Adventures in La La Land – a tribute to Dan Gurney 1931 – 2018
After travelling to LA in December 2011 for the launch of Yamaha’s TMAX530, Digest regular Paul Blezard managed to arrange a meeting with the legendary Dan Gurney and realised a long-held ambition when he rode two of the extremely rare, limited edition, Gurney Alligators.
Wednesday December 7th was one of the most memorable in my motorcycling life. It was the day I finally got to ride a Gurney Alligator feet first motorcycle, after a wait of ten years. Dan Gurney is best known for building and driving racing cars – a man who has won races in Formula 1, Indy and NASCAR, in cars that he had a serious input in designing and building himself in the firm All American Racers which he founded with Carroll Shelby in 1964. (Remember the Shelby Cobra?) Imagine an American synthesis of Colin Chapman and Stirling Moss with a serious sampling of John Surtees as well, because Dan has always been a keen motorcyclist, both on and off road. In fact I was amazed to see him as the main attraction in an old Montesa advert that was framed in the fantastic ‘gallery of fame’ in the hallway of the All American Racers offices. It’s like a ‘who’s who’ of motor racing, both American and European, because in the ’60s and ’70s Dan raced with and against them all. Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Stirling Moss, they’re all there in the hallway pictured with Dan Gurney on tracks and podiums. Dan is actually credited with starting the tradition of spraying the champagne on the podium, when he did so at Le Mans in 1967 after winning the 24 hour race in a Ford GT 40.
More than thirty years later, British Feet First fans were amazed to read about the Gurney Alligator, an indisputably FF motorcycle which Dan Gurney and AAR put together apparently out of the blue and without reference to any of the FFery which had been going on in Europe since the Quasar of the 1970s (and for decades before). In 2002 AAR announced that they were putting the bike into limited production and would build just 36 machines at $35,000 a pop! It turned out that Gurney and his crew had been quietly beavering away making their own FF prototypes for twenty years and that the version put into production was actually the sixth iteration of their design.
On paper, and even in photos, you may think the Alligator looks a bit underwhelming, since it’s powered by a humble air-cooled 650 single based on Honda’s faithful Dominator/XR650L lump. However, it’s bored out to 710cc and tuned to 70bhp, which is double the standard power output. This was sufficient for Cycle World to report that it was the fastest accelerating machine they had ever tested from 0-30mph (1.1 seconds). It also did 0-60 in 3.1 secs and topped out somewhere on the far side of 130mph.
I first met Dan Gurney when he and his son Justin brought an Alligator to the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2003, and I made sure I had a whole ‘dossier’ of Feet First articles and photos to show him. Several other ‘FFers’ also made the pilgrimage to Goodwood to see the beast in the flesh, including Royce Creasey, the man who coined the term Feet First after he had his head turned by the Newell-Leaman Quasar and then built several roofless FFs of his own, including the all-British Voyager. When we sat in the Alligator at Goodwood, the bars seemed ridiculously far away from the backrest, although it must be said that Dan has very long arms, and also that, even at the age of 70-ish, he rode the bike fast enough up the Goodwood hill to surprise a lot of onlookers.
Fast forward eight years and here I am, at last, in Santa Ana California, sitting in one of these rare machines with Alex Gurney, Dan’s youngest son, in another Alligator alongside me. (All 36 were sold, and the first production machine went to Eddie Lawson, who had helped with the development, along with more than 80 other test riders). It’s as low as the most extreme chopper, but has a wheelbase shorter than a maxiscooter. Where it differs from most of the FFs I’ve ridden is in its minimal bodywork, spartan ‘comfort’ and that bizarre ‘bars forward’ layout, which puts your hands almost as far forward as your feet. Oh yes and the noise. It’s loud enough to make me strongly regret forgetting my earplugs. And as I follow Alex out onto the main road to the Freeway there’s one other thing that strikes me. The performance. Bloody hell fire! It’s really got some ‘get up and go’!
