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Motorcycles Provide Better Gas Mileage Than Cars, But Only Marginally So. Why?

Way back in 1992, I lived in Hudson, Wis., and commuted eight miles each day to the office of the publishing company for which I worked in Stillwater, Minn. As long as the temperature outside was above 40 degrees, I rode my Honda VFR. If it was colder than 40 degrees, I drove my battered Ford F150.

This garnered a lot of respect from most of my co-workers, as most of them rode motorcycles, too. What I didn’t tell them was that I was poor, rather than dedicated.

Fresh out of college and working for peanuts, I counted every penny. My justification for suffering through 40-degree weather in my leather jacket — I couldn’t afford an Aerostich suit or electric gear — was that I was saving money. I never did the math; I just trusted that I was saving money.

In the process of writing this article, I did the math and discovered that riding my Honda saved about 3.6 gallons of gas per week, and a gallon of the stuff in June 1992 cost $1.12. Riding the VFR saved me $4.03 per week. Even with my 40-degree rule, Midwestern weather only allowed me to ride six or seven months each year. My annual savings due to riding my $3,500 motorcycle amounted to about a hundred bucks.

Since 1992, gas costs have quadrupled and commutes are getting longer. People with regular commutes of 50 miles or more can save $50 per week by riding a 50 mpg motorcycle — that’s $2,500 per year. Which still isn’t enough to justify buying a new motorcycle.

But as every single reader of this magazine probably knows, those perceived savings have driven motorcycle sales during the past 18 months or so. When gas prices hit four bucks, small motorcycles and scooters move.

So, here’s the puzzling piece of this equation: Why don’t motorcycles get better mileage? A 2009 Honda Civic DX with a manual transmission and 1,799cc inline four-cylinder engine weighs 2,630 pounds and garners an EPA average fuel mileage rating of 29 miles per gallon (the reasons why the new Civic’s mileage is so lousy compared to early ‘90s models is another topic entirely). A 2009 Kawasaki Versys with a 649cc parallel twin engine weighs 454 pounds and the EPA-rated fuel mileage is 53 miles per gallon.

Even if you factor in the higher performance and lower aerodynamic drag of the motorcycle, the much lighter and smaller-engined Versys should get at least triple the fuel mileage of the Civic, which has to run electrical systems and an air conditioning compressor, in addition to hauling around an additional 2,176 pounds. Considering the power-to-weight ratio, 100 or 150 miles per gallon seems quite feasible.

This by-the-thumb math doesn’t add up, and the Versys mileage is less than double that of the Civic. And if you consider that the EPA highway rating for the Civic is 36 miles per gallon, the gap shrinks. And if you drive a sport bike, forget about it. You’ll be lucky to get the same mileage as the Civic.

Yes, sport bikes offer incredible performance, but performance isn’t exclusive to fuel mileage; late model Mustangs and Corvettes with heavily modified engines and reasonable gearing can get 25 or 30 miles per gallon on the freeway.

Most of us, at least in this industry, would choose the Versys over the Civic (or the R-1 over the Corvette), leaving incrementally improved fuel mileage as a bonus.

That attitude may well be the essence of why motorcycles in the showroom don’t give us 100 or 150 miles per gallon — We buy motorcycles because we love them.

For about 99 percent of street motorcycle buyers in America, practicality is a very small factor. Yes, those with long commutes can save $2,500 in annual fuel costs, but by the time you factor in maintenance, gear and insurance, the real savings of buying even a cheap motorcycle is slim.

In 1980, Craig Vetter was pondering this very topic. Vetter’s best-known creation is the Windjammer, an aftermarket fairing that was extremely popular from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s. He also designed a sleekly faired and modified Kawasaki KZ1000 known as the Mystery Ship.

Vetter is known for fairings, but he is distinguished by being a forward thinker. His ideas were consistently progressive and radical. During the fuel crunch of the 1970s, his ideas progressed from aerodynamic efficiency to fuel efficiency.

