Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Barigo Onixa 600 - Gallic Supermono


Barigo Onixa 600 supermono motorcycle
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After fawning over multi-cylindered complexities for the last few months, I think it’s time to take a step back and return to the basics – one big piston, a sporty chassis, and no extraneous nonsense to dull the fun. Big four-stroke singles were once the mainstay of racing and road riding the world over, with road-burning thumpers from Great Britain defining the genre and dominating the poles on track, off road, and on the street. But by the 1960s more powerful twins were taking over and stealing the public’s attention away from these simple but versatile singles. The demand for more power and more speed overshadowed the once mighty thumpers, which increasingly became relegated to off-road categories where their simplicity, light weight and ample torque were an asset.

There always remained a small but loyal contingent of enthusiasts who desired a classic sporting single, a simple, nimble and punchy machine that could dice with the best in the twisties without the complexity and superfluous doohickery of the be-cylindered tire vaporizers that dominate the spec sheets and the sales charts. They longed for a bike that harkened back to the good old days of sporting motorcycles, when it was you, the road, and one big piston slinging you down the road. But these folks didn’t want something that appealed to the typical rose-tinted nostalgia. They wanted something modern, something fast, and something that wasn’t a throwback.



Barigo Onixa 600 supermono motorbike
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They wanted a supermono: a rare category of sport bike that has all but died out today, but was in its prime (such as it was) in the 1990s. You had a surprising number of options if you wanted a big, 500cc-plus single cylinder sporting bike in the mid 90s, not to mention the Super Mono and Sound of Singles race categories to support the competition side. The Yamaha SRX and SZR, KTM Duke, and BMW F650 had you covered for roadsters, and if you wanted something more exotic you could pick up a Bimota BB1. If you were a pretentious fashionista, you’d have an Aprilia Starck 6.5. If you were suitably heeled and wanted to dominate the racetrack, not to mention make your paddock mates jealous, there was the Ducati Supermono. That's not mentioning the retro-styled Honda GB, or the rare Gilera Saturno Bialbero.

Considering the dearth of options today, you had quite a few options for fun singles from mainstream marques during this one-lung renaissance.

But this is OddBike. We don’t do mainstream. So for our example of the extinct supermono species I present the Barigo Onixa 600, the sole French entry into the category and one of the finest examples of the breed.

Barigo Onixa 600 motorcycle
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Barigo was the creation of French off-road specialist Patrick Barigault (which is pronounced, as you might guess, Barry-go). Barigault got his start in the 1976 with a prototype frame built for a friend's Bultaco 250, followed by a series of off-road frames built around Honda and Yamaha engines, which the company history notes were to replace the "crack-prone English frames" popular with competitors at the time. The first production model, powered by a four-stroke Honda XL 500 motor, was introduced in 1979 and dubbed the 500 HB. Pretty soon Barigo earned a reputation for excellent off-roaders and enduros, usually built around big four-stroke Japanese singles. Competition success proved the mettle of the La Rochelle-built machines, with a win at the 1981 Tunisia Rally (noted as a "Yamaha" but in fact an XT500-engined Barigo), 3rd in the 1982 Paris-Dakar, and 11th and 12th place in 1983 'Dakar.

Barigo Onixa Exhausts
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By the mid-80s Barigo was well established in off-road competition. From 1984 onward the company used Rotax 500 and 600cc singles, with the odd experiment with other engines, including a Ducati-engined enduro called the F1 Desert that beat the Cagiva Elephant to the punch by a year. But there was something new on the horizon. In 1986 they were ready to branch out into the relatively new "Supermoto" category. Supermoto got its start in 1979 as a sort of mixed-skills category where riders had to alternate between dirt and tarmac sections on the same closed course. Oddly enough it started as a segment on ABC's Wide World of Sports called "Superbikers" where racers from three distinct disciplines - flat track, motocross, and road racing - would compete on a course that combined elements of all three categories. The original series was hosted in the USA until 1985, but continued in Europe where it evolved into the sport we know today.

