The following article was published in Bike Magazine, April 2009 edition.

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Maxton Engineering

Bespoke British suspension builders and former mentors to the most powerful men in motorcycling

"The difference between a good and bad rider is that a good one is friends with his bike." Wise words from a man who's worked with many of the true greats of motorcycle racing. "A good rider wants to make his bike better so he can go faster, while a bad one blames it for making him slower."
Ron Williams has been the energy behind Maxton Engineering, probably the world's leading independent suspension experts, for almost 40 years now, but he did take a few years' break in the late 1970s to work for Honda.

"They'd just come back into GP racing and were having some serious problems." Richard, Ron's son tells the story (Ron is much more interested in damping curves and linkage ratios than dwelling on the past).

"Honda had some hotshot engineers back in Japan, full of ideas, but lacking direction and experience. So Ron went out there to mentor them. 30 years on, one of them, Takeo Fukui is now the CEO Honda worldwide and another, Satoro Horicke, has been boss of HRC and project leader for almost every significant Honda production bike of the last 20 years."

Think about that for a moment. Your new shock absorber or fork cartidge built by the man who taught two of the most important men in motorcycling how to make a race bike handle properly.

You know this place is different the minute you walk into the workshop. If only because the radio in the background is a posh tuner playing through an expensive hi-fi amplifier. No knackered, old Amstrads here. Spending an hour or two in Ron and Richard's company is a revelation. So much information, so easy to understand when explained by people who really (and I mean really) know what they're talking about.

Maxton's set-up couldn't be further away from the might of Honda and HRC. They've recently moved into a purpose built unit but remain hidden away in the Cheshire countryside a couple of hundred yards from the former chapel that used to be their base. It's a fantastic place, an inspiring mix of the old (hand machining and assembly by craftsmen, lots of green enamel and scary red 'emergency stop' buttons) and the new (CNC machines, high-tech shock dynos, screens and keyboards everywhere). And Maxton operate what must be a unique philosophy in motorcycle engineering these days.

"We make everything in house, apart from the springs. Our GP7 shock absorber has 111 components and we make 110 of them here. It would be cheaper and maybe easier to get things made in the far east, but we'd rather do it here. It helps with quality control and ensures that every single thing is exactly as it should be"says Richard.
The formula works. Maxton shocks are the equal of anything else out there. Beautifully built to suit your requirements, weight and riding style with a range of adjustment up to five times greater than a standard unit.

But that's only part of it. As with all of the good guys in motorcycling, it's not just the product, but the service that makes the difference. Yes, you might have to wait a while for delivery (typically 4-6 weeks right now), but it's worth it for what you get.

Tucked away down one side of the unit are rows and rows of fork legs and shocks that've come back for a rebuild or service. Everything from early 80s Japanese and Italian fork legs ('popular with classic racers - we put our own cartridge internals in them though') to what looks like a brief hstory of Maxton's development, in metal. The breadth of Maxton's customer base is testament to their abilities.

"Outside the factory teams (who are contracted to use specific suspension) we're as successful as anyone in British racing," says Richard, who took over the day-to-day running of the business a few years back. "But we also make suspension for sidecars (including the current world champions) and, increasingly for classic twin shock race bikes too.

Like most top-end engineering companies, Maxton also take on the occasional left-field project, but they'd always prefer to work on bikes. "For all sorts of reasons," grins Richard. "But as much as anything because motorcylists are better payers. Maybe it's a passion thing, maybe it's because to ride a bike you just have to be so much more involved in it, but they're almost always easier to deal with."

The majority of Maxton's customers are racers but there's a significant number of road riders too and specials builders. "We see a few people who fitted the swingarm from one bike into a different machine to build a special or streetfighter. They're always a challenge because chances are the shock is completely wrong for the linkage. In some cases we've had to completely re-engineer the bike to make it work, but I'd rather have that than someone buying a shock from us and not being happy with the performance." So has suspension design had to change much as chassis' and tyres get better?

"Yes and no. The principle is the same and every shock we build is trying to achieve perfect damping for that bike and rider combination over a wide range of wheel travel. What's changed is the amount of adjustable control we can build in. Our latest GP7 race shock has high, medium and low speed compression damping adjustment and each circuit uses a different method to control damping. The low speed oil flow control - for small deflections of the wheel, not low-speed riding - is via a needle, a bit like a pilot jet in a car), medium speed control (slightly bigger bumps) is via a blow-off valve and high speed adjustment is done via the shim stack.

"On the latest sportsbikes, the range of adjustment you get is small - ours have much more."

Lunch stops play. The answerphone goes on and everyone decamps to the office. There are 12 people working here (including Ron's wife and Richard's mum, Mary), most are engineers or mechanics before they come here, but there's also Connor, the apprentice; pretty handy on a 125 race bike ('so long as I stop growing soon') and keen enough that he used to come and work on weekends before he left school.

Back to work - it's a busy place and a seven day job for some. Richard spends most weekends during the season supporting Maxton's customers at race meetings.
"These days bike set-up is as much about analysing data as rider feedback, which makes it easier, but takes more time."

Talking of which, we'd best let Richard get on with some work. Thanks for the tour, thanks for solving the mysteries of suspension. Thanks for the inspiration. Coming to a place like this makes you feel good about motorcycling. Maybe they should take up counselling.
Five things you never knew about suspension

Honda's original Hornet, which has no rising rate linkage needs a 1000lb spring to control the wheel movement, while the Pan European, which weighs almost 50% more, but has a linkage needs a 60lb spring. Any bike with a 1000lb spring needs a flipping good shock to control it. Unfortunately, the Hornet, built as a budget bike, doesn't have one, which is why the shocks wear out so fast.

Suspension doesn't have a huge effect on handling when your bike is leant over. "Think about it," says Ron. "When a bike hits a bump leant over, the forces aren't barely going through the suspension. What you are feeling is more to do with chassis stiffness and tyre construction.

Compression damping control is far more important than rebound for track riding.

Progressive or dual rate springs don't really work, mainly because they don't rebound back in a linear manner. Variable compression damping is much more effective. The benefit that most people who fit them feel is down to the original springs they replaced being too soft in the first place.

If you're planning on doing the TT next year (Whaddya mean no?) don't listen to those who recommend softening your suspension. What you actually need is stiffer springs and a wider range of damping control.
Chevrons to GSX-Rs - a brief history of Maxton

Ron Williams began his career at Chevron racing cars, but it wasn't long before he left to set up Maxton in 1971. Initially he built frames for TZ Yamahas and by the late 70s was virtually building his own bikes.

Headhunted by Honda to help on their NR500 project, he stayed till 1988 when Barry Symons moved the whole Honda Britain team to JPS Norton. At this time Maxton was still running alongside, making lightweight magnesium wheels as well as keeping GSX-R1100 owners rubber side down. The wheels were beautiful, but expensive to manufacture ('we had to throw anything up to 50% away because the castings were porous') and the production process was prone to the odd fire.

So, by the early 90s Maxton were focussed on suspension. Early Maxton shocks were heavily modified Koni units, but since 1999, everything has been built in house.

Prices range from £440 for a pair of twin shocks to £710 for the top-spec GP7. Fork conversions cost between £290 and £915 for the top-spec GP25 cartridge.