Petrol Economy

My riding style has always been fairly sedate. I was never in the least bit taken with racing or scratching, except perhaps for the first few months of my very first bike. Decking it on a wet corner on lousy Jap tyres after 6 weeks cured me of grounding the footpegs and from then on, I was very much a touring-orientated rider. I like my motorcycling comfortable and civilized. High speed is fine and I like that too, but it just emphasises the need for long-distance comfort.

All my bikes have had fairings. Even my very first little 250cc Honda didn’t stay naked for very long- remember the range of Rickman fairings? Finest single-skin fibreglass, with the roughness still on the inside face. A fairly rudimentary sub-frame and some galvanized bolts and there you go- the very acme of 1970’s touring comfort. Still, it worked and it certainly made motorcycling from Norfolk to university in Leeds every 10 weeks a sight more comfortable. We shall pass over the horrible fibreglass fixed panniers to match….

When I moved into the heady uplands of 750cc and above, a fairing was absolutely essential. Like so many things in life, once you have got used to one, you can’t do without it. My old 750 Yamaha was naked too, when I bought it, but not for more time than it took me to blast it round the Andover ring road and realise my scrawny arms couldn’t hold on much above 80mph. I hocked my student grant (again) and bought a Pantera full touring fairing. What a beast that was- massive, wholly non-adjustable and built like the side of a barn. Jeez, it kept the wind off, but it must have added 30 kg to the bike, subtracted 15 mph from the top whack and gawd knows how much from the average miles-per-gallon. Plus I had to remove the lowers every time I wanted to do basic maintenance.

In 1977, Hans Muth, the aerodynamic genius of BMW, did something astounding- he used a wind tunnel to design and build the factory-fitted fairing to the outstanding R100RS. It is astonishing to think nowadays that when it burst on a gob-smacked motorcycling world, it was the ONLY fully-faired production motorcycle in existence. No-one had seen anything even remotely like it. Not only did it produce exceptional downforce and lateral stability, but it looked simply stunning. I make no secret of the fact that, at the age of 17, I wanted one so badly it hurt me for years. I went on to own two of them and although by no means fast (it could not really hold it’s own with the Japanese multi-cylinders even in 1977), it was a truly superb road-eater. Mere speed was not it’s raison d’etre- it was more about how it did it. My girlfriend in those days lived near Berwick on the Scottish borders and even with a youthful bum, it is a bloody long haul from Hampshire to Scotland. I got to know the A1 intimately and on that bike, I could simply chew up the length of England, with two or three stops for a sandwich and a pint, get off after nearly 400 miles, quick shower and shave, then off for a dance that evening. No body-relignment needed; no lie down in a darkened room. And…. it would do it all at 90mph and still give me just under 50mpg.

Which really brings me to the point of today’s ramble- fuel cost. As I have mentioned in earlier writings, there was a happy time when, even though permanently skint, my mates and I always managed to scrape together enough to put petrol in the tank. It wasn’t something you really thought about in those days- either you had enough for some fuel or you didn’t. If you didn’t, then you really were skint. I certainly don’t recall ever factoring the cost of fuel into any of the riding I ever did, not even touring abroad in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The price of fuel came a very long way after allowing for beer, food, sightseeing, more beer, chatting up local talent, beer…..In the years after my late 20’s, when I stopped riding and took to four wheels, it was a rude shock to realise just how thirsty cars were compared to bikes. Never one to do things by halves, if I could make a prat of myself 100%, I sold my first RS and bought a used Rover 3500 SD1. Without doubt one of the finest V8 engines ever, it was powerful, smooth, sounded fab at full bore and if it ever did more than 20mpg, then I am a Franciscan monk. I swear I could see the fuel gauge moving every time I put my foot down. I don’t think I ever actually filled the tank- the anticipated cost was just too awful. I used to drip-feed it with £5 here and £8 there- pathetic. Plus it was as wide as a Scammel tank transporter and handled like a pregnant hippopotamus.

