Wednesday, July 04, 2012

THE CURSE OF THE MODERN MOTORCYCLE


Nicholas Biebuyck, who works at Bonhams, contributes his perspective on riding old, and new motorcycles...

Why are new bikes so boring?
The Biebuyck family 1928 AJS K8 'Big Port'
Thanks to undying enthusiasm, youth and (especially) my day job, I'm granted access to all sorts of cool places: afternoon tea in the Drivers Club at Goodwood Festival of Speed, bumping into Ago and King Kenny at Festival of 1000 Bikes, riding a wide selection of motorcycles of all vintages and types. In the past 4 weeks I've thrown a leg over a 1928 AJS 'K8'overhead valve 500cc flat-tanker (The superbike of the period), a 1971 Norton Commando 750 Roadster that my father bought new in Birmingham (again, The superbike of the period), and my 2003 BMW R1100S super tourer (well, not a superbike).   These rides have reinforced a feeling which has writhed inside me for some time: modern motorcycles are incredibly boring.

They certainly serve their purpose; if you want to go from A to B at maximum speed in relative safety and comfort, they're fine. And that's my point: they are...fine.  Not great, or fun, or riveting, or exhilarating, or particularly enjoyable, just...fine.
Nick riding the 'Big Port' on the Banbury Run this year
I compare riding a great motorcycle to riding a great horse; you understand each other, you want to go the same places, at the same speed, falling into corners at the same rate, you feel a harmony... in a way you simply cannot with a machine which gives you no feedback, and cannot be repaired at the side of the road.

On the 1928 AJS, you can [and must! - Ed.] hear every tiny noise from the valve train, you can see each drop of oil through the Pilgrim pump's sight glass, every undulation of the girder forks is visible,  and the hand change gear selection depends on 'feel' to avoid nasty noises.  It really didn't want to start this Spring, after a faultless performance on the Banbury Run last year, but there's a great sense of satisfaction starting a motorcycle with a lazy magneto, which has refused to rouse from your kicks the last 10 minutes. Especially in the pouring English rain...when you know there's still a great ride ahead.
The family 1971 Norton Commando
Although the Norton Commando was built 45 years later, the experience still is similar; a conversation between yourself and machine.  If you wring its neck past 5,000rpm, it wails, which you ignore at your own risk. The vibration at idle on the Commando is notorious but equally reassuring: if the engine doesn't look scarily ready to liberate itself from the frame at 1,000rpm, you know something is wrong...off balance crank? loose carb? badly adjusted isolastics? better check.  Yes, the right carb came loose while riding, but I knew it was coming because the stallion told me: it made a strange noise, followed by a loss of power. A quick glance down told be exactly what had happened, so I pulled over and fixed it.  Voilá.

Maybe I've become a Vintage/Classic Motorcycle Snob (a title I am content with), but it seems to me riders of new bikes are discouraged from understanding how an engine works, and are offered only utility from their motorcycle.  I struggle to believe that's all they want, given the number of new Royal Enfield Bullets and Triumph Bonnevilles on the road.  Until you ride something that really speaks to you, and takes you on a different kind of journey, how can you experience what's best about motorcycling?

c.2012 Nicholas Biebuyck

30 comments:

Sleeping Dog said...

Nicholas is pretty much right on, but it's not just motorcycles. Recently I've had the pleasure of driving several high end sports sedans and GT's. They are wonderful, but to really feel the benefits of the technology provided you better be going a ton, a ton and a quarter would be even better. At typical speeds they were nice but...

The most fun I've ever had in or on a vehicle was about 20 years ago in an MG TD, 4 wheel drifts around a cul de sac, pushing the the little beast for all it was worth and I could never get a second look from officer Obie.

ElSolitarioMC said...

Love Nicholas comparison between old bikes & horses. It's the eternal dilemma between efficiency & courage...
Bravo Nick!
Bravo Paul!
xxx

The Tinslecat said...

great post, and something I find close to my heart - where my friends effortlessly cruise around the sweeping bends of Yorkshire country roads, I'm having all kinds of conversations with my bike. Its a strange thing to consider -they want a no nonsense utility bike, but only use it for non utility (leisure) riding... What do they do with the bike with the other months of the year where the sun is not shining (11 months going by current weather)?
The bond between bike and rider is then lost.
I always like to think that effort in equals gain out to the individual, but most people just want the gain, and don't value the effort that ties the bonds tighter....

Billy Jones said...

