The British revival rumbles on. Or in this case THUNDERS. And then some.
Hesketh is the latest UK heritage motorcycle brand to be reborn, (following Triumph in 1990, Norton in 2009 and Ariel last month). And, with numerous others in development (e.g., Brough Superior, Matchless and Metisse) having a union flag on your bike’s tank is clearly a fashionable place to be right now. Isn’t it funny how times change? There’s even rumors of a BSA return in the future, too…
But although the Hesketh name arguably can’t quite match the pull or allure of some of those famous names and its first bike, this ‘24’ has little in terms of mechanical originality or world beating dynamics, on the strength of our world first ride it goes a long way toward making up for that with bucket loads of style, character, quality and exclusivity.
But first, a little background. For those not completely savvy, Hesketh Motorcycles was originally launched by playboy aristocrat Lord Hesketh out of his Easton Neston, Northamptonshire country estate in 1980. He’d gained fame through his Formula 1 team in the mid-1970s (the springboard for James Hunt’s success as recently portrayed on the silver screen in “Rush”) and following the closure of that team, Lord H wanted to use the team’s skills and facilities to revive the then failing British motorcycle industry. Hesketh Motorcycles were the result.
MotoUSA’s colleagues at MCN sample the S&S V-Twin-powered Hesketh ‘24’.
Unfortunately, success was, er, marginal. 1983’s first bike, the Weslake V-Twin-powered V1000, although handsome, was unreliable, cumbersome and poorly reviewed culminating in the company going into receivership after producing just 139 machines.
A new company, Hesleydon, was then formed to build a faired, touring version, the Vampire, but the faults remained and that company folded as well, after just 40 machines in 1984. Thereafter, former development engineer Mick Broom defiantly kept the marque ticking over, supporting owners, refining the bikes and even producing limited numbers of completely new machines before retiring and selling out to Paul Sleeman in 2010.
Yet despite limited success and minimal numbers of bikes (barely 200 have been built over those three decades), that long period of continuity has still cultivated a significant cachet to the Hesketh brand, something Sleeman and his team, recently relocated to a small but credible boutique shop/factory in Redhill, Surrey, is determined to breathe new life into. Since 2010, five more ‘Kingswood’-labelled V1000s have been built (the name describing Hesketh’s then premises and distinguishing the bikes from their predecessors). Now, the new Hesketh concern enters a new, bold era.
Bought in from the U.S. but tailored specifically by Harris Performance, a S&S ‘X Wedge’ V-Twin powers the Hesketh 24.
The limited-edition 24 is the firm’s statement of that intent. As such it’s unashamedly designed as a headline-grabbing device and one that, by being produced in such small numbers (just 24 will be made) is arguably irrelevent to most of us anyway. But it’s also vital in announcing the new concern and acting as the connect between the old Hesketh and the new. As far as Sleeman and his team are concerned, the 24 is just the start. Plans for a follow-up, possibly V6, sport-tourer are already on the table with ambitions to produce up to 50 hand-built inevitably ‘high-end’ machines a year.
The Hesketh 24’s dash features clocks and dials inset into carbon fiber background.
And on the evidence of this first ride there’s plenty of credibility to those ambitions. Even though still a prototype and thus inevitably rough around the edges and in need of further refinement, the 24 is impressively finished and complete. There’s no makeshift components, such as sidestand or rearsets of the like you’d usually find on development mules. Everything (almost), including indicators and clocks work, and it starts on the button. Norton’s original 961, for example, certainly wasn’t like that back in 2010.
The 24’s name derives from the number sported by Hesketh Racing’s F1 legend, James Hunt. The brand will also only build 24 of the limited-edition model.
The Hesketh 24 is also impressively finished. Whatever you may think of its ‘bullish, retro F1-cum-V-Twin musclebike looks, there’s no denying it’s well done. The saddle is hand-stitched Italian leather; the bodywork crisp and glossy and the clocks inset into a carbon dash shrouded by a V1000-alike cowling. Only the slightly plasticky switchgear lets it down slightly.
