His Lordship’s Motorcycle: 1984 Hesketh Vampire

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Don Danmeier's 1984 Hesketh Vampire.
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Don Danmeier's 1984 Hesketh Vampire.
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Don Danmeier's 1984 Hesketh Vampire.
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As delivered, the Hesketh Vampire was equipped with a full fairing and intended as a high-speed tourer.
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Don Danmeier's 1984 Hesketh Vampire.
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Don Danmeier's 1984 Hesketh Vampire.
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Lord Hesketh with Mike Hailwood (right) at the Hesketh's 1980 launch.
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The Hesketh's Westlake-designed double overhead cam V-twin evokes memories of the famous Vincent V-twins of yore.
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The Hesketh's Westlake-designed double overhead cam V-twin evokes memories of the famous Vincent V-twins of yore.
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Don Danmeier's 1984 Hesketh Vampire.

1984 Hesketh Vampire
Engine: 992cc air-cooled DOHC 90-degree V-twin, 4 valves per cylinder, 95mm x 70mm bore and stroke, 9.5:1 compression ratio, 86hp @ 6,500rpm (claimed)
Top speed: 138mph (claimed)
Carburetion: Two 36mm Dell’Orto PHF
Transmission: 5-speed, chain final drive
Electrics: 12v, Lucas RITA electronic ignition
Frame/wheelbase: Reynolds 531 nickel-plated steel trellis-style frame w/engine as stressed member/59.5in (1,511mm)
Suspension: Marzocchi telescopic fork front, dual Marzocchi shocks w/adjustable preload rear
Brakes: Dual 11in (280mm) Brembo discs front, single 11in (280mm) Brembo disc rear
Tires (stock): Dunlop K91 100/90 x 19in front, 130/90 x 17in rear
Weight (wet): 550lb (250kg)
Seat height: 33in (838mm)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 6gal (23ltr)/45-55mpg (est.)
Price then/now: $10,500 (1984)/$15,000-$25,000

This story starts with a man named Bubbles Horsley. Yes, that’s his name, and yes, this story is about a motorcycle — a very rare motorcycle — built in England and called the Hesketh.

Bubbles wanted to race Formula One cars, and persuaded a pal of his to join in the effort. The pal was The Right Honorable Thomas Alexander Fermor-Hesketh, Third Baron Hesketh, or Lord Hesketh for short. The pair had a great time and, after Lord Hesketh hired James Hunt to drive for them, considerable success on the track, winning the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix. “The best way to make a small fortune in racing is to start with a big one,” NASCAR driver Junior Johnson once famously said. As the cost of keeping the team going began to exceed even Lord Hesketh’s budget, the Hesketh team started taking on projects for other teams to earn a little money, and in the process got quite good at R&D. The Hesketh team stopped racing and became a consulting engineering firm.

The Hesketh

While this was going on, Lord Hesketh started thinking about starting a motorcycle factory. Lord Hesketh was (and is) a patriotic sort of person, and felt keenly the demise of the British motorcycle industry. By 1978, the once-numerous English factories, major players on the world motorcycle market through most of the 20th century, had been reduced to one, Triumph, which was holding on by its toenails. Lord Hesketh also thought there was a place in the market for a big two-wheeled luxury tourer, in essence an updated Brough Superior. He had one designed and called it the Hesketh V1000. The family crest, a rooster with a crown around its neck, served as the bike’s logo. The bike was unveiled in 1980 (the cover over the bike was a Union Jack) at the ancestral manse, Easton Neston.

Despite its British origins, the V1000 had much in common with contemporary Ducatis. The technically advanced 90-degree V-twin engine, primarily designed by engine specialists Westlake under the direct supervision of Lord Hesketh, sat fore and aft in the frame. A single crankshaft spun both cylinders, which had a bore and stroke of 95mm x 70mm for a total displacement of 992cc. Chain-driven twin overhead camshafts worked four valves per cylinder, adjusted by shims. A gear-driven primary drive connected to a 5-speed transmission, with chain final drive.

