Monday, 29 July 2013

Fischer MRX - Korean-American Supersport


Fischer MRX 650 Motorcycle
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Lets say you want to buy a middleweight twin-cylinder sportbike. Think for a moment of how many options you have. No, not the Ducati 848 – that would have been in the Superbike category up until Ducati had the racing rulebook changed. The Kawasaki Ninja 650 and its SFV650 competition from Suzuki are hardly sportbikes, targeted as they are at beginning riders and lacking proper suspensions out of the box. Think hard and you’ll realize the twin-cylinder supersport market is virtually nonexistent, despite constant mumblings and half-hearted demands from those shadowy figures simply referred to as “enthusiasts”. For the last 15 years if you wanted a small, light, sweet running (but not overpowered) ‘twin in a nimble chassis, your go-to option was to buy a Suzuki SV650 and promptly upgrade the stock suspension and brakes.

Daniel Fischer saw an opportunity to fill this gap in the market as well as build an American sport bike that could compete with the Japanese at their own game – with good performance, good quality, and good value. The American-made Fischer MRX would be the culmination of several years of trial, error, setbacks, and extensive development. The result was that unicorn that enthusiasts have pined for for many years – a capable twin-cylinder supersport that was appealing but wouldn’t break the bank.



However the MRX didn't start life as a value-conscious sportbike. It began as an attempt to launch production of a proper American superbike that could kick ass and chew bubble gum (but it's all out of gum) with the big boys from Asia and Europe.

Fischer MRX Motorbike
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It was 2001 and Daniel Fischer, an AMA roadracer and former Aprilia Cup competitor based in Chicago, Illinois, had a vision for an American-made superbike. There really was no competition. Walter Roehrich was still tinkering with prototypes and wouldn't unveil his ill-fated V-Roehr until 2007. Harley Davidson had made a half-assed attempt at a road-going capital-S Superbike with their VR1000, which was only road-legal if you happened to live in Poland and had $50,000 to blow on an orphan Motor Company folly. Erik Buell was toiling away under Harley's thumb, limited to an apathetic dealer network and to using antiquated Sportster mills - his modern Helicon 1125 engine wouldn't arrive until 2008, mere months before his company went under in the wake of the economic downturn. The market thus had a massive gap that Fischer hoped to fill with a made-in-the-USA product that would tug at the usual patriotic American heartstrings. It would be a modern sportbike that would revitalize the stagnant American motorcycle industry, a machine developed and built in the US of A by hardworking American companies. Somewhere in the Midwest a bald eagle let out a visceral screech across the plains as the Stars and Stripes fluttered in the background.
Fischer MR1000 Motorcycle
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The Fischer MR (named after Dan's son, Mercer) concept was to build a modern and highly refined chassis around an existing engine: the first choice being the Rotax V990 60-degree V-twin, which you might remember from such motorcycles as the Aprilia Mille and Tuono. Thus the prototypes would be dubbed the MR1000. Famed Wisconsin engineering firm Gemini Technology Systems (who, as Fischer would continually tout, designed the much-lauded Harley Davidson VR1000 frame) would develop the new platform based on their experience in Superbike racing, with a sprinkling of MotoGP know-how for good measure. Fischer claimed that Gemini got on board quite by chance, contacting him after he placed a help wanted ad in the AMA classifieds in 2001. Motorcycle designer Glynn Kerr (who describes himself as a "freelance" designer but has several notable projects under his belt, including the Yamaha TDM850 and the Voxan VB-1) fleshed out the aesthetics of the machine.
Rotax V990 Aprilia BRP Engine
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Production was slated to begin sometime in 2004 and some promising development work was done through 2003, with several running prototypes hitting the road. Unfortunately there was the small matter of Aprilia taking exception to Rotax offering Fischer what they considered "their" engine. The V990 was the only big four-stroke twin in the Rotax range at this point, and Aprilia considered it effectively a proprietary design - they were the only company using it, and they wanted to keep it that way. They certainly didn't want an upstart competitor to use it - though they wouldn't raise much of a fuss in 2006 when longtime Rotax partner BRP stuffed the same motor into their goofy Can Am Spyder (I suppose Aprilia didn't feel quite so threatened by a Canadian reverse trike aimed at snowmobile riders). It seemed that Fischer had been unfairly strung along by Rotax, who seemed eager to offer their engine for his project and at no point hinted that he might not be allowed to use the V990 in production, but once Aprilia raised their voice Fischer was cut off. The MR1000 was dead before it hit production, but Fischer would soldier on.
Fischer MRX Motorcycle Mockup
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Despite losing its Austrian heart, the MR chassis was now a good starting point for further development and an engine transplant. Gemini developed a unique cast alloy frame design for Fischer that they dubbed the Trellispar, with manufacturing input from Caterpillar. At first glance you'd easily think that the broad, flat spars are a conventional, hollow, twin-beam frame. But in fact the frame is a totally unique design that was the first one-piece spar frame ever offered on a production machine. If you look closely at most production frames you'll notice they are composed of several cast or extruded sections that are welded together - the Fischer design eliminates the need for multiple pieces, and adds the bonus of highly controlled rigidity. The subframe was similarly engineered to reduce manufacturing steps. The "trellis" part of the Trellispar moniker refers to the internal structure, which has a Ducati-esque triangulated ribbing cast into the inside of the beams. Fischer claimed that this hybrid structure offered the best of the both worlds - the rigidity and light weight of an alloy spar, with the controlled flex of a steel trellis.
Fischer MRX Motorbike CAD drawing
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For those not well versed in chassis design (which would be most of us) flex is both your enemy and your friend when designing a proper frame. Flex is an inherent element of motorcycle dynamics - all materials are pliable to a degree and the significant suspension and braking forces acting on the frame, swingarm and suspension components will twist and shift the elements to a degree that would surprise most riders. If you've ever watched a real-time computer simulation of suspension and braking forces acting on a motorcycle (or bicycle) frame you will see what I mean - there can be visible deflection of several millimeters in the high-stress areas around the steering head and swingarm pivot.

