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Renard GT: Estonians Beat the Iron Curtain into Carbon Fiber

 

When I first saw the Renard GT 2010 protoype on the excellent Bike Exif blog, I thought it’d make a good story — it’s undeniably gorgeous, although it’s doubtful it’ll ever see roads in the USA and only a few $100,000-plus examples will be hand-built a year. That kind of eye-candy is good enough, especially when you add in the smooth and torquey 8-valve powerplant from one of our favorite motorcycles, Moto Guzzi’s Griso 8V.  But you may not care for the styling, and may even criticize it as a knock-off of the Confederate Wraith (I think it’s very different, for various reasons). However, it’s still interesting in that it may represent the re-birth of the Estonian motorcycle industry. 

The obvious question (right after, “Where is Estonia, exactly?”) is “What Estonian motorcycle industry?” Exactly. Actually, for the last couple of years before Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, there was a manufacturer of 98cc mopeds named “Raynard” (French for ‘fox’). The factory was destroyed in a bombing raid, and the Russians stuck around for another 54 years. But while they were there, a thriving motorcycle racing scene took place in Estonia, as it did in many countries behind the Iron Curtain. Renard founder Andres Uibomäe remembers attending motorcycle and car races as a teenager in the late ’70s and early ’80s and rooting for an Estonian racing star (no, you’ve never heard of him), inspiring him to one day build a motorcycle in Estonia. That dream came true in 2006, when he started his company. Four years later the GT was shown in Germany. 

Estonian racer Endel Kiisa at speed on a Soviet-built Vostok C-565.

That made me curious about what kind of motorcycle roadracing scene could exist in the Eastern Bloc between World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Quite a vibrant one, according to a fascinating chapter on the Soviet Union in Mick Walker’s excellent book, European Racing Motorcycles (Redline Press, 2000, available through Amazon.com). A partnership that spread over several design bureaus and factories in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and East Germany, the USSR’s effort mostly used copied European (and later, Japanese) designs, although the program did introduce some innovations and improvements of its own. The USSR was an FIM member from 1956 and participated in numerous GP races, particularly those held in Eastern Bloc countries. 

The crowning moment seems to be the introduction of the C-565 Vostok in 1965. It was a 498cc inline Four with (ultimately, in its final iteration) four valves per cylinder and gear-driven camshafts. Claimed output was something like 80 hp, if Soviet claims are to be believed. In the 1968 Finnish GP, Estonian rider Endel Kiisa actually led the great Agostini on his MV Agusta for a brief, shining moment. That brief ray of hope was short-lived, as Ago quickly passed Kiisa, who dropped out after another lap. But the program wasn’t all frustration—the USSR actually did win or podium the occasional race in its 12 seasons of FIM racing , with the 348cc version of the Vostok getting on the podium a few times, twice behind Jim Redman on a four-cylinder Honda RC172. After a brief foray in 1972, whatever bureaucracy was in charge of motorsports decided to focus on Moto Ball, which is a surprisingly popular sport in Russia. Think soccer mixed with speedway racing. You can’t make this stuff up. 

This is Motoball. Please keep your “big ball” jokes to a minimum.

The Soviet roadracing program was remarkable. Not for its near-successes, but for its motivations. All the racing and innovation I’ve read about have been motivated by simple greed (aside from love of the sport, of course) — win on Sunday, sell on Monday, time-honored tradition in the motorcycle industry. However, the Vostok’s designers, riders and mechanics were motivated by … well, it’s hard to say.

17 Comments

  1. John says:

    On a sadder note regarding the Estonian roadracing scene, Joey Dunlop was killed in Tallinn, Estonia, in 2000.

  2. Chip says:

    I meant to add, that this book provides good insight into the experience of motorcycle riders and engineers who lived behind the Iron Curtain. As Ilmars says, those behind the Curtain rode for the same reasons those on this side did.

  3. Chip says:

    Matt Oxley’s “Stealing Speed” is a good history of East German two stroke bike engineering and how one racer defected and took that knowledge to Suzuki, initiating the two stroke revolution in the West.

  4. Norm G. says:

    estonia’s other claim to fame (albeit infamous) is it’s the place where Yer Maun (joey d.) unfortunately ran his last race.

  5. Ilmars says:

    Normally I would step back and make no comments but I feel that I have to. I live in Latvia, country next to Estonia.

    Being 36 now I happened to live in USSR for 16 years and was lucky to do some motocross on a soviet minibike (but not because it was a soviet minibike), though I didn’t go racing. And from what I saw and learned from the older people around me I can tell that biking enthusiasts and especially those involved with the motorsports could do wonders even when resources were close to nonexistent. Bespoke frames, engines modified to an unbelievable degree, all sorts of things that probably wouldn’t be considered doable were done in order to build sportsbikes that had no road going equivalents.