Ignition was electronic Lucas RITA. Despite Prince of Darkness jokes (Why do the British drink warm beer? Because they have Lucas refrigerators!), the Lucas RITA ignition has a good reputation as a reliable, if expensive, component. The engine was claimed to produce 86 horsepower at 6,500rpm — more than enough to haul two riders plus a reasonable amount of gear. The press release claimed that a prototype hit a top speed of 138mph and that gas mileage was 50mpg.

The engine was a stressed member (as on Vincent twins) of the triangulated, nickel-plated tube frame. Wheels were two-piece alloy assemblies, similar to the contemporary Honda Comstar wheels. Hesketh claimed it had started development of its alloy wheels well before Honda. The wheelbase was 62.5 inches, and the bike had a dry weight of 506 pounds — a reasonable size and weight for a big luxe touring machine. Front forks were Marzocchi and stopping power was provided by Brembo, with two discs at the front and one at the rear.

Heading for production

American motorcycle magazines got wind of the new project and were captivated by the idea of an English Lord starting a motorcycle factory, but it wasn’t a great time to try to sell any new motorcycles, what with Honda and Yamaha engaging in a trade war and unsold bikes sitting in warehouses. The 1980 introduction was supposed to attract investors, and while several attended the intro, none offered to finance the project. Triumph was interested in the bike — it would provide a British designed alternative to the aging Bonneville — but had no money to purchase the rights.

Lord Hesketh decided to try to produce the bike himself, and was able to obtain financing. Production started in 1982 during a major economic recession — a bad time to start a new company. Making matters worse, the bikes weren’t without issue. Balky shifting and grabby clutches plagued early bikes, even those provided to the motoring press, which also complained about the overly heavy pull of the Hesketh’s hydraulic clutch. The sticking clutch was solved by the factory at the start of production by using Ferodo MP2 friction material for the clutch plates, and shifting was improved, but never completely smoothed out. Journalists on both sides of the pond rode the bike and tried to like it, writing enthusiastically about the Hesketh’s luxurious plating and paint, but leaks, hard shifting and engine noise put them off.

Making matters worse, the Hesketh’s engine had not been properly debugged before the commencement of retail sales and new owners soon found three problems with the machine that should have been fixed before delivery: The pistons made a racket because the piston manufacturer improperly machined them; the rear cylinder tended to run hot; and the cam drive leaked. Given the price — over $8,000 in 1982 (a contemporary BMW cost less than $5,000) — these glitches were completely unacceptable.

Second act

Unfortunately, no white knights showed up to save Hesketh from its distress, and between the bad economic situation and bad publicity, Hesketh went under. Attempts to sell the company to Triumph and Cagiva failed, the last straw for Cagiva being a televised interview with a Hesketh manager in which he insulted the Italians. About 130 V1000’s were built before the Hesketh factory went out of business.

A second attempt at reviving Hesketh in 1983 resulted in the construction of 50 bikes. Equipped with a fairing, they were called the Vampire. Unfortunately, Hesketh’s prospects didn’t improve, so Lord Hesketh gave up and sold the rights to his R&D manager, Mick Broom. Broom was able to figure out solutions for the three faults (the cure was referred to as the EN-10 upgrades), which involved owners removing and shipping their engine to Hesketh in England, where it was rebuilt, then reinstalling it when the repaired engine arrived via freight.

Broom built a few more Hesketh Vampires and some prototypes, but could never get the company off the ground. In 2005, Lord Hesketh decided to sell Easton Neston, the ancestral home, explaining that his various efforts to make money were not enough to keep the mansion, originally built in 1702, and its extensive grounds in repair. Broom’s engineering office and motorcycle factory were located in the former stables, and he had to relocate to Turweston Aerodrome near the Silverstone racing circuit. While packing up the premises, Broom’s office was burglarized, resulting in a loss of $40,000 worth of records, tools and bikes, much of which was irreplaceable. As far as Hesketh went, it seemed without bad luck, the bike would have no luck at all.

