I like champagne a lot. I like drinking it and I like cooking with this wonderful wine. But I have a problem – two in fact. As a kid, I used to bite my fingernails intensely and so now, as an adult, they are feeble things. So, every time I try to open a bottle of champers I break my nails on the retaining wire.
I’m also consistently inept, so instead of the amber nectar going in the glasses it ends up on the dinner table – and I get one of Carol’s professional quality glares.
So, what do I remember about each bottle? Broken nails? Mopping up the table? No – it’s the near surreal pleasure of admiring the wine maker’s skill in combining Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and the finest Chardonnay into wines so good they are almost a religious experience.
I was thinking a lot about champagne, both the positive and negative aspects, after my ride on the Egli Fritz – the latest in a long line of these specials to leave the rambling farmhouse in Bettwil, 20 miles south-west of Zurich in the financial heartland of Switzerland, which is the Egli factory.
The Egli story begins with Fritz himself, who raced a ferociously fast Vincent in Swiss hillclimbs in the 1960s. Fritz explains. “I was trained as a precision mechanic by AEG and I was taught to an incredibly high standard. I did well and even worked for the company for three years in Mexico.
“I took this knowledge to motorcycle racing and built a Vincent which was fast but with an engine which was easy to ride. I had a lot of success on the bike but I wanted to move from third places to first, and the handling of the Vincent wouldn’t let me do this.
“The problem was that the box section top frame flexed and there was no fix for this.
“So, I would lie awake at night and think of a way to make a bike which would handle and where the frame would be stiff, independently of the engine. This is how the large diameter spine frame was conceived during the winter of 1966/7.
“I also got rid of the Vincent Girdraulic forks, which were too heavy, and replaced them with forks from the Manx Norton, which were the best available at the time.
“The bike was very successful and I won the Swiss hillclimb championship in 1968. Other riders were impressed with my bike and wanted replicas of it and that’s how I became a manufacturer.”
Egli is housed in a rambling, and deceptively huge, farmhouse right in the center of the small village of Bettwil. Fritz takes up the story again. “I needed somewhere with a lot of space when I started to make motorcycles on a serious commercial level and so we found this derelict place in Bettwil. It was so bad that you could stand in the basement and see the sky right through every floor all the way to the roof. That’s a building in really bad condition!
“But, with the help of a lot of friends, we eventually restored it – and there is a lot of room which is what we wanted in 1970.”
After the legendary Egli Vincent, Fritz went on to produce a remarkable range of bikes mainly with Japanese engines but occasionally a Ducati too. Eventually, the strain of looking after 12 full time employees became too much and Fritz let it be known that the business could be bought: and that’s when the trouble started.
“I had so many dreamers come to see me – people who were in love with the Egli legend but had no idea of the reality of running a business making motorcycles. They wanted to sit in the office all day, playing on computers or chatting on the phone, and they didn’t realise that Egli was hard work. There is no going home at 5 o’clock and locking the door. Sometimes, you work for 12 hours without a break. Sometimes, you work longer, and you get your hands dirty too. That’s the reality of manufacturing.
“Then Alex came along and he was serious and so I was happy to let the Egli name go to him.”
“Alex” is Alexander Frei, a successful entrepreneur with a family business based around water treatment technology. As well as knowing how to run a business, Alex was a successful car racer and was the 2004 Le Mans Endurance Champion, so he understands exactly the passion behind Egli for all these years.
Alex was a fan of Egli Vincents when he was a teenager but could never afford one. Initially, he didn’t even know that Egli was for sale but when an interest developed it took only six months to conclude the deal. The hardest part was analyzing the business case because Egli isn’t a hobby for Alex. He was attracted by the idea of reviving the Egli Brand and relaunching the Egli motorcycle manufacturing company in Switzerland.
The Egli Fritz is the first manifestation of this dream. The idea was to make a traditional Egli, characterized by the huge central spine, but with a modern engine and running gear. The design process took a year and a half, and things became somewhat rushed in order to get the first run of six machines completed before the end of 2016, and so just scraping in under the more relaxed Euro 3 emission regulations.
Egli say that the aim was to build, “…a typical café racer but with modern geometry true to the Egli slogan of ‘rides as if on rails.”
The bike’s geometry is based around a steering head rake of 24.5 degrees which is true sports territory. For example, a Ducati Panigale is only 0.5 degrees steeper. Yamaha’s XSR 900 Abarth, as pure a café racer as you are going to get from a Japanese manufacturer, is right in the same area as the Fritz with 25 degrees of rake and a 1440mm wheelbase. Don’t expect to go for a cruise in the countryside, Honda CB1100 style, on the Fritz.
