Riding Dan Gurney's Alligator Motorcycle

Meet a motorcycle that's part cruiser, part sportbike, part Formula One car. By Jamie Elvidge.

Dan Gurney's Alligator
Dan Gurney's Alligator.James Brown

Is it just me, or do you agree there's a distinct lack of heroism in the modern world? Could it be that our system has become so diluted by sensation it simply doesn't allow for one man to become a global legend? Or is everyone so concerned with the bottom line that success has become more synonymous with money than with skill or reverence?

Dan Gurney's A-6 Alligator
Motorcycle Cruiser gets the first press ride on Dan Gurney's A-6 Alligator.James Brown

There are a few everlasting heroes floating around, but just a handful. A name here or there that's universally connected with honor. Dan Gurney is just that type of legend. And although most people link him to a spectacular career in auto racing, he hopes that one day soon his name will be just as representative of the ultra innovative motorcycle he's building. Dubbed the "Alligator" for its low-slung stature, gnarly disposition and indigenous nature ('gators are native to America), Gurney's creation has taken a couple decades to hatch. Of course he was a bit busy with that driving career, which included multiple victories in Formula One, Indy Car, NASCAR and Sports Car venues. And then there is the little business, All American Racers, where Dan's spent almost 40 years designing and manufacturing some of the world's winningest race cars.

Dan Gurney
Famous for his exploits with race cars, Dan Gurney has always had a fondness for motorcycles.James Brown
Dan Gurney awards
Dan Gurney is responsible for many firsts that have become standards. After his 1967 victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans he spontaneously sprayed the crowd with champagne. He was also the first driver to wear a full-face helmet in Indy and Grand Prix racing. Perhaps the Alligator concept will catch on in similar fashion.James Brown

The life he's built around auto sports has been extremely full, but Gurney, now 71, has always had a backroom in his heart for two wheels--and in AAR's gigantic Southern California facility too. Now, instead of retiring, he's decided to tackle yet another dream. The first Alligator motorcycle prototype was a whim, built in the 80s from a 350 Honda he had sitting around. "It seemed like a harebrained idea," he says, "but it turned out pretty dog-gone good and that got our attention."

His "concept" tweaks the world's perception of modern motorcycles--at least the idea where the rider sits on top of the chassis. You don't mount Gurney's Alligator as much as you sit down in it, like a car. The focus of initial development was to take a single-cylinder engine (for which Gurney has deep affinity) and build a frame around it that made more geometric sense to him. That involved seating the rider on the same plane as the motor, and below the tops of the tires, to make the Alligator's center of gravity (CG) as low as possible, which proved to smooth and stabilize the bike's handling characteristics as well as increase aerodynamic efficiency. It does seem a new concept for the world to digest, but in actuality, Gurney is not the first builder to believe that better handling begins with rider placement; Gottlieb Daimler built a very similar prototype in 1886.

The Alligator went through five variations before Gurney and his team at AAR (which includes son Justin) decided on a sixth (hence the name A-6), which is now available to consumers for $35,000. This is a very limited production of 36 units that carry the blue and white paint of Gurney's famous Number 36 Eagle F-1 car, which won the Belgian Grand Prix in 1967, a first for an American car driven by its own builder.

Dan Gurney's A-1
The A-1 version a.k.a. "Grandpa Gator" was built on a Honda XL350 platform in 1976.James Brown

Have You Ever Seen an Alligator Fly?

I'm still pinching myself when I think that I'm the first journalistm (and the only one to date) who has had the privilege of test riding the A-6. Timing, connection, karma--whatever the cause, my good fortune led to a day spent hanging out with Gurney at the AAR facility. I was able to hear the whole story, see the bikes being built and even ride some of the prototype Alligators that preceded the A-6 design. Gurney is a long-time hero of mine, so just surviving the day without swooning was an accomplishment.

One of my first questions was why he'd chosen a single cylinder if he wanted to build a bike that was competitive with modern road bikes and had he considered going with a twin? "Why would I want to do that?" he said. "I'd have to make both pistons fire at the same time to make it sound like a single." The fact is Gurney is rather fanatical about big-piston singles, and his fondness goes all the way back to boyhood when his heroes raced singles on the dirt track. He sees the single-piston motor as ultra efficient and "more fun than people think," and since he's managed to pull over 70 hp out of the air-cooled 4-stroke Honda 600, I see his point.

