Interview: Dave Hancock – Honda Motor Europe

Words: Costa Mouzouris. Photos: As specified (title: Honda)
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You probably don’t know who Dave Hancock is. He’s an unassuming English chap of diminutive stature, with a slender build and closely cropped grey hair. He’s an engaging conversationalist and speaks with a smile, and could easily pass for your high school shop teacher.

But a shop teacher he’s not; Hancock is the head of product planning and business development at Honda Motor Europe. If you ride a late-model Honda, you owe him a debt of gratitude. Simply put, if he doesn’t sign off on a new design, it won’t go into production.

I caught up with him at this week’s Milan EICMA show, where Honda Canada had flown out a bunch of Canadian journos to see their new products and meet some of the crew. What I didn’t realize is how open and frank Dave Hancock was going to be.

MECHANIC TO CHIEF TESTER

Hancock (right) sits down in an EICMA cafe to chat with the Canadian journos. Photo: Costa Mouzouris

Hancock has been riding since he was about eight years old. He left school at 16 to become a motorcycle mechanic, and by the age of 20 he was road racing a Yamaha TR3. While racing, he met Grand Prix and TT rider Charlie Williams. Williams gave Hancock old parts for his TR3, and also gave him sage advice.

Dave Hancock has come along way from being a mechanic. Photo: Honda

“You’re a better mechanic than you are a rider,” Williams said. Hancock took his advice and gave up racing to become mechanic for Grand Prix racer Steve Parrish, teammate of the legendary Barry Sheene.

Hancock graduated through the ranks of trackside mechanic, eventually building race engines for the likes of Kenny Roberts, as well as Sheene when he raced Grand Prix Yamahas in the early ’80s.

With his race mechanic days behind him, Hancock then tried his hand at motorcycle sales in a dealership. “I wasn’t very good at it,” says Hancock, “so they made me general manager.”

He went to Honda in 1987, as area manager, and 18 months later he applied for the position of national sales manager, a position he got — much to his surprise after a botched interview — in 1989.

At that time, development riding at Honda was done by Japanese riders, but since they didn’t want to upset the engineers with criticism, they didn’t always tell their colleagues what was wrong with bikes being tested.

Honda R&D wanted to change this and asked Hancock if he could ride fast. Being a former racer, he said yes, so they offered him a job as a test rider. That was on a Wednesday, and they told him he had to be at the Suzuka circuit in Japan on Monday. Baptism by fire it would be.

THE FIREBLADE STORY

The original Fireblade set the standard when it was released in the early Nineties. Photo: Honda

Arriving at Suzuka, Hancock’s first task was to test ride a pair of sport bikes. He’d be testing two versions of the Fireblade, a 750 and a 900. Little known until now, Honda was originally planning to produce a 750 cc Fireblade.

“They’ve always denied it, but I actually rode it [the 750],” says Hancock, “but we rode it with GSX-R1100 Suzukis and FZR1000 Yamahas.”

The bigger 900 motor meant that the 750 frame had to be cut and that messed up the geometry (we think it basically says as much in the German captions).

Engineers eventually came to the conclusion that the 750 was too close in performance to a 600, so they concentrated their efforts on the 900. However, being built on the 750 chassis, the 900 engine was taller and didn’t fit, so they cut and modified the frame to clear the engine, which altered the steering geometry.

“It just wouldn’t turn,” says Hancock, “so we tried a 16-inch wheel and you couldn’t ride it – that last chicane at Suzuka it would just fold up on you.”

“So that’s how we ended up with a 16-inch wheel with a 17-inch profile tire. We always said, ‘oh, it’s a special design,’ but actually it was because the geometry was all wrong.”

That kind of development riding continues for Hancock, who has worked on every Fireblade since. He told us he’s currently working on the 2014 CBR1000RR, which he’ll be testing this December, and it will be a “major model change.”

RC213 IN THE PIPE

Here’s what the new RC213 may look like. Image: Bar-Design

You may have heard the rumours about Honda developing a new street-legal V-four supersport. Well it’s true, as Hancock revealed that he’ll be working on the new RC213 (not the MotoGP bike), a very limited edition machine indeed.

