Single Track Mind: Staying Honest

MotorcycleUSA Staff | April 17, 2015
There is always a danger for fat, bald, old wrinklies like me to start looking at the “Good Old Days,” when men were men and sheep were happy to join in the fun, and begin editing the truth.

I remember when I was first married and we finally saved up enough money to buy a TV which showed colored pictures. After the 12-inch screen had warmed up, I had to amble slowly around our front room, holding up a V-shaped aerial, until I found the one sweet spot where the TV stopped flickering. Now that was real state-of-the-art technology at the time – and it was dreadful.

Nowhere is this longing for the bucolic past of empty roads, sweet smelling hedgerows, cops without speed guns and the booming rasp of sporting, single-cylinder motorcycles more apparent than the bike world.

Let’s not re-write history. Though lauded as an ideal entry machine into the world of classic motorcycling, the BSA Bantam will maybe top out at 50 mph. Plus it doesn’t handle and hardly stops.

Yes, it is true that you could ride your Gold Star or Venom Thruxton flat out through the mountains and never see a car for hours on end. However, this idyll was for the few – the very few indeed. For 99.5% of motorcyclists, Goldies, Velos and hot Bonnevilles were as far distant as walking on the moon alongside Neil Armstrong. Most of us had truly dreadful bikes which were slow, handled badly, didn’t stop and had the life expectancy of an ice-cream parked in Death Valley during August.

More than anything else the Japanese succeeded because they democratized motorcycling, in a way which the British failed to do. Rock up at your Honda dealer with $660 in 1963 and you could ride away on a 305cc Super Hawk which would take you the length of the USA without ever missing a beat. No PhD in starting techniques required; no votive offerings to the God of Electrics so that you would still have lights after dark; no staring at the tach with an eagle eye, for fear of over-revving the engine and destroying it. None of these black arts were necessary to use a Honda. Simply open the gas tap, flick down the choke lever, press the electric starter button – and ride off into the distance.

Today, motorcycles are truly wonderful and I still have a teenager’s delight in the wonder of quickshifters, sticky tires and brakes which actually work when you want to use them instead of needing to coax them into life.

In short, I hope that I am an honest observer of the motorcycling world and can both see, and tell, the truth. It is this desire to be honest which is currently causing me some real angst.

Just at the moment, I am becoming completely hacked off with two things. First is the re-writing of history. There now seems to be an epidemic of history re-drafts and this really does need to come to an end. Maybe it is because those writing the new stories were not even a twinkle in their Daddy’s eye when classic bikes were originally around, or perhaps it is because of the extremely high value of many old bikes today which puts them beyond criticism, but the facts are being grossly and severely misrepresented.

Take the BSA Bantam for example, which is currently being lauded as the ideal entry machine into the world of classic motorcycling. One of its attractions is that, at a mere $3000 – $4000, early Bantams are considered affordable. The Bantam, ripped off from the pre-war DKW RT125 as part of war reparations, was already nine years old when BSA put it into production in 1948. When brand new, cruising speed was around 35 mph with a top speed of maybe 50 mph – at which point the fillings fell out of your teeth and your retinas detached, so bad was the vibration.

The Bantam didn’t handle and didn’t stop either. Finally, Bantamisti carried a bottle of oil around with them to make pre-mix fuel at every gas stop. In short, the Bantam was an appalling motorcycle – and this is an honest description.

Equally, a Bantam was an utter God sent thing of wonder compared with walking or catching a bus. To have your own, independent transport which would travel at 30 mph was a thing of wonder. Mixing oil with gas an inconvenience? Don’t be silly! How much better was this chore than standing in line waiting for a bus or trudging home through the pouring rain for an hour? This is honest too.

The Gold Star will hit the pocket book hard, but offers sublime handling, an evocative motor and excellent brakes.

