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Eight Hard to Handle Motorcycles You Could Never Keep On the Road

It sounds obvious, but a motorcycle is variably unstable in the roll axis. If you step off it and let go of the handlebars, it flops over on its side.  That’s one front in the war designers and engineers are engaged in; overcoming that natural low-speed instability. A motorcycle, while it  becomes more stable the faster you ride (up to a limit), will reach a critical speed at which the front tire can no longer provide enough side thrust to stabilize it in a vertical attitude while cornering, and that’s the other front of the designer’s battle.

As you ride in a straight line down the road, a motorcycle is always essentially, trying to fall over to one side or the other. The front wheel of a motorcycle aligns itself with the direction of travel.

In general, the more “trail” a motorcycle needs to remain upright, the worse the handling will be. Trail is the distance between an extended line projecting from the steering axis to the pavement and a line extending to the earth’s surface from the center of the front axle. Trail normally falls in a range from 3 inches to 4.5 inches but it can extend into the ridiculous on choppers with “raked out” front forks. It’s that huge trail which makes choppers truly evil in the handling department. They run just fine in a straight line, but slight deviations from that line at speed can result in truly epic “tank slappers,” or uncontrollable wobble.

It’s the balance in front to rear tire traction and steering geometry which keeps your bike on the road. Engineers tasked with creating racing machines generally select the smallest front tire that will still provide enough braking force to do the job. If they didn’t need to use the front tire to stop the bike, you’d see thirteen-inch front wheels on motorcycles to improve turning.

All the information about how a motorcycle “feels” is transmitted through the handlebars and the footpegs. The ideal is to achieve “neutral steering,” a motorcycle with the correct balance of front to rear traction and weight distribution.

If those things don’t happen, you have the problems encountered while riding the bikes on our List of Handling Shame below…

  1. Early 1980’s BMW’s With an aging suspension design, weak and too-flexible frames, heavy cast-iron cylinder liners (which were ultimately replaced with plated aluminum versions) old heavy and lame ATE swing caliper brakes on the front wheels, BMWs were falling well behind the standard of the latest Japanese bikes. To answer the detractors, heavy flywheels were replaced with a stamped steel clutch carrier which cut down the rotating mass and allowed the engine to operate more smoothly. By 1980, BMW motorcycles were ponderous, slow, poor handling beasts, but the company addressed those issues and quickly got back in the game.
  2. Kawasaki 750 Triples. Weighing in at  748 cc and featuring a revolutionary three cylinder, 2-stroke engine design, the “Widowmakers” were the fastest street bikes yet seen –  in a straight line. On the downside, and it was a major downside for a machine capable of stunning speed and acceleration, the brakes and handling may well have marked an all-time low in design. While they were introduced to the market in 1972 and sold well, the original model line was dropped from Kawasaki’s roster in 1976 in favor of bikes you could actually take around a corner. I had one myself and while it was a thing of beauty in a drag race, it was a nightmare through the corners and on wet pavement, it was positively brutal to ride.
  3. Honda CX 500 A truly beautiful bike which is slowly coming into favor with custom builders, the CX500 was horribly top-heavy and an absolute bear to maneuver at low speeds. Made from 1978 to 1983, the CX 500 was beloved for it’s smooth engine, but incorrect crankshaft main bearing specifications led to a major recall of the line. Like the Moto Guzzi models before it, the CX500’s eccentric crankshaft rotation (a horizontal-v configuration) meant the machine would twist noticeably to the right when you came off the throttle. It was also far too easy to lock up the rear wheel when changing down through the gears.
  4. Moto Guzzi Like the CX 500, the engine design of the early Guzzis, while it was smooth as silk, introduced some quirky handling effects on acceleration and deceleration. In addition, some early Moto Guzzi models  included rubber mounting of the handlebars which ultimately made them very unstable at speed. The movement introduced in the handlebar mounting scheme made them feel loose and disconnected in cornering. Not exactly what you want…
  5. Kawasaki 500 H1 On their introduction in 1969, the 500 line suffered from the poor handling and woefully sorry braking of the larger 750’s. Their light weight also resulted in an unintended, but highly-prized, consequence. A ton of high-end torque meant riders could bring the front wheel up – in all three of first gears. Good for hooligans, not so good in many other respects…
  6. Harley Davidson Sportster, 1981  Long forks set at a steep angle and a top-heavy design mean that Sportsters from this era are fine in a straight line, but their handling through long corners was disastrously bad due mostly to poor suspension. The fork and steering geometry was also deeply messed up, and while they looked exceptional, it was the design which provided those looks which sent many a sportster sliding out over the high side.
  7. Honda C50, 70, 90, 110 While these Honda models are the best selling bikes of all time, their step-through, moped-like frames were inherently nasty on handling. The automatic transmissions on the early models were prone locking up the rear, and the bike’s suspension was so buttery soft that the wallowing, oscillating, bouncy ride put lots of riders off the road. One good thing about them was that, while they featured horrific handling, they weren’t fast enough for it to matter much…
  8. Suzuki GT380/550/750 The GT series Suzukis suffered from miniscule ground clearance, excessive engine width, front disc brakes which barely functioned and  a noodle-like swing arm. The front end would deviate so wildly on hard acceleration that tank-slappers were nearly inevitable for less experienced riders, and the rear shocks provided such outrageous amounts of damping that they rode like bucking ponies. Truly horrible. Epic in their lack of rider feel.

