Motorcycles and childlike wonder go hand in hand. So do motorcycles and stupid. A lot of things were really good in the good old days, then again a lot of things were definitely the latter. The reason we gather in packs, though, doglike, is because we’re always fun to watch and smell. Here’s to hoping the parade continues indefinitely.
10. The UJM
It may have been Cook Neilson at Cycle magazine who coined the phrase “Universal Japanese Motorcycle.” It wasn’t that we didn’t like them and that they weren’t great motorcycles (at bargain-basement prices), it was just that they were sort of all the same even if you were just a kid at the time. The pattern was set; transverse Four-cylinder, steel-tube frame, twin shocks … a CB750 wasn’t much different from a KZ750 from a GS750. After awhile, it was a little hard to get excited even if the manufacturers did try to outdo each other with more horsepower year after year. Your alternatives were Harley-Davidson, something twice as expensive and much slower from Europe, or a Pinto. Thank God for global competition and today’s rampant nichification.
9. The Fur Cycle
It was cool while it lasted, but it didn’t last that long, not sure why? Did covering your bike in fur cause cooling issues or grooming ones? It would have to be hard work to pluck the bugs out. Maybe there was trouble with PETA, though I’d guess the use of real fur was extremely rare. Lots of things that began on the street wound up on production motorcycles over the years, but fur hasn’t been one of them, so far. Come to think of it, I’m surprised Harley never built a “Sportster Pelt” to woo the ladies. A nice leopardskin landing strip on the gas tank and rear fender would be pretty hip.
8. ’90s Fashions
Nasty flashbacks from the excesses of the ’80s may be to blame, and a few Jackson Pollock wanna-be’s were turned loose in some of the Japanese styling departments. The ’92 GSX-R1100 was one victim. The late, great Charles Everett was another, resplendent below in a Fieldsheer suit of leathers covered in amoeba or spirochetes, we weren’t sure? Ken Vreeke makes an important point about primary colors, while Thad Wolff (right) mixes purple pastels with his favorite red boots.
7. The High Price of Choppers
Thank God it’s pretty easy to find a deal on a clean, low-mileage chopper again, mostly because there don’t seem to be any high-mileage ones. Not sure why that is? In those heady days when Harley-Davidson couldn’t stamp out bikes fast enough and companies like Excelsior-Henderson stepped in to fill the breach, custom chopper makers sprang up as fast as S&S could supply them with throbbing V-Twins. Jesse James duked it out with Orange County Choppers on TV, and prices for shiny new works of rolling art tracked 2-bedroom condos. Condo prices have come back a little because people still need a place to sleep, but it turns out not near as many people need a place to be miserably uncomfortable on top of an obnoxiously loud V-Twin; $7,500 for a Titan Sidewinder that sold for over $30k ten years ago still seems a little high. Might hold out a bit longer … or just go ahead and buy a nice new Yamaha FZ-07 instead.
I loved watching it, it was a spectacle you could get up close to and personal without driving two hours out into the country. AMA Supermoto could take place in big parking lots and on streets in the middle of towns like Reno, or was that Carson City, Nevada? The Bostroms and a bunch of big-name riders did it in LA a year or two as part of the X Games. I went to a very cool Supermoto at the Queen Mary in Long Beach (and watched Mark Cernicky crash an Aprilia). Supermoto was the discipline that was going to make motorcycle racing a Big Deal again in the U.S., and I don’t know how they screwed it up, but they did. Fizzle, pop, no more.
Maybe it died at the same time the custom chopper bankrupted everybody? Just as well, really, because although it was a great thing to watch the professionals do, it seemed to be a terrible thing for amateurs to attempt. I know about ten people with broken collarbones from trying to “back it in” like their heroes (amazingly, none of them were me, though I did spend quite a bit of time on my kid’s supermoto’d RM85). Something about a bike with a flexible chassis and a foot of travel at both ends winding up and releasing. Please consult a qualified suspension person before you attempt to supermoto.
5. BMW lost in the Wilderness…
The Bavarian Motor Wonks have always gone their own way, but for a while there, they were way off in the desert. I got to ride an R1200CL cross-country and liked it fine, but there was just something slightly unholy about a BMW Electra Glide. Others must’ve picked up the vibe; you don’t see many R1200Cs around. The Boxer wound up way happier in the GS bikes.
BMWs first attempt at a Gold Wing was another wretchedly excessive slightly fowl fish, in my book anyway, the nautical K1200LT. Probably a nice bike if you’re 6’6 and 300 pounds.
Anyway, BMW is back in a way nobody foresaw in those days, and slurping everybody’s milkshake through a fire hose. Just goes to show how much things can change if you hang around long enough.