I think you are very wise to be so young. I haven't seen a new motorcycle in many years that spoke to me. That's why I now ride an old XS650. I never know what might happen but it always tells me what I need to know to make the repairs needed to continue my journey. It speaks a colorful and fluent language modern motorcycles don't seem to understand.

Nathaniel Salzman said...

Terrific thoughts. I couldn't agree more. I fear that it will only get worse. With more stringent environmental regs coming into play, EFI will probably drive even the modern CV caruburetor the way of the dodo. In the grand scheme of things, that's likely a good thing, but it definitely makes it tougher to embue a bike with character. Although, I think the tech isn't even really the issue. I think it has more to do with a larger problem within the powersports industry. It feels like there's a lack of passion at the top at most of the big manufacturers, with perhaps Triumph as the exception.

It seems like motorcycles are just chasing cars. That is, modern bikes have fetishized precision, tech and mass appeal over character and simplicity. There's more electronics, more technology like ABS and traction control, and yet somehow still fewer paint color options. None of that is bad on its own. Reliability is a good thing. The fuel-efficiency and consistent running of fuel injection is worth aspiring to. However, we can still do it with character, can't we?

Perhaps the industry is too focused on the business side of things — worried about maximizing this quarter's profits than with inspiring a generation of riders. I look at the Japanese big four (Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, and Kawasaki) and it seems like they've lost all their imagination. They're either doing a half-assed job of imitating Harley in the v-twin market, or they're just copying each others' sport and offroad bikes. Where's the innovation? Where's the passion. Of course then when they do make something classic and interesting, like Kawi's W800, I can't buy one here in The States. Somebody in an office somewhere has decided it wouldn't sell well. Yet as you observed, I see a lot of Bonnevilles and Enfields around.

The last thing I'll say is that not only are modern bikes boring, they're expensive. I'm no cheapskate, I just don't see the value proposition in most new bikes — bikes with bloated pricetags precisely because of all the tech and complexity that makes them boring in the first place. Not only are the Bonnevile and the Bullet two of the last bastions for character in the motorcycle market, they're two of the more affordable machines out there as well. When I look at a brand like BMW, they're definitely bringing their own flavor to their bikes, but BMW will always be about technology and gadgetry, and brilliant as they are, it shows in their price tag.

If it weren't for the availabilty of inexpensive, terrific japanese motorcycles from the '70s and '80s, I don't know if I'd be into motorcycles at all at this point. But thankfully they're out there still. I've got a fleet of four bikes, and there isn't $6,000 between them. They all run great and best of all, they've all got plenty of charm and character.

T.W. said...

Uh huh. Older bikes are better because they are FAR WORSE IN EVERY WAY?

From crap ergonomics to carburetors obviously not being fastened correctly, to an engine that tries to prise itself from its frame fresh from the factory because it wasn't properly engineered.

Modern bikes don't suffer these woes because engineers have had a century to observe, and learn from, the terrible lessons of the past.

Old bikes are stepping stones to the new. They're visions of the visual dreams of our forefathers, but they're NOT better. They can't be.

Anonymous said...

enduro bikes still speak to you, quite a lot ;)

OcchioLungo said...

Nick,

Good for you! Riding an early bike is an Experience, with a capital E. Riding a modern bike is just riding a bike. And T.W. makes a good point. Early bikes have troubles. But they certainly are not worse in every way. In one particular way they are immensely better than new machines: old bikes have soul. They force you to pay attention, which is something that many folks just don't want to bother with these days.

Enjoy the 1928 Ajay Nick, and just wait, it gets better. Try an even older bike and it is even more fun!

ciao,
Pete

The Vintagent said...

@ T.W.; I was reading the New York Times today, about the discovery of a subatomic particle which appears to be the Higgs boson. I loved the following quote:

"The finding affirms a grand view of a universe described by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws — but one in which everything interesting, like ourselves, results from flaws or breaks in that symmetry."

A 'simple and elegant' way of saying that perfection is boring and static; flaws make things more interesting. And as we don't rely on these old bikes for primary transport (or very few of us do), we seek something else from them, which is to add richness to our lives, and provide an experience we can't find elsewhere.

There was a time when a visceral relationship with machines was the norm, when all the working bits were out in the open, and we could relate to them as analogues to our body. Now we can't, and usually, we can't even see the working bits.

This is not to say we need unreliable machines in daily life! I like that my refrigerator and computer work well, they just don't 'do anything' for me in themselves. Old motorcycles can feed the soul, precisely because we have the luxury of not relying on them for essential transport; they serve a different function in our lives.

