Collectable: Hesketh Vampire
By the late 1970s the once-proud British motorcycle industry was in tatters. Norton was dead, and Triumph barely alive, holding on by a thread at Meriden. There hadn’t been a new large-capacity British motorcycle since the Triumph Trident of 1968, but Lord Hesketh decided to change this. Hesketh wanted to create another Brough Superior or Vincent Black Shadow, a truly British high-quality motorcycle. He envisaged a two-wheeled Aston Martin: classy, expensive and built to last.
Similar to Ducati, Hesketh decided on a 90-degree V-twin, offering perfect primary balance, excellent cooling and a low centre of gravity when mounted in a frame with the front cylinder almost horizontal.
Unlike the Ducati, however, the Hesketh was a considerably more up-to-date in design.
Displacing 992cc (95x70mm), the massive vertically split sandcast crankcases contained a one-piece forged crankshaft. The cylinder heads featured four valves per cylinder (set at a Cosworth-like 40-degree included angle), with chain-driven double overhead camshafts. The primary drive to the five-speed gearbox was by helical gear, and the lubrication system used a semi-wet sump.
A pair of Dell’Orto 36mm carburettors fed the cylinders and each engine was bench tested, with power ranging between 79 and 86 horsepower at 6500rpm.
Supporting this imposing engine was a nickel-plated frame constructed in Reynolds 531 chrome-molybdenum tubing, long recognised in Britain as the finest frame material. Like the Ducati, the engine was incorporated as a stressed member.
Also Ducati-like was the 38mm Marzocchi fork with Brembo brakes, Marzocchi shock absorbers, but loyalty to Britain including Honda Comstar-like Astralite wheels, a 19-inch front and 17-inch rear.
The rear brake was unusual for the time, with the caliper attached to a parallelogram torque arm attached to the engine. Rolling on a 1511mm wheelbase and weighing 250kg, the Hesketh was no lithe race replica, but a luxury grand tourer par excellence.
A close look at every component revealed this was a machine built to last and if you ever managed to wear an engine out eight sizes of piston overbore were available.
Although horrendously expensive at the time, the Hesketh was extremely flawed and early examples were troublesome. If there was ever a case of releasing an undeveloped product on an unsuspecting public it was the Hesketh. Fortunately only the Brits suffered because the earliest bikes were for domestic consumption only.
Apart from a terrible gearchange, most of the problems stemmed from the lubrication system. When the engine got hot the cylinder would expand more than the camchain case, leading to oil leaks, but more serious was the alarming extremes of oil pressure between hot and cold. The high oil pressure when cold blew oil pressure switches to smithereens. Needless to say this did little for the Hesketh’s reputation but at least they honoured the warranty, with some early bikes receiving four new engines in an endeavour to overcome recurring problems.
But when it was running, the Hesketh was an admirable motorcycle, a traditional large capacity V-twin offering secure and stable handling. It was just that only a few could enjoy it.
In 1982 production moved to Easton Neston under a new company, Hesleydon, to produce the Vampire. It was designed with exports in mind following requests for a touring version, but only 50 examples of the fully faired Vampire were produced.
John Mockett designed the fairing at the MIRA wind tunnel, the fairing body a hand laminated GRP box structure. The updated engine was initially titled the EN10, or Easton Neston one/0, becoming the EN11 and eventually EN12 for the Vampire. These updates incorporated many improvements to overcome reliability problems, mainly to the main bearings and oil cooling system. But even with these modifications the Hesketh Vampire was an anachronism.
A general downturn in motorcycle sales in the early 1980s, combined with spiralling costs, saw the market for expensive hand-built classic motorcycles disappear.
Although it has continued to be produced in limited numbers over the past 20 years, the Hesketh remains a legacy of the British motorcycle industry of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Bright ideas and sound engineering, compromised by mismanagement, a lack of finance and rushed development.
THE VALUE PROPOSITION
– New $14,950
– Fair $20,000
– Perfect $35,000
- Five things you need to know about the Hesketh
- Inspired by Lord Hesketh, who had run the last private team to win a Formula 1 Grand Prix, the Hesketh motorcycle was conceived in 1978 at Hesketh’s Eaton
- Neston estate in Northamptonshire.
- Design of the engine and transmission was entrusted to Weslake, with the styling by freelance designer and ex-AMCN cartoonist John Mockett.
- By early 1980 the first prototype was running and, in 1981, a factory was built in nearby Daventy.
- After only 139 motorcycles were produced, a lack of cash saw Hesketh motorcycles into receivership. In 1982 production moved back to Easton Neston, under a
- new company, Hesleydon, but this failed in 1984.
- From 1984 development engineer Mick Broom continued to improve the Hesketh and build machines to order. Broom produced up to 12 motorcycles a year and in
- 2006 relocated to the Silverstone circuit after Hesketh was forced to sell Easton Neston.
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