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SHAFT DRIVE vs CHAIN DRIVE


by Subroto Mukerji

My memory is not what it used to be. I confess I've


gone and forgotten who invented the motorcycle! It was
probably Gottlieb Daimler, the gentleman whose
company later merged with Mercedes Benz to found the
legendary Daimler-Benz AG.
No one, least of all
Daimler, could possibly have
foreseen, back then in the
early 20th century, the shape
of things to come. A
hundred-odd years later,
Daimler’s crude contraption
has given way to humongous
21st century road-burners
epitomized in 1800 cc of raw
power that is the shaft-
driven HONDA grand-touring wonderbike.
As the motorcycle evolved, controversy about the ideal
drive mechanism hotted up. Which was the best way of
transferring power from engine to wheels—chain…or
shaft? There were as many supporters of either option as
there were
manufacturers. Each
option has its
advantages as well
as disadvantages.
Chain drive is
light, inexpensive,
rugged and shock
absorbing. It
stretches to soak up
jerks from power
surges due to
throttle-happy
wheelie-dealies and
also accommodates the swing caused by floating rear-
suspension arms.
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On the downside is its tendency to over-stretch and


become loose, eating up rear sprockets. Moreover, it can
sometimes snap, which means untold misery as engines
over-rev wildly and a bike suddenly becomes an
unpowered, drifting, tractionless boneshaker that may
prove hazardous in traffic situations.
Shaft drive has no such problems…modern versions
even more so. There is direct transfer of power from
engine to wheels unaccompanied by the excess baggage
of lost throttle response. Efficiency is enhanced.
But a shaft is theoretically prone to even more wear

and tear than a chain, for two major reasons. First of all, a
shaft isn’t flexible, and secondly, it cannot stretch to
accommodate rear-arm (suspension) play.

Moreover, a shaft is, ipso facto, manufactured to


miniscule tolerances that can be severely affected by the
ingress of contaminants. Dust, the commonest example,
can be a most effective abrasive especially considering
the high rpms at which the shaft has to rotate.
To offset the disadvantages of shaft drive, highly
advanced engineering solutions are called for. And these
solutions were indeed found, as far back as the 1950’s.
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But sophisticated, close-tolerance manufacturing and the


use of specialized steels, alloys, and rubber parts means
extra expense and weight, and it is hardly remarkable
that shaft drive was to be found only on the most
expensive machines such as the superbly-crafted but
exorbitantly priced British Sunbeam 500 cc of 1956, a
bike I still salivate over.
BMW and the
Italian Moto Guzzi (to
quote but two of the
most well-known
examples) went the
shaft route, and we
all know how popular
they are with the
upper end of the
market. However,
where cost and
economy were of
paramount
importance (as they undoubtedly were to the mass-
produced low-end British and Japanese bikes), chain beat
shaft every time. The amount of effort that has gone into
making more durable motorcycle chains has paid off so
handsomely that even a demanding but not-so-well-
heeled buyer will not mind a chain-drive bike that
otherwise meets all his expectations.
But give me shaft drive any day. Running silent, clean
and cool in its sealed oil-bath, flexible couplings ensuring
practically every bit as good resilience as a chain, and
delivering torque as smoothly as a belt drive but with
none of its unreliability, a shaft has as much lethal
fascination as its Hollywood namesake John Shaft who, to
quote the hype on the poster, is Hotter than Bond~
Cooler than Bullitt! 1
 Subroto Mukerji 

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(Richard Roundtree as John Shaft in Shaft; Sean Connery and others as
Bond; Steve McQueen as Detective Inspector Frank Bullitt in Bullitt)