When Did Motorcycles Get So Ugly?

Published: March 4, 2015

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

Honda NM4 – Just look at it


The five most handsome bikes on sale today include:




Yamaha Bolt

Honda CBR600RR Repsol

Honda CBR600RR


Kawasaki ER-6n

Triumph Bonneville T100

Triumph Bonneville T100


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.

22 comments on “When Did Motorcycles Get So Ugly?”

avatarTulki Jenkinssays:

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 🙂

avatarMartyn Mooresays:

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

avatarChris Sadlersays:

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


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.


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


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

avatarJohn Andersonsays:

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

avatarMatt Farrowsays:

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.


The world of bike design (and cars) is now entirely devoted to getting rid of curves. Curves, in the minds of these hipster designers, equals feminine, and that won’t do. Their pathetic need to cater for more and more testosterone (so they believe) leads them to assume that anything with flowing curves or grace must equal the rejection of anything macho. They believe that anything rounded off is the enemy. Who on earth would pay for some gay machine? So they think.

They assume that everyone who wants a bike also wants something with an engine the size of a half ton family car and the girth of a robot from a sci fi film. It must have aggressive, ghastly squared off lumps everywhere just to prove it appeals to dimwitted asthetics-free origami fans, (so they believe), whose sole intent is to compensate for their male insecurity. Any hint of beauty or flowing lines must be savagely rejected, for that arouses suspicions you might be some kind of fairy to be seen on such a thing.

It goes with the absurdly, ever more unnecessarily more powerful engines that deliver zero to the speed limit in 3 seconds after which there is no where to go except slow down again, thereby wasting 60 hp of the available 140 hp. I’m afraid the whole biking world is now one of tasteless, ugly, over-powered, impractical, dangerous, lumps of angular scrap metal or plastic. This is confirmed by the fact that car accidents have steadily declined while bike accidents, fatal and otherwise, are little different from ten years ago.

The biking press is also to blame, with its naff reviews and videos of ridiculous bikers in kitch riding suits pretending they are MotoGp racers with their knees pointlessly sticking out while negotiating a gentle curve on a shopping trip.

In protest I’ve bought a nice 125 scooter that gives me more pleasure than any motorcycle I’ve had, apart from a vintage Honda 750. Am I a luddite? You might think so. I don’t care. Bikes have never been more ugly as sin. They look like an attempt to shove the most ungainly chaos of ill fitting panels on top of some rough scaffolding (see the KTM below!), then festooned with garish paint of the kind that was unacceptable even in a 1960s student bedsit. Yuk.

avatarJim Slatterysays:

I totally agree, almost all bikes are ugly these days. I like my triumph tiger a lot but beautiful it is not. I believe it is simply because designers want to ‘move on’ and the bikes of the past set such a high standard that there was nowhere to go in terms of aesthetics. You should also ask why bikes get heavier, taller and less fuel efficient. I suspect a conspiracy!


KTM make the most hideous, Ikea type angular beakoids out there IMHO! Great off road no doubt but painful to the eye and arse. Some genius got the KISKA design team (behind KTM) to design the new Lambretta scooter and they put an off road type high mudguard beak on it! No sense of classic aesthetic at all. Totally agree with the author of the article.
Rule no. 5: The gas tank should be made of curved metal and not look like an exercise in filling a finite volume of Euclidian space with as many acute angles as possible. Bah! Bloody computer designed garbage!

avatarRob Brewersays:

I totally agree with the basic premise, to me ALL modern bikes are more or less ugly.
In my opinion the best looking bike ever, has got to be the Honda CBX 1000 around 1979, preferably in red.
I will accept the Benelli Sei of around the same vintage is also nice, but not quite there!
The Honda CB92 Benly 125cc twin, around 1964 is also in the pack.
Bike DESIGN has gone out of the window, ok they are now faster and handle better, but they don’t look like bikes I would want to own.
OK I accept I am old and decrepit, but to me all modern bikes look the same, basically a streamlined plastic box with wheels, and that doesn’t make a real motorcycle icon.


any cruiser to me looks like something made for pot gutted, short legged neck beards and they SOUND like an elephant shitting out a string of sausages. definitely the ugliest.
comparing an old Harley to say a modern sport tourer is like comparing a flintlock blackpowder rifle to a modern assault rifle.
then there’s bikes shaped like a Ford Probe, basically blobs , such as some of Katanas made after the 80’s .
a sport bike’s styling SHOULD take cues from the Lamborghinis or from jet fighters like the F5 tiger or the JAS-39 gripen, not twisted insect /transformer themes .
the mid 80’s GPZ750 turbo, the first 750 Ninja and GPZ900r had the hottest styling and still do.


The best-looking new bikes are not motorcycles but scooters. Namely, Vespas. The Lambrettas are not as pretty, but much better than the standard these days. For cycles, go with Royal Enfield or similar classic looks. The Honda Supercub is still nice, of course.

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