Monday, 19 November 2012

Hesketh V1000 - Immortal Aristocratic Motorcycles

It is the 1970s. You are a wealthy British aristocrat, a Lord and a Baron no less, and you have a keen interest in motor sports. So, with your own money and with the express purpose of having fun, you create your own racing company. Eventually you hire a reckless playboy/racer with a penchant for drugs, sex and boozing, and you have a grand old time, even winning a few races. Along the way you develop a reputation for ostentatious displays of wealth and excess on the trackside, like helicopter rides, Rolls Royce pit cars, and 5 star accommodations (in a time long before excess became the norm in Formula 1).

After a few years the party is over and you are looking for a new gasoline-fuelled hobby. How would you follow up a race career like that? By founding your own bespoke motorcycle company to kickstart the dying British motorcycle industry, of course.

Such is the beginning of the immortal Hesketh Motorcycle company.

When it comes to odd motorcycles few compare to the quirky history and aristocratic tendencies of Britain’s Hesketh, a company that has assumed several interesting guises over the past 30 years - all while producing the same motorcycle, more or less unchanged, since 1982.

In 1981 the British motorcycle industry wasn’t dying – it was a walking corpse, shambling along long after it should have collapsed into oblivion. Royal Enfield, BSA and Velocette had been defunct since the early 70s. Norton had disappeared along with parent company Norton-Villiers-Triumph in 1978. Triumph was still around under the Meriden Motorcycle Co-Operative, making outdated products marketed to nostalgic riders who turned a blind eye to poor quality control.

NVT playing up their outdated products with nostalgia and macho ego stroking

The glory days of the British industry were long over, and rose-tinted nostalgia was the only thing keeping the last remnants of motorcycle manufacturing rolling along. This was in spite of stiff competition from other nations, particularly in the face of unfavourable exchange rates that drove up retail prices in the critical North American market.

A personal aside and an author’s note -

There will always be a slew of apologists and die hard fans lined up to recount how great the British were, and how they were unfairly maligned in the face of competition from overseas. Fact is I was a Britbike mechanic. I fixed them and rebuilt them. I learned to despise them. I respect the love and care shown by enthusiasts – I am a Ducati die hard myself – but you cannot ignore the lack of quality control and sub par engineering that was being passed off as acceptable.

I always recount the story passed down to me from the old timer at the shop – back in the NVT era, early oil-in-frame models were sometimes seizing their motors within a few miles of running, right out of the crate. Turns out the oil pumps were getting jammed full of metal swarf left over from the machining of the oil tank. The factory solution? Send a bulletin to dealers advising them to hose out the oil tank before filling it.

Back to story at hand –

Hesketh entered the market with the intention of revitalising the floundering British motorcycle industry. Lord Alexander Fermor-Hesketh (3rd Baron Hesketh), fresh from his campaigns in Formula 1, wanted to introduce a quality product that would put Britain back on the map for motorcycle manufacturing. Since the mid 70s he had envisioned a bespoke, superbly crafted, thoroughly modern machine that would blow the cobwebs off the stodgy British industry.

The Hesketh was to be (according to the company) a successor to the vaunted Vincent lineage of fast, superbly built British machines – or, as some put it, a two wheeled Aston Martin. It would be a proper gentleman’s express.

In the end, they became a sort of two-wheeled Bristol Blenheim (the car, not the plane).

A prototype was developed in 1980 and things were promising. The new bike featured an oversquare 992cc 90 degree air-cooled V-twin, a modern design developed by British engine specialists Weslake. It was touted as the first British machine to feature double overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. To put that into perspective, the nearest competitor in specification would have been the Triumph T140 TSS, produced in 1982-83, which had an 8 valve head operated by traditional pushrods. The V1000, as it became known, produced 82hp at 6800 rpm and stumped out 78 lb/ft of torque at 5400 - both pretty decent numbers for a big ‘twin in the early 80s. Fuel was delivered by Dellorto carburettors, spark by an electronic ignition system.

The frame was a steel tube duplex affair that used the powerplant as a stressed member. Marzocchi suspension was used at both ends. Brembo brakes rounded things out. Bodywork was restrained but modern, with an angular design and a bikini fairing surrounding a traditional round headlamp. The first generation was unique for having a set of pressed and riveted alloy spoke wheels – instead of casting or forging the wheels, like you would expect, the wheels are made up of a rim riveted to pressed metal spokes (notice the row of rivets).

