F-F-Fantastic Voyager

Bike Magazine December 1989
As Norton leap into the nineties,someone else tries to bring biking kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Tim Thompson put Dec 89his best feet forward to test the Voyager

It was rolled out of SCL's factory in Crookhowell, South Wales one hour after Norton unveiled their FI. That's two new Brit bikes in one day, a staggering statistic which, extrapolated, would give us 730 homespun models per annum and world domination.

It has no telescopic forks, its seat-back is made by V***o, it has no throttle grip, it has a boot, it is powered by a tank's starter motor. It handles like a Suzuki RGV only more secure, it accelerates like a Porsche, it sips petrol like a CG125, it's as warm as you want its heater to be and is more of a pose than a full-dress Glide. And if it hits a car, the car will probably lose. It is Voyager and it is a revelation.

And, let's face it, it's a bit weird: one of them funny Feet First things designed by that Royce Creasey hooligan who used to crash a succession of FFs into walls and then write about them in Bike. In the early eighties we seemed to be bombarded with FF philosophy, usually by Royce. What he basically said, I think, was that if motorcycling was to progress tradition had to be shelved. Specifically, mainstream frame design needed to get away from the continuous development of the original safety bicycle design. To maximise high speed stability and handling as well as rider comfort the rider needed to be moved from his high, pedal-pumping position and plonked as low as possible in his favourite armchair on a reasonably stiff frame. Over ten years, via a series of prototypes (The Flying Banana, The Ducati High Techati), built predominantly from scrapyard pickings, Royce finally arrived at Voyager - his first production FF.

It's certainly a jaw-dropper, even in Crookhowell where the project has been running for 15 months. But to Royce, Voyager is perfectly normal, the only way, except this time they are going to make more than one - they being SCL (Speake & Co Ltd), an electronics company (see separate story, it needs it). Managing director and hands-on chief, Bill Speake, hinted at perhaps, possibly, we'll-see-what-the-market-demands sales of 2000 within five years.

That market is the crux. FF's history shows that bikers aren't mad on anything radically different. Styling alone alienates some; feet-first riding with its benefits of warmth and comfort, perversely, alienates some more. If I'm typical then a lot of riders see FFs as a lingering threat to the illogical, often painful but above all fun motorised bicycles we ride. Bikers' reactionary attitudes may not have changed since Royce and other FF notables began in the late seventies. Nor has the fact that development of existing designs is profitable while FF style innovation is not. But other things have changed.

Congestion has reached such spectacular proportions that thinking car drivers, if that's not a contradiction in terms, must be closer than ever to jumping onto something more efficient. If only they could make a bike as warm and comfy as the XR3 ... Voyager, unashamedly billed as a two-wheel car, is almost as warm and dry as its four-wheel cousins yet remains a bike: free parking and congestion-proof. Royce, who walked from a 50mph impact with a Fiat with a bruised heel, claims Voyager is also the safest two-wheeled vehicle. So, not surprisingly SCL are pushing the bike, or whatever it is, at the car press. Bill Speake wouldn't say how much they'd invested in the project, admitting only that he "wouldn't mind it as loose change". But as innovative projects come. Voyager — with most R and D already paid for by Royce and Ingrid Oesten, and a skilled workforce already installed - must be good value.

The environment, too, has become an issue and it was Voyager's potential greenness that indirectly forged the initial link between SCL and High Tech, Royce and co-director Ingrid's corporate front. His view of the next 20 years is one in which growing public outrage at the environmental havoc the petrol engine is wreaking will eventually render its users "socially embarrassed". In the meantime consumption of the stuff will become heavily taxed: enter Voyager which returns 70mpg at 80mph and doesn't sit polluting in jams. The bike uses what are, by Japanese standards, very low tech and readily-available components, a Reliant engine for example, which SCL hope will remains reliable or cheap enough to replace for as long as the effective future of petrol engines. If less vehicles are built because they keep right on rolling, Royce argues, then less global resources will be dug up and less filth pumped into the air making them. As for rampant consumerism, market forces and the annual new model launches in Acapulco... hopefully there'll always be a market for strictly leisure machines.

"We're selling to bikers, ex-bikers, potential bikers, Porsche owners, anyone who hasn't formed pre-conceptions about how vehicles should be", said Royce. "The only objections come from motorcyclists, but we're not trying to take the fun out of biking, just the pain. I seriously believe in everyone's right to fun."