Old motorcycles, while technically inferior to new, ARE better for the experience of feeling connected to a machine, and the strange joy derived therefrom. They are also a statement against planned obsolescence, and a celebration of our forefathers' genius.

Anonymous said...

Mechanical sympathies required to hear the symphony....

Scottie Sharpe said...

Boring sex is still sex.

Anonymous said...

Greetings Chums ,
TW ,my dear fellow I think you have missed the point old boy .The author opined that modern machines are boring - quite so - and not that old machines are better - don't yer know .
There is a world of difference and clearly one has one's preferences ,be they for bland soulless modern machinery, or infuriatingly eccentric [ to modern eyes ] older motorcycles .
As an aged Bulleteer I think I have a thorough understanding of my mount [ one can never be too sure - by gad !] and I liken it's character to be somewhat like an old horse in that it must be nurtured and coaxed to give of it's best , but then it's also akin to an idiotic young gundog in so much as it is wont to perform the most stupid antics at precisely the wrong moment and embarrass one in esteemed company - bally nuisance .
Somewhat like having a dotty wife or a grumpy gardener , one is never quite sure what the day will bring as one descends the stairs of a morning -which rather adds to the intrigue and zest of life - don't yer think ?
So it's Castrol R and magnetos rather than synthetic and electronic ; patina and the oily rag in preference to plastic and shine for Bunty .
Tally Ho !
Your servant,
Maj Bunty Golightly MBH , Defender of the Kickstart ,Companion of the Royal Floatchamber .

J. Braun said...

All that is well and good, I have plenty of vintage machines with all the requisite "character". And I have little desire for a new mega-machine with auto-everything.

However, some days I just want to go for a ride. I want a minimum of fuss and a maximum of rideability. My CB1100F is just the ticket for a spirited ride wherever I want to go, whenever I want to go there. Just pure riding enjoyment with the option to go 115 mph whenever I want to twist the handle!

Anonymous said...

I left Denver this morning before sunrise on my modern GT1000, ahead of the heat. Was at the summit of chilly Pikes Peak by 10:00 am, and back in hot Denver for lunch. I could not have enjoyed that on my 57 Gilera, but it will get it's day on the Giro in a few months. It's great to have both experiences.
Brad B.

Anonymous said...

Dear Paul,

Re your latest post and the strongly-felt comments it has provoked, maybe you'd like to copy my first and last paragraphs from a review of Reg Eyre's Riding Old Motorcycles, which appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of The International Journal of Motorcycle Studies:

Reg Eyre’s elegant little book makes two assumptions. First, that riding “old” motorcycles is a qualitatively different experience than riding “modern” motorcycles, by which he primarily means current state-of-the-art performance bikes. Second, that this experience is inherently a more satisfying one—an opinion likely to be challenged by anyone whose evaluative standards start with instant acceleration, instant braking, high-speed stability and low-speed maneuverability, top-end performance specs that can only be apprehended (on public roads) theoretically, and, almost as an afterthought, ease or absence of maintenance. Not that Eyre isn’t prepared to concede the technical superiority of the contemporary high-end sport bike. “The modern machines have been directly benefiting from modern race technology,” he writes, “in that they have a large tyre footprint, ignition systems which are electronically mapped and controlled, fuel injection instead of traditional carburettors, disc brakes instead of drums, frames which have been computer designed to minimise stress forces and fairing designed to flow the air over and around the rider.” Further, today’s performance bikes have evolved a riding style that is one step removed from the racetrack. “The aim appears to be to go as fast as possible on the straight, brake heavily to the apex of the bend and once straightened up, twist the throttle open for maximum acceleration.” But all of this doesn’t necessarily equate with the experience of “ownership,” or at least “partnership,” between rider and motorcycle as Eyre understands it. It is clear that he is using a different calculus than the modern sport rider....

Eyre’s frequently amusing stories of the woes and wonders of old bikes are unlikely to convert many of today’s sport riders, who want to know that—should the right conditions obtain—they could crack 150 mph with a snap of the wrist. On the other hand, the book serves as a useful reminder that the evolutionary distance from a 1908 250cc Ariel with foot pedals and bicycle-type brakes to, say, a 1938 Velocette KSS (the road-going version of the track-conquering 350cc KTT racer) is arguably as great as that from the Velocette to a 2008 Ducati D16 RR (Cycle World's Best Superbike for that year). Perspective helps, even at a potential 150 mph.

For anyone interested in the full review, just go to http://ijms.nova.edu and access Fall 2009 in the archived articles.