My considered response to the black hole which was eating into my earnings as a newly-qualified baby solicitor was to dump the Rover and be seduced by a spanking red TR6. 2.5 litres of straight six fuel injection- lovely. Went like hell, but what possessed my infant brain to think it was in any way more economical? Just because it had only 2 seats and was a third the size of the Rover? What a chump. Less than 20mpg was the going rate, and this time you couldn’t even get a decent travelling case in that ridiculous cantilevered boot.

My cars just got smaller as the price of fuel got bigger. Austin Healey, MG, MX5, MGF…. all of a sudden, high fuel prices were the norm and increases were met with a resigned shrug. Remember the uproar when unleaded hit £1 per litre? That would be quite nice now, wouldn’t it? The point of all this is to bring home, as painful experience did to me after many, many years, that driving or riding style has a direct effect upon your wallet. When I had no responsibilities at all, except how to get to the next ride-out, music session, tour, or pub meet, there was no incentive to moderate either the distance I travelled or the speed at which I did it. These days, with petrol knocking £1.40 per lousy litre, there is no getting away from the fact that the price of any significant journey has to be factored in. Much like eating out, sometimes I can’t do it because I simply can’t afford it. That is really rather depressing, so rather than mope about it, we should take sensible steps to improve the amount of bang we get for each fuel buck. Nothing original in what follows, but I bet if you’re honest, you don’t always obey these simple rules:-

Tyre pressures- they have a direct relationship not only to safety but to economy. Let them get low and flabby, then not only will your bike wallow like a pig in mud, but you will wear the tyre more quickly and your fuel consumption will rocket. Don’t rely on those poxy garage gauges (incidentally, how come we let garages, supermarkets, motorway rip-off stations and the like charge us 20p for air without there being civil unrest and broken glass?)- invest in a decent pressure gauge, keep it in your leathers and use it. You can and should keep your tyres within + or – 1psi of the manufacturer’s recommended pressures. Check them every week.

Acceleration- yes we all love it and it’s one of the points of having motorcycle, but don’t do it just for the sake of it. If getting up to 90mph in 15 seconds will do perfectly well, why burn up a hell of a lot of fuel doing it in 6? Throttle openings are exponential- a small increase in speed, especially once you are already above 70mph, will result in a much greater expenditure of fuel. A 50 mile journey will take you 42 minutes at a steady 70mph. At 90mph, you do it in just over 33 minutes, but that extra 20mph will probably cost you 5-8 mpg less, which means more fuel. How important is 9 minutes to you?

Weight- obvious, but we touring types are particularly prone to bung all sorts of stuff on the machine when we don’t need it, or don’t need it all the time. If you have removable panniers and top box, take them off if not needed. In any event, check what’s in ’em. Spare lid, spare jacket, socket set, lost lunchbox, spare shoes for the office, old files, torque wrench@….

Speed- ties in with acceleration and again is obvious, but warrants repeating. Go fast by all means, but keep it for when you really need it or can enjoy it (like in Germany).

Smoothness- this is really the key to not only good fuel economy, but also mechanical sympathy and keeping wear and tear down on your bike. To ride smoothly takes brain- you have to pay constant attention to the road and traffic conditions around you and ahead of you. Think about what the road and traffic is doing; where you want to go; how the situation will change before you get there; what gear you need to be in and what speed you need to be doing before you get to that point. Anticipate changes and alter your riding accordingly. Don’t just twist the throttle, then yank the brake. Stop/go riding is the sign of an unsophisticated rider, as well as a berk who doesn’t care about either his machine, his fuel costs or his image. If you watch a police-class rider in a hurry, you don’t just see outright speed- in fact, he may not be going that much faster than other traffic. What he is doing is making progress, which is a police phrase for engaging the brain and getting a move on, but without any drama. Try it. It takes a lot of hard work to get right but is very rewarding when it clicks. There is a lot more to making progress than just blasting.

Finally, for those of us fortunate enough to have transferrable skills and/or young enough to make use of them, you could always move to the good old US of A. I gather petrol there is a cheap as chips, plus there is plenty of road to burn it on………

Petrol Economy