Old School or
Newest of the New?
Japanese manufacturers popularized the mid-displacement motorcycle. Now it's all but endangered.
By Michael Uhlarik
During my flight this fall to EICMA—Milan’s annual motorcycle trade show—I sat next to a private pilot. While chatting over dinner, he told me how much he loved that his company operated 1990s-vintage Hawker aircraft with predominantly analog instrumentation. “These pilots,” he said, gesturing toward the cockpit of our Boeing 787, “have nothing to do. The computers do almost everything. They even taxi automatically.”
I asked if a fully manual aircraft was desirable for a pilot. “It is,” he said, before confessing, “though complications from bad weather, heavy traffic, or time pressures makes you want all the tools available.” Many pilots (like many motorcyclists) are purists. But even a purist pilot is pragmatic enough to realize the safety we’ve come to expect from air travel is the result of technology.
New shapes, new ideas. Motorcycle manufacturers are looking forward to find what's next, while, simultaneously, clinging to the past. Which side will win?
EICMA in 2019 revealed a motorcycle industry struggling with the same conflicts as my flying companion. Brands and riders have bifurcated into fundamentalist camps on opposing sides of an ideological divide. Casual motorcyclists have doubled down on the analog side, choosing new motorcycles that look like old motorcycles, while those desiring performance—from racers to sport riders to commuters—seek the latest technology and its benefits.
Beard Oil and Triple Hopped IPA
The Japanese in the 1970s introduced the world to high quality, high performance, affordable motorcycles. The industry's fertile middle ground had arrived. Then came the cruiser bubble in the 1990s that propelled Harley-Davidson to new heights, and spawned a mania for new-old motorcycles that would lead Triumph—and later BMW, Ducati, and others—to mine their past (real or imagined) for new models.
The retro-styled roadster, like Triumph’s Bonneville, Ducati’s Scrambler or BMW’s R NineT, is a perfect companion in an Instagram world, where every journey (if only to the coffee shop) is documented and shared as if it were a magazine photo shoot. Modestly powerful and unintimidating, with a low seat height and wrapped in striking bodywork by a prestigious brand name, these old-looking new motorcycles showcase the owner’s refined sensibilities.
Since the financial crisis a decade ago, the entire western motorcycle business has doubled-down on retro design and dug deep to unearth what brand pundits call authenticity. A brand’s past, no matter how weird or unsuccessful, was resurrected as the basis for an homage or tribute model. Ducati’s original ’60s Scramblers, concocted to appeal to American buyers, were underperforming, obscure models from the get-go. Until the name was resurrected, the Scrambler was merely an oddity (among many) in Ducati’s past. Now the Scrambler lineup accounts for half Ducati’s sales. Triumph wouldn’t be in business today were it not for the current Bonneville, which is noteworthy as Triumph’s 1970s demise was due in no small part to its unwillingness to modernize the Bonneville. Eventually, Yamaha, Honda, Kawasaki, and Suzuki also jumped on the heritage bandwagon.
But EICMA in 2019 was less a display of heritage motorcycles from famous manufacturers than it was a coming out party for dozens of new brands, all peddling variations of 250 cc and 500 cc café racers, scramblers, and dirt-track style singles. Made in China or Taiwan by a handful of multinational OEMs most westerners have never heard of, these newcomers were often badge-resurrections of historic European brands like Mondial, SWM, and Fantic. In most cases, they were pitched at EICMA as hipster-chic, surrounded by handcrafted leather goods on wooden pallets and flogged by beardy men with rolled-up cuffs on expensive selvedge jeans.
Next to the massive tide of new-old motorcycles, the mainstream middle is almost gone. Contemporary mid-capacity motorcycles like the Suzuki SV650, Yamaha FZ6 Fazer, and Honda CB600F Hornet have been best sellers for decades, but their presence at EICMA was diminished, a reflection of their fading significance in most motorcycle markets in 2019.
Welcome our Motobot Overlords
Walking the 22 pavilions of EICMA was to experience market schizophrenia. American and most European brands doubled-down on rose-tinted retrospectives while many Asian brands and KTM looked ahead.
Ten years ago, electric motorcycles were oddities. Times change. It would not be an exaggeration to say nearly all commuter-class motorcycles and scooters at EICMA were EVs. Unlike their internal-combustion counterparts, electric two-wheelers explored new shapes and new architectures. I overheard the usual criticisms about them being “too different.” The original Vespa was labeled “ugly” and “bizarre” by the UK motorcycle press in the 1950s. Twenty years later, English brands were dying (or dead) while Vespa went on to define the scooter for the next half-century.
Skeptical about the Age of Electric? Think it's a fad? A passing fancy? The manufacturers of the world are totally on board. And electric propulsion is no longer an idea only suitable to low-power commuters.
Retro to go. Fuelled by photo-centric websites like bikeexif.com, the mania for all things retro shows no sign of weakening. The latest craze? Recycling the 1980s and 1990s.
Taiwanese giant KYMCO presented a naked version of the SuperNEX roadster that goes on sale in the spring, while Chinese brands like NIU and SuperSOCO expanded lineups. The upstarts represent the same threat to today’s mainstream brands that the Japanese posed to the incumbent Europeans in the 1960s.
Streaming versus Vinyl
A year ago, Indians were coming back from near extinction. The Indian brand garnered praise for the FTR1200 and India’s Royal Enfield sold a million air-cooled singles. It seemed the market had spoken. In an era where digital technology had taken over our economies and our relationships, traditional, analog motorcycles low on tech but big on character and personality were coveted.
Despite being alive thanks to one quasi-heritage model (the GS), BMW understands future success is not chained to the past. The same company that flouted the R18/2, an elongated chopper with a monstrous air-cooled boxer engine, placed the electric Vision DC concept centerstage. Radical in every way, from using the giant air-cooled battery pack as frame, integrating chopped carbon fibre tubes, and suggesting the old boxer engine in styling flourishes, the Vision DC made clear that BMW knows the heritage party is almost over.
India’s BS6 pollution standard, together with Europe's EU6 and China's anticipated ban on gasoline vehicles after 2030, means air-cooled internal combustion engines will lose 95 percent of the world’s market. There is no cheat or technical work around for this. The gas-powered era is coming to an end. For manufacturers, it means the qualities that people like about new-old motorcycles will need to be incorporated into the reality of electric propulsion.
“On weekends, I fly gliders,” said the pilot sitting next to me as we descended into Europe. “It's the most direct interaction you can have with a flying machine.” He described hurtling his tiny fibreglass glider into thermal updrafts in the Adirondack mountains and feeling the feedback throughout the delicate structure of the craft. “Is it risky?” I asked. “A little. But I have weather radar and GPS on board. And I don't have to be anywhere.”
Michael Uhlarik designed motorcycles for Yamaha (and others) and has reinvented himself as pundit, entrepreneur, and brand consultant. He's a modern man harvesting his catch from an idyllic Nova Scotia cabin.