If you are from an automotive background your immediate reaction would probably be to eliminate flex completely with ever-stiffer frames and more rigid suspensions. In the early days of high-horsepower motorcycle racing (from the 1970s onward) this thinking was applied to bikes as well. Ever-increasing power was quickly overwhelming existing chassis and tire technology and significant increases in control were needed to put the power down without twisting the frame into an ill-handling mess that would sooner spit the rider into the Armco than put him on the podium. A loose chassis feels vague: depending on the severity, it can either seem like you are floating over the asphalt without any feel for what the wheels are doing, or the bike can end up acting like it is hinged in the middle with both ends doing different things (with equally unpredictable results when you start pushing it). Start feeding massive amounts of explosive power into a wobbly chassis and you end up with a bucking, sliding, uncontrollable brute. The first step in coping with this lack of rigidity was to decrease deflection and beef up the suspension components.
Fischer MRX Motorcycle Glynn Kerr
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But bikes aren't like cars, and too little flex can be as much of a problem as too much.

While too much flex can cause wayward handling and unpredictable response, too little can make the bike feel too "tight". Traction is an on-off proposition, and the limits can be vicious and difficult to modulate. Properly tuned flex also compensates for the natural tendency of the wheels and suspension to deflect and oscillate, allowing for better roadholding under extreme conditions (i.e. racing) - front end "chatter" being one of the most notable symptoms that teams are constantly trying to control. Under high compression and extreme lean angles, the flex of the frame acts as a rudimentary suspension. Lateral flex is best for this, but needs to be balanced out by a stiff vertical plane, otherwise you just end up back at square one with a flobbery chassis. Now more teams are playing with the mounting of the forks and swingarms to further control lateral movement.