At the other end of the scale, the DBD34 Gold Star – currently arriving at your garage door for a mere $15,000 – $18,000 – is an utterly fabulous bike with sublime handling, a powerful, evocative motor and excellent brakes. A good Goldie has a genuine 105 mph performance and handling as sweet as a Manx Norton. This is all true.

It is equally accurate to state that a quick Gold Star is an absolute swine of a thing to start, won’t tickover and requires a top class mechanic to keep it running sweetly. Again, all this is fact.

I wish that reportage told the true story of the bike, more or less at least, pointing out its weaknesses and foibles as well as its strengths.

So this brings us to the current situation of dishonesty and this is no more apparent than the numerous “tribute” classics which are being produced and sold to people who don’t know any better.

If you take a dull as ditchwater Chinese engine and install it in a crude, graceless, home-built frame, then add a few bits and pieces from a Chinese wholesaler’s catalog this does not make the bike a classic – or even an homage to a classic. The result is an utter mess which is no more than a confidence trick. Worse still, the prospective purchaser will not get any idea of the pleasure of riding a classic motorcycle because these abominations, which seem to be proliferating like weeds in spring, have none of the thoroughbred magnificence of a DBD 34 Gold Star nor even the humble honesty and fun of a Bantam. They are neither fish nor fowl and quite simply lack integrity.

Wikked Steel living up to its name.
Joe Hensley built The Knockout Cancer Bike to honor the people around him and others who have lost the battle with the horific disease.
The 2015 Street Glide Special benefits from the High Output Twin Cam 103 engine and Reflex Linked braking system.
Custom bikes, like the two above, may be impractical but they are honest. As are the long, low cruisers that don’t pretend to be anything they’re not.

As a personal preference, I don’t like custom bikes. For better, and on many occasions very much for the worse, I have racing hardwired into my brain and so I like fast motorcycles – from any era – which are lithe and anthropomorphic.

However, I have no problem with creations which are impractical, such as those my esteemed colleague Bryan Harley reports on from custom shows. Clearly, something with no fenders, a saddle made out of Armadillo eyelashes and a seat 12” from the floor is not going to be the perfect vehicle for mountain roads. But so what? The custom bikes are honest. They honestly say that the builder has exercised his, or her, fantasies and superimposed them onto something with two wheels vaguely associated with a motorcycle. They are what they are and all credit to them.

The same applies to the cruiser motorcycles which Bryan likes so much. They revel in being low, long and knee deep in bling so you can hardly criticize them for not having sufficient power to pull their enormous weight out of bed on a Sunday morning or having handling like a hippo which has just been thrown out of his local slimming club for bringing a triple cheese burger and a hamper sized helping of fries to the therapy sessions. That’s what they are – fat, slow, ill-handling, and bling-ridden but they don’t pretend to be anything else so I have no problems with the genre.

It is my love of motorcycling purity which puts me in sympathy with certain retro bikes. My favorite, by an enormous margin, is the utterly delightful Ducati Scrambler range. These bikes are so honest that they could be giving evidence before the Supreme Court. The engines are simple and lively, and the chassis is perfect for a 75 hp engine. They are light, slim, fun and everything that a modern classic should be. And, as an aside, they are selling like chilled water at Laguna Seca – those were the days!

I am almost as sympathetic to the Royal Enfield Bullet. If you are prepared to tolerate performance which is purely symbolic, then the Enfield is excellent. The chassis is superb – as it ought to be, coming from Harris Performance who have made more examples of the Matchless G.50 frame than AMC ever did during the 1960s. The Bullet has half decent suspension and stops well, too. Not that there is much chance of ever needing to stop with only 29 hp available.

As a quasi-tribute to the original RE Continental, the Indian bike also looks okay. No one is pretending that it is a Goldie or a G.50, so everyone is happy – including me.

Where I get completely hacked off is with bikes like the Triumph Bonneville. An original Bonny was light, slim, agile and handled like a thoroughbred. Remember, a road going Bonneville – albeit a works prepared one – got round the Isle of Man TT course at over 100 mph. In its 1968 form, the Bonneville is one of the great motorcycles of all time.

