Birmingham Bike Show Report 2015

Frank Melling | December 3, 2015

Birmingham 2015 – Retro Rules

Although the Birmingham bike show is supposed to be the big stage for manufacturers to put their whole range of products before the large, wealthy and well-developed British market, this year’s event could well have been re-named Moto Retro so strong was the event biased away from performance motorcycles and back to…

Back to what?

For 100% certain if customers at Birmingham had been offered a genuine classic they would have run a mile. Regardless of what classic bike fans might tell you, old motorcycles are – generally speaking – a complete waste of time unless you want to spend a lot of time playing with them in your garage and are prepared to ride them very gently – and not very often.

But the difficulty of owning and riding a real classic is not the only reason for the burgeoning Retro bike scene. There are a number of factors explaining the huge growth in this sector and once you get industry insiders talking freely their analysis is extremely interesting.

First, a modern performance motorcycle is simply too much for the vast majority of motorcyclists. One Press Officer, who didn’t want to be quoted under any circumstances, reckoned that not many more than one in a thousand of the purchasers of his marque’s hyper sports bike could ride the motorcycle at the top end of its performance envelope. This needs stressing. 99.9% of the owners of this near 200mph Superbike can’t use it effectively.

2015 Birmingham Bike Show

Bimota are famed for their supersports bikes but here’s their take on the cafe race theme.

I would be one of them. I still race competitively and would, by normal standards, be considered somewhat more than competent in terms of riding a motorcycle but a current Superbike simply overwhelms me – even on the track.

Not only is there too much outright performance but there is also a plethora of technology and much of this detracts from the riding experience. If you are Jonathan Rea, you really can tell the difference that two clicks on the rear damper pre-load makes – but the same infinite amount of available adjustment is simply wasted on the rest of us.

The next problem is the way in which the current generation of motorcyclists become riders. You can now learn to ride in a very short time and be given access to bikes which are vastly superior to your novice ability. There is no longer the lengthy apprenticeship of working your way up through riding dog slow wrecks which could break your heart but not your body. Now, every bike is good and even machines designed for beginner riders, like the 47 hp European A2 machines, are fast enough to take on a track.

Another element in the Retro matrix is the age of riders. Older motorcyclists generally, if not universally, do not want to ride on public roads with their knees dragging on the deck. They want a simpler, more accessible, life-style type of experience where performance is secondary to the sheer pleasure of riding.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in a world where we all are forced to conform by outside influences which we largely do not understand, there is a yearning – a soul searching aching – for individual expression. We all want to do something which does not require a password or someone else’s App. We want to be ourselves.

2015 Birmingham Bike Show

Even kids bikes have gone retro.

And into this perfect storm is marching Retro motorcycles.

One of the most interesting characters in the British motorcycle scene is Ducati’s Press Officer, Alan Jones, who has a wonderfully open view of what he can say to the media. Interestingly, shockingly even, Alan – who has access to all the exotica Ducati manufacture – bought a Scrambler with his own money. He explains: “I live in a city center and I was actually going to buy a scooter to get around on – but I just couldn’t stand the thought! So, I bought a Scrambler and it’s brilliant.

“It’s such a simple, involving bike and I love riding it. I don’t need to get my leathers on to ride and, just as important, I don’t need to get mentally prepared, as I do before I ride a Panigale.

“The Scrambler is such a joyful thing that it reminds me of why I want to ride bikes.”

The Scrambler is also big business for Ducati in Britain with the bike accounting for 37% of sales. As with all Retro bikes, the actual motorcycle is only the tip of the iceberg. Accessories, clothing and associated merchandise are a goldmine. How much R&D time do you have to spend on making a retro t-shirt?

Triumph have really put an immense amount of effort into the new Bonneville range. Their largest ever design team has been dedicated to the new bikes over a four year period.

Bruno Tagliaferri, Triumph’s National Sales Manager, explained why. “The first Bonneville we produced has been a very important product for us with 20,000 bikes sold. Now, there is an even bigger sales potential which we think will be in the region of 50,000 machines.

2015 Birmingham Bike Show

The new Bonneville sets the standard for retro bikes.

“We wanted a new Bonneville to give existing Bonneville riders a reason to change their bikes, and to bring in new customers.

“We also wanted to draw on the unique Meriden (Triumph’s original post war factory on the outskirts of Coventry) heritage which no other manufacturer can access. Meriden Bonnevilles were the best production racing machines of their day and we wanted to capture this heritage in the new bikes. This is why we have taken so much time to get bike right and to get the detailing absolutely exceptional.

“The reception has been better than we could have hoped for. The first 2500 bikes are all pre-sold and it won’t be a case of going into a dealer and saying can I have this color or that color, but more have you got any Bonneville you can sell to me?

