Biker Essentials #2 : Top Box

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Motorcycles are wonderful things. In a network of roads clogged up with cars, (largely SUV’s carrying one person), riding a motorcycle in the tens is a similar experience that car drivers enjoyed back in the 1960s. The freedom to travel wherever we want, in a timeframe which is virtually guaranteed to within 10 minutes’ accuracy. Alas it is not so with car drivers.

For example, I found myself driving back from a presentation in Birmingham Thursday last week, and the M42 was solid southbound for around 30 minutes. It was moving, but at the sort of pace that makes you wish you were driving an automatic rather than a manual. And what, pray, was the reason for this delay? A simple broken down camper van in the middle lane, diverting three lanes into one. Gridlock. If time is money (and surely it is), then people who break down and obstruct traffic like this should be sued for wasting people’s lives.

The problem nowadays is that the roads are so close to saturation that even a minor hiccup can set off a chain reaction which stops traffic dead. A motorcycle soars above these inconvenient trivialities, and ‘making progress’ is not an issue, even in congested city centres.

Overtaking is a cinch too, such is the power to weight ratio of modern bikes, and they are frugal and reliable enough to be used all year round. There is but one fly in the ointment; luggage carrying capacity.

Yes, while they may be faster, quicker, and better handling, modern sports bikes haven’t progressed significantly in the luggage department. Scooters are a notable exception in the world of powered two wheelers, but they tend to be larger, with a step through design and small rear mounted engine which affords spacious under-seat storage.

Given a design brief centred around maximum performance and fastest speed around a racetrack, most sports bikes are designed to weigh as little as possible, which means carrying as little bulk as possible, not loading up with bulky luggage accessories, and this is a shame.

The sad thing is that modern sports bikes (even super sport ones) are ideal daily transport in wet and dry, summer and winter. Only their lack of luggage options hampers their day to day usability. The late great Kev Ash ran a 2007 GSX-R1000 on the press fleet, which he fitted with panniers from a Buell Ulysses. The bike was rock solid with these on, so why aren’t they included as a potential option at the design phase? It can’t be that hard to put luggage on a sportsbike. It’s not cool, but you’d sell lots more of them if they were just a little more practical.

There is No Going Back

There are many things in life that one cannot retrench from. Once you’ve tasted the good life, you can never go back. Fine food and wine, accommodation, increased money supply, falling love. Once you have experienced these things, there is no going back. They all raise the bar, making anything less unacceptable. If you’ll indulge me, I’m going to throw into the mix top boxes. Sure they make your bike look a bit bigger, clumsier, and less ‘cool’, but as the eternal pragmatist, I just cannot help but look beyond these points and appreciate what they add to the biking experience.

When I lived in london, I travelled everywhere on my 2002 CBR600F with top box. It took me shopping, it took me to my parents for the Christmas holidays, it took me touring abroad. It carried bits and bobs I needed for work; files, laptop etc. It looked after my lid and gloves as I blunderd round the Muswell Hill Sainsburys in my soaked through biker clobber. It swallowed up three bags of shopping with ease for the trip home. I lived with that bike daily and the top box was the ‘boot’ which made it twice as useful to live with. I couldn’t have lived without that bike in Muswell Hill. It was that or the bus. My bike was like an extension of my body, it was my ticket to freedom.

Sportsbike Luggage? What?

When I got my GSX-R1000, I was determined to fabricate some kind of luggage option to make the bike as useful as my CBR6 had been, so I bought a universal Givi base plate, and mounted it to a spare pillion seat I had bought off eBay. Ok, so the result was a failure, but nobody lost their life in the process, and no luggage was spilled down the road (I’m glad I duck taped it down though) It had the potential to work, it just needed Suzuki offering a top box mount which fits in the pillion seat. This sort of detail is far better implemented at the design stage by a manufacturer than someone in their garage with a few spare parts, a drill and a socket set. Givi makes mounting kits which make use of existing fixings on bikes. Sportsbikes have fewer of these fixing points and therefore fewer options when looking to mount luggage.

