Where have all the midsize shaft-drive bikes gone?

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Dear MOby,

Greetings. In the late 1970s and early ’80s I was a motorcycle courier. My bike of choice was the Honda CX500. Around that time and through most of the ’80’s there were a lot of mid size motorcycles with shaft drives. I eventually sold it and haven’t ridden since. 

I’m retired now and looking to get back into motorcycling and do some touring on a mid-range shaft-drive bike (side road touring, not major motorways) but they don’t seem to exist anymore (except for Moto Guzzi). 

So what happened to the mid-range final shaft bikes?  

Just curious and if you know I’d love to hear it.  

Thanks,

Rick


Dear Rick,

How could you not love a bike like the CX500 Custom in our lead photo, introduced in 1979? I think what’s going on is that sealed chains of course already existed in the CX500 era, but in the ensuing 40 years, those O- and X-ring designs have just continually improved to the point where it’s hard for manufacturers to justify the added complexity of designing and building a shaft drive. With a little spritz of lube every few thousand miles, most chains are good for 20,000 miles or more for most riders – and when a chain’s life is over, putting on a fresh one and a new pair of sprockets is relatively cheap and painless. Then there’s the less weight compared to a shaft, the fact that a chain consumes less power, the ability to change gearing, etc.

On top of that, BMW introduced its M Endurance chain two years ago, which it says is as maintenance-free as a shaft: 

Like previous X-ring chains, the M Endurance chain has a resident permanent lubricant filling between the rollers and pins, enclosed by X-rings. What is completely new, however, is that the previously necessary additional lubricant addition for the rollers and thus the familiar “chain lubrication” is no longer necessary, nor is any re-tensioning required from time to time due to the usual wear.

This enormous gain in comfort was made possible by using a new coating material for the rollers: tetrahedrally amorphous carbon (ta-C), also known as industrial diamond. This coating is characterized by extreme hardness and resistance and in this respect it is placed between the well-known DLC coating (Diamond Like Carbon) and pure diamond. In contrast to the metal surfaces used so far, the coating with the ta-C industrial diamond does not wear off. At the same time, this type of coating also offers a drastically reduced friction coefficient.

Thanks to excellent dry lubrication properties and the elimination of wear, the tetrahedral amorphous carbon coated rollers of the M Endurance chain offer maintenance comfort equivalent to that of a shaft drive motorcycle. 

If that sounds too good to be true, maybe it is: At least one real-world review of the M Endurance chain from our friends at Revzilla, isn’t so hot – but it would’ve been much better if the chain tested hadn’t been completely neglected. 

If you still want a mid-sized shaft-drive that reminds you of your old CX500, why not have a look at the bike that inspired it. You’re no doubt already aware Moto Guzzi makes a bunch of more standard-style motorcycles, but it was the Italians’ new V85TT that won over our hearts in last year’s Middleweight ADV Shootout even though it didn’t win. Online specs have your old CX at 496 pounds full of gas; our scales had the V85 at 540, which seems semi “mid-size.”

It’s a bit bigger than midsize maybe, but the seat’s only 32.7 inches high – not bad at all for an “adventure bike.”

Not only will you never have to clean or lube a chain, those perky cylinder heads poking out and up make valve adjustments a pleasurable task – all great reasons for Honda to copy MG back in the ’70s.

Other than the Guzzis, you’ll have to step up to bigger motorcycles to get a shaft, like Triumph’s Rocket 3 or Tiger 1200, which just lost a bunch of weight for 2023.

The new Tiger 1200 GT only weighs 529 lbs with its 5.3-gallon gas tank full, says Triumph.

Perhaps something in a cruiser? Suzuki’s Boulevard cruisers and baggers, in 1783cc, 1462cc, and 805cc V-twin sizes, all have shaft drive. So do the Honda Fury and Shadows.

All Suzuki cruisers get the shaft, including its “mid-size” 1462cc M90.

How about a BELT?

Then there’s the third way, which had ceased to exist almost until Harley-Davidson resuscitated it in 1980 – belt drive. 

Your 1980 H-D FXB Sturgis was the first modern Harley to use a belt to pass power rearward.

Kawasaki was right there in the early ‘80s, too, with belt-driven KZ440 LTDs and a belt-drive GPz305 in 1983. People were leery, as they always are, of the Gates Rubber Company’s new Kevlar-reinforced toothed-rubber belts. But over time the belt proved to be almost as no-maintenance and long-lived as most shafts. Matter of fact if the Japanese cruiser thing appeals to you, the Kawasaki Vulcan 900 still uses a belt, as do the big Vulcan 1700 bagger and tourer.

As does nearly every Harley currently made since 1992, with the notable exception of the new PanAmerica 1250. That’s because in gnarly off-road conditions like deep sand and mud, a chain cleans itself better; a pebble getting wedged between belt and sprocket can, rarely, break belt fibers. Also because you can always fix a chain in Swahili or wherever, when an exact replacement belt might be days or weeks away, and require you to remove the swingarm to install it.

Don’t forget Indian. Nearly all its bikes use belt final drive, just like Harley.

Belt technology, just like chain tech, never sleeps. Gates introduced its latest X9 tech in 2010. 

Something in an electric?

There is one more belt-drive option if you want to dive headfirst into the 21st century. All Zero electric motorcycles use Gates toothed rubber drive belts for maximum efficiency and light weight. The Zero shown here is the 2022 FXE.

Your attraction to the shaft is completely understandable, and plenty of chain-intolerant people are in the same boat. But unless you’re planning on covering huge mileage in severe conditions, there really aren’t any good reasons anymore to let a chain or belt come between you and the motorcycle that speaks to you. Good luck, Rick, and send pics of your new Guzzi V85TT asap.

Related Reading

Ask MO Anything: How Often Do I Have to Lube My Chain?


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