From my end, if you can't see what makes it go and you can't get to what's inside if you need to, I'm not interested. Occasional inconvenient breakdowns are a given, but then you're probably prepared for them, even riding something as late as a Commando (they're ruled out, apparently, on Hinckley Triumphs). But just try to do a roadside fix on a computer-programmed multi, if you can even find the miscreant component....

James J. Ward
Professor of History
Director, Honors Program
Cedar Crest College

GuitarSlinger said...

First off let me say I thoroughly enjoy classic machines of all sorts : having driven / ridden / flown in more than I care to remember
Having said that I'n afraid all the cheerleaders here advocating Old is Better are sourly confusing Masochism for Enjoyment . One need not be ' punished ' by one's machine in order to enjoy its use . In fact I would say its just the opposite . The article uses Horse Riding as part of his defense to which I'd say " have you ever had the displeasure of RIDING an ill tempered misbehaving Horse more intent on your destruction that the enjoyment of the ride " I have and its pure Hell ! Oh certainly you have the distinction at the end of the ride of temporarily ' Taming ' the beast . But temporary it will be once the aches and pains and damage have been assessed

Simply put " Everything Old is not Good : and Everything New is NOT better " One must take the time and effort to ' Discern ' each and every item individually , not making rash over generalized assumptions

Finally I place before all the " Old is better " cheerleaders here two final thoughts . 1) The overall message from Woody Allen's movie " Midnight in Paris " that the past always seems more glorious to those living in the present than it ever did to those that lived in that past ... especially because unlike yourself those in the past did not have cell phones a service station on every block tow trucks etc etc to pull them out a mess their machine got them into

Second , the Biblical statement to not " Glorify " a past that in fact was never as good as you think it was . I can guarantee you if someone were ' transported into the present from the past you hold in such esteem they'd read the above cheerleading and laugh their ____ off .... knowing what foolish twaddle the cheerleaders are in fact speaking

" Living in the Past " is a fools paradise and a place for those afraid to face the life they've been given

" Live " in the present rather than delude yourself into existing in a past long gone . Enjoy and study the past for certain . But L-i-V-E in the present .

BTW Paul I assume you fly modern airlines use digital cameras are using a computer to create this site have full HVAC in your house etc etc etc .

Hmmmn . Yet you advocate the wonders of the past to such an extent . Might want to think about that apparent contradiction ;-)

The Vintagent said...

I'm no nostalgist, actually, and no fan of Retro, Reenactment, or Revival. I love contemporary design and conveniences, but modern motorcycles are boring. I love old motorcycles, they have character which new machines can't seem to capture, and speak to my soul.

I also like playing with 19th Century photographic techniques, as the globe is awash with digipix (just like the Internet is flooded with disposable moto-photo blogs), and I appreciate that, like an old bike, my time, patience, and skill is rewarded with a valuable experience, and tangible result.

Hairy Larry said...

These are 'the good ole' days'...I enjoy the new, the old...and in between. Like Malcom, I like to think I never met a motorcycle I didn't like...('cept for a couple Hodakas and a little Suzuki or two I got stuck working on as a wrench...).

Mike Cecchini said...

"...modern motorcycles are incredibly boring."

Yes.........and no. The reason the modern motorcycle is boring is that it's limits are so high the average rider can't have any fun at the 30%--50% he rides the modern motorcycle. So yes, the modern motorcycle that's capable of 150--200 mph is boring when it's ridden at 70 mph........but take it to the track where it really belongs and I can assure you it won't be boring if you have the talent and the cajones to ride it at 80%--100%.

Same thing happened when I had a M5. It was rather boring under 100 mph and because I couldn't drive around at 100+ mph, so I got rid of it because it was "boring" at the 30--80 mph I could drive it where I live.

What did I replace it with ? A very UN-boring car. A 5 liter V8 Mustang that was a total hoot to drive in the 30--100 mph range. I had a blast with that car and loved driving it. Sure it needed proper shocks, lowered it a wee bit (1") and opened up the motor intake & exhaust a bit so it could breath properly. THEN it was so much fun I just loved it every time I got behind the wheel.

So the real reason why so many 40--60 yr old guys ride older bikes is they are not boring (fun) at the speeds they want to ride.

Mike Cecchini said...

"...modern motorcycles are incredibly boring."

Yes.........and no. The reason the modern motorcycle is boring is that it's limits are so high the average rider can't have any fun at the 30%--50% he rides the modern motorcycle. So yes, the modern motorcycle that's capable of 150--200 mph is boring when it's ridden at 70 mph........but take it to the track where it really belongs and I can assure you it won't be boring if you have the talent and the cajones to ride it at 80%--100%.

