Dan Gurney was a man with a resume stacked with impressive accolades. Gurney was a man with wins in Formula One, Sports Car, Indy Car, NASCAR, Can-Am, Trans-Am, and more. When he wasn’t racing, Gurney was thinking of how to make race cars faster and safer. Perhaps lesser-known was one of his other loves: Motorcycles. Gurney was a lifelong fan of two-wheelers and at one point, he decided to make a motorcycle around similar principles used in race cars. The result was the Alligator, a motorcycle with its weight as low to the ground as possible. Even cooler is the fact that these weren’t just a concept, but a few dozen examples were actually built.
This weekend, I’m gearing up to add another motorcycle to my stable. This one isn’t my typical fare of fine-aged British muscle or quirky American sportbike. Instead, I’m buying a friend’s hot rod project, a Kawasaki Z125 Pro with a 250cc engine swap. It’s a motorcycle with the footprint and weight of a road-legal minibike but with a bit too much power. As I wait to pick up that motorcycle, I’ve been digging through motorcycle history, looking at other oddball builds. That’s when I found Dan Gurney’s wild creation again and I’m amazed I haven’t written about it before.
The Dan Gurney Alligator is a real bike and occasionally, you can find them for sale. In fact, Gurney was still making Alligator prototypes well into his later years.
Before I get to the motorcycles, we’ll talk a bit about the man himself. Dan Gurney was born on April 13, 1931, in Port Jefferson, Long Island. He was the son of an opera star and the grandson of an inventor. Gurney would certainly love music and tinkering from an early age, but music to him was not the lovely tones of a person but that of an engine. Over Gurney’s impressive life, he would be a successful racing driver, a race car constructor, an inventor, a team owner, and more.
Along the way, he’s set benchmarks that to this day have not been beaten. In 1967, Gurney took an Eagle Gurney-Weslake V12 to victory in the Grand Prix of Belgium. This was the first and thus far only time an American has built and raced their own car to a World Championship F1 race win.
I’ll let All American Racers (AAR), Gurney’s team, and constructors, explain more about what made his career so great:
Dan’s racing career, which started with a Triumph TR2 in 1955, spanned 15 years. During that time he became a top road racing star in America as well as one of the most popular F1 drivers of the era. He raced for the most prestigious Grand Prix teams of the time: Ferrari, BRM, Porsche, Brabham and later EAGLE bringing a maiden F1 win to Porsche, Brabham (twice) and his own marque. Gurney etched himself a place in racing lore with exciting battles against drivers like Stirling Moss, Jimmy Clark, John Surtees, Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Phil Hill, Jackie Stewart and many others on the classic European road racing circuits like the Nuerburgring, the Targa Florio, Monaco and Monza. He drove with equal success in Formula 1 and the Sports Car World Championship Series overseas and the Indianapolis, NASCAR, Can-Am and Trans-Am Series at home in the US, The cars he drove and the races he participated in are astonishing in their variety, more astonishing is the fact that most of the time he pursued these different venues within the same season which made him a busy international world traveler year after year.
By the time Dan retired from active driving in 1970, he had raced in 312 events in 20 countries with 51 different makes (more than 100 different models ) of cars winning 51 races, and 47 podiums. Among his most important victories: 7 Formula One races (four Grand Prix World Championship events), 7 Indy Car races, 5 NASCAR Winston Cup stockcar races (all 500 mile races in Riverside, California), and two second place finishes at the “Indy 500”.
Additionally he captured wins in Trans-Am, Can-Am and Sports car races including the endurance classics at the Nuerburgring, Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans. He claimed 42 career pole positions and started on the front row of the grid an additional an astonishing 58 times! see “Gurney Statistics” and the many “races that got away”, i.e. those that Dan was leading – often by a considerable margin – but could not finish due to mechanical problems, made him almost as famous and popular as his wins.
AAR continues and notes that Gurney’s versatility behind the wheel was so good that he was the first driver to post victories in the four major racing categories: Grand Prix, Indy Car, NASCAR, and Sports Cars. That puts him into a league of only three drivers to have accomplished this, the others being Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya.
