The Re-evolution of the Standard Motorcycle
(Caveat emptor: I may have taken some liberties with history and facts on the way to a point. I presume my faithful readers will supply corrections and additions as needed.)
To take an explanatory short cut, motorcycles began when some bright thinker chose to bolt a small engine into a bicycle frame. For a few years there were experiments with where and how to attach the engine, but eventually a position beneath the rider and between his (or her) legs seemed to be the easiest, most practical, and most marketable solution.
For several decades over the past century plus a bit manufacturers produced – motorcycles. Not sport bikes or dirt bikes or tourers or cruisers – just motorcycles.
There were small outliers from this, of course, depending on how far off the beaten track of history you care to roam. Consider the short-lived mania for board track racing just about a century ago. The tracks were made of boards – literally, usually 2×4 boards or larger turned on their sides and attached to create a width of track deemed sufficient, in an oval or bowl shape of sizes ranging from small to two (!) miles. The motorcycles raced were some of the purest motorcycles for purpose ever created. No brakes, and no real throttle control. They were designed to operate at full throttle all the time, and could be slowed by a button that killed the ignition. Or not. Total loss oiling systems meant smoke everywhere all the time, and exhaust “pipes” about 6 inches long made for amazing sounds. You can purchase a fresh replica of one of these today, used solely for display.
But most motorcycles were simply – motorcycles. Even in World War II, when Indian chose to produce 100% of their motorcycles for the armed forces, they differed from civilian spec by – not much. Perhaps more complicated air filtering for bikes meant for the desert or other slight mods. This decision by Indian starved their dealers and was a major factor in their demise, whereas Harley made bikes for the military but with enough civilian bikes so keep their dealers alive – barely
And so to the late 1950s and early 1960s. The motorcycle industry grew after the war, producing more and more – motorcycles – with gradually increasing sales totals.
And then along came Soichiro Honda with small motorcycles that were inexpensive, dead reliable, and available all over the place to anyone, coupled with the “You Meet The Nicest People On A Honda” ad campaign. In due time, other Japanese companies followed his lead, including Yamaha (famed for musical instruments), Kawasaki (famed for the construction of large ships and large everything else), Suzuki, and several others.
The 1960’s were a time of explosive growth for motorcycles in all respects. More power, better suspensions, better brakes, and the proliferation of different models. As time passed, motorcycles began to appear that were designed for more specific uses. Motorcycles began to be referred to as dirt bikes, cruisers, tourers, sport bikes, and so on.
But history can be strange, and now appears to be in reverse in some ways, for a variety of reasons.
Most curious, to me, is the decline of interest in sport bikes. I grew up lusting after sport bikes. Each year brought exponential improvements in all areas of performance. What I did not realize, or expect, was that sport bikes would eventually improve themselves out of practical use.
To wit, a modern sport bike of 600cc or large capacity is now so capable that it cannot be used to anywhere near its potential on any public road. Our roads are, for the most part, the same roads that were first paved over 50 years ago. But traffic is much heavier on most of them. Any modern sport bike can top 100mph with ease, in some case so much so that the bike might be going much faster than the rider thinks. Even worse, they are now so capable that they cannot be ridden to their utmost, even on a race track, by all but a very small cadre of experienced and highly skilled riders.
I got to experience this first hand in 2009. We had a used Kawasaki ZX12R that had been for sale for some time. It had not been ridden in quite a while, and so it was suggested that I ride it home and back the next day to make sure all was well. This was a treat for me, as I had owned a ZX12R previously. I loved that model. It was larger than most sport bikes, and a touch heavy, but it had real presence. Every ride was an occasion. I rode it home in pleasure. During dinner, the dealership called to explain that a guy had just come in to purchase it, and could I rush back to the store? I grabbed my helmet and jacket and was off, leaving the rest of dinner for later. It was getting dark, but there was no time to swap off the tinted visor, and it looked like rain, but oh well. I could take a hot shower when I returned if needed.
I’ll always remember the look on the face of the new owner when I rode in. He’d been thinking about this bike for weeks, and had finally decided to go all in. He and his wife and a baby stood there with huge grins on all of their faces as I rolled in, their bike all ready to go. The paperwork was all done, and now he could ride home on this big beautiful black beast.
