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Steve Roberts

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Steve Roberts

Born: 1939 -

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 and then to moved to London to work at the a major car dealership and then Aston Marton.

Moving to New Zealand in the 1960s, he became a tutor at Wellington Polytechnic for twelve years, where he taught many of New Zealand's apprentices in the art of steel fabrication and metal work.


Motorcycle scrambles was in Steve's blood, but having moved to New Zealand he found that buying a motorcycle was very difficult and expensive in New Zealand, so always thinking outside the square he built his own brand of scramblers which were christened “ The Spartan”.  Using his frame which was built around British motors.


In the late 1960s and early 1970s Steve turned his attention to road racing.  He teamed up with notable Wellington tuner Dick Lawton along with Suzuki importer Rod Coleman to build special Suzuki race machine frames that in the hands of Geoff Perry, Keith Turner, Dale Wylie among others were the combinations to beat against the factory racers from Yamaha and others.


In 1971 Keith Turner took on the 500cc World Championship on a Steve Roberts bike. The bike was a full  Handmade Aluminium framed Monocoque using a TR500cc Suzuki motor. The bike out performed most of the other machines on the grid through it's handling, the main problem was over heating.  This was something that could not be overcome.  But not deterred the frame was replaced by the standard steel Steve Roberts frame.  Turner ended the year second in the 500cc World Championship behind the factory MV of Giacomo Agostini.


Fast forward some ten years, another Robert's creation emerged, this time as a road based machine.  The “Warlord” was a full Aluminium Monocoque framed chopper.  The bike featured a unique rising rate suspension  system. The only other known system at the time had been made by Bimota around the same time, however Steve had never seen one of those machines.


What happened next was truly something special in the racing world.  Steve was commissioned to build a bike for leading New Zealand rider Dave Hiscock to compete in the World TT Formula one championship. The bike stunned the paddock and motorcycle world . The bike was made from hand beaten 3mm Aluminium sheet metal. However in the beginning the team and sponsors were a little uneasy in something so radical, but proceeded anyway.


The bike was regarded as the best non-factory bike in the championship.  There were a few issues with the bike such as cracking, however Hiscock and the Steve Roberts framed machine 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 content, the next step was truly something even more radical, in six weeks Steve produced the first “Plastic Fantastic”.  A world first, instead of another aluminium bike it was made with a  special composite of Kevlar and Carbon Fibre.  Outwardly looking at the bike it look very similar to the earlier Alloy machine. However it feature a unique suspension that Steve nicknamed “Tension Suspension”.


Steve applied for a patent on the suspension but was turned down due to it having been used on a car before.  None the less this showed Steve was not afraid to try new designs and take on the factories head on.


At the time race bikes required more suspension travel to try and 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 really aid cooling, something that was used some years later on the Britten.

The Plastic Fantastic Number#1 was a prototype, Number #2 was raced by Dave Hiscock and Robert Holden and Number#3 raced by Norris Farrow and Blair Briggs. Steve 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 the first to be made in New Zealand and even initially featured an entire body shell in Aluminium when everyone else was using fibreglass, Andy and Graeme Staples won three New Zealand Championships.


He continues to make his hand made masterpieces, such as Manx Norton tanks for Ken McIntosh engineering in Auckland. To date having made over 180 of them.  Steve has had requests about buying his stamp templates for his tanks etc.  However there are none, everything he makes are all individually made by hand.


Well known throughout the motorcycle world for his skills and innovations, he is one of the most modest retiring persons anyone could meet.  However he is happy to talk and reflect on his creations that he has build over the last 60 odd years, they are all a work of art, if the project wasn't, they wouldn't leave his workshop.


Steve still lives just outside Whanganui.


Written for Motorcycling Zealand Inc ©copyright 2017

Ian Dawson