It all looked quite good on paper and in photos. For the era, it was a handsome machine with good specifications. It was certainly far more modern than anything made in Britain up to that point. Road tests found it capable and smooth. Production began in Daventry at a state of the art facility in 1982, which made use of cutting edge CNC milling machines and computer controlled quality assurance.

There were, however, some issues.

The performance was lacking despite the decent power numbers, mainly due to a portly 540 lb dry weight. Period reviews were favourable but generally cool, describing the V1000 as stable, adequately powered, unstressed, and well braked – but generally unexceptional and quite heavy. The company brochure was filled with polite but faint praise from early reviews.

Lord Hesketh's intro to the V1000 owner's manual

Soon after introduction some problems emerged with the gearbox, gearshift, and with a lack of cooling capability on the rear cylinder. All the while the company was running on borrowed time – Lord Hesketh had been unable to secure proper investment for the project. In lieu of having sufficient outside investment, he formed and funded the company on his own, which would be the financial undoing of the operation.

Hesketh went bust in 1982 after producing only 139 bikes. But it was not the end of the Hesketh motorcycle.

In 1983 Lord Hesketh restarted the brand and introduced a new model – the Vampire sport tourer, a fully faired V1000. It didn’t take, and only 40 were built. Ugly styling, middling reviews, and continuing reliability issues meant that Hesketh went under a second time in 1984.


But wait, there’s more! Mike Broom, one of the development team test riders for Hesketh, took an interest in maintaining the brand. Broom Development Engineering provided service and repair to the existing Hesketh owners. He began manufacturing V1000s in small numbers from the brand's ancestral Easton Neston home, producing about a dozen a year from 1984 to 2011. So it was for many years that Broom and a small group of assistants kept Hesketh operating quietly, producing hand-built bikes and maintaining V1000s for discerning clients, and generally keeping a very low profile (to the point that most people thought they had been inoperative since the early 80s).

Several variants were developed over the years by Broom's team, chief among which was an updated V1000 which addressed many of the failings of the original machines dubbed the EN10 (for "Easton Neston 10 modifications").

Significant revisions were made to the chassis in 1997 to create the V1000 "Vulcan", which used wheels, brakes and suspension components sourced from contemporary Hinckley Triumphs and a modern programmable electronic ignition system from British engine control specialist Gill.

An alloy-framed naked sport bike called the "Vortan" reached the prototype stage, but never reached production due to the design's limited appeal and a lack of investment interest.


In 2011 the brand was taken over by entrepreneur Paul Sleeman, who has resurrected the brand once again with a renewed limited production run. The bike is still recognizable as a V1000, with detail updates including more modern engine management, suspension, brakes, and wheels - and modified motors and gearboxes that cure the teething issues of the early bikes.

Mick's last project prior to selling the firm to entrepreneur Sleeman was in further development of the V-twin engine, increasing the capacity to produce the 1192cc V1200. This upgrade stretched the available investment budget of the tiny firm to the limit, and it was the recognition of these financial limitations and a desire to retire and move on to other (mostly airborne) projects that lead to the transfer of ownership in 2011.

The "new" V1000 produced under Paul Sleeman ownership

Recently the company enjoyed a flurry of renewed attention after the launch of a new website and the release of some images of an updated V1000. They even have a Twitter feed with company updates and production information. The “new” Hesketh is available for around £12 000, excluding options, which is actually quite a bit less than the previous generations offered by Broom Engineering up until now.

These machines represent a renewed limited production run of bikes known as the "Kingswood" V1000s. The bike is still recognizable as a V1000, with detail updates including all the modifications embodied as EN10, along with the chassis modifications embodied in the Vulcan models and many more detail changes intended to increase the reliability and usability of the bikes and completely eradicate the teething issues of the early machines.

The continued production of Hesketh motorcycles speaks to the quirky nature of motorcycle enthusiasts. Here is an ill-conceived, mismanaged project that had promise but ultimately failed – without ever really disappearing. Production continued despite the multiple deaths of the marque, and a small demand remained for the eccentric and anachronistic Hesketh. Today they remain a tiny boutique brand with a loyal following, much like traditional British manufacturers like Morgan and Bristol. There is not much chance of Hesketh rising up and taking the world by storm, but that was never the point. They build high quality, peculiar machines for their small number of faithful followers who wish to have a unique, rare and distinctive piece of British aristocratic motoring.
Interesting Links and Image Sources
HeskethMotorcycles, the new home of the V1000 and the current iteration of the marque.