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20 Responses

  1. John S says:

    What? No Rokon Trailbreaker? The only reason I didn’t die on that “motorcycle” was its 15 mph top speed. I actually thought being thrown off 10 times per ride was normal. When I switched to a Honda CT 90 back in 1970, I thought I’d moved to a Norton Commando.

  2. Mark Phreak says:

    I will commend you for approving all of these comments.

    But….. CXs don’t torque steer. They lock there rear wheel no more than any high compression twin of a similar capacity. A blip on the throtle on downchanges will prevent this..

    I [before they closed our local one] could put my CX through our rider training course easily, – mostly tight, low speed maneauvering. I used to take all newly purchased bikes there.

    I live surrounded by the Adelaide hills, real twistys up there, my CX handles this well – and it’s the custom variant.

  3. Just to clarify I have ridden, either with an eye toward buying one or because a friend allowed me to take them out for a tour, every motorcycle my list here. That gives me sufficient personal experience to have formed an opinion on the subject. I’ve owned an RD 350 (which I found nimble and fast) as well as three other Yamahas, a long list of Hondas both street and trail, and I currently ride a Kawasaki Vulcan Drifter. I have no particular bias against any make or model of motorcycle, they’re all better than driving a car, but some of them aren’t as good as others.

    As to all those who love their CX 500’s? I get it, people enjoy different machines for various reasons. I’ve owned a couple of Volkswagen Beetles in my day, but that fact does not mean I think they’re good vehicles. I once owned a Yamaha XS500 and I loved it, but that didn’t make it a great motorcycle. I have ridden a CX 500 and didn’t buy it because I didn’t like the way it handled. I liked that the powerplant was smooth, but I found the handling strange, and I’m not alone in that assessment. If that makes me a heinous criminal, so be it.

    As to the errors which may or may not be included in this post, one of them, the CX 500 recall, was for a faulty cam chain tensioner, so though that portion of the post may not be entirely clear, it was an error in my explanation of the problem and not the substance of the problem, and for that, I’m glad it was pointed out.

    I approved every comment here because, one, I don’t claim to know everything about every bike ever manufactured, two, I like to learn things from people who are expert in their fields, three, I enjoy a reasoned discussion on any topic and lastly, because I think the internet is – at its best – a great place to find information and read the opinions of others.

    When I’m wrong, I’m wrong, and that surely happens more often than I’d like. On this subject, I wrote my honest assessment of these machines, and though I wasn’t prepared for the level of vitriol it managed to generate, I am prepared to accept the consequences of taking the time to put in my two cents.

    For everyone who took the time to give me a useful heads up? Thanks. For the rest, well…

  4. Tanh says:

    Hey Todd, I’m not going to flame as others have but will say that it’s evident that there a lot of inconsistencies in the article. Some of which I’d like to point out to you mostly so that others do not mistake the facts.

    “As you ride in a straight line down the road, a motorcycle is always essentially, trying to fall over to one side or the other.”

    The motorcycle is stabilized by various forces while in motion that will stabilize it in an upright straight position. There is far too much information to be covered in this critique. Google “Gyroscopic Precession” and “Camber Thrust” to see how a wheel in motion tends to stay upright.

    “In general, the more trail a motorcycle needs to remain upright, the worse the handling will be.”