Same thing happened when I had a M5. It was rather boring under 100 mph and because I couldn't drive around at 100+ mph, so I got rid of it because it was "boring" at the 30--80 mph I could drive it where I live.

What did I replace it with ? A very UN-boring car. A 5 liter V8 Mustang that was a total hoot to drive in the 30--100 mph range. I had a blast with that car and loved driving it. Sure it needed proper shocks, lowered it a wee bit (1") and opened up the motor intake & exhaust a bit so it could breath properly. THEN it was so much fun I just loved it every time I got behind the wheel.

So the real reason why so many 40--60 yr old guys ride older bikes is they are not boring (fun) at the speeds they want to ride.

Dave Roper said...

Here, here. It's much more fun to go fast on a slow bike than slow on a fast bike.

OcchioLungo said...

Obviously, some folks just don't get the point of old bikes. And that's fine. FUN on a bike can be defined in many ways, but for vintagents, it isn't defined by triple digit speeds, nor by 1000 miles in a day. It can be top level fun to go 40mph on an early machine on a quiet, twisty back road, leaning the bike over on skinny tires, carrying momentum through the corners while knowing that the throttle will not induce a big acceleration after the apex. With a big grin on your face! Better yet is to ride with a few others, hearing the thumping of single cylinder exhausts as they go in and out of resonance.

There are a few modern appliances in my kitchen, but there is no need for one in my garage. I did ride a bike once with telescoping forks and a rear swingarm; it went fast and did absolutely nothing for my soul. I don't try to live in the past, but live in the moment, and enjoy it fully by appreciating the old machines as their makers intended.

See you on the road. Wave when you blow past me, and I'll catch up later.
Pete

The Omega Racer said...

I agree with the article. While I also enjoy modern bikes, my true love is an old Yamaha SR, simply because it's so basic and I therefore make all the maintenance by myself. This really helps to strengthen the bond I have with my bike.
Sure, it's not as perfect, fast, safe and powerful as other newer bikes, but that's not the point.
After they started producing artificial diamonds, which were 100% perfect, people feared they would upset the whole diamond market. Instead, consumers still preferred natural diamonds, with all they beautiful and unique flaws.

Raúl Vicente said...

My point of view on this is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone loves something, and it's not the same for all. I'm inlove with my SV650 from 2004, my first and only one so far, 115.000km ridden. I'm making it my own vintage motorcycle, and have been knowing it's moods since it's birth 7 years ago. If it lasts a lifetime, that will be my greatest success, surviving that infamous factory programmed decay so peculiar from our current day and age. I don't know if this will be the case, and for me that's the pleasure of the journey, a long lasting one. It always fails sometime, as all machines do, and sometimes I know how to repair it, sometimes I don't. My Suzuki is always a thrill to ride, putting that smile on my face, the unique smile born from the combination of my machine and me. Long life to all Motorcycles and their Riders, wherever and whenever they may be! Cheers and Godspeed from Portugal.

The Vintagent said...

Long life to all motorcycles and their riders! Cheers!

everiman said...

Old vs new and fun vs boring are not mutually exclusive, there are fun new bikes and boring old bikes. Want a fun new bike, trade the R1200 for a KTM supermoto 990 T. Want a boring old bike, trade the Norton for a BMW R60 :-)

Scottie Sharpe said...

Ha ha. Everiman, got BMW envy, do ya?

Mike Cecchini said...

Take that 60's BMW R60, drop in a 70's or 80's BMW 800--1000cc engine and a four leading shoe or dual disc front brake, set-up the suspension with some good shocks and you'll have the best of both worlds. It would be a good idea to take some track days to hone your skills on this giant killer and you'll have the squids wondering why they can't keep up with 50+ yr old bike. Gotta love it.

/2 BMW's rock. Tell 'em Scottie.

The Vintagent said...

I spent a week riding a new BMW S1000RR last summer, and liked the experience very much; basically, a perfect motorcycle for a sports rider. So good it makes one a better rider, in the way bevel-drive Ducatis SuperSports did in the 1970s/80s. I did fall in love with Ducati bevel-drive twins, and owned many, but didn't fall in love with the BMW, although I admired the magnitude of the achievement in making it so good. Impressive.

Mike Cecchini said...

1970's Bevel drive 750's, 860's and 900's are still great riders.

All one need do is get involved with the bike and they are rock solid machines capable of many years of great riding. I have one.