The proof comes in riding Voyager. Despite Royce's track record I feared a TRRL-type 'Safety vehicle', really thrilling. But the man's a rebel (and skateboard-crazy) and his bike — first off the line, 50 miles new — is a riot. Voyager is so responsive (RC30), so sure-footed (train), that I wonder if perhaps the Japanese haven't achieved excellence the long and circuitous way. These qualities are presented by SCL as safety factors - accident avoidance and all that - but really they are fun factors.

Sitting in the bike, eyes level with bystanders' beerguts, you're confronted with an all-out attack on your motorcycling norms. The handlebars are pointed upwards and raked forwards with the adjustable brake and clutch levers following suit. The throttle is moved from the grip to a trigger behind it and to the right of the brake lever, and is pushed round with the index and middle fingers. The rear brake and cable-operated gearshift are miles away, right up front on adjustable foot-plates.

Digging into your left leg is what appears to be a handbrake but is actually the mainstand lever. Lifting your weight off the thickly-padded and contoured seat and pushing it forward eases Voyager onto both its wheels. The seat-back - V***o 340 - slides on rails, tilting to find that armchair comfort. The roof, hood, whatever, also slides all the way back, for a pillion (but not on the test bike). Any passenger fills the large luggage space behind the seat, but there's still a boot bigger than a 2CV's.

Thumbing the starter and squeezing the trigger brings the Reliant mill to life along with good old Guzzi shaft reaction. Somehow it seemed out of place (and Royce is inventing something to eradicate it). That apart, you're well isolated from the engine room. Everything, including the steering column but minus the throttle cable and pillion plates, is rubber mounted. Squeeze the clutch - the lightest Guzzi clutch I've used - hook the gear lever and off you wobble.

Within a few miles, what appeared as familiar as helicopter controls became quite normal.

Reflex 'braking' tried to make me grab a handful of throttle but I never quite got there. I sat back in my seat and tried to relax. What does require a little practice is throttle-blipping with two fingers and braking with two more. That throttle is like a car's, nowhere near as sensitive as a bike's and, in town - especially as the engine was a bit hesitant off-idle - needed a good tweak.

In the vibrant metropolis of Crookhowell, Voyager's steering felt quite heavy, like it had a damper wound on. This was in part due to the steering rods' still-stiff rose-joints and partly due to me. I was rigid with apprehension, like that first day on my moped. Below 20mph I weaved gently, around slow corners I ran wide, scared of the strange bars, not sure how much pressure to apply or where. If I leant it over I was worried I might not come up again. Coming to a standstill was a bit messy, too: a wobble, a difficult gearbox, a foot down and a sigh of relief.

The learning process simply involves letting Voyager teach you. With nothing harder than a Welsh sheep to hit, I experimented with learning/ steering combinations. Above about 25mph a nudge on the bars gives instant response. Once I'd sussed that, Voyager became incredibly precise. Rider input is minimal and I wasn't aware of shifting my bodyweight at all. It drops down and picks itself up as quickly as anything on the road, always without a hint of instability, and the rider isn't hauling his bulk from one side to the other. The quicker you go, the better Voyager becomes.

Sitting forwards quickens things further, nestling back into the seat slows the pulse. Most road information comes to the rider via the seat-back which suggests most V***o drivers have no nerve-ends in this region. I felt a long way from the front wheel, and despite its inherent security, rather worried by it. This is compounded - at first anyway -by the diveless front suspension (set soft and comfy with yards of sag). I wondered if the brakes were working - they did need a bleed - and was unsure at what point the Avon Venom would let go. Discovering Voyager's subtleties would take more time than I had. But I saw enough to convince me that once the rider's sussed it, few bikes could live with Voyager braking deep into turns.

The screen deflected the breeze over my visorless face even above 80mph, wind-noise was unobtrusive and the heat from the engine warmed the cockpit (the heater proper wasn't connected). Coming back into town I had a new confidence, lapping up the treble takes on the pavement, being firm where at speed I was delicate.

The ride was short but long enough to show that adapting from a normal bike isn't a problem. Adapting to a normal bike sometimes is: by the time I left the factory on what now felt like a well-weird GPZ600, it was tipping it down and I was soaked within 10 miles. For the first time in my life, with 200 miles to go, I doubted my sanity.


None of Voyager's components are actually that radical. It's the way they're put together, or the connecting tissues, which breaks the mould. SCL and Royce (now delighted to call himself a production rather than prototype engineer), have opted to use readily available parts, but: "We simply use them more efficiently."

