In selecting this week’s Church of MO, I came across this article written all the way back in 2003, wherein the author, George Obradovich, compares the nostalgia of his 1981 Kawasaki GPz550 to that of the new-at-the-time Yamaha YZF-R6, and poses the question; “In the end, on the streets and thru the distance, which do you find more satisfying? The ability to rely on technology, or the necessity to rely on yourself?” 

This struck me as interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s almost laughable to think of motorcycles from 2003 as being technologically advanced. Most bikes didn’t even have ABS at the time, let alone ride modes, adjustable traction, control, cruise control, semi-active electronic suspension, etc. One must also consider that a GPz550 was as technologically advanced to 1981 as the R6 was to 2003, the Honda CB750/4 to 1969, and so forth. As technology advances at an exponential rate, the bikes we’re riding today will seem as defunct in 10 year’s time as a 2003 sportbike does today, or a GPz550 felt in 2003. What Mr. Obradovich’s column illustrates best is that this topic of discussion will continue as long as there are generational gaps between riders, and technological progression.

Nostalgia And Capability

By George Obradovich October 29, 2003

Have you heard any of the stories about the Vincent Black Shadow? Heard any of the musings of the fogeys who drove 42hp machines across the AlCan Highway? Read and understood “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”?

Probably the single biggest debate I’ve been in recently is: does modern technology and high horsepower equal more fun on the average street bike?

I realize this debate sounds a bit more trollish than most anything showing up on in the mid-nineties (sorry r.m. folks; I was alt.syntax.tactical), but it’s a long-standing debate for good reason: is it “more satisfying” to twist your wrist on an R1, pushing it to 50 percent of it’s ability (and you to 100 percent), or is it “more satisfying” to engage in the all-senses-necessary driving that a smaller, less technologically cutting-edge bike (say, a 1970’s Norton Commando)?

This has been on my mind a lot recently as I pour thru the reviews of the latest liter-class and 600 class supersports. My neighbor, a young guy, recently traded his R1 for an R6. The reason? He’s a tiny guy at 5 foot 9 and 150 or so pounds, and, according to him, the R1 was “way too much bike, dude.” So he’s done all he can to make his R6 a “Biker Boyz” racer, complete with many engine mods, strobes(!), and many suspension mods. Me? I drove a 1981 Kawasaki GPz 550, lovingly half-restored, carefully garaged for twelve years by the previous owner.

My neighbor looks at my bike the same way a kid looks at a pound of ground beef: wot, no happy meal? I look at his bike, and I see the point, and I appreciate (and love) the massive technology and power behind it, but I….I just don’t get it.

You have to understand, I come from a background of Fast Things. My father owned the very first 1979 Formula One Trans Am in Texas, a car that would blow the doors off of anything on the highway. My uncle is a Porsche 911 guy, and has owned 911’s since they looked like reformed Beetles. He’s also a BMW and Kawasaki guy, and currently owns a beautifully maintained 85 R75S.

Myself, I’ve owned or driven a ton of different bikes, ranging from a CB750/4 to an FJ11 to a CBR900RR, to a Guzzi SP. Out of all the bikes I’ve had, my GPz and a certain Honda GB500, a late-eighties Brit-Twin replica. Out of the two, I loved the GB500’s looks and sound, but it was useless for more than 50 miles.

And in southern New Mexico or west Texas, the nearest destination of any worth is 200 miles or more.

As I look through the crop of reviews and videos, I note that most folk these days seem to depend quite a bit on the power and technology in their bikes, never really finding that ragged edge where you need to be truly 100 percent involved in the motorcycle. My neighbor says, “why work so hard to go ten miles to work?” Indeed, why?

Because. The nature of these things relies on the pilot to be a certain type of individual. Addicted to the senses, depending as much or more upon themselves as on the technology underneath them.

My neighbor and I raced thru the hill country on a nice little ride, though our “race” was affected by weather, traffic, cops, and the like. We got done with a particular stretch of twisties, and stopped at a gas and sip. My neighbor, his R6 gleaming, smoked a cigarette while I checked out my mechanical status (temp, oil levels, fuel, chain, tires, and plugs). “Dude, why don’t you buy a bike like mine?” he asked, yawning, looking bored.