“I began to wonder,” he said, “What were the upper limits? What was possible?”

Vetter read that Shell Oil had sponsored a contest in which the competitors had achieved as much as 1,200 miles per gallon. This was accomplished, however, by silly machines in silly conditions. Vetter envisioned a more real-world contest, and created the Craig Vetter Fuel Economy Contests.

The first of these was held in Colorado, and the roughly 90-mile course ran from Colorado Springs to Cripple Creek. The winner was Lammy Johnstone, whose geared-up Harley 1000 averaged 97.9 miles per gallon.

In 1981, current owner and CEO of Parabellum fairings Charly Perethian joined the challenge. In 1981, he hastily geared-up his Honda XL250 and was able to knock down 147 miles per gallon and finish third. He knew he could do better.

He worked for Rifle, and thought an entry might be a good way to promote the company’s line of fairings. So he and the company went all-out in 1982. They started with a Yamaha SR185. He had in-house aerodynamics experts who could build the body; what he needed was engine expertise.

Perethian’s first effort was to obtain sponsorship from Champion Spark Plugs. He pursued that company for one simple reason: Bob Stralman.

Stralman was legendary in racing circles. Perethian is a former racer, and he knew Bob’s skills.

“He was a genius,” Perethian said. “He could look at a plug and tell how an engine was running.”

Once Perethian landed the sponsorship, he sent Stralman three pages of questions. Stralman came back with a list of roughly 10 suggestions. The team implemented all of them on the Yamaha, and they worked.

In a nutshell, Stralman suggested they build a 3,000-rpm race motor. By that he meant the engine needed to have all the modifications of a racing engine designed to run at low rpms. That meant the engine needed a free-breathing exhaust and intake coupled with all the compression the fuel could handle.

The team started by modifying the motorcycle. Once the engine mods were complete, they found the most effective way to improve fuel mileage was to increase the gearing. Every time the gearing was made taller, the mileage improved. In fact, they were able to get roughly 200 miles per gallon simply by gearing the bike very tall.

Adding full bodywork gave them more improvements, and when they took to the 1982 fuel economy competition course on California’s Highway 1, they were able to get 282 miles per gallon. The Perethian bike won that year, just edging out a Honda CB125 that was piloted by professional trials rider Debbie Evans.

In 1983, development on the Rifle entry continued. A slicker body was added, and the SR185’s five-speed gearset was replaced with a six-speed from an XT125. They were able to increase the gearing again, and further increase fuel mileage.

That year the contest was again held on Highway 1, this time as a two-day stage race held the same weekend as the road races at Laguna Seca. The first day was for road racing, and a few challengers were invited to compete at Laguna Seca on Sunday with five cents worth of fuel. The Rifle 185 squeezed 372 miles out of each gallon, and won the race going away.

The race continued until 1985. That was really the last anyone heard about it until gas prices rose to four dollars per gallon.

“I’ve been waiting for 25 years for anyone to even ask about it,” Perethian recently said. “Nobody cared back then, certainly not motorcyclists. The thrill of the sport is the fun. I understand that; I’m one of them.”

Craig Vetter dropped the project until a few years back, when he decided the time was right to do what he could to create awareness about the potential of motorcycles as transportation. He conceived the “Freedom Bike” concept, which is his idea for a motorcycle that is capable of 70-miles-per-hour and 100 miles per gallon. He is experimenting with Honda Reflex scooters, and has seen modest increases in fuel mileage due to his streamlined bodywork on the bikes.

His concept is innovative, and you can read about the Freedom Bike at www.craigvetter.com. He admits that his role today is more that of a dreamer than
an activist.

The Vetter Fuel Economy Contests proved that motorcycles can get fuel mileage that transforms them from fun machines you can justify with economy to economical machines that contribute in a meaningful way to social problems.

“Let’s face it,” Perethian said. “When Honda wants to build a 200- or 300-mile per gallon bike, they can do it. The problem is whether anyone is going to buy it.”

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