Bikes That Didn't Make It — Should've, Could've—Didn't

A glance in history's rearview mirror can be illuminating, especially when you spot bikes that might have had a real impact on the sport had they been just a bit more successful.

In 1919 Harley-Davidson launched the Sports Model W. Patterned after the British Douglas, the W employed a 37ci (584cc) flat twin with the cylinders arranged in a fore-aft layout. For those of you who aren't Douglas aficionados, picture an airhead BMW with the engine rotated 90 degrees in the frame and you'll have some idea of what it looked like.

When a flat twin is mounted transversely it creates several problems. For starters, the widely splayed cylinders demand their own carburetors. These have to be hung off the back of the engine, which intrudes on footpeg space. Second, ground clearance is always an issue (especially back in the day when bikes were a lot lower). Third, some riders are put off by the torque reactions of transversely mounted flat twins, even though any issues are usually perceived to be more of a problem than they are. H-D resolved these matters by arranging the engine longitudinally-and no, rear-cylinder cooling wasn't a concern.

I've never been on a W; of the 9883 that were built there are only 64 known survivors, so cadging a ride on one is going to be tough, but by all accounts they were great bikes. Ironically, while they quickly became popular in Europe and the U.K. they never really cut the mustard in the U.S. They were discontinued in 1923, primarily because they cost as much to make as the far better-selling V-twins, but if the situation had been reversed the Motor Company might be in a very different place today.

From the mid '60s to the early '70s the 350cc class was arguably the most popular and technically sophisticated category in motorcycling. Everyone from Harley to Honda had something in that displacement on the showroom floor, and they all sold like hotcakes.

The BSA/Triumph group was by then England's last hope. Their big bikes were keeping them afloat, but they knew they needed a piece of that lucrative midsize market if they hoped to remain a viable force in motorcycling. They also knew their line of aging pushrod singles and twins wasn't going to cut it; the Asian hot rods were just too advanced. To rectify the situation they commissioned Triumph's recently retired head of design Edward Turner to create two new models, the 350cc BSA Bandit and the Triumph Fury.

The bikes, which were identical in all but name and trim, utilized a double overhead-cam twin-cylinder engine with a five-speed transmission and electric start. Slated for release in 1971 (I had one on order) they would have been extremely competitive in both performance and price with anything then being made in Japan, and they were far more attractive.

Unfortunately the bikes had serious problems in testing and had to be completely redesigned before they were fit for production. The delay cost millions in time, effort and lost sales. In the end only 19 were built before BSA pulled the plug. Within the year BSA was done and Triumph was on life support.

Japanese manufacturers set high sales standards and, in my opinion, sometimes pull a bike from the lineup that doesn't sell as well as they think it should, without giving it a real shot.

The Suzuki VX 800 was one of my favorite missing links. Based on the Intruder 800, the VX was a very neat shaft-driven V-twin roadster that nicely bridged the chasm between cruiser and standard. Sold in the U.S. from 1990 to 1993, the VX had only one problem-it was good at everything but excelled at nothing. The Brits called it "gray porridge," meaning it was a bit too utilitarian (read: boring) to sell well. Me, I always thought it was a good, solid bike that should have been given a splashier paint job and kept around for us old codgers to enjoy.

Another one that was gone before I had a chance to have some fun with it was the Honda VT1100 American Classic Edition Tourer (1998-2000). For me the 1100 was the perfect size-not too big, not too pokey and at 10 grand not horribly expensive. You could use the ACE during the week to haul yourself to work, pick up the groceries and run errands. Come the weekend you were off like a honeymoon nightie. Because it was a Honda the maintenance requirements were just about nil: Add some gas, change the oil, check the tire pressure and you were done. As a whole the Shadows did have a good run; I just wish Honda had kept this one in play a little longer.

In the end there's no telling which bikes will be successful. A designer puts forth his best efforts, the company rolls the dice and fate does the rest.