We’re soon cruising south down the freeway at a relaxed 75-80mph but it’s clear that the Alligator is not designed for long distance comfort. Apart from the noise, it’s also pretty ‘vibey’ and not nearly as comfortable as an FF should be thanks to the fact that you can’t comfortably lean back against the thin backrest unless you have arms like an orang-utang. Even if it was as comfy as the car-seated British FFs, you wouldn’t be able to go very far because the fuel tank only holds a little over 12 litres, and there’s nowhere to put any luggage. But I wasn’t bothered, because I knew that the Alligator was not built for freeway cruising or long distance trips of any kind, it was built for canyon scratching, and that was where we were headed: Ortega Canyon, a scratcher’s paradise!
We turned off the Orange County Freeway to refuel and then Alex kept the pace steady as we headed up the broad, four lane highway, but as soon as it got down to two lanes and started twist and turn, he gently turned up the wick. Knowing that the youngest Gurney was a car race champion in his own right, I thought it safe to assume that he was also ‘a chip off the old block’ when it came to riding motorcycles, and so it proved. However, I felt perfectly at ease chucking the Alligator through the twists and turns as we passed the odd car like it was standing still and I managed to keep with Alex all the way.
After about ten miles of motorcycling Nirvana we reached the top of the canyon and stopped for a chat and some photos. Alex said ‘Hey, you got it straight away!’ and I thought, “Well, I’ve been riding FFs since 1983, so I damn well should have got the hang of ’em by now!” Thanks to its super-light 145kg weight, low centre of gravity and superb throttle response, the Alligator was actually a doddle to pilot. And while the upside down forks are anathema to the FF orthodoxy of separating the steering from the suspension, it’s hard to imagine a bike handling much better or more predictably. And as you might expect with so little weight and a couple of dinner plates for discs, the brakes are superb.
Alex said he actually moves right forward in the seat when he’s scratching, which you can see in the photos, and he had no trouble getting his knee down. I don’t move my bum around much in FFs, but felt perfectly at home doing a few ‘scratching’ passes while Alex took a turn at snapping.
We swapped bikes for the ride back which meant I got to ride Dan Gurney’s personal all-black machine. Alex upped the pace even more and I went as fast as I felt comfortable to go, bearing in mind that we were now going downhill, with the sun in our eyes, and I was on the priceless machine of a racing legend on a road I didn’t know. I was also conscious of the fact that a well-known journo had had once had a prang here and I really, really did not want to spoil my trip by doing the same thing! Suffice it to say that we weren’t hanging about…
The black machine felt a little smoother and more responsive than the blue ‘production’ bike and when we took off smartly from a set of lights I was amazed to see the front wheel pawing the air in an impromptu wheelie. FFs aren’t supposed to be able to do that! It’s a fair indication of the machine’s excellent power-to-weight ratio. We were back at AAR HQ all too soon, but I shan’t forget that ride for as long as I live.
As I said to Dan and Justin when we got back, the Alligator as configured is a bit ‘spartan’ for my liking. I’d like more seat and backrest comfort, more lower fairing, more foot protecton, more fuel space and somewhere to put stuff. But all of that can be achieved, as has been amply demonstrated by a host of FFs from the Creasey Difazio Flying Banana to the Voyager and my own Pegram Genesis.
What is far more significant is that Dan Gurney and AAR have built a machine which is light enough and powerful enough to convincingly demonstrate the advantages of the FF layout when put against any conventional machine you care to mention – and that applies as much today, as it did a decade ago, when the Alligators first went on sale.
As you can see from the photo, there is also a V-twin, S&S-engined ‘Gnarlygator’ which AAR have been working on for several years. The one in the picture was deliberately finished to be suitable for display at a custom show, which explains the minimalist backrest. It seems that this machine is unlikely now to go into production, but there’s a good chance that a more powerful Alligator will see the light of day before too long. I certainly hope so anyway!
Huge thanks to Dan, Justin and Alex Gurney, Kathy Weida and all at AAR and to Malcolm Smith and all at the Riverside Museum. Huge thanks too to Peter Starr for ferrying me between all these living legends and for his educational hospitality.
This tribute is an excerpt from a longer article by Blez entitled “Adventures in La La Land”, which first appeared in issue 165 of The Rider’s Digest in April 2012 and is available in PDF form from our shop.