The frame is an amlalgam of folded and welded sheet metal and steel tubes (zinc-painted against corrosion), using the Reliant in-line four as a semi-stressed member. What's unsual is that it places the seat just 17 inches from the ground and the engine down between the rider's legs, which in turn are stretched out in front of him. Freed of the surly bonds of conventional design, Voyager is narrow (27 inches), and reasonably light (475lb compared to the Pacific Coast's 578lb), with a c of g lower than a flick-to-kick Subuteo player.

The rear end uses proven components fairly conventionally; a low-geared Italian-market Guzzi California swingarm and shaft, two fairly soft Hagon gas shocks, Gurzi 16 inch wheel and Brembo brake. The excitement is all up front and I'm still trying to figure out how and why it's so good. And how it works.

Difazio Hub-Centre Steering was first seen on the Flying Banana (although conversions have been available for longer than Bike has). How much it contributes to the phenomenally sharp but secure handling and how much is down to the low c of g, I couldn't tell. What was obvious, though, is the virtual elimination of dive under braking and the limits this places on normal bikes. Voyager remains rock-steady, its geometry and rider's arms unflustered, enabling him to steer in late, hard on the brakes (both brakes) and then discover you didn't need to slow down at all. This is made possible by the Difazio design which separates the dual functions normally performed by teles — steering and suspending - and eliminating compromise. With the steering function taken from the suspension, braking forces can be transmitted in a straight rather than angled line to the bike via double wishbones.

Only the wheel, rotating on a fabricated barrel fixed to the steering arms, is stressed (on a Mini Metro ball joint in the wheel hub). The suspension wishbones carry the forged axle through the hub and ball-joint independent of the steering. Thus the steering achieves low weight - it will not wobble for long, it cannot get enough momentum - without resorting to exotica. Royce's variation on hub-centre comes with 38 degrees of lock either side which compares well with most bikes, and has a top-secret offset which he says lightens the steering.

In a head-on prang, the double wishbones are designed to collapse downwards, pushing the front of the bike upwards. The reinforced front structure is strong enough to penetrate the side of the average V***o and transfer much of the deceleration to the car. On a good day - like when Royce's prototype totalled a Fiat - the bike should give the target vehicle a good shove upwards and out of the way! the rider should stay with the bike as it rises, hitting the padded hand-controls with his chest and collapsing the fragile instruments as he nuts them with his lid. Behind the rider is a progressively collapsible subframe, in case you're tailgated.

Glancing blows and private get-offs are approached on the premise that it's best to stay with the bike, appendages tucked inside collapsible sections of frame and GRP bodywork.

Bodywork is GRP and rubber mounted. The skirts are QD for access to the battery and rear wheel and designed to ground hard into the road. A small and slippery frontal area (developed with wind-tufts and a video camera), is possible because the bike is so low but also because the rider himself and the incredibly neat controls present a relatively miniscule area to the elements.

At this point Royce could have opted for a nitrous GSX-RI100 engine and a land-speed record challenger or an 850cc Reliant Plastic Pig grafted to a well-engineered but unsophisticated Moto Guzzi five-speed gearbox. He went for the watercooled, British unit because it's compact, light and doggedly reliable. And because, on a bike so novel, a known factor was important.

And he can, apparently, do a complete rebuild for £ 100, should you ever need to. A 32mm SU carb, a lumpy cam and stronger valve springs take the pessimistic redline from 5700rpm to 7000 and peak power to 60bhp. Production versions will run on lead-free, as befits the eco-image.

With this combination of adequate stomp and exceptional air-penetrtion, SCL are claiming a 130mph top speed and 80mpg at 70mph; an all-round performance package superior to anything else on the road. The down-side is acceleration which is merely brisk. Thing is, though, it's brisk all the time. At speeds when normal bikes are hitting the wind, requiring disproportionate amounts of horsepower and energy to make further progress. Voyager is still carving through on much less fuel like a miserly Porsche. And it's rock-steady. And the rider is still sitting comfortably.