    That is not generally correct as the main purpose of trail is not to keep the bike upright but to affect the contact patch offset. This slows slowing steering response by absorbing kinetic forces into the suspension and tires. This is good at high speeds as a small turn of the handlebars can be absorbed by the slip angle and counteracted by camber thrust, truing the bike and saving you from laying on the freeway.

    “If they didn’t need to use the front tire to stop the bike, you’d see thirteen-inch front wheels on motorcycles to improve turning.”

    No you wouldn’t see 13 inch wheels because the steering geometry would be to direct as the contact patch will offset to close to the fork offset. If they intend the bike to ride like a shopping cart at 5km/h and shake violently at 20km/h then yes they would to that. Longer trail and contact patch offsets are there for better turning characteristics at high speeds. Just plain physics.

    “The ideal is to achieve neutral steering, a motorcycle with the correct balance of front to rear traction and weight distribution.”

    The actual ideal is to achieve a little oversteer. This allows better handling characteristics and allows better control (feel) when using high performance tires/compounds. Ask any racer what he feels more comfortable with, no feeling as he enters the turn or the ability to have a rear slip angle where he can drift slightly as he enters the turn. They will all answer they want the added control that inherent oversteer would allow. This is why crotch rockets are so tall and have such little trail.

    “which cut down the rotating mass and allowed the engine to operate more smoothly.”

    This is the opposite of what physically happens in an engine. The flywheel is there to create torsional momentum so that small inconsistencies in the combustion process are absorbed making the engine smoother. The more mass the smoother the engine the less mash the more responsive the engine will be. In a motorcycle with such a large rev range you want to be able to quickly increase RPMs so lighter flywheels are desired. The opposite is true for diesel engines.

    I own / ride a 2 CX500s and I can see why they’re a favourite of couriers during their time. It’s a fun ride with none of the aformentioned problems you’ve stated. I hope others who will read this article will do some reading and riding of their own to find out the true facts.

  5. abes_cw says:

    Yeah, it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t know crap from toothpaste in regards to the CX line. Riding since 14, congratz, but maybe get on a CX before you spout about what you truly don’t know.

    Torque twist is virtually non-existent, even on the more powerful (62 bhp) 650 models.

    The recall wasn’t for crank bearings…. wtf did you get that?

    The bitch is ugly. U G L Y. But the low maintenance, and high grin per CC makes it a good classic to add to the stable.

  6. You Figure says:

    Call it troll, or whatever you wish, Todd. You just plain don’t know a thing about the CX series. Not personally for sure.

  7. John Rice says:

    while I must agree that some of the bikes mentioned were
    very poor handling indeed, There were other common machines that were much worse than some of your list.

    Of more concern is that in your introduction and in some of the reasons you give for poor handling in the bike list, you demonstrate a complete failure of understanding of a bikes stability and the factors affecting it’s handling.

  8. Charlie says:

    Sorry, but no “early Moto Guzzi models” had rubber mounted handlebars. I’ve worked on everything from a ’51 Galletto 160 to an ’07 Breva 750 and it wasn’t until recently that the handlebar risers were rubber mounted. On the “big twins” from the original V700 of 1967 through the ’70s and ’80s the handlebars (or clip-ons) are solidly mounted.

    Sure, the engine design and traditionally heavy flywheel made them “a rolling physics experiment” as one magazine tester wrote, but in the hands of a smooth rider they more than hold their own. Ever hear of Dr. John Wittner? Google him – you might learn something. 🙂

  9. Kev.B says:

    I agree with Matthew and Tom. Too many people who write about motorcycles online or for magazines repeat stuff they’ve been fed in the past. Guzzi tests always include “the engine is based on a three wheeled mechanical mule” and “it rolls when you blip the throttle at the lights so it must have torque reaction when you ride it” or words to that effect. All rehashed from someone else’s writing and repeated until they become “well, everyone knows that” urban myth.

    Todd, when you put your name to a piece (as we are here, and as I have done for articles I’ve written for other publications) you must a. know what you’re talking about and most importantly b. you must have actually had first hand experience of what you’re talking about! Otherwise you are committing that most heinous of journalistic crimes, presenting opinion as fact.

    You’re also talking to a group of people who have possibly been riding longer than you have. I’ve owned three Guzzi’s since 1987, one of them for 22 years so if I write on a web board to help someone out, it is only about things I have actually done and fixed on stuff I know about. Keep that in mind.

