The sad news that Antonio Cobas passed away this week was widely reported in Europe and Spain; not so widely reported in the US.
Cobas is largely credited as the father of the modern twin spar frame, widely used today on just about every sport motorcycle. The late Cobas was a Spaniard race engineer who worked with Sito Pons, Alex Criville, and Alberto Puig, and first became a notable man of the bike Grand Prix world in the late 1970s. Of late he had worked as an engineer with the Camel Grand Prix team and Max Biaggi. Pons and Criville rode for Cobas when they won the GP titles in the late 80s.
Along with Norton "Featherbed" designer Rex McCandless, Cobas is one of the most influential frame designers in motorcycle racing history.
Camel Pons owner Sito Pons said this about Cobas: "He was indeed a precursor, one who opened up the way for research and development, especially in the field of frame design, that others then followed."
Let's rewind to the 1970s, an interesting time when Cobas came to the bike racing scene. The state of the art was the Yamaha TZ750a vicious, ill-tempered machine that was a career-ender for some riders. But today, the thought of a 100 horsepower two-stroke behemoth is almost comical. Today, off-the-showroom-floor 600 streetbikes have more power.
For years, engines where refined and developed, but handling was a "black art", something everyone wanted to improve but an area the bike-makers could never quite make good enough.
So, what happened? Progress in frames, suspension, and tires changed the landscape. After the early '70s, tire development meant that stickier tires with increasingly more grip came to racing. Long-travel rear suspension units replaced the awful short-stroke twin shocks from the era legendary mechanic Nobby Clarke described best when he said, "Suspension was just a word." Forks became more refined, precision instruments.
In the mid-to-late '70s, frames where still influenced from the earlier days when designers strived to put as much weight to the rear as possible in order to get traction for the rear wheel. McCandless' "Featherbed" frame had found a sweet spot with its 50/50 weight ratio, and proper rear suspensions and better tires solved much of the traction issue. Next the designers tried to move the weight forward -- where it is today -- in a bid to get the front end to handle better.
The conventional tube frame was now a weak point, as the frames on race bikes often began to crack under the stronger loads. The solution? Braces and extra welds became the marks of a "real" race bike.
In the early '80s, Cobas developed the stronger and lighter aluminum twin-beam chassis to replace the steel backbone frames. Like many good ideas, it was adopted widely and now there's a little bit of Cobas in most of today's sport bikes.
"A top-level engineer, always perfectly aware of the available technology and always knowing exactly what to do to enter the future," Pons said of Cobas. "He was always two or three steps ahead of the others."