Barigo Magie Noire Tanagra Supermoto
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Supermoto machines are generally converted single-cylinder motocrossers. Slap on some asphalt-appropriate wheels and tires, firm up the suspension, upgrade the brakes - bam: supermoto machine. Factory offerings didn't really hit the market until the 1990s, only really coming into vogue in the 2000s after the sport was reintroduced in the US following its European education. Before then most competition machines were converted by riders or specialists. That is, with one notable exception: Barigo introduced the first factory supermoto machine, powered by a 558cc air-cooled four-stroke Rotax mill, at the 1986 Paris motorcycle salon. Dubbed the Magie Noire ("Black Magic"), it proved to be a machine well ahead of its time. The chassis and bodywork looked like a modern dirtbike, but the running gear was aimed at the asphalt, featuring three-spoke composite alloy wheels with tubeless tires. Dry weight was 265 pounds, with up to 55 hp on tap via an optional factory hop-up kit. To avoid confusion (or copyright issues, depending on who you ask) with a Lancome perfume of the same name the bike was re-christened the Tanagra. Despite good press and a fair share of interest it was only produced in extremely limited numbers, supposedly less than 10 examples. It should be noted Barigo was always a tiny manufacturer, having no more than a dozen employees at any given time - mass produced they were not.

 

In 1992 Barigo introduced the SM 600, which continued the formula laid out by the Magie Noire/Tanagra but with the added bonus of being produced in quantities that exceeded a single digit. By this time Gilera had built the first mass-produced supermoto in the form of the 1991 Nordwest, but aside from the thumper from Arcore the SM really had no peers. It also bested the Nordwest in power with a claimed 61hp from a liquid-cooled 599cc Rotax engine, and was lighter than the Italian at 290 lbs dry. Journalists sung praise for the well-sorted chassis and flickable nature of the SM (in spite of its long 60 inch wheelbase) and instant punch of the Rotax engine, which made equivalent singles from the Japanese seem lazy in comparison. Not much of a surprise given that most 500-600cc singles were (and still are) big enduros and trail bikes, not flyweight road carvers that inspire hooligan tendencies.

Barigo SM 600 Supermoto Motorcycle
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With a stout alloy frame, nimble handling and a punchy motor, it wasn't much of a stretch to imagine the SM as a good base for a single-cylinder sportbike. That was the genesis of the Onixa 600 - take the SM 600, bolt on some lower road-oriented suspension bits, wrap it in a full fairing - bam: instant supermono. The result was much more than a simple tweak of an existing model, and performed better than the sum of its parts - the Onixa ended up being one of the best road going supermonos that never was.

Barigo Onixa 600 supermono motorcycle prototype
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The Onixa was unveiled in prototype form at the 1993 Paris Salon and garnered a fair share of attention. The SM 600 frame was unchanged, but the running gear was more road oriented. The swingarm was shortened more than an inch. Wheelbase was now around 56 inches. Suspension was as you'd expect from a sporty European middleweight  - 40mm inverted WP forks at the front and a WP monoshock at the back. The rear used a straight-rate mount, unlike most modern sporting bikes that have a rising-rate linkage to give more progressive springing. Wheels were 17 inch composite items in magnesium from Technomagnesio. Up front was a single 310mm disc gripped by a comically oversized Beringer 6-piston caliper. A then-fashionable stacked "shotgun" exhaust added some visual weight to the left side. Everything was wrapped bulbous black bodywork. A large solo-seat tailsection hid the dirtbike-style subframe and underseat fuel tank. Oh, and it appeared to be hunchbacked due to a massive hump-shaped dummy fuel tank that was nearly as tall the windscreen.