The 24’s also very brash and bold. This is a shouty, noisy, slightly show-off bike which is a little at odds with the understated, cool, classy lines of the original V1000. Sure, there are enough connections here for the 24 to be a credible successor – the V-Twin, the cowl shape, the classy Hesketh ‘signature’ on the cases – but by marrying it with Hunt/F1 style it’s become altogether louder and more brash.
The Hesketh 24 sources an S&S V-Twin with the Hesketh ‘signature’ scribed onto the cases.
What’s more, by using a US-built engine it’s got shades of American hotrod, too. So what you end up with is a machine crammed with a whole raft of influences: classic Hesketh, retro ‘70s F1, American cruiser and modern performance hotrod. It’s almost too much. A bit like going to the buffett and piling your plate with everything at once, roast beef and pizza, gravy and meatballs… Rich? Certainly. Delicious? I’m not so sure.
The riding is just as intense, just as extreme. From the moment you climb on board you’re instantly aware this is no wallflower, no gentle giant. The tapered one-piece bars are wide, straight and a fair way ahead, streetfighter-style, the stretch forward over the white tank quite long. Already the 24’s fairly intimidating.
The Hesketh 24 saddle is made from hand-stitched Italian leather.
Thumb the starter and it earthquakes into life, the massive V-Twin thundering and shaking, its ear-bleedingly loud twin underseat pipes blarting and shouting. Jeepers creepers. What would Lord H have thought?
Carefully, we nudge out onto the road. Though most of the weight is carried fairly low, nimble it’s not. The 24 is long, heavy and without much steering lock. Plus, of course, it’s a £35K bike I really, really, really don’t want to drop. Caution is key.
The riding position, too, is more extreme than expected. Those flat bars conspire with full-on rearsets to cant the rider into a pretty aggressive, wrist-pummeling posture.
Though powerful and punchy, the 24 drives rather than leaps. This is a big, heavy rhino of a bike and never lets you forget it.
It’s loud, bristly, extreme, hot and scary. Straight lines are, quite literally, a blast and (once some slight gearchange glitches are ironed out, which I’m sure they will be) could prove addictive, true hot rod style. Thankfully it’s got the brakes (and then some) to haul it back down, afterwards. The twin radial Beringers are true superbike standard and immensely fierce, if anything too strong.
Corners are a little bit trickier. Being long and lazy (the stubby front end is slowed with a steering damper) any cornering with gusto needs tee-ing up well in advance and then tillered and wrenched over with the rear wheel following along something like a trailer.
Don’t be fooled by the glitzy Ohlins and more, this is no sportbike. In fact, though welcome, those slick suspenders are largely wasted. And, yes, this prototype would benefit from some more development and refinement. But even then it’s never going to be sharp and sprightly. That’s one of the slight conundrums with the 24: Its overly aggressive, sporty riding position is, as they say, writing checks its chassis can’t cash. It gives an impression of being a sporty bike, when it’s not. I reckon the 24 might work better if the whole riding position was relaxed off, then it’d be both more comfortable and more in keeping with the abilities of the chassis.
But I can’t really criticize anything more than that. Yes, there are prototype glitches, pre-production imperfections, but all, I reckon, could be pretty easily ironed out. Then, what you’ll be left with is not just the revival of another British ‘great’, but also something fairly unique.
Hesketh owner Sleeman himself says he’s trying to position new Hesketh between the revived Norton and forthcoming Brough Superior. With those bikes ringing in at around £16K and £50K respectively, and the ‘24’ ticketed at £35,000, he’s about right in terms of price.
In terms of style it’s something else, too. Sleeman calls it British muscle, a hot rod and likens it to a a two-wheeled AC Cobra. I think of it more as a British Bulldog among bikes, with a little bit of Yankee flavor thrown in. Either way, welcome back Hesketh, we’ve missed you…