By now the dealership was closed, and all of the bikes stored inside. Fortunately, the service manager had thought ahead and knew I would need to get home. With impish humor he’d set aside an almost new Suzuki 1000 GSX-R, thinking that having me ride it in likely rain in the growing dark would be amusing. As usual, some of the younger employees sort of resented the fact that the old guy got to ride everything the store owned, and they did not. It would have been churlish to explain that I was not likely to crash a bike, and they (as the dealership had learned over the years) were!
I set off for home on a bike that weighed at least 50 pounds less than the ZX12R and had equal or greater power. And it did…nothing for me. The sense I got was that I did not need to be there. At street speeds I would not do anything that the bike would even register as a demand. As I accelerated around and up a ramp onto the freeway for the blast to my exit, I turned the throttle casually. When I looked down I was doing 95mph. The bike could care less.
So today, if you purchase a sport bike, what are you going to do with it? Track days? Sure. Do you want to spend 12k to 30k on a bike only for track days? Commuting is not comfortable. Romping on back roads is boring at sane speeds, and quite likely lethal at speeds of interest to the bike. In recent years the sales of large sport bikes have declined for this and other reasons. Such as insurance.
Having said that, a modern sport bike is a lot of fun to ride at about 50 – 70% of its capability, (which is how I rode mine most of the time) and can be used to commute or even for light touring. But for most people there are better and less expensive routes to the same thing.
Touring bikes began to proliferate in the 1970s and are now so capable they are taken for granted. They are also huge and heavy, and expensive. It is always ironic to me to see Honda Goldwings out for a long ride – towing a trailer. How much stuff must you have with you?
Dirt bikes have also improved beyond expectation, but the disappearance of local empty lots and the liability concerns (justified) of land owners means that the purchase of a dirt-specific bike usually brings with it the necessity of pick-up truck and/or trailer ownership, and the hassle of loading and unloading.
Cue the development of the dual sport motorcycle that can be ridden on pavement to the dirt. Many of these are extremely competent at both, while usually not being as great as either a pure pavement or pure dirt bike on either surface.
Recently (aha! He may be about to make a point!), there is a trend in in reverse. The rise of the “standard” motorcycle. People want a motorcycle to be simpler, more available, cheaper, and more basic. Motorcycles (in this country) are usually purchased for fun, and complexity and expense often impinge on fun.
As a sort of parallel, I was interested in the Mecum Auction of motorcycles shown a couple of weeks ago. Their expert commentator was Paul D’Orleans, who knows more about motorcycles than anyone I’ve ever listened to. He referred, time and time again, to “the riding experience” as a way of describing how many bikes are a joy to ride even if they are not at the cutting edge of performance, either now or when they were new. I wonder if the “riding experience” is a new goal that is replacing whatever sort of performance used to be the goal.
I would modify his thought a bit to “owner experience.” How much pleasure do you get from a bike simply by owning it? Certainly many Harley riders enjoy the bike just as it sits in the garage. It may represent a dream long deferred, or be cherished just for the look.
Whenever I do a serious cleaning of my bike I remove the seat to better access the side panels for (another) coat of wax. Each time I do I smile at the “MK” initials at the base of the tank that do not show when the seat is in place. MK are the initials of the worker who applied the gold pin stripes on the tank by hand. Those little touches now mean a lot, and perhaps more than the horsepower rating or top speed, both of which are irrelevant to most of the riding almost all of the time.
So now we have “retro” as arguably the hottest segment of the motorcycle market. Cue Triumph.
When industrialist and real estate developer John Bloor decided to renew the Triumph brand, the first few years were spent with “modular” bikes that came with either three or four cylinders depending on the design but with a lot of commonality between the engines. By 2000 they had succeeded to the extent that they could produce a “new” Triumph Bonneville with a vertical twin engine. It looked much like the classic models of the 1960s, except for an upward kink in the exhaust that drove the purists utterly crazy. For many years the “basic black Bonnie,” the least expensive model, sold out every year. Triumph seemed to spend most of their promo efforts on their line of three cylinder bikes – the 675 models, the bigger Speed Triples, and the gargantuan 2300cc Rocket. The Bonnevilles simply sold to the limit of what they produced. Quietly. The bike gained fuel injection during all of this, with the fuel injection units cleverly disguised to look like carburetors. The lunatic fringe can tell the difference because the fuel tank is slightly more rounded on the top.