The need for copious power is also negated by Voyager's uncanny ability to fly through bends without slowing down, like a fast-lapping GP250 compared to a point-and-squirt 500. It's quick A to B, not 0 to 440. SCL see the Mk I Voyager as their "basic Sierra", with hot hatch versions to follow if the market demands. Even the cooking Voyager sports AP Lockheed slotted discs and calipers up front and one of the nicest rear brakes, a Brembo, at the rear. Never mind the hot hatch version, what's the FF Porsche Turbo gonna be like?
Royce Creasey, ex-something to do with Bike

We'll leave out the traditional bad times. Of course I've spent time by the roadside, in everything from snow to blinding sunlight, sometimes bleeding, sometimes just watching the motorcycle bleed. You wont be surprised to hear that owning a Velocette led to many moments trying to get a Miller dynamo working at night, or a spark out of a BTH magneto in Welsh rain and, not least, starting the bloody thing of a cold morning. None of this really qualifies as bad times, I volunteered didn't I?

There was a bad moment though, and it was followed immediately by a rather good one. You may know the bad bit. It's an A road. There's an oncoming car positioned to turn right across your bows. There's no other traffic. If s night and the twin Halogen headlights are on.

It's inconceivable that the driver hasn't seen you, he's indicating, correctly placed and slowing to a stop. You're being normally cautions, running on a closed throttle, watching carefully. As you come up to the car it turns into your path.

A grab at the brakes and a roll to the right merely lined me up on the rear wheel of the car and there was just time for surprise that I'd been fatally suckered after all these years. Impact speed was about 5Omph and I had no trouble accepting that I was dead.

The good moment came while I was sliding down the road. I knew there were no kerbs, no other traffic and astonishingly I wasn't even badly hurt. Even better, it rapidly became clear that my easy escape was largely due to the design of my prototype two-wheeler. Miraculous escape from certain death always makes me feel good. Miraculous escape ditto, by design, is like icing on the cake. I'm still laughing about it.

But really this is just the best moment so far. I mean, the best is yet to come, isn't it?


Mixed Felines

Bike Magazine February 1990

Feb 90The Kl/Voyager test could give a chance for something evocative," Mac's memo suggested, "... a good excuse for a high-mileage weekend away." 

Ok for him to say: he was in Macau, the bastard. I was in England in bleedin' December, the bastard. Still, orders is orders and I can't really complain if part of my job involves investigating the crud beneath the hype and the plastic ... getting absolutely legless on expenses ... Me mate Nelly came along to ride the other bike. Nelly's a bloke. Funny old world, innit?

 Petrggrad to Voyager HQ in mid-Wales equates to about 120 miles of slow, zig-zagging A-road which, in a diversionary, frustrating way, eventually takes you the 70 miles you actually wanted to go. After the first 20 minutes or so of eff-offing, the madness of what I'd taken on began to dawn.

Riding the Voyager for the first time was one of the most intense, nerve-wracking experiences of my life. You have consciously to will your legs to swing up and forward onto the rests. The first tentative, nervous few miles are a whirling test of concentration ... you thought you could ride a bike with your eyes shut but there's so much that's new ... nothing works on autopilot. The index finger throttle was Ok - tho' it mucks up your braking a little at first. The steering is plain weird: your shoulders and elbows are tucked in and the pistol grip bars are about ten inches across, all of which means you have to will your shoulders into the turn and le-an. I don't think Schwantzy would rate it at all.

But I was already appreciating its headlight and warmth. I'd also managed to keep in the tradition of previous Bike weekend trips by losing the scrap of paper with the names of the hotels Sarah had booked. Banbury, the first overnight drinking halt, was a good 1 1/2 hours away along black, slimy, mist-laden A-roads - and that was the bit I knew. The bit I didn't was worse. We found Banbury. but couldn't find a hotel with a recognisable name. ('Bugger it, this one'll do. So what if it's more expensive.') A crowd gathered, conspicuously ignored the Kl, drew enthusiastically around the Voyager and radiated bewilderment:
"What's it like"to ride?"
"Er, odd."
"What's this bit for?"
"Er, dunno."
"What's it powered by?"
"Er, a Reliant Robin."

Two nearby pubs and the hotel bar then washed away the road salt and an early morning call was arranged for 6.30am.

It came at 5.40am. From then until Cheltenham a couple of hours later it was still dark, still wet, still slimey, foggy, slightly surreal. I'd become familiar enough with the Voyager to stay only half-awake without having to think too hard about what I was doing. What was I doing? It was hard to believe it was Saturday morning, mostly because I'm not that familiar with Saturday mornings. I should've been in bed, tucked up digesting a curry and generally feeling rough.

