‘It was only meant to be a hobby!’ exclaims Paul Sleeman as he reflects on how his involvement with Hesketh began. Now, having launched the sensational Hesketh ’24’ at the 2014 Festival of Speed, and with a rapidly-filling order book, the Owner, Chief Engineer, Designer and Developer of Hesketh Motorcycles has precious little time on his hands for leisurely pursuits.
The story goes that Paul went to buy himself one of the original Hesketh V1000s from former Hesketh chief test-rider Mick Broome, who took over the running of the bike side of things when Lord Hesketh moved away from the company. ‘By the time I left there I owned the company, the rights and the blueprints’, Paul explains. ‘Not long after that it became clear that people wanted to see something new from Hesketh… ‘ And see something new they most certainly have.
The bike itself blends cafe racer with American muscle in a way we haven’t quite seen before. Sure, a big, thumping V-twin in a minimalist frame with attractive bodywork has been done, but not like this. Not with a 2000cc twin in a frame so dripping with top notch parts. ‘Cut corners and everyone is going to see it’, explains Paul when asked about some of the exotic components selected for the 24. ‘Brembo brakes for example are very good, but everyone’s got ’em! So it had to be Beringer.’ The chassis ‘bling’ doesn’t end there. There’s also a Harris triple-clamp yoke, Ohlins dampers, BST Blackstone carbon fibre wheels…
The riding position seems a bit odd at first, with your feet tucked further back on the (also gorgeous) custom rearsets than they would be on a sports bike, but I got used to it after a couple of miles and actually found it to be a perfectly comfortable place to be, although the heat rising up off the air-cooled cylinders and the exhausts was a shock. Bear in mind that I’m riding in West Sussex in Autumn. Riding in central London in summer could necessitate some exhaust lagging over your leathers to protect your knees and thighs!
The initial impression of being on the bike is that someone has taken a 27 litre Rolls Royce Merlin V12, then removed 10 of its cylinders and built a bike around what was left. In fact, that analogy isn’t that far off the mark because both the S&S V-twin (taken out to 2,300cc on this particular example) and the Merlin share a similar cylinder bore. Come to think of it, at 5.5 inches the bore size of the Hesketh is greater than the Spitfire’s 5.4! It dominates the experience, from its intoxicating burble to the massive vibrations it pulses through the frame and handlebars. Then, once you get out on to the open road the power plant reveals another side to its considerable character: torque.
It seems relevant to point out at this stage that I like and am familiar with v-twins. I’m just about old-fashioned enough to reckon that the correct number of cylinders for a motorcycle is two, ideally opposed at 90 degrees or fewer, and as such I’ve ridden many Ducatis, Aprilias and Hondas – all with 1000cc-or-larger twin cylinder motors. But despite the dizzying amounts of low and mid-range torque they produce, the best of them can only serve up around half of what Hesketh owners can boast (around 144 lbft, depending on tuning options.)
Once warmed up the big Hesketh makes a mockery of nearly all of its five gears.They’re just not necessary. There’s so much torque that this bike could comfortably tow a caravan and still not break sweat. Gently rolling-on the throttle propels you into a world of superbike performance, but without the need for all those shouty rpms. Conversely you could leave this bike in third gear if you wanted to and, save for stationary starts, not need to change gear again for many a mile; the big, grunting motor hauling you out of the bends and up to licence-losing miles per hour without bothering your left foot once.
Of course the penalty for having an engine the size of Devon is weight, and the Hesketh comes in at a considerable 250kg. However, use of carbon fibre wheels helps to give the bike more agility than you’d expect. At very low speeds the steering is perhaps a touch on the heavy side but once you’re up to speed it feels surprisingly agile, aided no doubt by the use of carbon fibre wheels and the location of part of the fuel tank at the bottom of the frame. Speaking of which, the frame itself is built by Racing Innovations of Oklahoma. ‘We had no experience of working with big twins’, Paul admits. ‘So we contacted them, explained about the kind of vibrations we’d be expecting and how twins like to break things, and they agreed to build it. Nothing’s broken yet!’
Despite the surprising agility and weight distribution, the 24 doesn’t feel like a bike for knee-down merchants, although no doubt more able pilots than myself would manage such a feat on it. No, the Hesketh to me feels like a machine which is happiest rushing up to a corner, scrubbing off the speed with ease, taking a more conservative approach to the bend itself and then propelling you out of it like few other bikes can. Then, once you’re ready for a rest you can park it up and be the envy of just about everyone else on two wheels.
Those gorgeous-looking Beringer brakes do a first-class job of bringing the Hesketh to a stop by the way, and the equally-gorgeous carbon-fibre fascia displays your speed, battery voltage, the time and oil temperature well. Some though, might like the addition of a rev counter, although with so much grunt it could be argued that such a device is simply not necessary. Another problem some riders may have is the proximity of the side-stand to the gear selector, although that could explain why I sometimes struggled to find neutral! The vibrations also can get a bit much by the time you’re getting a move-on, but then again you expect that when you order a bike with a 2000cc twin, surely?
Only 24 examples of the £35,000 Hesketh 24 will be built, which is a fitting tribute to James Hunt’s racing number with Hesketh back in the Grand Prix days. Another tribute to the team is the bike’s overall character. Before he left Paul let us in on a few tales he’d picked up from Mick Broome about Hesketh Racing’s exploits in the Seventies. None of it is repeatable, but like the bike the tales involve lots of money, lots of attitude, some beauty, and absolutely not giving a proverbial. Perfect.
Photography: Tom Shaxson