle to keep the front wheel planted. Then you can brake hard without overloading the front end or pitching too much weight forward. And of course you get armchair comfort combined with sportbike handling. It turned out that Gurney’s odd concept was much more clever than simply making a more comfortable bike for a tall rider.
The Alligator project was always a sideline, a concept that Gurney himself tinkered with between projects in the back of the AAR shop in Santa Ana California. The Alligator test bikes, A-1 through A-3, would occasionally be tested on the California canyon roads and local racetracks in the 1980s and 90s. Whenever they made an appearance they were show-stoppers, drawing attention at rest stops along canyon routes. The Alligator, in all its forms, is clearly a motorcycle and has all the conventional components, just arranged in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Ner-A-Car went out of production in 1927. It is something that defies traditional categorization, but manages to work well in a variety of roles. Up until the late 90s the Alligators were always curious prototypes with a slap-shod, unfinished appearance that overshadowed their clever design. That would change with the introduction of the A4.
In 1999 Gurney unveiled a more polished production-ready prototype with enveloping bodywork. The timing was important, as AAR had just stopped their involvement in CART and had newfound resources and time to dedicate to the Alligator project. The A-4 was showcased in the motorcycle media as a refined version of the Alligator concept that combined the feet-forward position with the latest and greatest components and technology. Bodywork was carbon fibre, the engine was a tuned and fuel injected Honda XR600 single, and the swingarm was a trendy single-sided item with a shock integrated into the arm to accommodate the tight packaging. The chassis was a bespoke chrome-moly trellis design. The fuel tank was moved under the seat to allow more room for the tall engine and its intake. The aesthetics were conservative but handsome, certainly a purposeful design that looked much more desirable than the rough-looking prototypes that preceded it.
All Alligators feature single-cylinder motivation. The Alligator is supposed to be light, simple, agile and punchy – outright power is not the aim of the project. Targets for the production spec Alligator were in the region of 80 (crankshaft) horsepower with a wet weight around 300 lbs. Combined with the massive traction and stability of the feet-forward position, it promised a reasonably quick performer. And with the narrow frontal profile of the bike, good aerodynamics was a bonus – production machines were good for a hair under 140 mph. Not bad for a single repurposed from a big trail bike.
The A4 was not the ready for prime time, however. Despite hopes for an imminent production run the A4 was shelved and further developed with another prototype, the A5. Production costs were prohibitively high and further development was needed before an Alligator could be offered to the public. In 2002, the final production bike was finally offered to the public – the A6 refined the design introduced with the A4, with some extra grunt courtesy of a more highly tuned Honda single. 36 blue-and-white examples were slated for production in honour of the Spa-winning’67 Eagle’s number and national livery. The A6 could be had at 35000$ a pop, and the small production run was quickly sold out to collectors and museums around the world.
Like the A4, bodywork was carbon-fibre and the chassis was a chrome-moly steel trellis frame with modern suspension - a Honda Fireblade front end with Brembo Goldline brakes, and five-spoke Dymag magnesium wheels. Curiously the trick single-sided-swingarm of the A4 was dropped in favour of a conventional box-section swingarm with dual shocks. Seat height, the whole point of the endeavour, was a ridiculous 18 inches. Power was courtesy of a XR650 Honda air-cooled single, bored out to 710cc with a hotter cam and a custom fuel injection system. A custom underslung exhaust system sat beneath the engine and seat. Claimed power was “70 plus hp”. Wet weight of the machine was 320 lbs. Slightly off from the targets, but not enough to be a disappointment.
Performance was quite sprightly. With the traction of the chassis and the torque of the hopped up single, the Alligator blasted off the line and set a record 0-30 mph time of 1.1 second in Cycle World’s 2002 road test. Handling was praised for being damn near telepathic - as you sit inside the chassis and occupy the centre of gravity, any input is immediate. You don't steer the bike from above through controls so much as work from within. Ground clearance was apparently not an issue, despite the foot forward controls and low slung seat. Racers and reviewers alike praised the dynamics of the unusual machine. In other words, mission accomplished.
The problem with the Alligator was that it was difficult to categorize and too iconoclastic to offer a viable alternative to traditional design. As good as it was in the real world, the appearance was simply too radical for most motorcyclists, who are often a conservative lot. It was too laid back and not powerful enough for the sport bike crowd, too sporty and modern for the cruiser guys, and just plain weird to everyone else. It was tested by Motorcycle Cruiser magazine, which spoke to the odd categorization it faced – “Feet forward? Must be a cruiser then, we’ll review it next month next to the new Harley FLXCHZYPTRB”.
Mass appeal was never the point of the Alligator. Dan Gurney sought to build a better bike by breaking the mould and thinking independently, but his idea was limited in appeal and he never intended to make a fortune building his ass-low feet-forward sportbike. 36 production models were intended, and that’s all they built.
In 2005 AAR announced a new prototypecalled the Instigator that housed a massive 1820cc S&S V-Twin in a beefed up Alligator chassis (no power deficit this time around – a 2030cc version was also planned), but since then no further announcements have been made and the project appears to have stalled. Perhaps it is just as well, because the Instigator was more of a weird power-cruiser than a true member of the Alligator family – it eschewed the principles of light weight and simplicity in favour of a massive Harley-type motor and more power.
In the end the Alligator was a limited edition curiosity, a future collectible that represented the unique and innovative vision of a single man who wanted to break the evolutionary chain of motorcycle design with a new kind of reptile.
The Alligator launch site with photos, tech info, and press info
All American Racers (AAR)
AAR on the Alligator
Motorcycle Cruiser brief review of the A6. Note that the engine displacement specs are incorrect - 82x104mm would be 550cc. The correct spec is 104x83mm, which is just over 700cc.
Motorcycle.com on the S&S Instigator