Gil VaillancourtEngineer, concert level violinist and owner of Works Performance Shocks.
Article by TWMX transworldmotocross.com
By Steve Giberson
Works Performance has been around since 1973, when less than a handful of inches of suspension travel was considered adequate for MX racing. Their shocks were also among the first to be designed to handle the rigors of longer-travel applications, back when twin shocks ruled, and riders were busily modifying their frames and swingarms in search of more travel.
Over the years the suspension on stock MX bikes has gotten a lot better, and Works has expanded into other markets including road, cruiser and ATVs, though they still do plenty of MX shocks…both as replacement shocks on new models, and as repairs on shocks for older bikes.
Ned Owens, the Chief Operating Officer of Works Performance gave us a little insight into the history of the company. "Gil Vaillancourt, the owner and CEO, was a desert racer. and Charlie Curnutt was selling shocks to the desert guys, but he wasn't too keen on servicing them. He also didn't really want to sell parts. So that's how it started, Gil just making replacement parts for Curnutts. The at some point he said, 'You know, I think I can do better. I have my own idea about what I want to do for a valving system.' So he started making pistons to replace the Curnutt internals." With a smile Ned noted, "This is when there was four inches of travel, but we like to say it was a good four. The first four inches weren't wasted in ride sag."
"Gil came up with an orifice-based design for damping. On normal pistons, there are a series of holes, probably as big as your finger. The oil is controlled by a series of shims of various diameters and thicknesses, which is very linear. If you make it a little stiffer, it moves the whole range up and if you make it softer, it moves the whole range down. What he did was drilled holes in the piston and put 1/4-inch ball bearings in there, and made little valve springs go behind them. As the piston moves through the oil, it pops off each one of these little circuits individually. The key is that you can tune each circuit separately. You're not locked into something. You can have it so that it's real comfortable and works well on stutter bumps, but doesn't give anything up on big hits."
"That's basically how it started. He sold shock pistons for a while, then he made a pair of shocks for himself, and a couple pairs for his friends, just kind of working out of his garage. Then he got together with his business partner, opened a shop and started selling them. That was in 1973. They were $99 a pair. I was a CZ dealer at that time, and the 250s were $1,495, and the 400s were $1,695. An XR50 was like $399."
Of course, while the bikes were a lot cheaper, they were sometimes something more like a work-in-progress. "Any more, the shocks are good and continue to be top-flight stuff in most cases. It doesn't mean you can't improve them, but there's not a lot there, as opposed to it used be that the stock shocks were just junk and got pulled off right away. You had to replace the carb and the airbox and this and that, even before the bike left the showroom. It's kind of like in the late 70s when everybody started to move shocks forward, move 'em up, lay 'em down stuff like this. That's something we used to do in our shop, where we had shock packages, where we'd gusset the frame and lay the shocks down on them. In most cases, nobody made a shock with enough spring to handle it. You'd take a pair of Girling shocks, and put as much preload as you could, but you couldn't even find springs and stuff for them. Especially on the Girlings, the shafts would be bent. You'd take 'em and some guys were good at it, and could do it in a single whack, and straighten it out." (laughs)
"Gil had been involved with Kawasaki's road race program, and what we call the first actual large body unit was for a GPZ Factory Kawasaki race bike. Once he made those components and that series, it was a natural. He branched out from there.
"I think it was about '92 or so, we started to pursue the Harley market. Now we make shocks for virtually everything that ever had the Harley nameplate on it, along with customs, and small OE manufacturers. We also do production for Big Dog Motorcycles for all their shocks, and soon for all their fork internals."
"Quads aren't the biggest part of our business, but as a single segment, it's pretty good. Once the single shock dirt bikes came in, we were still selling twin shockers, but that was less and less all the bike. About that time, Suzuki came out with the quad. We were selling rear shocks for the three-wheelers and when they came out with that, they were pretty grim shocks.
For a long time the ATVs decided they were going to ditch the linkage and go direct. A lot of that era seems to have passed by. I hate to see people talking about, 'It's a whole bunch simpler. You don't have all these pivot joints, and all this other stuff.' Well, then give up watercooling, too. The no link stuff is really hard on the shock. It's really hard on the frame and the swingarm, because the forces that you're generating on this thing are substantially higher. The shock also runs hotter."
Flipping through the Works catalog, it's interesting to note that they have several levels of shocks for many models. Ned explains, "Everything we offer is purpose-specific. In ATVs we have trail builds, we have MX builds, we have what we call Stadium builds. If we can make one without a reservoir, if it'll work as an emulsion shock, that'll be our basic model. In other cases we'll have hose-mounted remotes, adjustable compression and adjustable rebound. We have piggybacks for all of the 85s, 60s, and we do quite a bit in the XR50 CRF50 and 70…stuff like that. Those are all off-shoots of our original twin shock stuff."
"On the XR50, we make four different models for varying weight ranges in our least expensive shock. The lightest one is really intended for kids, and we actually sell some. (Laughs) But most of them are for heavier riders. Almost all of our dirt bike efforts, with the exception of this new piggyback, have been in the minis. The stock shocks are pretty wretched in most cases, they're limited, and they won't stand up. We thought when this whole thing started that nobody that wanted to pay $500 for a shock. There's quite a number of people that want to pay it. We were surprised. We sell them through Tucker Rocky, and Parts Unlimited, and they sell a lot of these little mini shocks."