  10. GuywithaGuzzi says:

    Matthew is right, this article is mostly plagiarized which just makes it poor reporting at best and stupid at worst.

    I’ve never personally run across a Moto Guzzi with rubber mounted handlebars but I’ve also never ridden a Moto Guzzi that handled poorly. I’ve had a couple of bikes that I didn’t like the handling on, a Kawasaki Z-2 (the Japanese domestic version of the Z-1) and a half dozen other bikes that lacked something that inspired full confidence. Even so, the basic problem with this article is that without some specific models mentioned as examples, the assumption seems to be that ANY motorcycle made by these various manufacturers from the past to the present are questionable. That just isn’t the way it works and casting aspersions to garner attention is just silly.

    If you want bad handling, get a Yamaha RD-350 from the ’70’s and take it to the track after the plastic swing arm bushings have worn out. It’s exciting. It really is.

    Sorry Todd, this really isn’t good journalism unless you’re aspiring to a job with the National Enquirer.

  11. Lee Bruns says:

    You list Moto Guzzi as bad handling. Pretty much killed your credibility there.
    Might as well list the GSXR as a bad handling machine if you think the Guzi’s have any handling issues.

  12. Tom Wills says:

    Truly Beautiful? C’mon dude! Save for the GL models and to teardrop
    fuel tanks on some of the CX’s, the CX’s were commonly referred to as
    “Plastic Maggots!” That was just the first remark you made that not only put your
    creditability into question, and, after reading your “commentaries on the reviews”, of these Hondas, also has me wondering if you have ever BEEN on a motorcycle! You show me ANY bike that doesn’t handle like a bear in “slow-speed” (3-5mph) corners, and I’ll show you a bicycle!

    As far as reaching the “point of KNOW return”, on dropping the bike?, Ya, it’s tighter then most, but, truly NOT insurmountable! (truly beautiful…….rofl)

    The “recall” you read about is true, however, THAT was for a “faulty” cam-chain tensionor, and not incorrect main bearing specs.

    The ONLY time I felt ANY “torquing” to the right on my motorcycle was when I was rolling along in neutral about 15-20mph, and “goosed” the motor. And, that’s only because I was looking for it, as I had’nt at any other time previously even NOTICED it, as the transmission spins in a “counter-active” way, in negating any REAL detriments in the way the bike handles. Off the line, or, otherwise.

    I can understand the comments concerning the “locking” up of the rear wheel when down-shifting, as these bikes are geared rather low, for quicker acceleration for a rather low powered 50 horses. Something to take into consideration when “engine-braking” against 10:1 ratio pistons. Something as trivial as perhaps “goosing” the motor before downshifting?

    Sounds RATHER obvious, as a previous commenter mentioned, YOU have never ridden these motorcycles (or ANY motorcycle, I suspect) to give ANY kind of a creditable review, save to “slant” your comments to motorcycle dealerships!

    Thank You for allowing me to “air” some truths concerning this particular motorcycle, from one who actually OWNS and rides one!

  13. Boris Fudurich says:

    I feel your comment about the CX 500 is also directed at the whole line of CX motorcycles.
    As a rider of a CX 650 T ,I beg to differ. I at present own 20 ridable bikes , some of which you also mention in your article. I have rode the Cx the past 2 riding seasons because it is a joy to ride. Never locked up the rear wheel, and once you get used to the weight (couple rides for me) no problems at all. It is like any other motorcycle , you must learn to handle it first. Perhaps you may want to spend a bit more time in the saddle , and change your mind.

    • Thomas says:

      wow that info on th cx is total BS and im thinking all the others are crap too
      the cx is a very easy to handle bike have you ridden any of the bikes on this list? any good handlers to compare to? you sound like a negative nancy

  14. You Figure says:

    I have to agree with the Matthew. And the recall had NOTHING to do with the camshaft!

  15. Matthew says:

    As an owner and rider of a 1982 CX500, I have to say that the information here is partially wrong. The recall in 1978 fixed the problems and that eliminated the problems thereafter, but there is no “twist to the right” when coming off the throttle. I have never experienced torque steer on my machine and the same goes for most other riders. While it was top-heavy, there are plenty of people who own them still and their GL counterparts and who scrape the pegs and come out of the turn clean. If you’re locking up the rear when downshifting then that means you’re downshifting too soon.