And while I adjusted the air in my front forks, I answered him with the ridiculous beaming smile on my face. Here on this stretch of highway, he found boredom, slow cars, tiring stretches. I found a complete connection with the pushrods below me, the smell and feel of the bike. I pushed on for another two hundred miles that day while he drove home to find his homies for a burnout contest. Was his “fun” any less satisfying than mine? I doubt it, but in some ways, I pity him for his modern technology.

In the end, on the streets and thru the distance, which do you find more satisfying? The ability to rely on technology, or the necessity to rely on yourself?

  • SRMark

    I’ll still take the gpz550

  • Daimyo

    I can appreciate both. I find older bikes interesting mechanically and visually but when it comes to riding to work or to grab a beer I will happily take my electronic ignition/fuel injection/ABS starts-up-every-time modern bike.

    I think also that being a part of the lost-without-my-iPhone generation that we expect the important things in our lives to be brimming with technology, same goes for my bike. Having traction control, ride modes and abs is as natural to a lot of younger people riding today as radial tires were to the last generation.

    There are still a lot of manufacturers today offering what are essentially analog bikes, Yamaha with their mt/fz 09 and 07 come to mind (well at least no abs or traction control, except in Europe). Many Kawasaki/Honda/Suzuki are non-abs models or have it as an option.

  • roma258

    Interesting read. I grew up on the modern stuff, but I tried a couple time to travel back in time to find that involvement that the author talks about. First time with a 1989 Honda Hawk GT, second time with a 1986 Honda VF500. Both bikes have a cult following for their involving nature. Honestly, both left me a little flat.

    I quite like the VF500, it’s still in my garage, but I feel a little wrong wringing out a 30 year-old sportbike. The skinny tires and the revvy nature of the bike are definitely involving, but the brakes are hard to adjust to for someone used to modern radials. And you have to hold back on the choicest twisties so as not to overwhelm the tires. Fun ride, but I guess I still want to have the ability to push the bike with some margin of error. The taut, grippy feel of a modern chassis is hard to give up if that’s what you’re used to. As far as the Hawk, it felt like an underpowered, tired SV650. Blasphemy, I know!

  • Alexander Pityuk

    Correct answer: get both.

    • randy the great


  • Andrew Capone

    I love the older stuff, and have a small fleet of interesting vintage rides to go with some modern steeds. But I’ve found myself losing interest in the fettling. And the dread of worrying about whether I’ll have to deal with a roadside problem rather than a day of spirited riding. Older, with limited riding time now. Good to have choices, but if I had only one, it would be a modern, versatile, technologically up- to- date bike. And a trusted mechanic nearby.

  • Ser Samsquamsh

    Modern doesn’t necessarily have to mean insane power and computers to twiddle. There’s style, reliability and boring tech like EFI that means you don’t end up stranded. Even invisible functionality improvements like handle bar mounted clutch, automatic oiling, tires that actually grip the road.

    You can have an elemental bike that is modern and trouble free. However the profit margin on competence is narrow and hard to market. Hence 200hp superbikes with more computers than an Appollo mission.

  • Ian Parkes

    I’m tempted by lots of bikes – Africa Twin, Super Duke GT, the new Bonnies, Tuono, and I’ve ridden some of them. The mortgage precludes ticking more one off that list and my wife would certainly assume it should replace one or more of my old bikes. That’s not so easy as they cover the range pretty neatly. My 2000 VFR isn’t mental like some of the above but it is fast enough to make the local twisties fun, and it’s so comfortable (with an aftermarket seat) that 6-11 hour days on a 10-day trip over the South Island’s endless variety of scenic winding and twisty roads were almost tantric bliss. All the metal is bright and fresh and the motor feels like it will run forever, which makes it’s negligible trade-in value just so wrong. Is the GT really worth all that extra cash, when I’d also lose the one thing that sounds better than a V-twin, a V4 – with a garnish of cam drive gear whine?

    The Vespa PX200 (we got the last batch here in 2008), with a low leg-shield mounted mirror in place of the SUV-wing mirror height standard jobs makes threading the morning traffic a knife-through-butter delight. Sure it’s a rattly retro ride and it’s incurred some workshop time but it’s great fun, and it’s so cool and friendly it adds class to any footpath I park it on. And a DR650 with soft bags is ideal for overnighters through the back country. Not sure if I dropped a new Africa Twin I’d laugh about it.

    Things like 160bhp and virtually crash-proofing tech do appeal but when I’m riding any of the above I rarely think it’s missing. I’m in no rush.