Early experiments in ever-stiffer chassis design was through trial and error, and there are lots apocryphal stories of racers miraculously turning in much quicker lap times, only to discover in the pits that the mechanics forgot to tighten the engine mounting bolts. Even today tuning flex is a tricky business - racing teams and manufacturers alike have been chasing the perfect combination for years, sometimes even going "backwards" and introducing more flex in key areas than previous models such as Yamaha did with its R1 in 2009. There is an element of witchcraft and subjective tuning involved, with each rider having their own preferences.
Fischer MRX Motorcycle Rear
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The Fischer attempted to build that ideal balance of rigidity and flexibility to offer exceptional handling, and by most accounts they succeeded in building an excellent chassis. This is all well and good, but without a motor to power it the MR was simply going to be a well-engineered paperweight.
Hyosung GT650 Motorbike
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The solution came from an unlikely source. Hyosung, the South Korean manufacturer of small-displacement motorcycles and scooters, released their first full-sized machine onto the market in 2004 in the form of the Comet and GT650 models. Much ado was made about how this newcomer appeared to be warmed-over first-generation Suzuki SV650 with a steel frame. Rumours spread that Hyosung was an assembler, or maybe a production facility, for outsourced Suzuki components. Others claimed that Hyosung had poached one, or maybe it was several, of the designers who worked on the SV650 (which sounds a bit off because the 650 was an overbored home-market 400cc V-twin and wasn't designed from a clean sheet). Whatever the case the similarities between the Suzuki and the Korean newcomer were notable. Both were modern 90 degree 650-ish cc V-twins with chain driven dual overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. Both had liquid cooling, six speed transmissions, and their horsepower figures were very close (Hyosung claimed more horsepower than Suzuki did, but dyno tests proved the Suzuki was usually up around 5 hp at the wheel). The Hyosung was fed by a pair of 39mm Mikuni CV carburettors, like the first generation SV.
Hyosung 650 Engine Motor
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However, contrary to popular myth, the Hyosung engine is not an exact copy or a rebadged SV engine. The bore and stroke are different, as is the displacement - the Hyosung is 647cc via 81.5 x 62mm while the Suzuki is 645cc 81 x 62.6mm. It is a totally different design and shares no parts. Having ridden both I can say there is no contest between the motors in stock guise - the Suzuki engine is a smooth, free-revving twin that feels more powerful than it is, while the Hyosung feels coarse, has so-so fueling, more vibration, and doesn't like getting too close to redline. It is good, but it isn't as good as the benchmark SV. Overall Hyosungs are roughly finished - which is saying a lot, because Suzuki usually trails behind the other Japanese brands when it comes to parts quality. That being said, it is a pleasant motor in its own right and maintains a usable spread of power that belies its modest displacement, very much like the SV.
Fischer MRX Motorcycle
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Fischer saw the Hyosung engine as a cost-effective alternative to the usual suspects, and Hyosung proved to be a willing partner in his venture. Hyosung could provide a ready-made, reliable, pleasant engine to the company which they could install into their top-tier frame. Any other bits and pieces they needed could also be poached from the Korean donor, bringing overall costs down and reducing the retail price. Suddenly the world-beating superbike became a budget-conscious supersport, and Fischer changed the marketing to suit the new direction. This was still to be an American-made (or at least American-assembled) machine, but now it would go toe-to-toe with the Asian manufacturers in the highly competitive middleweight sport/standard category. It would be "The Affordable Exotic". The company would emphasize the quality of the Fischer's components and development, with a price that was comparable to the mass-produced options but offering better value for money. The MR1000 was now the MRX 650.
Fischer MRX Motorcycle Cockpit
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The MRX would fill that elusive niche of the small-displacement, twin-cylinder sport bike. It would be a classic "enthusiasts' special" - much like the fabled supermono sportbike, the lightweight sub-500cc four-cylinder supersport, the retro re-pop with modern performance, and the touring bike that is as nimble as a superbike. The automotive equivalent would be the high-performance, manual transmission station wagon demanded by all and bought by precisely no one. There have been many of these fan-specials over the years - the Yamaha SRX600 and FZR400, the Honda Hawk and CB-1, and many other machines that gave the fans exactly what they said they wanted but wouldn't actually buy. See also: anything referred to as a "cult" favourite. The Ducati Sportclassic is an excellent example from recent years: Ducati listened to its fans, built a cool machine that was arguably better than all its contemporaries, which then stagnated on the showroom floor until the line was killed off - only to have a huge resurgence on the secondary market, years after they were discontinued. Rumour has it the current Ducati Streetfighter will face a similar fate, after it was introduced to satisfy the fans who had been clamoring for a naked Superbike for years... "Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose."
Fischer MRX Motorcycle Factory
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The inexpensive supersport twin is another such category, where once again those "enthusiasts" have been calling for a Suzuki SV-esque sport bike with a proper suspension and brakes. The MRX looked like it would fill this gap nicely and give the fans what they wanted - always an ominous sign if you know anything about the fickle peculiarities of the motorcycle market.
Fischer MRX Motorcycle Production
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The Hyosung engine was left more or less unchanged but benefited from a functional ram-air intake (with a gaping maw set between the projector beam headlamps) and a complete exhaust system produced by Micron. Peak horsepower was claimed to be around 80hp with ram air, which is the same figure Hyosung was claiming for its stock GT650s, though the Hyosung figure usually proved to be very optimistic in real world testing. A supercharged prototype was built as a test bed for a possible future forced-induction model, the idea being that the supercharged model would be the flagship machine built in lieu of a bigger displacement model.
Fischer MRX Motorcycle Prototype
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Production was set up at a facility in Pocomoke, Maryland. The first MRX prototype was shown with Ohlins forks and shock, and Brembo radial brakes, but the production version would drop the fancy brakes and front end for more modest equipment. The front forks were 43mm upside-down Daesung items taken from the Hyosung GT650R, adjustable for preload, compression and rebound. Fischer claimed some internal changes were made to the Korean forks to improve control. The brake discs, wheels and calipers were straight off the Comet, but upgraded with Goodridge stainless steel brake lines and a Brembo front master cylinder. Brembo front calipers were optional, and apparently became standard on later versions. The claimed dry weight was 399 lbs. The production MRX did, however, retain the Ohlins rear shock, which became a key marketing element for the Fischer and one of the most noteworthy elements of the bike - the highly developed American frame and swingarm were, unfortunately, overlooked by most people who preferred to drool over the fancy Swedish shock. While most people were surprised to find Ohlins bits on a sub-10k machine, it should be noted that Ohlins makes a large series of shocks that range from average OEM-spec coilovers with basic adjustments for a few hundred dollars all the way up to fully-adjustable World Superbike spec widgets that costs more than the average used car. Guess which one of the two the MRX had.
Fischer MRX650 Prototype
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Glynn Kerr's design was modern, angular and attractive. There was a strong resemblance to the Triumph Daytona 650 in the overall design, but with a sleeker profile. The overall machine looked quite polished for a small production machine, and never had the appearance of being some home-brewed special. The "tank" was a plastic fuel cell flanked by painted panels - the company noted that an optional clear plastic cell would be offered, though it's uncertain if it ever reached production. The MRX was a solo-seat machine, with the exhaust jutting up at an angle through the tailsection. The seat looked downright comfy for a sport machine, with a wide and flat pad trimmed in leather. The ergonomics were notable for being not-unbearably contorted, with clip-ons set above the triple (it's the 1980s all over again!), a reasonable seat height, and the same handy adjustable footpegs you'd find on the Hyosung Comet.
Fischer MRX650 Production
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While early reports estimated a retail around $10,000 USD the Fischer MRX was going sell for $7999, Ohlins shock and all. For comparison the class-leading Suzuki SV650 sold for $6499 in half-faired S guise (an ABS model was another 500$) while the Kawasaki Ninja 650R was $6399, and neither had adjustable suspensions. The Hyosung GT650 ranged between $5499 and $6599. A mandatory $399 shipping fee would be tacked onto the price of the MRX - fair considering there were no official dealers at the time, and most shops would charge that much for PDI anyway. All orders would be fielded by Fischer, who would sell the machines directly to the public until a dealer network could be established.
Alan Cathcart Fischer MRX650
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By 2006 close-to-production prototypes were fielded to the press, with Alan Cathcart writing a notable cover-story review published in the December 2006 issue of Motorcyclist that praised the new machine. Not that Cathcart has ever written a scathing review - like Peter Egan, he never seems to encounter a machine he dislikes, just some that are better than others. Cathcart noted a few minor flaws but overall came away impressed with the performance and quality of the upstart brand, with a few phrases thrown in to bolster the Made in America image. Surprisingly none of the usual Hyosung flaws were noted in the engine - Cathcart and other reviewers praised the smoothness of the engine and the quality of the shifting, which was odd considering that the engine was internally unchanged from the GT650. Might there have been a placebo effect, or an unwillingness to critique the home-grown underdog? Perhaps those reviews of the Hyosung had been harsher than necessary... Dan Fischer himself claimed that his alloy frame design was instrumental in quelling the harsh feeling and vibration of the motor.
Fischer MRX Motorbike
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At the end of 2006 Fischer had apparently delivered approximately 20 machines to early supporters who had placed deposits, but full-scale production was still a way off. Only 50 machines were projected for 2007, with steadily increasing production following in subsequent years up to over a thousand machines a year once manufacturing, distribution, and the dealer network were properly sorted out. An upgraded R models was offered, as was a series of a la carte options where you could upgrade your MRX at the factory with a host of trick (and expensive) parts. You could easily option out the MRX to nearly $20,000, which defeated the whole "bargain" aspect of the bike but offered the possibility of tailoring the machine to your desires right off the factory floor.
Fischer MRX Motorbike Top
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Then 2008 happened. Boutique brands the world over struggled and collapsed. No dealer network was forthcoming so the company relied on direct orders. Development was limited and the machine was left more or less unchanged, while the idea of supercharging the 650 twin was dropped, as were plans for a bigger displacement model. Curiously, despite claiming to have delivered 20 machines in 2006 and building at least 50 in 2007, Fischer MRX number 1 was delivered to a customer in Minnesota in 2009. In 2010 a revised model called the MRX650L was announced, but was essentially just a standard MRX with a lowered seat. In the meantime marketing was stagnant aside from the odd press release, and the website continued to look horribly out of date. While the product had promise and some solid engineering behind it, the company's attempt at selling the MRX was terrible. The brand quickly faded into obscurity, apparently making a few deliveries here and there as evidenced by the photos of proud owners with their new machines on the company website and Facebook page. Dan Fischer made a comment on a popular motorcycle blog in 2010 noting that the company was producing bikes, but on a made-to-order basis that was "a bit less than the demand, hence no need to turn on the marketing machine as of yet". He also let slip that they had only produced "a few dozen units" by that point.