Barigo Onixa Prototype
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The, um, unusual proportions weren't for purely aesthetic reasons (thankfully) - there was a pragmatic reason for the butt-ugly gas tank. You see the SM shared one characteristic common to most dirtbikes - a tiny fuel tank. Fuel range was in the double-digits. Fine for an uncompromising hooligan mount but not ideal for a road-oriented sport bike that might be called upon to ride farther than the corner store. So Barigo extended the cell up from under the seat into the traditional location above the motor. One problem: the twin-spar frame was extremely tall and arched over the top of the engine's already high cylinder head, which meant that the new fuel tank had to be stuck way up into the rider's face. They also saw fit to throw a dummy cover over the assembly with a pair of vacuum-cleaner - erm, "ram air" - intake ducts funneling air from above the headlamps down to the airbox. It created an ungainly looking creature that appeared as tall as it was long, like the ungodly lovechild of a mutated flatfish and a RC30.

Barigo Onixa Blue Motorcycle Supermono
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Even if it wasn't exactly pretty, the concept seemed sound and the project went ahead. In 1994 a bright-red pre-production model was made available for flogging at the hands of journalists 'round the Bordeaux Merignac race track. The magnesium composite wheels were replaced with Marvic aluminum items, the swingarm had some added bracing, and a few detail changes distinguished the red machine from the black prototype show in Paris, but aside from that the machine was more or less as promised - a full bodied large-bore supermono with a highly tuned Rotax heart. The WP suspension and Beringer brake remained, while the chassis benefited from an adjustable rake that could be varied between 24 and 28 degrees.

The engine was a liquid-cooled 97x81mm 599cc double-cam mill with a four-valve head, the same engine that was used in the SM, counterbalanced to mitigate the usual big-single vibrations. Claimed power was 61hp at 8000 rpm and 42 lb/ft at 6000. Like all Rotax singles of the era the transmission was a five-speed. Ignition came via three spark plugs, induction through two 36mm Dell'Orto carburettors.

Why three plugs? Spend any time researching four-stroke tuning and you'll learn that one of the most important elements of performance (that is consistently overlooked) is combustion - specifically the propagation of flame fronts through the combustion chamber. Ideal flame propagation comes from turbulent mixture being swirled past the ignition source(s). Multi-plug heads in large combustion chambers (like in, say, a big-ass 600cc single) introduce multiple ignition sources to start multiple flame fronts and better burn the fuel mix. Modern pent-roofed combustion chambers with shallow included valve angles and large squish bands are also important, as they have less volume to ignite and introduce turbulence when the piston compresses the charge into the chamber, squeezing it from the squish zones around the edge into the centre where the spark plug resides. Moving mixture burns and propagates flame better than stagnant mix sitting in large pockets, like you'd get in a old fashioned cylinder head with a wide valve angle and a domed piston. Nowadays multi-plug heads are as much about emissions as they are about ensuring good combustion - the better the burn, the less hydrocarbons that come out the dirty end. Of course everything is a compromise - you can't go sticking a dozen spark plugs into a cylinder head without taking much-needed space away from the valves and squish area, or getting into the way of the intake, exhaust and coolant ports in the heads.

Barigo Onixa Supermono
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Back to the Onixa: Testers noted the counterbalanced engine was smoother than expected, if not completely free of buzziness.  Handling was notably good, easy to manoeuvre with good stability, and power very useable as long as you kept it over 3000 rpm to bypass the driveline lash. The single front disc might not have looked like much, but the huge six-piston Beringer caliper had no trouble stopping the lightweight machine. Really it would have been a shock if it didn't perform well - dry weight was around 320 lbs, and the Onixa benefited from a shorter wheelbase and steeper rake than the SM that spawned it. Top speed was around 125 mph.

Barigo Onixa motorbike
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There were a few criticisms leveled against the Onixa. The big one was the odd appearance, which was either described as handsome or horrifying depending on who was writing the review. The tall tank raised the centre of gravity considerably, while intruding into the rider's space - you couldn't tuck in behind the windscreen with the humpback jutting in your face. It gave a new benchmark for the "dog fucking a football" riding position - at-speed shots made it look like a body-coloured airbag was going off in front of the rider's chest. And the five-speed gearbox was pretty old hat for a modern supersport, even if the motor had a broad spread of torque.

