Retrospective: 1997-1999 Bimota SB6-R 1100cc

Retrospective: 1997-1999 Bimota SB6-R 1100cc
Story and photography by Clement Salvadori.

Not many Americans have heard of Bimota motorcycles, and few were sold here, the price of this Italian exotica having something to do with it. The company would buy reputable engines and then build a new chassis around them. SB6-R means that this model was the 6th Bimota to be powered by a Suzuki engine, in this case the GSX-R1100. And the R apparently stood for Race, while in truth this model was only a minor upgrade on the previous SB6. What Bimota did was to make a much better handling machine, as well as diminish the weight. That stock GSX-R weighed in at 509 pounds dry, while the Bimota version weighed 418 pounds dry — quite a difference.

When and where did all this begin? In 1973 in the seaside town of Rimini. After a fellow named Massimo Tamburini crashed his Honda CB750 on the nearby Misano racetrack and broke a few bones. While he was recuperating he thought a lot about the crash and attributed it to a poorly designed chassis. This was the 1970s when the Japanese were building increasingly powerful bikes that went well in a straight line, but their handling was not terribly good when trying to get a knee down in a curve.

Retrospective: 1997-1999 Bimota SB6-R 1100cc

Tamburini and a couple of friends, Valerio Bianchi and Giuseppe Morri, had a shop that built commercial air-conditioning ducts, so they had good knowledge of how metal worked. As a sideline they decided to build better frames and suspension for existing motorcycle engines and in 1973 incorporated as Bimota, a mash-up of the first two letters of their three names. In 1975 the CB750-powered HB1 appeared, as well as the SB1, powered by the Suzuki TR500 racing-only two-stroke based on the Titan engine. The company soon realized that the money was in the street-legal bikes.

Tamburini, the son of a farmer, was both a self-taught engineer and an artist, and the designs of his machines quickly drew the attention of other manufacturers. In 1985 the company ran into financial trouble, and he took a job with Ducati. But Bimota continued on, hiring a designer by the name of Pierluigi Marconi, who was responsible for the 1994 SB6, called in later years “the ultimate café racer.”

Retrospective: 1997-1999 Bimota SB6-R 1100cc

So what does one do with a big 1,074cc engine with an oversquare 75.5mm bore and 60mm stroke? Initially it was to leave it alone! The 16-valve DOHC engine, with a compression ratio of 11.2:1, put out a decent 138 horses at the rear wheel. There would be a little fiddling with the jetting of the four 40mm Mikuni BST carburetors due to a new exhaust, but that would be about it. 

In the road test of a 1996 model in an American magazine, the editors weren’t very happy with the bike, as it made only 128 horsepower on the dyno and the price was $23,000. As a slightly amusing coincidence, Tamburini was developing the famous Ducati 916 model as Marconi was putting together this SB6. While the ’96 Bimota was around $23 large, the Ducati was a more tolerable $16 grand, and the stock Suzuki an even more reasonable $10,000. If you wanted exotica, you paid a price.

Retrospective: 1997-1999 Bimota SB6-R 1100cc

The Suzuki’s Japanese frame was a double cradle, but Marconi designed a twin-spar version of aluminum alloy, the spars joining at the steering head. Bimota called this the Straight Line Connection. A pair of rectangular swingarms, made of stout alloy aluminum, pivoted off the back of the SLC frame.

Up front was a 46mm Paioli upside-down, fully adjustable telehydraulic fork, with a rake of 23.5 degrees, trail of 3.6 inches. Low and behold the wheelbase had been shortened; the axle to axle on the Suzuki GSX-R was 58.5 inches, while on the SB6 it was 53.2. Great for diving into those countryside corners, not so good for ambling with heavy traffic in town.

Rear suspension was done by a single Öhlins shock absorber, with a rising-rate rocker arm on the right side of the swingarm, not the center, because the shortened wheelbase did not allow it. The spring preload, rebound and compression damping could all be fiddled with, though the adjusters were a bit difficult to access.

The magnesium Marchesini wheels were both 17-inchers, with a 120/60 tire on the front, a 180/55 on the back. The front wheel had a pair of 320mm Brembo Gold Line discs, squeezed by four-piston calipers, the rear a single 230mm disc and a two-piston caliper.

Retrospective: 1997-1999 Bimota SB6-R 1100cc

After three years on the market, Marconi thought a small upgrade was in order, hence the R on the model seen in the photos. Little internal work was done, other than new camshafts. The steering damper had been in an awkward hard-to-adjust place, and now was on the outside of the left spar. Under the saddle two changes were made, one being the enlarging of the airbox for better breathing. The second was finding placement for one large battery, rather than the original’s two small batteries. And the front of the fairing and instrument panel were new. Both price and horsepower went up slightly.

The last year that Suzuki made the GSX-R1100 was 1999, and other Bimota models were not selling well, causing Bimota to go into tremulous economic viability at the turn of the century. However, it has been revived several times since then, the latest after Kawasaki bought 49.9% of the company in 2019 and Bimota showed off the new Tesi H2, with hub steering and powered by Kawasaki’s four-cylinder 998cc supercharged engine. With a price on the far side of $50,000. No word on how Bimota is dealing with the pandemic. 

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