As Motorsport.com writes, Gurney also had an equally fascinating knack for inventing things. Gurney was a constructor, but he also brought some novel ideas to racing. The site reports that Gurney brought full-face helmets to open-wheel racing by wearing one during the 1968 Indianapolis 500, the 1968 German Grand Prix, F1, and the Nürburgring. There’s also the Gurney flap, a piece of aluminum right-angle added to the trailing edge of racecar wings to multiply downforce with minimal drag. Motorsport.com also details how Gurney’s wild thinking, along with engineers Trevor Harris and John Ward, led to the 1980 Boundary Layer Adhesion Technology (BLAT) racer, a car that used its bodywork to help keep it grounded to the ground. It was a naturally aspirated racer with the chops of a turbo car.
I won’t go through all of Gurney’s history and there are definitely parts I missed. A lot of people know that because of Gurney’s 6 foot, 4 inch frame, he had a hard time fitting in some cars. This led to developments like the Gurney Bubble. Gurney was so famous that Car & Driver Editor-in-Chief David E. Davis nominated Gurney as the magazine’s pick for President of the United States.
While you’ll find plenty of pieces out there about Gurney’s racing career and engineering talents, less is said about his love for motorcycles. As Cycle World‘s Dave Despain wrote in 2012, Gurney was a lifelong lover of two wheels. As a kid, Gurney got his early tastes of what was to come when his uncle gave him a book on model airplane engines. Eventually, he became an expert in wrenching on two-stroke engines and was the guy to go to when those model engines needed to get running. Gurney then moved to tuning Whizzer engines on bicycles.
As the Cycle World article continues, Gurney would own a number of motorcycles before he would go on to serve in the Korean War. After the war, Gurney would hone in on auto racing, but motorcycles would remain his other passion in the background. Cycle World interviewed Gurney for that piece, and he indicated that when he wasn’t racing his Triumph car, he rode a motorcycle on dirt as a way to stay sharp. In 1959, Gurney even participated in the Big Bear motorcycle run. This was a 100-mile motorcycle race with no set route or track. It was a challenge to see who could reach Big Bear Lake in California first. In 1959, around 800 motorcyclists took on the challenge and Gurney finished 21st in the massive pack. That was also the same year Ferrari hired Gurney on as a driver.
Cycle World continues with Gurney’s own motorcycle heroes:
Asked to name motorcycle people he considers important in his life, Gurney reels off an eclectic list. “Swede Savage came to AAR from motorcycles. I knew Ed Kretz Sr. and Jr. and Eddie Mulder, who won the ’58 Big Bear. I read a lot about ‘Cannon Ball’ Baker. I’m close friends with both Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey. I was a big fan of Derek Minter, who was the king of Brands Hatch at one time. I have a great picture with four different World Champions, including Roger DeCoster, sitting in my Indy Car. Of course, I knew John Surtees very well. Joe Leonard was driving for our team when we first went to Indy. I knew Mike Hailwood very well. I knew John Britten, Erik Buell, Mick Doohan and Barry Sheene.”
Gurney’s motorcycle exploits included being an importer of Spanish Montesa motorcycles, providing a motorcycle for then dirt-track novice Kenny Roberts, and even building a chassis for flat-tracker Chuck Palmgren. As Cycle World writes, Gurney’s love for motorcycles extended into the mission for AAR, from Gurney via Cycle World:
“As we were busy trying to turn out winning automobiles in a very competitive arena, in the back of my mind was the nagging question, ‘Do these same things hold true with motorcycles?’ As we gained the capability of designing and building cars, that meant we were also in a position to build prototype motorcycles.”
Gurney began a mission to find out if what worked for cars would work for motorcycles. His experience running motorcycles in dirt reportedly convinced Gurney that a low center of gravity would benefit motorcycles. As AAR explains, another part of Gurney’s motivation was the fact that a standard motorcycle’s riding position was just too high and too crouched forward for someone of Gurney’s height. In 1975, Gurney tested this theory by calling up Chuck Palmgren to help him cut up an old 350cc single-cylinder Honda into something that looks like a recumbent bike.
Gurney’s belief was that better motorcycle handling was through seating the rider below the tops of the motorcycle’s tires and on the same plane as the engine.
You wouldn’t straddle the motorcycle so much as sit down into it, not unlike a racecar. The logic was that this would bring the motorcycle’s center of gravity as low as possible, which should improve handling and aerodynamics.