Barigo GT 600 and 600 E motorcycle prototypes
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Barigo hoped to build 300 Onixas a year, with more on the horizon if they were able to secure a police contract for a roadster variant dubbed the GT 600. The GT used the same frame and engine as the Onixa/SM, but had fully-faired dual-sport styling, Onixa running gear, and integrated luggage. Completing the lineup was an enduro based on the same platform dubbed the 600 E. This was in addition to the SM 600 that was already in production. Two GT prototypes were build along with one E before the police contract fell through and the project was cancelled. Without enough funding to setup series production the Onixa was shelved after only three machines were built - the black prototype (which was disassembled after the 1993 Salon), the red development tester, and a blue pre-production machine. Rumour had it that the red machine may have had as much as 71 hp due to some factory fettling - was it a specially-prepared ringer passed off as a "pre-production" machine to unsuspecting journalists? Was the tuning done before or after the journalists had their fun? They certainly wouldn't be the first or last manufacturer to tweak a test bike to improve the odds...

Barigo GT 600 Police
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Compared to its peers, the Onixa had the most potential to be the benchmark in the supermono category - styling excepted. Let's examine the competition, with some leeway in dates (some came before, some just after). The BMW F650 was a quasi-offroad roadster dubbed the, ahem, "Funduro" - which in hindsight is probably the most cringeworthy and emasculating name you could christen anything other than a Chinese 50cc scooter. The KTM Duke was more of a refined supermoto than anything else, dubbed a "streetmoto" by MCN. The Yamaha SRX was behind the curve, having been around since the mid-80s and perennially not selling well since it was introduced (remember when I talked about enthusiast specials?). The MuZ (later MZ) Skorpion was a relatively unexciting machine powered by a Yamaha XT motor (shared with the SZR), and earned a reputation for poor quality over the years. The Ducati Supermono was without peer as a factory single-cylinder sport machine, but it was hideously expensive and reserved for the track - you might as well have been shopping for WSBK-spec race bike if you were considering the Supermono.

Barigo Onixa and Bimota BB1
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That leaves the Bimota BB1 (BMW-Bimota 1) as the Onixa's principal rival - it had superb handling and top-spec equipment, and it looked like a proper Bimota (which is to say pretty good). Problem was it was expensive, they only built 148, and the motor was shared with the, ugh, "Funduro" but with the added excitement of poor fueling and unconscionable vibration - details are scant but I presume Bimota ditched the counterbalancer that kept the BMW from shaking itself to pieces. The more you look at the competition of the period the more the Onixa looks like a winner. Especially if you consider that at the time most superbikes were big, bad, macho heavyweights that usually clocked in at over 500 lbs, and supersports were easily pushing 450 lbs or more. A 300-odd pound sportster with a useable spread of power and a good chassis would have decimated the big boys on tight roads. Just ask anyone who was fortunate enough to own a 250 two-stroke of that era.

Bimota BB1 and Barigo Onixa
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Alas Barigo was not long for this world after they cancelled the Onixa project. The company attempted to remain afloat by introducing an electric scooter in 1994 dubbed the Barilec, but things were going downhill fast. Between 1995 and 1997 only 40 SMs, 100 Barilecs, and a handful of competition chassis were built-to-order before the company went under. As the 1990s progressed demand for sporty singles waned, multi-cylinder machines became more refined, singles racing became relegated to support events, and demand for proper supermonos was relegated to unrealistic pining from that amorphous group know simply as "enthusiasts" writing on internet forums. The recent 2012 switch from two stroke 125s to 250 four stroke singles in the Moto3 category has renewed a bit of interest in lightweight one-lunged sport bikes but manufacturers, with the possible exception of KTM, have been slow to respond.

