NEC Birmingham Motorcycle Show

November 30, 2009
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

NEC Birmingham Motorcycle Show
Our British Editor Frank Melling pays a visit to the NEC Motorcycle and Scooter Show and finds the motorcycle industry is fighting through the harsh market conditions.

At one time, the International Motorcycle and Scooter Show in Birmingham, England, was one of the big events on the world circuit featuring a host of major bike launches and more motorcycling stars than you could fit into a large race paddock. Over the years, it has gradually declined with manufacturers preferring Cologne and Milan for new bike launches. Now, it may be at the forefront of the show scene once again – but for an interesting range of reasons.

For those of us who have been around the bike industry for a long time we were lucky enough to be treated to some real razzamatazz events. Superstar riders, glitzy dancers, beautiful show girls and all the glamour of a Hollywood event. It took two minutes at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre to realize that these days were well and truly finished.

It wasn’t so much the total absence of manufacturers such as HondaHarley-Davidson and Aprilia – plus the scores of smaller bike producers – but rather the fact that what was there was strictly utilitarian. KTM’s stand – one of the most attractive at the show – comes from Austria, is built almost instantly – and then goes back to Austria for the next show. Clearly, the days of the great, gleaming chrome bedecked edifices are gone – probably forever.

Now, maybe 80% – or even more – of the exhibitors are retailers who don’t so much want to promote their products as sell goods on the day. As one manufacturer/retailer said to me, “PR and brand awareness is great – but taking a credit card payment is a bloody sight better in the current economic climate.”

Even manufacturers want to chase those elusive dollars. Everywhere I turned there was branded clothing, watches and even cell phone cases on sale. Ducati had more space devoted to retail clothing through one of their commercial partners than they did for displaying bikes.

Does the absence of the marketing flim-flam affect anything? You could visit the Birmingham show and talk to hyper-knowledgeable manufacturer’s staff who could tell you absolutely everything you ever needed, or wanted, to know about the bike you are considering purchasing. You can sit on at least some of the bikes you might want to buy and examine a vast range of the latest clothing. In fact, if you are already a committed biker, then the Birmingham show was very good.

Norton Commando Sport
Norton motorcycles wows the crowd with their new Commando Sport.

The problem was, and is, that the industry is eating its own seed corn. If you were a 25-year-old jet ski owner and thinking of leaving the cold British seas and joining the bike world, there was nothing to get you giggly excited about the prospect. If you were a woman ready to get your first motorcycle, there was a lack of enthusiastic female riders to bring you into the fold. If you were returning to bikes after a long period away raising kids there was little to enthuse you into spending $10,000 to get back into riding.

Maybe basic is the new way forward – or perhaps it is the beginning of the end. The next three years will tell.

But I am a motorcyclist and I had a fantastic time. The clear, utter and outstanding #1 of the show was the Norton stand. Norton Managing Director Stuart Garner has done a fantastic job in getting Norton back to life and the new 961 Commandos really are something special. They look absolutely drop-dead gorgeous and tread the line between state of the art and classic in a truly wonderful way.

Norton Commando Sport Motor
The show stopping engine of the Norton Commando Sport.

The Norton stand was packed solid every time I passed it and Stuart summed up his experience on the second day of the ten days. “We’ve achieved everything we wanted to achieve in two days. We could go home now and consider the show a complete success.”

I would have one now even if there was nothing in the engine and gearbox – it’s just so beautiful. Expect the Commando to be landing in the US towards the back end of next year. If you want one during 2010 you had better contact Norton at now because the bikes are absolutely certain to sell out.

Another gorgeous bike was the new Triumph Rocket III Roadster. I promise that this story is not a PR piece for the British bike industry but the Rocket III was a “must own” bike for me – and I don’t even like custom bikes.

The Rocket III is immensely huge – like a massive, alien motorcycle which has just arrived for the Terminator to ride. Triumph had their show bike in a true black black which is blacker than an artificial black has any right to be. It was topped off with six-feet-deep chrome and goodness me, I could soon see me joining Bryan Harley and the cruiser fans at MCUSA. And with 146 hp at the back wheel and 163 lb-ft of torque it will be like putting a saddle on a fit and frisky Diplodocus. Oh yes, Santa, please.

Yamaha Tenere
Yamaha’s XT660Z Ténéré (or “Ten”) touring bike was away from the spotlight at the show but with a reputation like the Ten has; it would appear it should have been at the top of a rotating Aztec temple with gold stairs.

Being slightly more sensible – well much more grown up actually – there was the bike of the show on the Yamaha display. Tucked away at the back of the Yamaha stand, well distant from the glare of publicity was the utterly outstanding XT660Z Ténéré. The 660cc, ultra-short Single, is one of the world’s great motorcycles. Despite producing only 48 hp, the “Ten” will cruise all day at 90 mph and will laugh off a trip from Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego as a mere amble down to the shopping mall. It is astonishingly good on the tarmac and amazingly competent off-road too – as well as being unbreakable.

Finally, it looks fantastic – especially with the full adventure touring kit. If I had only one bike for touring, recreational and business use the mighty “Ten” would be it. Yamaha should have had it on a gold-plated, revolving podium being worshipped by the knowledgeable rather than hidden away like the tie you received from your colorblind aunt for Christmas. What a motorcycle!

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