Any history of Australian motorcycling is incomplete without mention of the smattering of Aussie battlers who overcame all the barriers and produced a product which could command respect. The product could take many forms; however, in the early pioneer motoring days it normally took the form of locally built frames and cycle parts built around proprietary engines and gearboxes.
The likes of A.G. Healing who initially built frames to accommodate the British Precision motor and finally built his own motors as well in the form of the 500cc "Peerless" in 1912 typify this breed. Other Australian names that come to mind in this vein include the Bantam genius' Clem Daniels, Walsh and McPhee all of whom took a basic product, added a dash of ingenuity and produced a remarkable result beyond all expectation. The list goes on with the "Craig" motorcycle, the "Invincible J.A.P.", the "Champion" motorcycle, Tilbrook, Waratah and more recently Alron, among others. All were distinguished by a desire to make a better product for our conditions and an entrepreneurial spirit which drove them to struggle against adversity.
It should come as no surprise then, to those who know them, to hear that W.A. Ducati specialists, Brook Henry and Stuart Barrowclough of Vee Two Australia, have persevered with their RV-1 race bike concept and wrought some black magic on the basic Ducati recipe.
VEE TWO has now released the SV-1 "Alchemy" frame kit for Ducati enthusiasts who seek access to more recent chassis, suspension and design developments; but who also wish to retain the pleasures of the bevel-drive Ducati V-twin motor. In the spirit of the pioneer Australian motorcycle manufacturers VEE TWO has taken a proven product (the Ducati engine) and mated it to a vastly improved locally built chassis. In doing so VEE TWO has taken on the established overseas "kit" manufacturers and produced an arguably better product at an unarguably better price.
Regular readers of Classic Motorcycling should be familiar with the development history of the SV-1 as the bike's on-track development predecessor, the VEE TWO Daytona Challenge (RV-1), was covered in some detail in Issue 17. Briefly, VEE TWO Engineering has spent the last two years developing their version of the ultimate Ducati, a bike which combines easy engine access with a shorter wheelbase, a stiffer frame, lighter weight, a steeper steering head angle and a rising rate rear suspension.
The inspiration to build this frame came about from Brook Henry's remarkable ability to extract so much power from the basic bevel-cam Ducati motor that the standard frame, no matter how modified, could not transmit the power without exceeding its handling limits. Brook's race engine served as the sounding board for his engineering ideas such as belt driven overhead valves, dry clutch and light-weight crank. In this form the bike was highly competitive in the Western Australian Thunderbike series and performed well in the New Zealand Sounds of Thunder events.
Early in 1988, whilst in New Zealand for the Sounds of Thunder race series, Brook and Stuart discussed their handling needs with frame wizard Ken McIntosh. While Ken provided the key ingredients of steering head angle and rake, Rob Henry designed the unique rear suspension layout and the VEE TWO boys drew up a tubular space frame which met their requirements. This was the vital step in the eventual making of the VEE TWO SV-1!
Brook Henry had by now sold his Bayswater bike shop (Webrook's) and with his former employee Stuart Barrowclough had formed a partnership (VEE TWO ENGINEERING) to concentrate on motorcycle engineering and in particular on race and performance products. Proof of their abilities was soon seen in the appearance of the Ducati based RV-1 which incorporated both Brook's engine modifications and the monoshock VEE TWO frame.
With Owen Coles riding, the RV-1 was tested extensively on the track during the 1988 SWANN Series and the varied riding and track conditions encountered at Lakeside, Oran Park and Phillip Island contributed greatly to the bike's development. Success in the New Zealand Sound of Thunder series early in 1989 gave the team encouragement as did the clean sweep of six start and six wins in the 1989 Australia Day "Round the Houses" meeting at Bunbury. As if this was not enough to convince the team that they had a successful package in the RV-1 Brook, Stuart and Owen crated the bike and took on the world at Daytona. Despite fuel problems the RV-1 demonstrated its handling and performance capacity and in the actual race Owen was running fifth and catching the highly rated Dr John Guzzi eight-valve racer when a weakened piston crown ended their race prematurely.
The RV-1 had shown its mettle and Brook and Stuart now concentrated their energy on translating the revolutionary frame concept into a street form - one the average rider could appreciate. When the idea was floated of producing a production street version of the RV-1 frame several potential buyers committed themselves to the project thus giving VEE TWO the financial assistance and confidence to proceed with their dream of a road-going VEE TWO motorcycle. Australian motorcycling was about to see a home grown product again for the first time in at least 15 years!
