Inducted into MNZ Hall of Fame: 2017
Steve Roberts was born in the UK. On leaving school, he took up a sheet-metal and copper smith apprenticeship with the De Havilland aircraft company before moving to London to work for Aston Marton.
Moving to New Zealand in the 1960s, he was a tutor at Wellington Polytechnic for 12 years, where he taught apprentices the art of steel fabrication and metal work.
Roberts loved riding Hare Scrambles but he found that buying a motorcycle was very difficult and expensive in his adopted country. Always thinking outside the square, he built his own brand of scramblers which were christened ‘the Spartans’, using his own frame built around British motors.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Roberts turned his attention to road racing. He teamed up with notable Wellington tuner Dick Lawton and Suzuki importer Rod Coleman to build special Suzuki race machine frames. In the hands of Geoff Perry, Keith Turner, Dale Wylie and others, these machines were the combinations to beat, even up against the factory racers of Yamaha and others.
In 1971, Keith Turner took on the 500cc World Championship on a Steve Roberts bike. It was a handmade aluminium-framed monocoque using a TR500cc Suzuki engine. The bike out-performed most of the other machines on the grid thanks to its handling, but it had a serious problem with overheating that they couldn’t overcome. Undeterred, the team replaced the frame with a standard steel Steve Roberts design. Turner finished the year second in the World Championship behind the factory MV Agusta of Giacomo Agostini.
Fast forward some ten years and another Roberts creation emerged, this time a road-going machine. The ‘Warlord’ was a full aluminium monocoque-framed chopper. The bike featured a unique rising rate suspension system. The only other known system had been made by Bimota around the same time, however Roberts had never seen one of those machines.
What happened next was truly something special in the racing world. Roberts was commissioned to build a motorcycle for leading New Zealand rider Dave Hiscock to compete in the 1982 World TT Formula One championship. The bike stunned the paddock and the whole motorcycle world, being constructed of hand-beaten 3mm aluminium sheet metal. Despite initial unease amongst the team and sponsors, it quickly became regarded as the best non-factory bike in the championship. It had its issues, however Hiscock ended the year third in the championship and also third in the 1982 Isle of Man TT, behind the factory Hondas of Ron Haslam and Joey Dunlop.
Not one to rest on his laurels, the next step for Roberts was something even more radical. In just six weeks, he produced the ‘Plastic Fantastic’. A world first, the frame was built of a special composite of kevlar and carbon fibre. Outwardly the bike looked similar to the earlier alloy machine, however it featured a unique suspension that Roberts nicknamed ‘Tension Suspension’.
At the time, race bikes required more suspension travel to keep the rear wheel on the ground under heavy braking and the shock absorbers tended to overheat. By moving the suspension under the machine, the improved airflow resulting in better cooling. The compression of the shock was transferred to the swing arm through the use of rods pulling, rather than the conventional method of compressing. Another bonus was a lower centre of gravity. The next step would have been a simple bellcrank design up in front of the engine to better aid cooling, something that was used some years later on the Britten motorcycle.
Roberts applied for a patent on the suspension which was turned down due to it having been used on a car before. Nonetheless, it showed he was not afraid to try new designs and take on the factories head on.
The Plastic Fantastic Number #1 was a prototype, Number #2 was raced by Dave Hiscock and Robert Holden and Number #3 by Norris Farrow and Blair Briggs. Roberts was awarded the UDC Finance “Inventors award” in 1983 for his kevlar motorcycle with Tension Suspension.
Moving away from two wheels, he built the first ever monocoque sidecar for Wellington’s Andy Kippen, initially featuring an entire body shell in aluminium when others were using fibreglass. Kippen and Graeme Staples won three New Zealand Championships with it.
Roberts continues to produce his handmade masterpieces, such as Manx Norton tanks for Ken McIntosh Engineering in Auckland.
Well known throughout the motorcycle world for his skill and innovation, he is incredibly modest but always happy to talk and reflect on his creations of the last 60 odd years. They are works of art – they had to be to leave his workshop. Roberts still lives just outside Whanganui.
Written for Motorcycling Zealand Inc Copyright ©2017 Ian Dawson, Fast Kiwi Media