Gurney was far from the first person to make a motorcycle like this. Gottlieb Daimler made a similar-looking motorcycle back in 1886 and even the Ner-A-Car had the same general shape. Of course, the Ner-A-Car was built to be a two-wheeled car, not the best-handling motorcycle.
Gurney and his team spent a few decades developing the Alligator, going through several iterations and upping the Honda single-cylinder to 670cc and then 708cc along the way. The motorcycle was called the Alligator in part because it sort of looks like the animal and also because alligators are uniquely American, fierce, and quick.
Why a single-cylinder engine? Well, it goes back to Gurney’s own motorcycle history, his motorcycle heroes, and his fondness for motorcycle dirt racing. Those motorcycles often had big singles and so would his Alligator. When Motorcycle Cruiser asked Gurney why he didn’t give the Alligator more cylinders, he said: “I’d have to make both pistons fire at the same time to make it sound like a single.”
Gurney also felt that singles were just plain fun, and I’m inclined to agree. His motorcycles weren’t slow, either. The 670cc version of the Alligator started life as a Honda 600cc before it was bored out, given fuel injection, custom throttle bodies, custom pistons, a modified oil pump, a hotter cam, and fabricated sensors. The result was a healthy 70 HP from the big thumper.
The 708cc version makes over 70 HP, is capable of hitting 133 mph on pump gas, and oh yeah, it weighs just 320 pounds. It’s lighter than some dirt bikes! That low weight is due in part to the carbon fiber bodywork, designed by Gurney’s son, Justin. The Alligator also has a chromoly frame, magnesium wheels, and an inverted fork from the Honda CBR954. The Honda’s chunky 330mm rotor handles stopping up front while a 220mm rotor brings up the rear.
When Gurney started handing out Alligators to the motorcycle press, journalists discovered a new kind of riding experience. From Motorcycle Cruiser‘s review:
At first sight the Alligator looks like a sportbike, and it’s true the bike has high-performance intent. However, when you sit down (and I mean down–the seat height is only 18 inches) and find your footing right behind the front wheel, it feels more like you’re riding an extreme cruiser with a drag bar than the sportbike the sleek bodywork suggests. Of course, as soon as you start rolling down the road you realize this bike really doesn’t feel like either, but rather its own thing, which is, perhaps, a magnificent blend of both.
One of the major benefits of sitting so low in the Alligator is that you never get that “perched” feeling that comes with modern sportbike ergonomics. When you corner aggressively, you are not going over the top of the bike, or even countering movement with the controlled use of your bodyweight. Instead, you are an integral part of the chassis and the slightest shift–what feels like mere thought–affects steering in the most wonderfully smooth and predictable way. Cruisers have a bit of this confidence-inspiring pendulum effect in corners, although they are heavier to steer and in dire need of more ground clearance. I imagine you can scrape something on the Alligator, but I think it may only be your butt cheek.
In 2002, Gurney actually put the Alligator on the market for about $35,000. Production was limited to 36 units and they were painted white and blue. The number and the colors match Gurney’s famed Number 36 Eagle F1 car that won the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix. Apparently, sales of the 36 units were slow as by 2012, just 30 had been built. It’s unclear if or when the last was built.
What is known is that before Gurney’s 2018 passing, he was still tinkering with the Alligator. Back in 2012 and into 2013, Gurney was developing different S&S V-Twin-powered prototype Alligators.
Then, in 2015, Gurney patented a 280 HP 1,800cc twin-cylinder “moment-canceling” engine that eliminates vibration through a pair of geared counter-rotating crankshafts. The engine was originally destined for an updated Alligator, but Gurney’s scope for the engine expanded to boats, cars, and aviation. The explanation behind the engine is that rotating the crankshafts in opposite directions will eliminate the rotating force, or gyroscopic moment, that happens when the engine banks during cornering.
Sadly, it’s unclear if this engine ever ran. Gurney passed in January 2018 and his AAR team hasn’t really given any updates.
The Alligator is another awesome part of Gurney’s legacy and just a few dozen riders have been able to experience a motorcycle concept that has been explored only a few times. You may someday be able to buy one if you happen to catch one in an auction. Despite the rarity and Gurney connection, they apparently sell for a lot less than their original $35,000 asking price. Still, for most of us, this will be a weird motorcycle we can enjoy only on the Internet.
(Images: Dan Gurney’s All American Racers, unless otherwise noted.)
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