After the initial enthusiasm wore off, the usual "enthusiast" (them again) criticisms started popping up on the forums and comment threads. Most people were put off by the use of a Hyosung engine, which has never had a great reputation, and many questioned the use of carburettors on a modern machine - especially considering the Hyosung Comet had switched to fuel injection by this point. Sport riders scoffed at the notion of an 80hp supersport and wondered aloud what happened to the promise of a supercharged version. A recurring comment was that it would make more sense to buy a SV650 and use the leftover cash to throw some upgrades at it... When being a higher-spec alternative to the SV is precisely what the MRX was supposed to be. This speaks volumes about how difficult it is to crack the middleweight market with a brand new machine, no matter how appealing and fairly priced it may have been. On the rare occasions that people were able to see and ride the Fischer, most noted that the quality of the components left a lot to be desired, particularly the parts that were poached from the Comet. Few seemed to buy the whole patriotic angle, particularly with the quantity of South Korean parts that were bolted to the MRX.
Fischer MRX Brochure
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On the plus side, nobody really complained about the price or the level of standard equipment, and those who actually rode them noted that the handling was great and the motor usable in everyday riding, if not eyeball-flattening-ly powerful. Skepticism is a powerful hurdle when it comes to selling motorcycles - even if the product is solid and competitive, motorcyclists can be a fickle and highly entrenched lot who are unlikely to jump into an unproven brand. Everyone wants to be an individual, just like everyone else. It brings to mind SE Hinton's words from Rumblefish, which was a favourite quote of former Iron Horse editor David Snow: "Nothing in his life had surprised him so much as the fact that there were people who rode motorcycles in packs."