The 1968 Triumph Bonneville, like the one above, is one of the greatest motorcycles of all time.

Triumph then took this iconic name, and in an act of blatant misrepresentation tagged it onto a not very good cruiser. I foam at the mouth when I hear modern Bonneville riders, whose tires are worn one inch either side of the center line, telling the world that their Bonny is just like the real thing. No it’s not: stop deluding yourself!

By contrast, look what Honda have done with their utterly sublime CB1100EX a bike which is every bit a true, great grandchild of the original CB750 while being completely up to date. This is a real modern classic.

So should you have a classic and/or a retro bike? For my money, yes. The problem with a modern sportbike is that it will either get you killed or jailed. I recently did two laps on last year’s R1 (on a track I should stress) and to get the engine working smoothly and happily I changed from first gear to second at a speedo-indicated 90 mph – and the motor was just whispering along at these speeds. On the shortish straight at Anglesey, I briefly saw 145 mph on the speedo and, again, the bike was cruising. This is too much of everything for road use.

Classics are fantastic but they are now old mechanical things and prone to breaking: that’s another honest statement too. They are also getting harder to repair and to keep running. As I write there is, no doubt, someone successfully traversing the Gobi Desert on a 1929 Triumph NSD and all credit to them. However, for most of us classics have to be used irregularly and thoughtfully. I try not to even think about all the major castings on our Seeley Suzuki race bike, which are now 47 years old and are being put through stresses which Suzuki’s Hamamatsu foundry never thought that they could endure even when they were brand new.

So what’s the answer? For me, it is to look at the late 1980s and 1990s. In this period, you can find plenty of bikes which have all the intimate involvement which classics provide but with the convenience and ease of use of modern bikes. These bikes are also simple, relatively, to fix.

Like all markets, prices do vary widely but there are still some truly affordable machines out there. At very top end of the scale, if you want a mint Honda RC45 you had better be ready to write out your check for anything up to $50,000 but the good news is that an RC30, which is just as exotic, is more affordable at around $20,000. Both these homologation specials are things of wonder but if you start looking down the ecological ladder a little, things really do start to become very welcoming for the ordinary motorcyclist.

The BMW R90S is truly a thing of beauty and will cruise all day, two-up, at 90 mph. It’s engine is simple to fix and there are ample supplies of spare parts available.

For example, there are plenty of wonderful BMW Flat Twins available in the form of the R75, R90 and R100. I have excluded the R65 because it is a bit asthmatic. My favorite is the 75 – although the sexiest manifestation of the air-cooled Boxer Twin is the 90S, which is truly a thing of beauty and will cruise all day, two-up, at 90 mph. These BMW Flat Twins are simple to fix, with ample supplies of spares, and will laugh off a 3000-mile trip as if it is a five-mile hop into town.

One of the best late classic motorcycles out there has to be the Suzuki Bandit. The bargain price is fantastic and the potential is limitless.
One of the best late classic motorcycles out there has to be the Suzuki Bandit. The bargain price is fantastic and the potential is limitless.

However, my favorite of all these late classics is the great unsung hero, and therefore most dramatic of all bargains, the Suzuki Bandit.

A really nice, oil-cooled, carburetor Bandit – the 600 is fine for recreational riding although the 1200 really will bring a bigger smile to your face – can be bought for $3000. You can then take the bike in whatever direction you wish – café racer, streetfighter, classic rep or tourer or just leave the Bandit standard because Suzuki did a great job straight off the showroom floor. The Bandits steer a treat, the motors are utterly bombproof and aesthetics are fine, too. Both the 1200 and the 600 are pussycat affectionate in terms of rideability and still have ample get up and go in the right circumstances – and if you’re feeling lucky in terms of not having your license suspended.

Or you could spend double or triple that money for a fake classic, powered by an engine which would be embarrassed in a lawnmower. I rest my case, your Honor. As in every part of life, honesty is the best policy.