- Transalp 10 years (1987-1997) -

Interview with mr. Matsuhashi, engineer-in-chief of the development of the Honda Transalp XL 600V

Question: Ten years have passed since the introduction of the first generation Transalp. As "large project leader" for the development of this machine that must be a special experience. What was the idea behind the Transalp ?

Answer: There is a Japanese saying "ten years is far away". I realise that to. I am impressed and the idea that a motorcycle that was developed by our team has been a success for ten years makes me proud. It proves that the original idea was good and that it appealed to the market. As the name Transalp indicates, it was originally designed for travelling through European cities, mountains and valleys.

To ensure that the machine was accepted by a broad audience, it had to be comfortable and had to have exciting riding capabilities, without quickly tiring the rider. The biggest challenge then was to determine what "riding comfort" really meant. We assumed that the following list contributed to the rider's comfort and the machine's performance.

Question: The fairing of the Transalp is one with the tank and side panels of the bike. That was never seen before on an on/off-road bike, ten years ago, I think. When did that idea came up ? Was that already at the start of development ? And how was the design influenced by the Paris-Dakar-machine ?

Answer: Originally the bike had separate panels next to the radiator. The most difficult decision to take was to change the design. In the final stages of the development we tested the usability of the design, by using the parts from the specially designed molds. The Transalp prototype then had conventional wind protection. The dashboard and head light where close to the handle bars and enwrapped by the front fairing. The radiator side panels where mounted to the side of the tank.

I remember very well that, when we were in Europe for marketing discussions, children saw the bike and said "that bike looks like an elefant". The fairing design was highly influenced by the Honda prototypes for the Paris-Dakar rally. Paris-Dakar was very popular in France and Italy. It was in January of the first production year of the Transalp, when a HRC-build 750 cm3 V-twin Honda won the Paris-Dakar rally. This bike had a progressive design: fairing, side panels and tank were one. I remember that the design team at Honda R & D Asaka Centre started designing the Transalp based on that prototype.

Marketing departments and representatives of the R & D staff met in May and June in Europe. The development of the Transalp was one of the most important items on their agenda. After many discussions and much talk they decided to change the Transalp design.

That happend in June after the molds for the original design were already finished. That involved about 40 million Yen. Still the decision was in favor of the new design because of better managebility and stability. It is my opinion that the new design was more attractive than the old one, that was compared to an elefant.

Question: Were there any changes during development other than in the design ?

Answer: The first prototype was powered by a 500 cm3 engine, based on the VT500. After testing in Europe was completed, the conclusion was that, despite the high torque of the V-twin, the engine lacked power. The test riders from both Germany and France shared that opinion with the marketing people and said "the bike needs more power, the best solution is a larger engine". New meetings followed and finally was decided to go for a 600 cm3 engine. This was a good decision because the performance and riding comfort where in harmony immediately. The power curve is almost straight and the engine delivers enough power and torque at all revs. We also decided to make the cilinders look like they are air cooled, despite the fact that it is a liquid cooled engine. I think that these details give the Transalp its special attraction.

The Transalp later saw Africa Twin models with 650 and 750 cm3 engines. We considered a bigger engine for the Transalp but thought that would ruin its unique character. Once again prove that designing a motor cycle is not an easy task.

Question: Are there any special things worth mentioning about the European tests ?

Answer: One important subject of the test rides was whether the managebility and riding properties were in balance. These two have a habit of disagreeing. It's possible that better managebility results in less stability. Before we came to Europe, we tested the bike in Japan especially for manageability, because the Transalp is a mix of standard and off-road models. On the German Autobahn we realised how imortant comfort is at high speeds.

The most imortant things that contribute to excellent manageability and comfort, are the double [wiegframe] and the construction of the rear [vork[ inbetween frame and engine. The rear [vork] axle thus doubles as engine support. And of course Honda's unique Pro-Link rear suspension was incorporated in the design from the beginning. During the European tests we also evaluated ease of maintenance. For example, you see a strange tube run through filter and filter housing. That's for easy acces to the carburettor, for maintenance. That's one of the changes that came from the tests.

Question: Is it safe to say that the Transalp is the result of the combined efforts of the European Honda team and members of the Japanese R & D team ?

Answer: Absolutely, yes. We had a lot of deliberations with just one goal in mind: improve the design. The enthusiasm for motor cycles was identical despite the geographical and cultural differences between Europe and Japan. We experienced a very satisfying moment when the test team, shortly before returning to Japan, congratulated us saying: "thank you very much for designing such a fantastic product". Right then I realised the truth in one of Honda's filosofies: "the joy of manufacturing".

Question: So the Transalp was almost perfect from the beginning ?

Answer: I admit that the rear brake could have been more powerfull, especially because the bike finally had a little more weight due to the design changes. The front brake was powerfull enough though. Considering the experiences of journalists that have tested the Transalp, the next model had a bigger rear brake, which was finally replaced with a disk brake.

Another novelty on the the next generation Transalp was a larger front screen. A modification based on the result of research for the physical differences and differences in seat position between European and Japanese riders. Among the optional parts was a much taller windscreen. We decided to keep the standard screenlength and leave the rest to European accessory manufacturers. The favorite dashboard design was also a subject of differences in opinion. Over all you can say that the Transalp is a motor cycle designed for the European continent.

Question: Is the Transalp based on the wishes of the European offices or was the project initiated by the Japanese R & D team ?

Answer: At first the European people and the Japanese designers discussed the possibilities of a new motor cycle based on a totally new concept, intended to be appreciated by the French and Italian riders. As a result of this e decided to build a new bike based on a V-twin engine. The Asaka R & D team headed off with detailed talks with the racers, European marketing people and engineers. I think that the Transalp is a bike, that was created by the enthusiasm of a lot of people and the approval of European customers. At the first press presentation the Transalp was presented as "a Japanese bike, developed in close cooperation between Europe and Japan, intended for the European rider". Today it is a true European machine whose production is done in Italy and whose continued development is done in Europe and Japan. The bike itself has matured in the last 10 years.

Question: What can you tell us about yourself ?

Answer: Initially I was in charge of the design of the bikes. Later I was asked to become "large project leader" for the development of the three major off-road bikes, the Transalp, Africa Twin and Dominator. I was also involved in the development of several other off-road models. My last assignment, in 1995, was with the new generation XR250R, the original Honda off-road model. After that I was transferred to the Kumamoto factory, where I am working on the production process.

Honda Netherlands, Ridderkerk, 4 june 1997