When Did Motorcycles Get So Ugly?

March 4th, 2015 | In: Motorbike

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

Suzuki GSX-S1000 – That’s where all the pies went

Ducati Multistrada 1200S

Ducati Multistrada 1200 – Look at the beak on that

Kawasaki Ninja H2R

Kawasaki Ninja H2 – More edges than my cutlery drawer

Yamaha FZ-09

Yamaha FZ-09 (US) – Looks like a dog dragging its bottom on the ground

Honda NM4

Honda NM4 – Just look at it

 

The five most handsome bikes on sale today include:

 

 

Yamaha Bolt

Yamaha Bolt

Honda CBR600RR

Honda CBR600RR

Kawasaki ER-6n

Kawasaki ER-6n

Triumph Bonneville T100

Triumph Bonneville T100

Ducati Scrambler

Ducati Scrambler

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.

  • Tulki Jenkins

    Hi Martyn:) funnily enough, although coming from a different end of the spectrum of life I funnily enough agree with (some) of your observations. I do believe that some bikes are getting horrendously ugly, especially in the touring/adventure/naked scene (Z800 for example) but I also think other bikes are in a funny way the most beautiful they have ever been! Perhaps we like different things but to me a good looking bike is one that has been engineered not drawn. The H2 is taking the piss a bit but something like an S1000RR (if painted properly) is one of the most gorgeous creations known to man. Yes it has strange angles and funny bits but they don’t look stupid in the same way as some do. So I think that is a hard question to answer but I think the ugliest bike is the Hayabusa or ZZR1400 and the prettiest is either the 2015 BMW S1000RR (in red or white) and the 2009 Yamaha R1 in silver/white :)

    • Martyn Moore

      Funnily enough I agree with you in an funny kind of way. I know, I’m not funny, am I? Thanks for sharing Tulki.

  • Chris Sadler

    I think naked bikes normally look the best and can be ruined by plastics. However they improve the practicality. My Favorite is the new model KTM690smc. I have a 2009

    • Martyn Moore

      Not my cup of tea, Chris, but one man’s meat is another man’s poison, as they say.

  • nickcleaver

    Basically I suspect most motorcycle designers are aged 25-35. In Japan in particular (because they seem to be making the ugliest bikes at the moment) thats the exact age of people who have grown up with a manga comic, transformers etc type influence. Hell almost the whole population is trapped in some juvenile, little girl fancying, comic con, toy obsessed perpetual childhood at the moment. No wonder their influences are kiddie comic related. As a result they are designing lumpty bumpty, sharp edged ugly crap with anthropomorphic faces like bloody terminators or optimus prime. These looks appeal to teenagers or twenty somethings with a cupboard full of broken transformers toys or boxes full of thumbed manga comics. But heres the rub. Those self same teenagers or mentaly juvenile people, all the fancy dancy transformer bikes are designed to please are too expensive for them to actualy buy. Its 35+ year olds in most European and American markets that buy big bikes. And in the new big economies like India they are relatively unaffected by these influences so have different tastes. Result? The arse has started to drop out of the Japanese bike market as the looks fail to appeal to those most able to afford them in markets other than Japan, and the technology has become too superfast then throw it away to appeal as well. Thats why the European manufacturers are doing better these days. They are designed by mature minded people with an eye for classic design and usefullness on the real roads we ride on, and therefore appeal to the same people most able to afford the bikes. That is why bikes Japanese bikes in particular are getting uglier and why European manufacturers are resurgent. And Unless the Japanese grasp this they will go the way of the old British bike manufacturers. Believing in their technical superiority over everyone else and in designs that they want to make rather than what the customers want to buy. Tell me I’m wrong heh heh.

    • Martyn Moore

      I wouldn’t dare Nick. Is there a modern bike you like?

  • abobobilly

    NONE of the latest bikes seem even mildly attractive to me. Gone are the days of some PROPER and SIMPLE bikes, such as a Inazuka 750

    http://www.katalog-motocykli.pl/files/motocykly/st1/1651/800x600_pl_PL/1329407020-suzuki-gsx-750-inazuma-4968.jpg

    • Martyn Moore

      I’m right with you. Look at that handsome beast. Might be one exhaust pipe short…

  • trackfodder

    Unitizing the tranny and getting rid of dry sump tanks was a major step FORWARD. They don.t mark territory anymore I agree the crotch rocket crap is pretty uncomfortable to look at and ride. The passenger has to put her knees in her armpits on some. I rather enjoy the appearance of my 2003 Suzuki VS 1400 GLP and my son just bought a 2009 HD Rocker C he likes. So far the sump isn’t leaking.

    Ride your own ride

  • John Anderson

    Completely disagree with the ZZR1400 being the ugliest (I’ve got one). The Busa is awful, but that argument ZZR1400 v ZZR1400 will run and run. I agree with everything else you have said. So called sports tourers like the Kawasaki SX1000, err, pillion seat is crap. A new rule is all bikes have to have a sensible pillion seat, they don’t have to be completely flat, but reasonably so.

    Taking plastic off a sports or sports tourer is silly, too many pipes and hoses etc, nooks and crannys to clean.

    Best looking, a GS 1000E, but with the original seat, not the 2/4 one that every one seems to put on, (I got one of those too and love it and it gets ridden like a hooligan, elbows out. One of the others best looking is a 180 Jota, again with the original flat seat, not the 2/4 one 9had one and would love one again but too much money these days). The ZZR doesn’t seem to do that to me, but its brilliant for everything else, touring one up or two, faster than most and its the only bike I have bought brand new in many many many bikes

  • Lee Davie

    One fatal flaw in my opinion with your rules, rule3 would outlaw Ducati 916, that can’t possibly be allowed.

  • Matt Farrow

    I started a similar discussion in a Facebook group the other day.
    I personally can’t stand the transformer look that nearly all makes and types of bikes have adopted.
    However, the ugliest nin transformer bike has to be Yamaha’s XSR 700.
    II mightadd that bike prices are ridiculously high.

  • JaniceInToronto

    You forgot all the fugly HD’s