2013 Birmingham Bike Show Report

December 3, 2013
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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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.

My wife Carol and I were walking round the Birmingham bike show and one of our long-time friends in the bike trade asked us what we thought of the show. The question was a complete non sequitur. If you take a crack addict to a cocaine farm, what do you expect him to say? I’ll have a glass of freshly-pressed orange juice please and I’ll pass on the white powder…

The Birmingham bike show is not what it once was. Cologne, Tokyo and Milan are the big hitters internationally. At one time I used to have a bit of a bottom lip trembling sulk for the glorious days of the British Empire, when the Birmingham show ruled the world, but these days I don’t. Now, Birmingham is much smaller physically than the international giants of the bike show world but I am becoming increasingly fond of its intimacy. Birmingham is for British motorcycling junkies and every bike addict in the country was there – and we had a great time.

First, there was nothing new or startling at the show but goodness me I wanted to buy a lottery ticket because there were a lot of bikes which you just had to have in your garage.

I’m going to start with a bike which, if the spec sheet was the only item to be considered, wouldn’t get a mention: it’s the Royal Enfield Continental GT. The clever thing is not the 29 horsepower the 535cc (87.0 x 90.0mm) engine produces but rather that Royal Enfield have produced a tribute to the original, 1960s Royal Enfield and got it right.

This is a much, much harder task than one might imagine because there are some truly horrible messes on sale using iconic classic names.

However, European Sales Manager Vikas Gautam said that Royal Enfield was utterly determined to get the GT right in the center of the target. Vikas said: “We had, and have, an original Continental in our office so we knew exactly what we had to do to get the bike right – and also what we had to avoid.”

Big bling - Triumph Thunderbird LT.
Big bling – Triumph Thunderbird LT.

Critically, Royal Enfield turned to British designers to make the project work. Harris Engineering make most of the world’s Matchless G.50 frames and so understand exactly how to make a steel chassis for a classic Single. In fact, the RE frame looks very G.50. Xenophya Design, another British company, got the styling absolutely right.

Detractors say the Continental is slow – expect around 85mph on the best of good days – but so what? It’s beautifully finished, will handle a treat with the Harris frame and is guaranteed to be reliable. Critically, at $7200 it is affordable to have in your garage just for Sunday runs.

I was a Matchless G.50 owner – the best motorcycle in the world – and I am of the classic era. Even with this wealth of knowledge, or hang ups depending on how you view experience, I would be happy, actually proud, of having this bike in my garage. It’s a little peach.

Another bike I could, sort of at least, imagine having in the Melling super shed would be Triumph’s Thunderbird LT. Well probably not, because the bit of my brain which should empathize with cruisers doesn’t seem to work very well.

Star billing on the Triumph stand was given to the Thunderbird LT. Now in practical terms this is a silly motorcycle. There are better ways of making a touring motorcycle than a 1700cc Parallel Twin weighing 836 pounds. However, in Triumph’s eyes there are no better ways of making a Harley-beating cruiser than a 1700cc Twin weighing 836 pounds.

Triumph chassis designer Chris Jackson explained. “This has been a high priority project at Triumph for a number of years.

“We were never going to beat Harley with the Rocket III – fabulous bike though it is.

“Harley had, and has, the V-Twin heritage and we had, and have, the Parallel Twin history. To beat the Harley Road King we needed a Parallel Twin.

“However, we wanted to make a better bike than the Road King in every respect. We wanted the Thunderbird to go better, stop better and handle better than the Road King and yet still have the same physical presence which Harleys do so well.

I bet you would get cold riding in that vest - even on a Ducati Monster.
I bet you would get cold riding in that vest – even on a Ducati Monster.

“With 94horsepower and 115lb-ft of torque at only 3500 rpm the Thunderbird really does go well and the chassis handles too.

“We think that this is the most credible opposition Harley has ever faced in America and for this reason it is an immensely important bike for us.”

No matter how lukewarm you feel about cruisers, you have to stand back in admiration because it really is a class cruiser act. The Thunderbird is a million miles away from “Metric Cruisers” and I guarantee that the first time one appears in the flesh in America it will be a real show stopper. Perish the thought, it looks so good I might actually ride one!