One of the first motorcyclists to give VEE TWO support with its SV-1 project was Nick Gye. Nick owned a 1984 900 S2 Ducati and was looking for something a bit more exotic. He liked the Ducati's tractable motor, its performance potential its looks and its sound. What he didn't like was its handling/steering. Basically the S2 steered like a tank! It's long wheelbase and limited steering lock made it a dog around town, the rear suspension was harsh and unforgiving and those critical bits of the motor that needed regular adjustment, i.e. the rear cylinder's desmodromic valve gear, were in-accessible underneath the standard Ducati framework. The S2 also had a disturbing habit of changing line mid-corner by itself if the bike happened to hit a few bumps on the way through and what corner in Australia hasn't got a multitude of those? However, when you wanted to change line mid-corner the bike would resist the manoeuvre violently. Despite all this the Ducati S2 looked great, sounded great and to the casual observer went well.
Nick had watched the RV-1 in action on the track and had keenly followed its development so when the opportunity came to have a replica frame built he readily offered the S2 as the first kit bike to be fully assembled. The S2 was stripped and many standard items were sold to help recoup some of the cost of assembly. First to go was the steel tank, followed by the rearsets, triple clamps, rear shocks, fairing, belly-pan, seat, duck-tail, rear and front mudguards, wheels and frame. Most of these items were sold for about $1500. Retained for Nick's project bike were the engine, carbs, Conti pipes, front Marzocchi forks, instruments, disk brakes and callipers, clip-ons, headlight, tail-light, indicators, electrics and levers.
The main problem with converting a race frame to a road bike is that of accommodating all the extra bits and pieces that are not required on the track. The frame needed extra lugs and mounting points for essential items such as the side-stand, battery, indicators and head-light. All these things are taken for granted on any bike but start from scratch and see what a nightmare it all becomes. Then comes the difficult job of visualising and styling the integrated bodywork which now needs to be more than racing functional but also must accommodate all the basic requirements of comfort, control and pillion access as well as meet legal demands (such as minimum mudguard lengths) and still look great. In this respect Stuart's nights of hard labour over the body mouldings have been realized. Unlike todays "boiled lolly" approach, of all enveloping body work, the SV-1 has retained the integrated body work of the racer yet still manages to keep the most important element of all in full view; namely, the Ducati engine! The styling of the tank and seat unit looks particularly attractive from behind and is very professionally made and finished. The bike actually appears in photos a lot taller than it really is and the true dimensions of the bike are only evident when someone is sitting on it.
The final hurdle after all of this late night labour comes at the licensing inspection where all the little forgotten things come to light and the nit-picking starts. Stuart had done his homework well; however, and the SV-1 was soon licensed for the road after the formalities were completed such as the presentation of test X-rays and engineering reports attesting to the strength of the frame design.
As to the frame design itself, much attention has been given to strength. Stuart has used seamless steel tubing, in preference to the more brittle and shorter lived chrome-moly tubing, as much as to ensure strength as to enhance durability. In construction the frame tube sections are cut to length and then jig-machined to provide a perfect fit prior to welding. All welding operations are performed on the one jig and welded in sequence to minimise potential heat distortion. The frame and swingarm are accuracy checked after welding to ensure that they meet the required dimensions. As a result of this attention to detail the frame is designed to be stiffer than a standard frame and also offer the advantages of improved rear suspension response, shorter wheelbase and vastly improved engine access. Improved in fact to the point where the rear cylinder head and barrel can be removed with the crankcases remaining in the frame.
The SV-1 has an aluminium alloy tank underneath the fibreglass bodywork that holds at least 15 litres, in practice. This tank is mounted securely to the frame by three rubber mountings which allow quick and ready removal of the tank for engine access. A single fuel tap does away with the annoying standard cross-over fuel lines. The tank and seat unit can be quickly removed to gain access to the motorcycle through the use of a 4mm Allen key and 13mm spanner.
As attested to by Nick's bike the frame's basic design philosophy of allowing the use of standard Ducati running gear has been achieved. The steering head has the same dimensions as that of a 900SS so all Ducati forks will bolt straight in; however the triple clamp offset must be 45mm (i.e the same as an 860 Ducati) which is why Nick had to exchange his triple clamps. By using VEE TWOs adjustable triple clamps forks from 35mm to 42mm can be fitted as can the very latest upside down forks.