Of course some major massaging is necessary to get that kind of power out of a single. Gurney and his design crew went with a bigger bore (approximately 670cc) and modified the cylinder head to include dual inlet tracks. AAR added fuel injection to the previously carbureted engine and fabricated the sensors and throttle bodies, as well as the pistons, which run on Carrillo connecting rods. The Alligator engine also uses a hotter cam and required pretty major modification to the oil pump system to draw more efficiently with the motor set at its new angle. Compression ended up at 12:1 with an 82mm bore and 104mm stroke.

Dan Gurney's family
Gurney's daughter and five sons (this is Jimmy with the helmet) have all been involved in the Alligator project and ride the bikes regularly.James Brown
Justin Gurney
Justin Gurney, Dan's second to youngest son, is the Alligator Project Manager and also designer of the bike's carbon fiber bodywork.James Brown

At first sight the Alligator looks like a sportbike, and it's true the bike has high-performance intent. However, when you sit down (and I mean down--the seat height is only 18 inches) and find your footing right behind the front wheel, it feels more like you're riding an extreme cruiser with a drag bar than the sportbike the sleek bodywork suggests. Of course, as soon as you start rolling down the road you realize this bike really doesn't feel like either, but rather its own thing, which is, perhaps, a magnificent blend of both.

One of the major benefits of sitting so low in the Alligator is that you never get that "perched" feeling that comes with modern sportbike ergonomics. When you corner aggressively, you are not going over the top of the bike, or even countering movement with the controlled use of your bodyweight. Instead, you are an integral part of the chassis and the slightest shift--what feels like mere thought--affects steering in the most wonderfully smooth and predictable way. Cruisers have a bit of this confidence-inspiring pendulum effect in corners, although they are heavier to steer and in dire need of more ground clearance. I imagine you can scrape something on the Alligator, but I think it may only be your butt cheek.

Gurney A-6 Alligator
Gurney going over specifics of development with Elvidge during her tour of the AAR facility—she's totally enamored, but refrains from bubbling.James Brown
Dan Gurney
Discussing more details with Gurney over coffee.James Brown

One of the reasons the Alligator is so quick is due to the fact that it weighs only 320 pounds--less than a lot of dirt bikes. Gurney kept the weight down by using all carbon-fiber bodywork, a chromoly frame and magnesium wheels. The bike's light weight also contributes to its friendly disposition. An inverted cartridge fork from Honda's ultra sporty CBR 954 and nitrogen-filled twin shocks from Progressive do a good job suspending the Alligator, and dual 330mm rotors up front (also from the 954) and a 220mm rotor on the rear offer intensely effective stopping power.

When I was riding the Alligator I had two big thoughts. The first thing I knew for certain was that I was having more fun than I ought to. The second awareness was that in many ways I felt like I was riding a cruiser, only it was a cruiser that behaved like a performance bike. The Alligator has several key elements that cruisers lack--things cruisers could have, like more manageable weight and better ground clearance. In fact, the Alligator has things cruisers should have, especially those touted "performance" models.

Engine of Dan Gurney's Alligator
The nostalgic-looking 600cc single compliments the bike's ultra modern styling and produces a drumbeat sound that is down-right ferocious.James Brown

So, I liked the Alligator. A lot. But then I'm not one who's buffaloed by social expectations. There are only three things this bike has going against it--cost, proof of reliability and perception. Time is likely to mend the first two ills. The fact that it isn't exactly orthodox is the Alligator's real challenge.

Can you see outside the box? I'll be curious to see how many of us can.

A-5 Prototype
One of the A-5 prototype versions of the Alligator wears this wild-looking snout—actually a huge scoop which brings air to the injectors. Like we said, Gurney designed this bike with function in mind, not fashion. The production model will have an optional scoop for those who dare.James Brown

SPECIFICATIONS

MSRP: $35,000

Weight: 320 lbs.

Wheelbase: 60 in.

Rake/Trail: 24-degrees/3 in.

Seat Height: 18 in.

Engine Type: 670cc air-cooled 4-stroke single

Compression Ratio: 12:1

Carburetion: EFI

Minimum Fuel Grade: 92 octane

Wheels: Dymag 17-in. front and rear

Front Tire: 120/70

Rear Tire: 180/55

Front Brake: 330mm dual discs/Honda

Rear Brake: 220mm single disc/Brembo/Ferodo

Front Suspension: 43mm inverted cartridge fork