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When Did Motorcycles Get So Ugly?
Let’s get this out of the way, shall we? I’m 54 years old.
I don’t know how this happened. Various lifestyle choices along the way made it unlikely that I would ever write that sentence.
But here I am and I have with me a half-century of experience: bitter lessons learned too late; golden opportunities missed and petty prejudices that have turned into twisted reasoning.
Now you know this, you have some context in which to place the blog posts you see with my name on them – bookmark them in the folder marked ‘old git’. I’m here to inform and entertain but it’s likely that I will also irritate and exasperate. The views expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of my sponsors.
I’ve ridden motorcycles all my life. My schoolboy field bikes included a stripped-bare Lambretta; I learned to ride on a Yamaha FS1-E and I passed my test on an unrestricted 250 Kawasaki – the only bike I ever bought brand new.
I owned a Yamaha RD400, A Honda CB750 F1, a Kawasaki Z1R and a radically chopped 650 Triumph. During my years at sea I managed to borrow bikes to ride around Sweden and Australia. Writing about the Australian adventure led to a journalism career and a swinging time as editor of Britain’s biggest bike mag.
For a few years everything I rode was borrowed, until I left the magazine and took my Zephyr 1100 with me. Nobody seemed to mind. Now I have an immaculate 1997 Triumph Speed Triple, a rare 750, in my garage. And if there are still bikes to be borrowed, that’s where the Triumph stays between October and March.
That’s me – a middle-aged, stiff-limbed, fair weather biker who likes to bang on about the old days. If you’re still reading then it’s time to get to the point of the article, the title that caught your eye in the first place.
I was wandering round a motorcycle showroom on Saturday morning when two thoughts struck me. First, what a nice environment the local bike shop has become – all pot plants, flat screen tellies and decent coffee. It’s all a far cry from the damp-smelling, densely packed, fume-filled dealerships of the late-Seventies. Back then, to extract that Suzuki GT380 from the far corner for a test ride required three days’ notice and that’s when you discovered the crash damage that had been pushed up against the wall.
My second thought was a question: when did bikes get ugly? Blimey, there are some nasty looking machines out there. Looking across the showroom was like surveying the hall at a gaming geek convention. There were lumps and bumps and pointy bits sticking out all over the place.
I’m sure there are designers who will try to explain away the shapes with words like ‘kinetic’ and ‘organic’ but I bet these are the same stylists who made portable ‘hi-fi’ systems so ugly about ten years ago. How have we allowed this to happen?
I remember a time when all bikes were gorgeous. The only variance was how gorgeous – even the MZs and CZs of Eastern Europe had charm. Some might argue that the Honda CX500 had a face that only its mother could love but compared to some of today’s pack she was a princess. As a brief aside, have a quick look at what some artists are doing with CX500s here.
We need to sort this out. I’m not a big fan of rules but here’s my first draft of the basic rules for good-looking motorcycles.
Rule number one: a proper motorcycle should have one headlamp, in the middle, preferably round and with a round speedo and round rev counter sitting above it. Lamp and clocks should sport chrome-plated trim (round).
Rule number two: motorcycle engines should have one, two or four cylinders. Three may be allowed simply because mine has three and it conforms to rule three.
Rule number three: all motorcycles with more than one cylinder must have at least one exhaust pipe on each side.
Rule number four: you should be able to see right through the bike in at least two places. In fact, you should be able to get your arm through the gap behind the cylinders. How else are you going to be able to clean the carburettors? Other aesthetic gaps could be behind the headlamp (see rule one), between the cylinder head and the bottom of the petrol tank (that’s how you change the spark plugs) and around the air filter/battery/remote oil tank area.
I’m going to try to think up some more rules and I welcome your suggestions but these are enough to be going on with.
In the meantime, here are my five nominations for the ugliest modern bike title.
Suzuki GSX-S1000 – That’s where all the pies went
Ducati Multistrada 1200 – Look at the beak on that
Kawasaki Ninja H2 – More edges than my cutlery drawer
Yamaha FZ-09 (US) – Looks like a dog dragging its bottom on the ground
Honda NM4 – Just look at it
The five most handsome bikes on sale today include:
Triumph Bonneville T100
The beauties don’t all obey my rules and the uglies don’t all break them but this is just the start of the campaign. I’m more than happy to re-draft the rules if you want to suggest a few revisions.
Now let’s throw it wide open. Name your ugliest and prettiest bikes of all time and we’ll try to work out a perfect formula to prevent future design crime.
Martyn Moore edited Bike magazine in the early 1990s. The magazine’s circulation doubled while Martyn was editing it and in 1992 he was the British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year. Martyn contributes to magazines and television programmes around the world. He rides a Triumph Speed Triple.