I didn't need this to feel rough. I didn't need all the swan-necking motorists gawping at me as I cruised by and, most of all, I didn't need the slightly unnerving 'yaw' which set in on the Voyager around 100. Not very nice at all. Throttling off a little remedied it but by then my stomach was already going walkies.

Breakfast, somewhere on the M5, sometime, brought with it the first bike swap. A mug of tea imbued Nelly with enough wolfish-ness to finally tackle the Voyager, while I was looking forward to being able to turn my brain off for a time on the Kl. Wish I hadn't. True, my brain dozed off but my fingers and toes did likewise and turned blue. Our 10.00am rendezvous with Goldman's Brownie at Porlock couldn't come quickly enough.

Still, at least the Kl had power. While the Voyager had the comfort and heated warmth of a two-wheeled, open-top sports car, beyond 100 it was always labouring. More mid-range is on the way, and it needs it. On the Kl, though, roles were reversed: the fairing took away most of the windblast and at 100 in top the engine was merely twiddling its thumbs. The bike was fine but the rider - me - was suffering. Bloody winter.

By Porlock we were still holding up our end by being half an hour late. Goldman was sipping tea from the seat of a borrowed BMW 535i and the sun was shining. Up on Exmoor it was still foggy so we spent the rest of the day chasing the sun (a futile pursuit, as Icarus proved), looking silly for the camera, endlessly 3-pointing the Voyager round in country lanes ("Arghhhhh - scrunch") and generally talking about the weather. Was this really Saturday?

After the 35th roll of film and our third crowd of bemused onlookers, the sun had finally withered away and it was time to hit the road. Barnstaple - at least, I think it was Barnstaple - provided an autobank, a Wimpy, another crowd ("'Scuse me mate, I hope you don't think I'm rude or anything, but what the fuck is that?") and a Radio Rentals shop in time for the World Cup draw. Jackie Charlton might have looked a bit hacked off but we, as we headed onto another black, slimey country

A-road lit up only by the Voyager's twin beams, were happy: Leeds had wopped Middlesbrough. Ha!

Now then, where the hell were we going? Ah yes, Newquay, The A38 meandered over hill and down dale ahead of me, I leant back into the V***o seat, warm, content and swinging the Voyager around 60mph bend after 60mph bend. Mmmm, 'sgood this. Newquay eventually unfolded beneath us like a cobwebbed wedding cake: pastel-coloured, empty hotels shrouded in the murk with hardly a soul to be seen anywhere. Bit like Le Mans after everyone's gone home.

Still, a wonderfully kitch boarding house was found complete with gnomes, horse brasses, wooden beams and pink satin bedclothes. The requisite number of pubs containing the requisite number of mini-skirted bottoms were found and, yesh, I got completely pissed. Just the stuff before embarking on a deep conversation over chips with a good mate about life, bikes, women and the state of the accountancy profession.

It was gone 10 by the time we reached Land's End the next morning. What I'd reckoned on being a 20-minute blat had turned out to be an hour's burble along stone-wailed country lanes to, er, nothing. Then they had the gall to charge us £1.50 to set boot on this barren piece of nothing.  Barring a corporate visitors' centre there's naff all there.   What were we doing there? Why had we wanted to go? Why am I stuck here while Mac's chasing the hotel pox in Macau?

Neither had we reckoned on it being 100 miles of A30 back to Exeter and the motorway. Just after Okehampton I cursed the Voyager's small development model tank for the last time and simultaneously praised its gargantuan boot. Out of petrol. But what's this under our I bags, my overtrousers, camera bag, Saturday AND Sunday papers? A jerry can. Oh Good. For disorganised buggers like me, this thing has a lot going for it as a tourer. After Exeter and more swan-neckers it was back on the K1 until Nelly forgot how the Voyager worked on the slip road down to Aust services. Laugh? I nearly exhumed my lunch.

So   we   made   it.   The   Voyager, despite the drawn-out familiarisation course, beats the K1 (or any conventional bike for that matter) hands down on this sort of trip. As I said   before,   it's   a   two-wheeled sports car with a bit of amusement arcade thrown in. The engine could do with more pep, the tank with more range and the front end with more feel. But all are on the way. Sure,   I   missed  the   BM's   stomp, efficiency, tailored edges and the sheer fun of a conventional bike in the twisties. But, on this sort of trip (900 brass monkeys miles in two days), where on your average BM you'd survive, on the Voyager you're blissfully cosy, you can take absolutely everything with you in that boot AND it simply eats the miles.  It ate my weekend, too, the bastard