INFORMATION ON DISPLAY
Gauges and rider aids have evolved with technology
Motorcycle instruments have advanced from simple, cable operated dials to highly sophisticated electronic readouts, incorporating a variety of information, from ambient temperature to lap times. Some have gone to extremes, with designs so flashy and overflowing with data that glitz and technology overwhelm vital information. Irrespective of the period, the best instruments focus on what we need to know at any given moment. The
rest is a distraction. By the 1970s, two round dials for the speedometer and tachometer were common on most larger road bikes, but many still had only a speedo. Next, was an odometer, preferably with a trip meter, so riders had an idea when the bike would run out of gas. That information was delivered in analog, when the engine stalled while riding. Riders had to locate and rotate the petcock to reserve, while riding one-handed, hoping it
would spit back to life before gliding to an ignominious stop.
At least there was backup fuel in reserve, which provided a few more miles to search for a gas station. Reserve is gone on most modern bikes, and the
replacement fuel level lights and gauges possess variable accuracy. Whatever method used, it’s usually best not to test fuel limits, especially in remote areas. After the vital dials, what’s left are indicator (idiot) lights. Turn signal indicators are useful, as are high beams and the check engine light, warning of imminent catastrophic failure. A low battery indicator seems paradoxical, as no warning light could also be representative of battery issues. A neutral light is always nice, although on most older bikes, it could rarely be trusted. Starting the engine was best done with the clutch lever pulled in, to avoid any nasty surprises. Clocks are useful additions, but seem to defy the ability to keep time with any accuracy. Instead of precision, motorcycle clocks could announce, “It’s about lunchtime,” which would be more believable. When they were mechanical, errors were understandable, as vibration inflicts a terrible toll on delicate components. A brand-new Multistrada lost several minutes every day, and that’s purely digital.
Even a $5 watch keeps time better. A Guzzi Le Mans II seemed incredibly
advanced in 1979, but all it had was a couple of clocks, and long, thin staggered idiot lights, all housed in a black rubber box. That it was lifted straight off the touring oriented SPII, binnacle included, might explain the additional meters. It certainly wasn’t the norm on sportbikes of the era, although the BMW RS/RT 100 took a similar route. The 1983 Honda VF750 came with a gear indicator, which was useful, as it had six gears and it was never clear which one was engaged. However, Ducatis refused to cooperate when choosing the wrong cog, so the rider was never left in any doubt. The Honda’s fuel level indicator also lied the whole time, as the bike’s range required fully tanking at nearly every gas station.
Water-cooled bikes sometimes include a gauge for coolant temperature. However, a warning light usually gives riders all the information they need. A gauge can be useful to know when operating temperatures are reached, but most temperature concerns are from overheating, in which case, a light works just as well. There’s much to be said for a “need to know” philosophy.
Gauge shapes have traditionally been round, and located ahead of the handlebars, close to the rider’s natural line of vision. Some single dials were integrated into the headlight cover, which kept things tidy. Others were mounted on the fuel tank, which keeps the handlebar area looking light and clutter-free, but solar reflections on the glass can be an issue, and the location requires riders to take their eyes off the road. The standard headstock location remained the most logical, but as information displays became more comprehensive, housings increased in size.
This created design issues, due to the heavy-looking box up front. Flyscreens and fairings helped disguise the mass. Even on naked bikes, there is a natural parabola that can be drawn from the headlight over the front of the instrument cluster, and back to the handlebar tips. The parabola changes from one category of motorcycle to another, but the principle remains. Some modern designs have deliberately broken the rule to create a more edgy look. The latest super-thin instruments have given designers much more freedom in both the appearance and location of the housings, which are sometimes positioned behind the handlebars, like on the Yamaha MT-07.
The 1974 Suzuki RE5 tried to reinvent the instrument panel, presumably to help advertise its novel rotary engine. The cylinder shape was retained, but turned on its side, with a clear plastic cover hovering over the ensemble, which unfortunately made it look like a toilet paper roll. Later models reverted to a classic instrument design, but that didn’t help sales of the
unloved Wankel-powered RE5. Electronic instruments not only reduced the size of the housing, but freedom in the display itself has been a quantum leap over the old analog dials. Anything is possible digitally, and results
sometimes look more like a computer game than a serious read-out of essential information.
This evolution has been beneficial for attracting younger generations, who will become the motorcyclists of the future. That said, the recent cafe racer and scrambler revival has seen nostalgia selling to these same demographics, albeit in an off-the-peg and low maintenance form. In either guise, the argument of analog versus digital continues, even when analog styling is digitally generated. There have been many studies on the advantages of each display. While analysts have failed to arrive at one universal conclusion, the research suggests that a numeric readout (e.g., 32 mph) is more specific than an analog dial, which gives
only a rough indication at a glance.
The tachometer is different. Unless pushing redline, the rider only needs an
indication of current rpm to the nearest hundredth or two. A simple glance is enough, rather than an exact number, which changes constantly. Industry
standard has become an analog-look or bar graph digital tachometer, with a numeric digital speedometer, plus whatever additional digital data wizardry designers throw into the mix. Other curiosities have included the
charming old jerky chronometric analog displays from early racing machines, which only update every second. These bikes also sometimes featured counterclockwise rotating tachometers, which always held a certain fascination, although it seems counterintuitive. Speed and revs climb together when upshifting, so the dials working in opposition might
be confusing in practice. Electronics are enabling ever more imaginative solutions. The Bentley Continental GT offers an optional three-way rotating screen, which can display a high-resolution touchscreen, a trio of classic dials, or a simple wood veneer to match the rest of the dash-board. Something similar could be an interesting feature on a touring bike. The ultimate future solution might be no instruments at all. Head-up displays
(HUD) projected directly onto helmet visors were developed for fighter pilots in the 1950s. They have since been deployed on motorcycle helmets and car windscreens, but for some reason the idea never really caught on. HUD systems seem to be making a comeback. Perhaps they will catch on this time, and instruments in the future will literally be right in front of our eyes.