The intimacy and friendliness of the Birmingham show means that industry insiders talk surprisingly freely. I was chatting to a long time, and very successful, Harley dealer and, knowing my opinion of cruisers, he made an interesting comment.

“Whatever you think about Harleys, their residual values are awesome. We took an almost new Moto Guzzi California in part exchange and believe me, the bloke blew his brains out. We had to sell it in the trade and not even Moto Guzzi dealers wanted to make us a bid on it except at silly money.

“Financially, if you want a cruiser then the only one you can afford to own is a Harley.”

It will be interesting to see how the new T’Bird stacks up in terms of residual values.

If Triumph has placed a big bet on the T’Bird being a success then Suzuki has got an awful lot staked on the new V-Strom 1000.

Suzuki dealers have a lot riding on the new V-Strom 1000.
Suzuki dealers have a lot riding on the new V-Strom 1000.

This is a bike I really do want to like. It is lighter than the old “Thou”, produces more torque at lower rpm and test riders are getting around 55 miles to a US gallon. Apparently 250 miles on a tank is straightforward.

From the rider’s point of view, the bike feels narrow and, although this is almost an oxymoron with the weight and size of current bikes, small.

Carol likes the ‘Strom too because it has a large, curved and very female friendly saddle and this is important because we ride together a lot more than I ride alone.

In typical Suzuki fashion, it is a very, very accurately targeted machine. Critically, it is the cheapest of the super trailies – and by some margin. It is certain to be an inferior bike to the opposition in almost every respect but that comment needs to be seen in perspective.

If you want to win Pikes Peak then a Multistrada is the answer. For a Rallye Raid then look to KTM. However, for the 98% of us who want to go to normal places at normal speeds – and then come home – the V-Strom might well be the answer.

There are also some really nice touches. For example, the seat is anti-slip material and the screen has a clever range of adjustments. The front brake was always marginal on the old bike and the new ‘Strom has radial calipers whizzed from the GSX-R1000. The sum of all these practical, sensible engineering improvements is why V-Stroms sell.

The only two things I don’t like are the exposed oil filter stuck out at the front of the engine and the horrendously ugly silencer. Suzuki reckons that the oil filter is fully protected by the new, longer front mudguard but even so I like the plastic guard from the old “Thou”.

As for the silencer, this is inept beyond belief. Every other manufacturer can make something which looks aesthetically pleasing but Suzuki have just stuck on a big, rectangular, matt finish box which is asking to get smashed in even the most minor off. It’s a real shame because the rest of bike is quite a looker but no doubt the good folk at Akrapovic are rubbing their hands in anticipation of the sales.

The Honda CBR1000RR SP is one of the most beautiful bikes to come out of Japan in years.
The Honda CBR1000RR SP is one of the most beautiful bikes to come out of Japan in years.

Even so, I can’t wait to test ride the new “Thou” in the spring and perhaps the performance will be such that buying a new silencer won’t be such a big deal.

Interestingly, the Suzuki Dealer Manager with whom I was chatting – a hugely experienced industry lifer – was quite blunt about the “Thou”. “My dealers want this bike more than they want a new Gixxer. Sport bike sales are flat and more sport bike riders than ever are migrating to big trail bikes.

“We have been really pleased with the number of pre-launch orders for the new bike and I think that Suzuki have got it right again.”

A company which has hit the nail right on the head is Honda with its new CBR1000RR SP. Oh, how I ache to own this bike. It’s a Fireblade with a factory blueprinted engine – that’s 178 horsepower at the back wheel, Sir – and a totally re-mapped ECU for more mid-range and top-end power.

Then there’s full-on Ohlin suspension, front and back, monobloc Brembo front calipers and a ton of other toys. And the paintwork…

This bike is so beautiful that you feel faint standing next to it is and so cheap too at $22,500 – which explains two things. First, all Honda UK’s allocation of 200 bikes has been pre sold.

Second, the bulk of these bikes will never see the track or even the road.