You could make the argument that Harley has been making a retro bike for decades in the form of the Sportster. A cynic would apply that to all Harley models, a much harder claim to support, as the others have been steadily improved ala the Porsche 911 – self cancelling turn signals, a cruise control that works well, top gear indicator, and other modern improvements, in some cases well before other “modern” motorcycle designs could boast these improvements.
But the Sportster is less retro and more original – pretty much the same in most regards as it has been for decades. A good thing about a Sportster is that it will remind you of where motorcycles came from. The simplicity of a reasonably simple air-cooled V-twin in the middle of the frame, just as was done many decades ago. They are fun to ride.
What always frustrated me about Sportsters was the placement of the foot pegs. You would bang your ankle on them every time you stopped. I sort of believe they were designed that way to increase the profits from Harley’s accessory forward mounts for the foot controls, many of them installed before the bike left the showroom floor.
In 2016 Triumph threw down the modern retro gauntlet with a re-designed line of several Bonnevilles in two different engine sizes. All of them looked (intentionally) almost identical to a late 1960’s model, and the exhaust system had lost the dreaded kink. But what was really important was the host of modern electro-tech goodies baked into the pie so seamlessly. When I first saw a 1200cc T120 on the showroom floor in late March of 2016 I was stunned by the looks. I ran through the list of “oh well” statements you often have in mind to talk yourself out of a purchase
Oh well, I’d want ABS, which would cost more. Oops – standard equipment.
I’d want those cool knee pads on the tank. Standard.
I insist on a center stand. Standard.
Heated grips. Standard.
Several options for what the instruments were showing, fuel injections, triple disc brakes, ride modes, a smart phone charger plug in under the seat (on a Triumph!) and on and on.
I bought mine the next day, which proved wise, as they pretty much sold out by mid-summer.
Keep in mind that Triumph is a very small manufacturer, but their success did not sneak by other manufacturers. Moto Guzzi followed with a retro, and then BMW, and then – I can’t keep track of all the new offerings.
By “new” I mean bikes that look like motorcycles of 30 years ago, but come with all the mod-cons computer technology has given us.
The result is a swarm of bikes that look old but have modern technology, in most cases hidden from view. Because they are designed for “the riding experience” as opposed to “maximum performance,” they do not need (or even want) the last word in suspensions or engine power. And thus they become less expensive to manufacture.
When I was purchasing mine I spent some time watching the promo videos on the Triumph web site. It amused me that all of them showed “hipster” riders. Tight jeans, a tattoo or three, open face helmets, and perhaps a two day beard – except for the women. Snazzy marketing, but I suspect that the actual buyers are a mix of two demographics. The younger riders who want the classic looks and the more reasonable price, and older riders who have been there and done that. Riders who have owned a ridden high performance bikes to the edge of their own ability, and sometimes past it. Riders who have enjoyed big luxo-tourers or bikes capable to riding around the world on pavement or dirt, or cruisers laden with chrome and paint and graphics – and expense. Riders who now just want to have a bike they like to look at and to ride – period.
In this class of bike you know you have reverted to the “old days,” and it is wonderful. Here is just one example.
2016 Triumph Bonneville T 120 in local ride mode – for nice days when I’m sure the weather will stay consistent and I do not need to carry anything with me and do not intend to bring anything home. The only alteration from stock is the addition of the “fly screen” windshield. It does offer some protection from the wind, but it’s there mostly for looks
2016 Triumph Bonneville T 120 in day ride mode. The tank bag can brings the ability to add or remove a layer of clothing, plus a hat and sunglasses, etc.
2016 Triumph Bonneville T120 in “full touring” mode. With the Cortech saddlebags and top bag on the rear I can be gone for up to two weeks with changes of clothes, first aid kit, air compressor, tire repair kit, etc. Compared to any of the large luxo tourers, this is almost silly, and yet the bike outfitted this way has more capacity for stuff than the several bikes I rode all over America in the early 1970s.
Each month the moto-mags offer teasers of coming retro models from other manufacturers, and I welcome them all.
Copyright 2017 David Preston