In 2010, Broom sold the rights to Hesketh to Paul Sleeman. Sleeman built a few V1000’s, apparently from existing parts, and started developing a new Hesketh using an S&S engine. He has supposedly built 24 model “24” Heskeths (named after James Hunt’s Formula One race number), and has plans to build several other Hesketh models.

Act three

One owner who took advantage of Broom’s EN-10 engine upgrades lived in Fairbanks, Alaska. How someone in Fairbanks found out about the Hesketh Vampire and why they decided to buy one is unknown, but apparently this first owner bought the bike from the factory and had it shipped to the Frozen North, then later removed the engine and sent it to England to be fixed.

In the meantime, the Fairbanks owner removed the Vampire’s fairing and replaced the headlight. After modifying his Hesketh, he traded it to a broker for a Moto Guzzi. The broker sold the Hesketh to a new owner in the Lower 48 who did not ride it much, if at all, eventually got tired of it, and listed it for sale on Craigslist, along with all the used furniture and shared rental ads. Collector Paul Zell (we featured Paul’s custom Vincent special in the first issue of Motorcycle Classics, way back in 2005), saw it there, and called Don Danmeier, a friend of his.

Don, a serious Britbike collector and local British bike club spark plug, had been looking for two different bikes — a naked bike (he likes to look at the machinery that makes a motorcycle go) and a Hesketh. He had gone so far as to get in touch with Mick Broom. Well, here was a naked Hesketh. “I went to see it. I flipped, it was gorgeous,” Don recalls. Most bikes on Craigslist have at least one dent, and finding a collector motorcycle in pristine condition listed on Craigslist is like finding a diamond in a compost bin. The seller also had the fairing carefully packed away. “It looked like the owner, or maybe the first owner in Fairbanks, wanted to turn this Vampire into a V1000 by taking the fairing off and adding a Lucas headlight,” Don says.

Don liked the idea of turning the Vampire into a V1000, with its much smaller fairing, so he contacted Broom, who shipped him the necessary V1000 parts. Don had them color matched, and installed the V1000 headlight and instrument panel, but has yet to install the small bikini fairing or the little side skirts that go under the gas tank on the V1000.

Don says he knows about three other Heskeths in the U.S. One is in the Barber museum. “The one in the Barber museum reportedly sounds like a bucket of bolts,” Don says. “It must have been one of the bikes that got the bad batch of pistons. Hesketh didn’t spend nearly enough time on development.” There is another one in Alabama, the property of a British expatriate, and the fourth bike was apparently imported in pieces and has never been reassembled.

Despite the rarity of the Hesketh, Don rides it a lot — at this point he has put 2,000 miles on it. Don is tall and thin, and the tall, narrow Hesketh fits him well. Plus, Don just likes it. It’s also one of the newer bikes in his stable, and takes less effort to get going. The electric start works, and Don says that despite the experience of journalists back in the day, the hydraulic clutch is as smooth as butter.

Like most relatively modern bikes, maintenance is fairly simple. “I haven’t had to do a lot,” Don says. As Don has discovered, an excellent resource for the machine is the Hesketh Owners Club in England, which provides downloadable owner’s and service manuals, and has an online forum. Curiously, the owner’s manual goes into great detail on how to change the oil and filter, but neglects to state the recommended number of miles between oil changes. Some parts, including the windscreen and the exhaust system, are available through the club.

“I’m used to nimble, light, traditional English motorcycles, so there was a bit of a learning curve riding the Hesketh, but now I’m used to it. It’s heavy and you need to wind up the revs to get it going — it comes on the cam at 4,000rpm, but once you get the hang of it, it’s smooth and comfortable, a wonderful bike,” Don says.

“I have taken the Hesketh on rides with the Velocette Owners Club, which tend to be on twisty mountain roads. I can keep up because of the power and the brakes, but the bike is really not meant for that kind of road. It is wonderful on big sweepers, and it’s a comfortable long-distance motorcycle. I don’t get tired riding it.” MC

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