Attached to the archetypal Egli frame is Öhlins’ suspension, front and back, and – as one would expect – this is excellent. Equally impressive are the twin 297mm, six piston front brakes. I like powerful front brakes. Even this is not true. I actually love powerful anchors and braking is the only thing I could legitimately claim to do really well when racing but…
The big but is that these brakes are inordinately fierce and will lock the front wheel in a blink. Racing on grippy tarmac, with a total absence of farm tractors, half asleep pedestrians and distracted Mums pushing baby carriages out into the road, these would be dream brakes but goodness me, Egli Fritz owners are going to have to be very circumspect in terms of grabbing a handful of front brake lever in anything other than perfect conditions. For me, my middle finger, gently applied, was all the force I needed to scrub off speed in race time.
Getting rid of the standard Yamaha running gear and substituting it with bespoke Egli parts sheds a whopping 80 pounds.
The power for the Fritz comes from Yamaha’s very traditional 1251cc Inline Four, which was normally found in the XJR1300. This DOHC motor was born in 1984, living in the FJ1100, and has now been phased out of Yamaha’s offering. In the past, I quite liked the five speed air/oil cooled engine but now it feels decidedly old fashioned. Unfortunately, not in the sense of harking back to something better rather simply not as good as other power plants currently offered by Retro manufacturers.
Even with these caveats, the engine is okay. Egli run it in bog standard form and there’s nothing wrong with this. There’s a stonking amount of torque available at almost any rpm and the 100 or so horses galloping away inside the Yamaha’s crankcases will ensure that you can lose your license in a blink so there’s no problem there. It’s simply a case of not being an engine you dream about having in a retro bike.
Not that Yamaha went out of their way to support the Egli Fritz project. If you want a brand new XJR1300 chassis, Egli have a row of them in the basement – complete in every detail except for the engine!
So now we come to the champagne bit. The Egli chassis, Öhlins’ suspension and even the underwear soiling front brake are all Premier Grand Cru. The Kineo wire wheels, cunningly permitting the use of tubeless tires are great too but then things go downhill and we’re into broken finger nail and spilt wine territory.
The single instrument binnacle contains, allegedly, a speedometer and some other bits of information but is so utterly illegible that it’s worthless. The multiple of tiny buttons, for stopping the engine and operating the indicators were also a disaster.
There is a silly keyless entry system too. I like keyless entry on cars. A big button which unlocks doors, opens the rear tail gate and starts the car is good and practical. But the Egli system, sourced from Motogadget along with the switches, is just an affectation in the form of a tiny circle of metal which can’t be attached to a key ring and doesn’t switch off the engine either.
All these custom bike pretensions are fine for a show machine which has an exhaust pipe made from chocolate and a saddle covered with ant skins but is the Fritz a custom bike or is it, in the tradition of Eglis over the years, a thoroughly practical motorcycle?
The truth turned out to be that the Fritz was a rather a good, hard core café racer. I’m not really interested in hearing people moan about clip-ons and rear set footrests. What do you expect on a Caff – cruise control and a stereo? Go buy a Gold Wing if you do.
For me, the riding position wasn’t sufficiently radical. There was ample enough room to make the ‘bars lower and shorter so that you could become authentically crippled by trying to ride a race bike on the road.
What I couldn’t come to terms with was the saddle height of the bike. I am 5’ 10” and even for me, this was a stretch to get both feet on the floor. Part of the problem was that on the test bike, which is Alex’s own machine, the alloy fuel tank and seat pan were from the first experimental machine. On production bikes, if six machines can be considered to be a run, the seat unit is curved and this makes the floor an easier reach. Even so, have a look at the static images of the bike and you’ll see that there is an awful lot of space between the bottom of the exhaust and the solid ground beneath.
So, there I am, being a typical nit-picking journalist, which is fair enough, until the Fritz is tipped into a corner at 70mph and suddenly all is forgiven. The motorcycle really does handle beautifully and the speed is scrubbed off so effortlessly that you really do want all motorcycles to have this suicidally powerful braking available.
Best of all for me was on the apex of one corner, where we were shooting the pictures, there was an example of Switzerland’s best road repairs with a strip of zero grip tarmac. On every pass, the Fritz wriggled about and then came completely back on to line with no input from me. Very impressive, and a great credit to the engineering behind the bike.
Now here’s where things get slightly complex. The six examples of the Fritz were sold instantly on launch and no one blinked over the $53,000 price – not for a nanosecond. And, in some respects, the Fritz is a complete bargain for the wealthy who are seeking exclusivity.
The problem, if it is an issue at all, is that there are much better Café Racer/Retros about for vastly less money. For US customers, the go-to choice has to be Triumph’s Thruxton R and here in England, $12,000 will buy you Yamaha’s utterly lovely XR900 Abarth loaded with titanium and carbon fiber bling.
Now I know that an Abarth is a production bike and the Fritz is a hand-built special but, even so, $40,000 is a mammoth gulf – especially when the Egli still looks like work in progress.
I admire everything Alex and his team are doing with Egli, and spending an hour with Fritz Egli himself was a real privilege, and so I look forward to the next project from Bettwil and one which is perhaps a more finished product whilst still retaining the Egli DNA.
Photos courtesy of Frank Melling.