The most eye-catching component of the kit frame however is the large monoshock which is mounted on the left side of the bike. This arrangement offers an effective rising rate suspension system without the disadvantage of a long wheelbase to accommodate it. As well the conventional mounting position for a monoshock would have compromised the tank capacity to a great deal and removed all advantages of access to the rear cylinder through the top frame tubes. The suspension unit is operated by a pivoting plate attached to the rear swingarm. The swingarm itself is a lighter than standard item which whilst quite massive to look at obtains its strength from a box section construction.
Riding the bike was a revelation and promises to be so for any "dyed in the wool" Ducati owner used to the slower steering responses of their bike. I first rode the SV-1 on some fast winding roads south of Collie in the Wellington Forest. The roads were narrow, bumpy and very hilly. The SV-1 took some getting used to as it was prepared to dive into the blind corners faster than I was no doubt assisted by the steeper angled steering head (27 degrees rake instead of the usual 33) and the shorter wheelbase. The 17 inch wheels fitted as an option by Nick also enhanced the quicker steering and the fatter tyres they offered contributed to the surprising lean angles the bike takes up. The SV-1 just wanted to lean and keep leaning. Nothing worrisome mind you, the bike just leans over and takes the corner with far more ease and precision than I am used to. The bike is quite willing to change line and if needs be will bank over further to assist you.
The bike maintains it line impeccably despite the shorter wheelbase and considering the bumps encountered is a testament to the rigidity of the frame design. The bike didn't immediately inspire confidence due to a fair degree of shaking of the front fork on some of the particularly bad undulations discovered mid-bend. This was dispelled after a relatively short time once the bike was going at a fair pace. In fact the faster it went the better it felt. I later found out that the rear shock had been incorrectly adjusted and the damping was set at maximum. This would have contributed to the adverse reactions of the front end on some corners, so another ride was in order.
This time I rode the bike in city streets first and felt immediately at home, the bike no longer having the ponderous steering of the S2 Ducati nor the limited steering lock. The seating position although semi-racer crouch was just right for me and not at all uncomfortable. I never noticed any significant wind blast at speed so the fairing was working well for my height. The seat is a thin rubber moulding that is quite stiff and has little flexibility. When standing, the seat edge cuts into the thigh a bit due to its lack of give but on the go I never noticed any discomfort.
As I moved through the outer suburbs I began to ride faster and noticed that the ride comfort had vastly improved since the shock was properly adjusted. I also noticed that the bump steer was markedly reduced and could appreciate Owen Coles' comment that the RV-1 was the best handling bike he had ridden. I found I could confidently bank the bike through corners quickly and when I needed to pull back or change line in a corner (normally due to my increasing sense of self-preservation) I found the bike would respond without any dramas.
By the time I returned the bike to Nick I felt most at ease with the bike. In fact unlike many bikes there was not much to report. Normally one has one or two horror stories to relate from any ride; but, the SV-1 performed faultlessly without any dramas, a credit to Brook and Stuarts assembly and engineering. My only criticism is not of the SV-1; but, of the retention of the standard Ducati forks in their S2 state. They are much too stiff and require thinner oil to operate properly. As they are, they tend to twitch on bumps to degree where a steering damper maybe required to compensate for the forks, smaller front wheel and fatter tyre.
In closing perhaps Nick should have the next to last word. When asked how he found the SV-1 Alchemy to ride he stated... "it took a while to get used to as it likes to be laid over more than the S2. It is; however, much easier to change direction mid corner or while braking requiring less commitment than the S2. The SV-1 has greater directional control and response."
The SV-1 Alchemy frame kit offers the opportunity to transform an aging Ducati into an attention attracting and unique motorcycle with advantages in handling and maintenance that none of the other options on the market provide. Combined with the optional extras that VEE TWO can provide to the kit buyer a highly individualistic machine can be built at a reasonable price by todays standards. The basic frame, tank monoshock and bodywork costs around $3500 and can be assembled by the average person without the need for any modifications to the standard running gear. At that price VEE TWO should have the demand on their hands to compliment the pride they deservedly feel in a very good Australian Made product.
Copyright: Murray Barnard - Perth Western Australia 1997