When I got the VFR, the first thing I did was go out and buy a Givi rack and top box. This was a largely frustrating exercise. I installed the rack (257FZ), and V47 top box. After a week, I noticed that the arms were free. I assumed that the bolts has vibrated themselves loose and had fallen out. Upon trying to screw some replacement bolts in, without success, I took the rear seat cowling off to investigate the situation further. What I discovered shocked me. The bolts had sheared off completely on both sides.

Weakest Link

I called up Givi to ask them what was going on, and they tried to sell me a new accessory pack of bolts and spacers. I declared my interest in the spacers, but argued that their poorly specified bolts were the cause of my loss and that in the interest of both safety and customer satisfaction, they might reconsider their position and send me out a new packet of threpenny bolts for nothing. Three weeks and several annoyed emails later, the spacers showed up. I wasn’t trusting their judgement, so I decided to take matters into my own hands and I purchased some high quality stainless bolts of my own to fix the rig onto the bike. I also used nut lock to keep them where they were, and torqued them up with a torque wrench. So far so good.

So Givi, nice work with the design, but you let the side down by shoddy details; here’s a tip for the future, if you’re specifying metals to work in high load, high vibration high saline conditions, please specify the appropriate materials for the job. These fixings will encounter bending stresses, and stress corrosion cracking and will fail sooner rather than later. Don’t scrimp on your materials.

If you have bought a VFR800fi and you want to fit a Givi top box, you will need to buy this 257FZ kit. Just make sure you fix it down with some decent high tensile stainless steel bolts. For the load bearing bolts in the kit, you will need the following (hex head) bolts:

  • 2no. M8 X 50mm
  • 2no. M8 X 30mm
  • 2no. M6 X 60mm

Anyway, back to the luggage discussion. Having a boot on your bike provides a great deal of additional usability to your bike, if you buy solid luggage, it is waterproof and secured with a key, no nobody is going to be walking off with it. There are, however, some downsides.

1. High Speed Stability

If your bike isn’t fitted with a steering damper (and most bikes to which top boxes can be fitted don’t have steering dampers), placing a large object on the rear of a motorcycle can affect its stability at speed. Over 70mph, the speeds at which aerodynamics start to become meaningful, the top box can act as a tail fin, admittedly not a very effective one. It can create vortices and a turbulent wake behind the bike which can make for movement at speed. In addition, the fact that you have a flat surface on the back of your bike can add weight to the rear, making the front lighter. Where you might want more downforce on the front end as speeds increase, a top box will likely decrease it. It’s nothing dangerous, but until you get used to it, it can be a bit alarming.

2. Low Speed Wobble

This is something I’ve noticed with regards to weight distribution and worn front tyres. The presence of a heavy weight levered out the rear of the bike certainly doesn’t help in this regards. The situation plays out like this; you’re driving along at around 30mph, and you take your hands off the bars and sit up, the front end starts to shake as though going into a tankslapper. It can be stopped if you put your hands back on the bars, and it is only mild, but it can be a bit disconcerting. Time to check tyre pressures and consider replacing the worn front.

3. More Weight on Rear, up High

This is a handling issue. If you use your top box as well as you might,you will have upwards of 5kg in the box, and potentially more. The top box and the rack itself weight another 10 or so. This weight is sitting up high and out the back of your bike’s centre of gravity, which can make the steering slower than normal. It’s a bit like the difference between riding solo and carrying a light pillion, or riding a bike with an empty fuel tank vs. a bike with a full tank of petrol. Once you get used to the additional weight, it’s not the end of the world, but your bike certainly won’t be as flickable as it was before you installed ‘das boot’.

Overall though, I think a top box adds a certain kudos to any bike. It telegraphs to the outside world the machine of a biker who rides a decent amount of miles a year, and who uses their bike regularly.