    As for the motivation… Its true that in those days if one wanted to do a high level racing some propaganda and even spying was always involved. But at the end of the day it was always love for the bikes and racing that kept people inventing new ways how to improve the miserable production bikes and overcome the perverse, crippling state of things that USSR was.

    So, to assume (or mention bullets) that engineers and riders were motivated by fear is a naive idea at best. Its like stating that most valuable part of what Americans call freedom is McDonald or that idea of exceptionalism is thinking man’s best friend.

    Trojahorse, Estonia is one of the smartest, brightest countries in eastern Europe (btw, its where Skype was created), think of it as of the youngest brother of Finland and be assured you would have no problems with Renard parts.

    But before that I hope that the bike will prove that it is a serious contender in the market of exclusive bikes. I like the concept, I like design but I also feel that they need to gather some experience first. Anyway, I applause the effort and hope that one day one of the bikes will land on the US shores.

    Cheerio.

    • Trojanhorse says:

      Ilmars, good to hear your perspective. I have nothing but respect for what people in Eastern Europe have been doing for many years with very limited resources, as you mention. And I’m glad to hear that I had the wrong idea about Estonian parts!

  6. Trojanhorse says:

    I don’t think engineering training or talent is in question. Obviously the Eastern Europeans are talented, consider how much the Russians did with so little, for so many years. It’s the infrastructure that is the problem! Man oh man I sure would hate to be depending on parts coming in from Estonia…

  7. Mickey says:

    Wow, that’s wild looking. The Guzzi engine looks great in there, purposeful and powerful (even if it’s not…comparitively speaking).I rarely go for the looks of these “customs”, but I like the looks of this one for some odd reason.

  8. kpaul says:

    Wow I love the looks. I like it better than the Confederate, love the Moto Guzzi engine. As far as excellence in engineering, science, and mathematics, in countries in the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, my experience has been that their engineers and scientists have received an excellent education. All one has to do do is look at Math and Science scores, for the top industrial countries, to see that the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries students score better than their U.S. counterparts. This includes Estonia* The engineering talent in China, Russia, Poland, etc is only beginning to be tapped. I welcome their energy, drive, and new ideas especially in the field of motorcycles.

    * National Center for Education Statistics that compares 15-year-old U.S. students with students from other countries in the Organization for Economic Development.

  9. mxs says:

    Just to add to Artem’s view and point (which I wholeheartedly agree with). The Eastern block had a lot of good things which only very few people had a chance and will to understand before it was quickly discounted because … “It came from communist tainted part of the world, it must be bad ….”

    I cannot speak for Russia, but you can google for some of the Czechoslovakian moto gems … Jawa, CZ, Jikov etc. They really knew how to make stuff back in a day. By today’s technology they don’t mean as much, but turn the clock 30-40 years back and situation was quite different.

    Someone asked why there’s not a good modern bike from Russia or Eastern block. Well, when the government funding stopped (these things did exist because of funding, not because of free market) the sold units could not support the massive R&D needed to stay on the top. The r&D costs been rising sharply up so the gap was growing wider and wider to a point where it today.

  10. Motowarrior says:

    Artem – Since Russia has consistently exhibited solid engineering capabilities, why is there no great Russian motorcycle? Please don’t cite the BMW knockoff Ural!

  11. craigj says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guennady_Moisseev

    Russians weren’t bad in the dirt either. 3 time world champion in the 70’s on a 250 air cooled KTM

  12. Artem says:

    Vostoks were much like rough MVs. We still have one here in Moscow at the Museum of Engineering. I’ll leave the words about “People’s Nightmare” and “Fear of a bullet in the back of the head”. It’s up to you :-). I lived my childhood and youth in USSR, and had
    the ability to spend some months in USA later already after the fall of USSR. May be I have
    better picture? 🙂 People in the west simply do not understand that there could be other ways of developement. At least the world crisis shows that there should be other ways 🙂
    Regards.

    • Dirck Edge says:

      Artem – Thanks for the comment. It made me re-think my edit of Gabe’s article. I have removed unnecessary political commentary. I want our readers to focus on motorcycles, not politics, so we need to do the same.

      • mxs says:

        I was just looking for the part Artem was referring to and couldn’t find. That explains it. Thanks for the edit.

      • rokop says:

        Dirck,

        I think you should have left the political commentary as an illustration of how successful our own government was in the propoganda war. I was originally born in Hungary, leaving as a child with my parents in 1956. I spent several months with my grandmother in 1977, while the country was still communist. Other than the political system, I was shocked at the strength of values that the people adhered to. We in America should try our best to re-establish such good values, love and support for family, hard work, appreciation of culture, etc, etc. Also, my grandfather was a life long motorcyclist and motorcycles were common and well appreciated not only as transportation but as sport. Back then, before you could watch motorcycle road racing on TV in this country, everyone there followed it.