Barigo was an innovative company that punched well above its weight in the marketplace, first by producing successful motocrossers, followed by some of the toughest enduros in the world, then introducing the first production supermoto to the market. Unfortunately innovation isn't enough to keep the lights on, and Barigo disappeared despite debasing their brand with cash-grabbing run of electric scooters. The name re-appeared in 2001 on an experimental racing project that was aimed at developing a chassis for a future zero-emissions motorcycle, but despite some success on track (it placed second in the Challenge des Monos category in 2001, and came out of retirement to compete again in 2010) the project has apparently been abandoned. Today Barigo is no more, and the Onixa remains a footnote in the history of modern sport bikes. The Onixa was potentially one of the best single-cylinder sport machines of the era, a tantalizing 'what if' for lovers of single-piston simplicity the world over. What if it had entered production and stomped the competition? What if Barigo hadn't slid into insolvency? What if it hadn't looked like a NR750 run over by a steamroller? Regardless of the speculation, the supermono remained a niche category that appealed to but a small number of riders, a niche that has become virtually non-existent since the mid-1990s.

Barigo Onixa
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Interesting Links
1994 review of the Onixa
French language reviews of the Onixa
French language reviews of the SM 600
French Wikipedia entry on Barigo
Overview of the Barigo story with photos of their motocross and enduro machines
Some photos of various Rotax-engined Barigos
Details of the Magie Noire/Tanagra supermoto

4 comments:

  1. Michele Cuoccio12/04/2014, 10:28

    Ahahah, i remember this old, strange slug. I discovered it buying a French motorcycle magazine in Paris, during a school trip (early '90s). Some of the pics here on the blog are exactly the ones featured in that magazine (don't remember the name, it must be somewhere among my old stuff).

    The red bike was following a sort of Cagiva/Ducati allure (note the font of the Barigo logo - almost the same). I remember that the Rotax engine was not stock. The stock engine was a SOHC, this one had a factory (Rotax) head with two camshafts. If i'm not wrong, the head was liquid cooled too (besides the three spark plugs), while the cylinder was still air-cooled, but i may be wrong, i don't remember well.

    Cool bike, but, as you said, the design was too odd (albeit fascinating in some way - "ram air" intakes and vacuum cleaners hoses were in fashion at that time), and the enduro frame did not help to improve the look. Sure Barigault was trying to make an industrialized product (the only French attempt besides Voxan), but it was probably too expensive - the heavily modified Rotax engine (that was a factory racing kit) was already surpassed by the newer and totally different Rotax/Aprilia/BMW engine. Plus, i have always the sensation that French always makes too strange stuff.

    Last consideration, the Supermono category was a "fuoco di paglia", as we say in Italy, a very short-lived phenomenon. They were launched to test a new market, but reception from people was zero. All in all they were all based on old, touring-oriented enduro thumpers, they did not weight much less than a top-notch, up-to-date 600cc four cylinders, and they lacked power in their stock configuration. Still remember the test of the Bimota BB1 - reception was not bad, but the bike did not impression so much. The only "real" sport thumer was the Ducati 550 Supermono, but the market was too small for that category to make a road-legal version.

    Anyway, i like a lot this blog! I'm reading many pages. I'm interested in exotic bikes and this is my cup of tea!

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  2. Hey, i just found your website (by coincidence - why didn't this happen earlier?), and I am hooked now...the depth of the articles, and the subjects covered are great! But one little flaw...the engine in the MZ Skorpion was the same as in the Yamaha SZR (and the XTZ660), the watercooled 5-valve single, while the SRX got the early (kickstart-only, one less bolt to fix the cylinderhead) air-cooled 4-valve engine ;-)
    Keep em comin', and as a guy with a heart for big singles (...my ride is a SRX...) and the oddballs, I am thrilled to get to know a bike I've never heard of before.
    Great work!
    Regards from Germany,
    Norman

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