And this is the 2009 RC213V MotoGP motor, soon to power a street bike. Photo: Costa Mouzouris

The idea for the bike came about during a conversation between Hancock and Yosuke Hasegawa, Honda’s V-four project leader, about what they could do to rekindle the excitement that bikes like the RC30, RC45 and the oval-piston NR750 used to generate. Hancock jokingly said, “Take the RC213V [MotoGP bike] and put a number plate [license plate] on it.”

A street legal MotoGP bike? A higher-spec version of its V-four engine will be the basis of a future MotoGP CRT engine, so you’re getting pretty close.

The bike will be produced in just enough numbers to achieve World Superbike homologation, and once produced, will sell for about £70-80,000 ($110-127,000 CDN). As we mentioned, numbers will be very limited.

THE TRUTH ABOUT THE ST1300

Another bike Hancock was instrumental in developing is the ST1300. The bike was launched in Europe in 2002, though it wasn’t a smooth introduction.

The ST1300 – it all looked good on paper, but then came the product launch. Image: Honda

During Honda’s R&D track testing the ST1300 would ride fine for about two laps, but engine heat would change the consistency of the engine bolts, and the engine would come loose in the frame. Because the engine was acting as a stressed member and the swingarm pivoted in the cases, this would subsequently have a detrimental effect on handling.

Even today, ST1300 swingarms need shimming at the factory to prevent weave. Photo: Honda

And just to complicate matters more, because of varying production tolerances, some bikes weaved, some didn’t.

Hancock, who did development riding for the bike, knew about this weave. The day before the world press launch in France, he called the European national sales manager and expressed his concern that since work was still being done to resolve the stability issue, it might not be a good idea to let journalists ride the bikes, telling his European counterpart, “If they ride it on the road they’ll all complain about the stability.”

Hancock was told it was too late to do anything about it, and was even accused of being “too critical”.  The following day he got a phone call telling him he was right, and that every journalist who had ridden the machine had complained about its instability.

The solution was specific to each individual bike and required shimming the swingarm pivot bearings and then take it out and test ride it to make sure the weave was corrected. Every ST1300 produced since has been test-ridden before leaving the factory.

“Checked by Dave”. Photo: Honda

Following that press launch, Hancock got a call from the president of Honda R&D, telling him that a process would be put in place, that, as Hancock put it, “R&D cannot produce any bike that hasn’t been signed off by me.” That process still stands today.

Hancock says he needs constant challenges to stay motivated but he seems genuinely happy with his job. To quote him from a Honda info piece about the man, “When Mr. Honda said ‘You work for yourself first’ he was absolutely right. I came from Stoke-on-Trent when I was 16, and had never left Stoke before. If you’d have told me then I’d have worked my way to where I am now, and be off riding bikes all around the world, I would never have believed you.”

Lucky man.

18 thoughts on “Interview: Dave Hancock – Honda Motor Europe”

  1. Great article. Interesting to find out about the use of 16″ wheel on the original Fire blade.

    Only gripe, being a Canadian magazine, you should use Canadian spelling such as “licence” instead of the American “license”

  2. Great article. Interesting to find out about the use of 16″ wheel on the original Fire blade.

    Only gripe, being a Canadian magazine, you should use Canadian spelling such as “licence” instead of the American “license”

  3. Good to see Honda continues to build leading edge motorcycles…..but still their dealer network situation in Canada still sucks. Ditch the Single Honda Big Box Store approach….it doesn’t work! Give us back MOTORCYCLE Dealerships with great product support….it used to be Honda’s forte!

  4. Good to see Honda continues to build leading edge motorcycles…..but still their dealer network situation in Canada still sucks. Ditch the Single Honda Big Box Store approach….it doesn’t work! Give us back MOTORCYCLE Dealerships with great product support….it used to be Honda’s forte!

  5. Hi Motoguide, greatings for this excelent article! I’m a proud owner of a St1300, and is good to read Hancock admiting some “issues” about this bike! Owever, it´s a great motorcycle, but today is feeling the weight of years… thoes someone nkows if Honda is devoleping a new model, our re-thinking the actual one?

  6. I hate to be pedantic, but they’re both nouns and both verbs. License is the US spelling and licence is the British spelling. The fact is, US spellings are sneaking their way over the border and infiltrating the Canadian lexicon. I’m Canadian, but I more often than not spell the word “license”, as found in the article. That’s just the way it is. *shrug*

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