By 2012 a small notice was posted on the company website's front page: "The MRX is sold out and no longer in production. Stay tuned for something new". No further details were given. A message sent to the company inquiring about the current status of the brand remains unanswered. If you visit the Fischer main site, you will be greeted by a series of ventures under the Fischer umbrella in addition to the MRX, including an iPhone case with integrated headphones, a "coming soon" ad for "coffee hutch", and a discount copier supply chain. It seems that for all intents and purposes the Fischer motorcycle is dead, just an old project in the portfolio of "The Fischer Companies".
Fischer MRX650 Motorcycle
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Dan Fischer attempted to build an all-American superbike, and ended up building a curious supersport that answered the calls of enthusiasts who desired a light, nimble, high-spec sport bike with a friendly motor. Unfortunately for Fischer what the riders claim to desire and what people will actually buy are two very different things, and the MRX 650 struggled against significant competition, general skepticism, poor marketing, and a prevailing attitude of apathy towards a machine powered by a South Korean engine. The MRX was a valiant attempt to bring a modern and capable motorcycle manufacturer online in the USA, but ultimately proved that the market doesn't always favour the underdog.
Fischer MRX650 Motorcycle
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Interesting Links:
Fischer Motorcycles Website
Fischer Facebook page
Fischer on Twitter
Interview with Dan Fischer on One Wheel Drive
Glynn Kerr's design portfolio showcasing the Fischer prototypes
Glynn Kerr's personal website
MRX650L on The Kneeslider
Early announcement of the MR1000 project on Powersports Network
Motorweek review of the MRX
Trackday Mag intro to the Fischer
Brief summary of chassis flex in Moto GP

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