Yamaha MT09 - maybe supplying a non-existent market.
The new Yamaha MT09 is all dark art and urban chic.
(Above) Yamaha MT09 – maybe supplying a non-existent market. (Below) The new Yamaha MT09 is all dark art and urban chic.

The word on the street is that they are being snapped up not even by collectors but by investors who see a guaranteed return on their investment. For me, Honda should install a self-destruct device so that the ‘Blade SP bursts into flames if it doesn’t do 250 track miles a year.

Another spectacular bike, but in a different way, is Yamaha’s MT09 Triple (the FZ-09 for you Americans). The motor in this bike is fantastic – a tiny Triple which has quality written all over it. The promo video is brilliant too. Wolves, snow and Vale; how can you not like this? The problem is what Yamaha have done with the engine.

The big pitch – and it is big too because it dominated the Yamaha stand at Birmingham – is that the MT09 and the twin-cylinder MT07 will sell to a street fighter/urban chic market. In Japan, this is a very vociferous, high profile – but tiny – segment but Yamaha seem to have bought into the concept royally.

In the real world, the MT09, and its sister the MT07, are narrow, light and impractical for anything except, well, urban chic.

This reminds me of the situation if you go to a major, international, classic race event. There the talk is completely of Manx Nortons, G.50s and Triumph Triples, so much so that you would think that everyone either owns a classic race bike – or aspires to do so. The truth is that they don’t – nor will they ever shell out $65,000 for a G.50.

Suzuki targets its bikes very accurately at what the customer wants to buy. Harley is very good at this too. I wonder if Yamaha has made a pair of brilliant bikes for a market which doesn’t exist?

The Ducati 899 Panigale is stunning - the color scheme is merely okay.
The Ducati 899 Panigale is stunning – the color scheme is merely okay.

By contrast, Ducati has made the 899 Panigale for a market which does exist and in doing so there is a tacit admission that the 1199 Panigale is really only in the Ducati catalogue for World Superbike homologation purposes.

Do not, under any circumstances, think of the 899 as a “beginner’s Superbike”. With a mere 148 horsepower, and probably only 175 mph performance, this is hardly the machine to graduate from directly after you have completed your initial rider training.

On the contrary, I can’t think of a situation – road or track – where I would prefer the 1199. It’s got the full box of Ducati electronic toys – including a quickshifter – and an equally lavish specification in terms of chassis and engine, right down to the slipper clutch.

The only fault with the bike is that it lacks a killer paint job. It’s not that the standard Ducati red is bad but, rather, it would have been great to see this machine in the iconic Tricolore colors or something edgy and stylish. Still, don’t bother wrapping it – I’ll take the 899 just as it is to put along the alongside the Honda ‘Blade SP.

Ducati also pointed the way to an interesting trend. The brand now sees itself very much in Mercedes, Audi, Jaguar, Gucci, Chanel country. The Ducati staff are still bike nuts but their stand was all minimalist white with impeccably dressed staff and not a bare tummy in sight. This is an aspirational brand for people with money in their pockets.

The Knox Aegis back protector locates the padding instantly so you know the protectors are always in optimum position.
The Knox Aegis back protector locates the padding instantly so you know the protectors are always in optimum position.

Interestingly, there was almost a complete absence of Cal Crutchlow either physically or graphically. I would have expected Ducati to have had Cal bolted to their stand for every minute of the show and for there to be Ducati GP bikes on every corner but no, only Cal’s image was there and then ever so discreetly. In view of the Englishman’s popularity, and Birmingham being his home turf, his absence was a bit odd. I wonder why?

Finally, a mention to one of the most useful products I saw on sale: the Knox track vest. I am a big fan of Knox equipment and I race in a Knox Aegis back protector. This clever idea takes the Aegis back protector and incorporates it into what the company calls their Track vest.

The advantage of the system is that the vest, which also has some light padding on the front, locates the back protector very accurately so, instead of having to juggle the protector around to get it in precisely the correct place, it locates instantly.

The last ten minutes before a race are tense times so I am looking forward to being able zip up the vest and be 100% certain that the back protector is in the optimum position. I’ll let you know how I get on when it’s warm enough to go near a track again.


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