“The new bike will have a long life and the target is to sell over 50,000 Bonnevilles. What is interesting for us is that by far the strongest sellers in the range are the Thruxton Bonnevilles. Riders want a traditionally styled sports bike but with modern performance and this is just what the Thruxtons deliver.”

It seemed that everywhere one looked there was someone climbing on to the Retro bandwagon. Virtually the whole of the Moto Guzzi stand was devoted to Retro bikes and some of them were really tasty. The problem for Guzzi, BMW, Harley and everyone else chasing Retro dollars is that Triumph have really raised the stakes. It’s no longer going to be good enough just to put some high level pipes and a shortened fender on a bike and say that it’s a “Classic”. Triumph have shown that you can make a bike which really does look like a genuine classic in terms of styling, look and feel – whilst at the same time being thoroughly modern. Now, everyone else is going to have to take a quantum step forward to keep up with the British bikes.

Those manufacturers who don’t have a conventional Retro bike – if that’s not an oxymoron – are still in the hunt for the same sort of customers – they’re just following a slightly different route. MV Agusta reached an agreement with Lewis Hamilton to produce a special edition of their Dragster RR. You can see the promo video here.

The synergy is to be expected since AMG is a Mercedes brand and they own 25% of MV. For those of you who aren’t car racing fans, Lewis is this year’s F1 World Champion and is one of the most highly recognized sportsmen on the planet. The brand prestige this has given MV is immense.

Lewis is something of a bike fan and so worked with MV to personalize a standard Dragster RR with a load of carbon fiber and a trick paint job. And now for two things you didn’t know – but which might prove useful if you ever bump into Lewis in the airport VIP lounge and want to make polite conversation.

First, the red color on the frame – please forgive me Lewis for calling it red when I’m sure that it has a name far more exotic and interesting – is taken from young Mr. Hamilton’s $30 million Bombardier Challenger 605 private jet whilst the MV’s white is lifted from Lewis’ helmet.

A mere $8500 on top of the Dragster’s base price of $17,000 will bring you into this exclusive club of being quasi best mates with a world champion.

2015 Birmingham Bike Show

MV Lewis Hamilton Dragster RR, an awful lot of bling for $25,000.

Now many of us rooty-tooty, pass me a new set of knee sliders, hard core bikers would sneer at the thought of paying even an extra 10 cents to have a bike approved by a car racer. However, MV have pre-sold the entire production run for the simple reason that $25,500, or thereabouts, is paper clip money for something as exclusive as the Hamilton Dragster which, almost as a by-product, just happens to be a very good motorcycle.

When a posh watch costs $12,000 – and is available to anyone with a sufficiently robust credit card – then double that price for something like the Hamilton Dragster actually starts to look like a real bargain.

The same logic applies to Bimota – and yes, even this archetypal, hard core sports company is going Retro – with their wonderfully quirky Café Racer which sells for around $40,000. In bling terms, this is not expensive.

Retro will be king for 2016 but there are other ways to reach this aspirational and inspirational market and Honda is following one with the all new Africa Twin. I was lucky enough to chat with John Hensman who did some of the test and promotional riding for the new bike in the Moroccan desert. His comments were fascinating.

“The bike is really good off road – absolutely brilliant. The ad people wanted some pictures right in the desert, in the red sand, and so we took the bikes right out there. Except for some serious off-road tires, they were standard.

2015 Birmingham Bike Show

Honda’s Africa Twin was aspirational , complete with genuine face sand and authentic polystyrene boulders. The Africa Twin was the real deal though.

“I had never ridden a bike with a full sequential gearbox in deep sand before and it was incredible. The bikes were getting themselves out of situations you wouldn’t have thought possible for such a big, well-equipped machine.

“They are also tough. We crashed them a lot doing the pictures and they kept on going. Believe me, these are full on adventure bikes which will go anywhere.”

The Africa Twin is being sold as a 70/30 bike – a machine which is biased towards true dirt bike riding – the 70% – with the ability to be a good road bike for the other 30% of the time.
Speaking to Honda’s PR Manager, Dave Rogers, I found this to be a bizarre train of thought when everyone knows that the dirtiest most AT bikes ever get is when they are ridden across a newly mown verge at the side of the road. Then Dave explained:

“The key thing about the Africa Twin is that it is capable of realizing your dreams. When you have finished work, and taken the dog for a walk and come back from your kids’ parents’ evening you can ride the Africa Twin out into the desert and bivouac under the stars. You really can. You might not ever get round to it but the bike will be there to let you do it the moment you are ready.

“It’s aimed squarely at cash rich, middle-aged men looking for the next new toy. They’re fed up with their $5000 mountain bike and can see old age coming round the corner but the Africa Twin can give them an open door to something new and exciting. All they’ve got to do is to walk through it.”

The motorcycle industry has now become, almost entirely, one enormous dream factory – and with all the benefits of not ingesting a single molecule of illegal narcotic substance. These are exciting times!

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Frank Melling

Contributing Editor |Articles | 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.

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