2011 Van Veen OCR 1000
Claimed power: 100hp @ 6,500rpm
Top speed: 135mph (claimed)
Engine: 996cc oil/water-cooled two rotor Wankel
Weight (wet): 647lb (294kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 5.8gal (22ltr) / 24mpg (est.)
Price: $125,000 (est.)
Four slightly faded snapshots in my oldest photo album bear silent witness to my first encounter with the Van Veen OCR 1000 rotary engine motorcycle in 1974. On the same page is a picture of a red Honda Gold Wing. They were two world firsts I photographed as an adolescent motorcycle enthusiast at that year’s Cologne exhibit, not realizing how much influence both machines would have on motorcycle history.
The Gold Wing created a new class of touring motorcycle, and 37 years later it’s a familiar face in the motorcycle world. The Van Veen, on the other hand, was gone almost before it appeared, but in European circles it was a style icon of unprecedented magnitude. There, it still fires the imagination of a generation of motorcycle enthusiasts.
Inspired by the promise of emerging rotary motorcycle technology, the Van Veen was ahead of its time. Unfortunately, it never got the chance to prove how good — or bad — it really was. Even today, the OCR 1000 looks contemporary and familiar. In Europe, any motorcycle enthusiast 50 years or older knows the machine, but hardly anyone has ever seen one in the flesh, let alone ever ridden one. That’s hardly surprising, given the fact that only 38 were built before supplier Comotor stopped building the Van Veen’s rotary engine, putting an early end to production.
Van Veen History
Dutchman Henk van Veen earned his money as an importer of the German 50cc Kreidler. As owner of the Van Veen Racing team he achieved great success with multiple 50cc world championships. A man of vision, van Veen saw a great future for bigger bikes and Kreidler couldn’t deliver them, so he decided to build one himself. His would be no ordinary motorcycle, but a Wankel-engine powered Superbike.
In the late 1960s, several car manufacturers explored the rotary engine as an alternative to conventional piston engines. Comotor in Luxembourg built a two-rotor rotary engine used by Citroën and Audi/NSU. Compact by design, it was perfect for van Veen’s needs. For motorcycle use it was equipped with a special clutch, oil pump, transmission, ignition and starter. The gearbox was redesigned by Porsche just for the OCR 1000.
The overall design was entrusted to Van Veen employee Jos Schurgers, a former 50cc and 125cc Grand Prix racer. Working from a clunky Mazda rotary-powered prototype based on a Moto Guzzi V7, he penned a design that still looks modern today. The prototype Van Veen OCR 1000 was introduced at the IFMA in Cologne in 1974 where it was a sensation, garnering far more interest than the Honda Gold Wing that was baptized on the same occasion.
Serial production was held up until 1976, but by then it all went wrong. For starters, production of the Comotor rotary had stopped. There were technical problems with the rotor apex seals (a recurring problem and the Achilles heel of early rotary engines) and the main buyer of the Comotor rotary, Citroën, was in financial trouble and almost went bankrupt. Making matters worse, the Van Veen OCR 1000 received an unenthusiastic reception by the press thanks to its technical issues and its high cost — twice as much as a contemporary BMW R100RS. After a small series for homologation, production stopped, with the last bike built about 1981.
Some time later, all of the OCR 1000 components, including engines, drawings and molds, were bought by Dutch Wankel expert Ger van Rootselaar, but he never found time to build any more bikes. Eventually, the remaining Van Veen equipment was sold to Andries Wielinga, who made plans to start limited production, assisted by his friend and PR man, Dirk Knip. Now, with the parts finally available to make 10 more OCR 1000s, we actually got to ride one.
Rides Like a Honda?
After firing up our test bike, Andries rides it carefully to the gas station next to his workshop in the north of Holland. It’s no secret that rotary engines are quite thirsty, a major reason the concept failed in the wake of the 1973 energy crisis.
While the two-rotor rotary engine warms up under a cloudless sky, the crowd on hand for the occasion tries to define the sound it makes. You miss the characteristic subdued hum of a four-stroke, but it’s different from the howl of a two-stroke — it’s a bit in between. “True,” agrees Dirk with a wink, adding, “It’s a three-stroke.” You can’t really compare it to a two- or four-stroke engine. It’s not particularly impressive sounding at idle; very subdued, although it becomes more interesting with higher engine revs.
Swing a leg over the seat and two things immediately stand out; the vibration-free rotary engine and the perfect seating position. The high handlebars combined with the not too high footrests provide the relaxed attitude you expect from a touring bike. Another surprise is the bike’s low-speed handling, where the bike’s high weight disappears like snow in the sun. The handling, even compared to modern bikes, is glorious, much better than that of big touring bikes of the late 1970s like the Kawasaki KZ1300 or Yamaha XS1100.
Out on the road, the Van Veen rides almost like a Honda. Shifting, braking, handlebar switchgear, everything is as you’re used to on any modern bike. The mirrors are clear, the ground clearance ample, and you never notice that you’re riding a rotary-powered bike, because the power packs neatly, just as you expect from a modern four-stroke. The specifications indicate 100 horsepower, but we didn’t get to use it all. On a few straights we took the engine to just above 4,000rpm (redline is 6,500rpm), where the engine starts to reveal its true nature, pulling aggressively.
Upshifts and downshifts are smooth and light, the shaft response being less intense than expected. The brakes are from Brembo; the dual-piston calipers in combination with the cast iron disks were the very best the market had to offer at that time, and they still perform well, if a bit heavy, today. Front and rear suspension come from Koni.
The steering exhibits significantly more effort than we’re used to, as does, to a lesser extent, the hydraulic clutch. Handling, however, is remarkably easy and neutral, partly due to the low center of gravity caused by the relatively heavy engine. The road holding, handling and steering characteristics of the Van Veen are probably better now than ever before. This is certainly due to the new frame, built by well known Dutch race frame builder Nico Bakker, and to the modern Michelin Macadam tires, chosen for their classic profile and because they are available in the original sizes.
A short ride isn’t enough to reveal the true performance and reliability of the bike, but the builders’ confidence in the newly tooled engine is large. Technology has hardly stood still since the last OCR was built some 30 years ago, and thanks to the use of new and improved seals, surface treatments, and better lubricating and cooling oil, Andries has complete confidence in the engine. During an intensive photo session at temperatures well over 85 F, riding back and forth numerous times in front of the camera, the machine kept a cool head.
Reliving a unique piece of Dutch motorcycle history is a costly and labor-intensive undertaking. The entire project will be funded from the sale of only 10 motorcycles. No more will be manufactured, although parts will be available, but they will stay on the shelf for any warranty claims or replacement needs. The original molds still exist, so new crankcases can be cast if and when needed. Like Van Veen in the 1970s, Andries will give purchasers a two year warranty. MC