This one’s going to run and run

A new diesel motorcycle is delivering much more than fuel efficiency. Simon de Burton reports.

January 20 2012
Simon de Burton

Motorcycle manufacturers have never given much consideration to fuel economy, but now that it is possible to buy small-to-medium-sized cars that are allegedly capable of squeezing 70 or 80 miles from a gallon, it seems wrong that a 1,000cc motorcycle can be twice as thirsty. One reason for this is that the motorbike world has long been fixated on the petrol engine, either in two-stroke or four-stroke format, because it has proved itself to be so well suited to all types of two-wheeler, from Grand Prix racers to commuter scooters.

But when Dutchman Erik Vegt was approached by an American rider and his Belgian girlfriend to adapt a motorcycle for long-distance travel in Africa, he was inspired to think out of the box and begin development of an all-new machine powered by a diesel engine – something that has been attempted several times before, but which has always failed to achieve commercial success.

“I ran a company that produced special parts for ‘overland’ motorcycles and desert rally machines,” explains Vegt. “These tourists came to me with a standard Honda and asked me to adapt it by fitting the largest-possible fuel tank – making the bike heavy, unwieldy and difficult to pick up in the event of a fall. It occurred to me that it would be far better to approach the problem of fuel range by making a motorcycle that was twice as economical and would therefore need to carry only half as much fuel.”

That was back in 2004. Since then, Vegt and his small team at EVA Products in Valkenburg, western Holland, have been refining the groundbreaking Track T-800CDI, which features a specially developed, three-cylinder turbo-diesel engine in an adventure-sports-style chassis of their own creation. The motor can potentially return a fuel-economy figure of more than 85 miles per gallon, while also providing the superb, low-down pulling power that is ideal in a motorcycle designed for covering long distances loaded with luggage.

As already mentioned, it’s not the first time someone has tried to exploit the reliability and economy of a diesel engine by fitting it to a motorcycle. Diesel bikes were being built a century ago and, despite the advantages of petrol power – quieter operation, higher rev range, more exciting performance – designers and engineers have persisted in trying to make a diesel machine with genuine rider appeal.

The Indian firm of Royal Enfield, for example, produced a model called the Taurus that used what was effectively a converted generator engine slotted into the frame of the marque’s evergreen Bullet model. The result was a woefully slow, loudly clattering creation that made the most of India’s cheap diesel supplies by being able to sip as little as a gallon every 200 miles – assuming the rider didn’t mind travelling at a cruising speed of around 40mph.

Enfield components are also used to make the Sommer Diesel 462 – a low-volume, traditional-looking motorcycle produced in Germany. It has a 462cc engine that generates just 11 horsepower but returns a worthwhile 130 miles per gallon.

More significantly, engineers at Cranfield University achieved success with a Kawasaki-based diesel bike designed for military purposes following Nato’s switch to a “single fuel” policy. Produced by Hayes Diversified Technologies, the machine boasts an 85.5mph top speed and fuel economy of 100 miles per gallon from a 670cc engine that will also run on jet fuel and biodiesel. It is not, however, available to the general public.

But the Track T-800CDI appears to take diesel motorcycle technology to a whole new level by offering a machine that is not only economical, but powerful, fast, good looking, well made and entirely suitable for high-speed, long-distance travel. And, unlike the majority of diesel bikes, it is actually in volume production and available to buy today.

So far, Vegt claims to have sold around 50 machines, which have clocked-up more than 137,500 miles between them. The owners have reported few faults but have provided valuable feedback on how the design can be tweaked and improved to create what looks set to become one of the most desirable overlanding motorcycles on the market.

“We are constantly following up on knowledge gained from owners and we have spent a great deal of time carrying out our own real-world tests, including riding the bikes in the Moroccan desert,” explains Vegt, who is supplying a Track to California’s San Diego University for use in the gruelling Baja 1000 rally, in which it will be powered by algae-based biofuel.

One customer who is more than happy to run his machine on standard diesel, however, is Robert Baybutt, a retired teacher from Sheffield who recently became the first UK owner of a Track T-800CDI. “I first heard about the project around three years ago, but the bike was still under development and not available to buy,” says Baybutt. “But last year I arranged to go and visit the factory on my way back to England and was told that it was now possible to own one. I was fed up with the poor economy of my regular motorcycle, and I was also attracted by the fact that the Track uses an automatic transmission system that makes it very easy to ride.

“After covering 6,000 miles in six months, I can honestly say I’m completely converted. The acceleration is amazing, the build quality is nothing short of spectacular and the average fuel-consumption figure I have achieved is 80 miles per gallon. I doubt I’ll ever go back to a petrol-engined motorcycle again.”