If you own a motorcycle, it is likely that you experience the issues commonly associated with manual transmission bikes. It takes a certain amount of precision to operate any manual vehicle, but this is especially true for motorcycles. Failure to shift into the proper gear at just the right moment can cause the vehicle to become an instant dead weight on the road.
The extra skill required to operate a manual transmission eventually led to the development of the automatic transmission. This self-shifting alternative made it easier for drivers to operate their vehicles. As a result, automatic transmissions grew to dominate the U.S. car industry. Despite these benefits, motorcycles with automatic transmissions never became popular on the market.
Many motorcyclists operate under the false assumption that vehicles with automatic transmissions are for beginners. Other stereotypes suggest that automatic bikes are geared towards unadventurous or mechanically-challenged riders. However, there are several reasons to believe otherwise.
One of the first motorcycles built with an automatic-like transmission was the Rudge “Multi” bike, issued in 1913. It was developed in response to Indian’s successful release of a powerful two-speed motorcycle in 1911. During the Isle of Man TT event of that year, Indian showcased a manual transmission bike capable of easily scaling Mount Snaefell. The bike accomplished this in “low” gear and did not require a change in pulleys, unlike one-speed bikes of the time. This essentially steered the market away from single speed motorcycles forever.
In order to keep up with this development, the Rudge Multi was created with a variable pulley system. This adjustable system replaced physical gears and was activated with a hand crank. Using the crank, motorcyclists could move the two halves of the pulley to shift while driving. When the halves were held together with the crank, the bike operated in “second gear.” Alternately, holding the halves apart allowed the bike to run in “first gear.”
The pulley system essentially altered the diameter of space around the belt of the engine to create these different gears. However, issues with the leather belts kept this system from flourishing. Indian’s two-speed technology continued to grow in popularity, despite the difficulty drivers began to experience with manually shifting gears. As a result, this first automatic motorcycle transmission was quickly dismissed.
Years later, the variable pulley system reappeared on the WellBike. This tiny motorcycle was invented around the time of World War II, and was meant to aid British paratroopers during battle. The idea was that boxes containing the foldable bikes would drop from airplanes alongside the paratroopers. They could then be unboxed and used for speedy travel to the battlefield. However, the war ended before the technology was really put to the test.
The main difference between the WellBike and the Rudge Multi was the introduction of a second pulley system. In this type of transmission, one adjustable pulley served as the clutch, while the other adjusted the gear as the RPM changed. This technology became known as a continuously variable transmission, or CVT. CVTs appear in many lightweight vehicles, including Vespas, mopeds and even some cars. Gradually, this transmission began to rely largely on electronics to operate, rather than the driver.
Despite its continued use today, the CVT did not catch on in the motorcycle market. One reason for this is space. Motorcycles generally require small engines, which do not provide enough room to carry CVTs. They are mostly limited to cruisers and bulkier bikes, like those released by The Ridley Company. Nevertheless, space is not the only reason that manual transmissions continue to dominate the market. Honda also developed its own version of the automatic bike in the 1970s, with a hydraulic transmission. Also known as “Hondamatics,” these bikes feature a beltless transmission for shifting gears, and do not require as much room as CVTs.
This reveals a much larger reason why automatic motorcycles were widely unpopular in the past: bias. Once the wave of new motorcyclists learned to operate manual bikes, stereotypes grew around automatic alternatives. Knowing how to operate a gear shift became the norm. As such, these stereotypes attributed automatic transmissions to riders who were afraid or incapable of mastering manual.
Nowadays, this belief is slowly beginning to change. As technology continues to improve, motorcycle manufacturers are more willing to explore automatic transmissions in their bikes. Now, motorcycles like the Honda CTX700 DCT are able to offer six speeds, made accessible by computer-operated clutches. The lack of a torque converter and belt make these motorcycles simple for many riders to operate. In order to please bike enthusiasts, these motorcycles also often include a manual option as well. Riders can therefore choose where and when they use the automatic or manual shift.
The recent rise in use of automatic transmissions is likely inspired by motorcycles used in drag racing. Missing a gear shift could affect a professional racer’s success, so a more reliable option was needed for the track. The most successful racers know that the solenoids used in automatic transmissions are much faster and more accurate than humans when it comes to shifting gears. Using this technology is vital for drivers who are competing within hundredths of a second of each other. While this may not be necessary outside of racing, simple shifting technology can allow everyday motorcyclists to experiment more with their bikes.
Climbing on a motorcycle for the first time is intimidating on its own. For drivers who are used to an automatic transmission, facing a manual gearbox can make the experience even more daunting. This causes many prospective riders to turn away from purchasing a motorcycle. With this in mind, automatic transmissions can allow a wider audience to become riders. But experienced motorcyclists must begin to realize that automatic technology benefits more than just beginners. In fact, it already allows for perks like rain modes and wheelie control. As more sport vehicles gradually incorporate automatic transmissions, riders should expect a similar shift in the motorcycle industry.