4. Wait! I take that back! Everybody lost their way!
I leave motojournalism for a few years and what happens? Everybody goes crazy for giant bloated cruisers, apparently inspired not just by the overscale bike Jesse James built for Shaq, but also by Wild Bill Gelbke’s Roaddog. The 900-pound, $25,000 Rune was the high water mark for Honda, circa 2004, at about the same time Triumph introduced its 810-pound, 2.3-liter Triple, the Rocket III. Kawasaki piled on with the Vulcan 2000, a 2053cc V-Twin swinging 4-inch pistons through a 5-inch stroke. Harleys stayed the same … Would the escalation in excess never end? Thankfully, yes. All it took was a little Global Economic Collapse. I, for one, am way happier now that the OEMs are back to right-sized motorcycles that are fun to ride everywhere without tugboat assist. Not that we wouldn’t like to borrow a Rocket III again…
3. Helmet Mohawks and Exoskeletons
Far be it from me to dictate style, but it’ll be fine with me if the helmet mohawk has about run its course. To me, I guess, since most of them are red, it’s akin to waving a red flag in front of the ruminant behind the wheel. Why provoke? Purely a personal choice, though, and if you like gladiator movies, why not? I guess it does increase your visibility.
The Back Protector as an exterior garment is better than nothing if you’re saving up for a nice jacket, but if it means you can’t afford gloves, I’d do it in the reverse order. Having scuffed-up hands is a huge bummer. What can I say? It’s my job as an old guy to bag on the kids and impart wisdom.
2. Bagging on Hipsters
Once upon a time, there was a 17-year old kid in bell bottoms and a lumberjack shirt flapping happily along on back of his buddy’s flame-painted CB350 chopper, who didn’t know a swingarm from a sebaceous gland. Do you know who that kid was, Billy? It was me. I went on to not know much more, but I have become somewhat more discriminating in my tastes as an advanced motorcycle consumer. I’m totally with Gabe here. Today’s neophyte is tomorrow’s motorcyclist, and we need to do all we can to set the hook. The more of us, the less chance the mean old gubmint will clamp down on us, and the more shiny new motorcycles industry will crank out. Instead of disparaging the hipster, we need to encourage him, to praise him for making the choice to ride, and to sell him our clapped-out stuff for top dollar on Craigslist.
1. The Highwayman!
The Highwayman disappeared as suddenly and mysteriously as he’d appeared from Parts Unknown in the late ’90s, a mystical pony-tailed Hog-riding comet blazing across the basement ceiling of the Great American West motorcycle forums, laying profuse verbal waste to all atrociteurs before him as he showed us the error of our pathetic ways, the Righteousness of His. Our frail ribs are still badly sore from the mighty laughter he used to generate with his steadfast teachings. Our best guess as to his fate is that he either died valiantly in a battle royale against the forces of evil, or was snapped up by Harley’s advertising agency with strict orders not to moonlight? Godspeed, Highwayman! wherever you are. Send us a signal if you’re out there!
Here’s the Highwayman on Roland Brown’s Superbikes of the Seventies on Amazon.com:
Superbikes of the Seventies Customer Review:
0 of 80 people found the following review helpful
The Righteous and the Damned, October 28, 2002
This review is from: Superbikes of the Seventies (Hardcover)
Motorcyclists are known by the machines they ride. And men are known by the company they keep.
These veritable truths account for why Harley men keep to their own kind on the open road. Whether on reconnaissance in local territories, carrying the flag from coast to coast in a well-regulated convoy or striking a daring posse deep into the uncharted badlands, Harley men place their trust and confidence in other men of robust character and proven substance. Men who can be counted on through good times and bad. Men who never surrender, and don’t take prisoners. Stout and hearty men who sit proud and righteous in the saddle. Men who make up the Harley-Davidson brethren.
There’s no place here for anyone looking for a false way in and an easy way out. There’s no place for men or bikes that by artifice are here today but by expediency will be gone tomorrow. There’s no place for those who pledge allegiance to far-eastern feudalism by riding Asian atrocity cycles slammed together in some godforsaken land. There’s no place for the sniveling lisp and depraved cowardice of atrociteurs who would make a slobbering mockery of real American motorcycling.
That leaves the atrociteurs off on their own, with a facade of pose and pretense, and a despair of resentment and bitterness. Taking the badges of vulgarity off their throwaway contraptions out of shame, but leaving a space as blank as their empty souls. Carrying on with a sham travesty of brotherhood that’s nothing but a hollow charade. Pretending to be the real deal but fooling nobody.
Not ordinary American folk, who are comforted that all is well on the home front only when they see genuine Harleys lead their Fourth of July parades down the Main Streets of America. Not womenfolk, who by intuition know the deep rumble of the mighty Big Twin as the unmistakable confirmation that real men are in command of the nation’s destiny. Not even youngsters, who have a keen sense of authentic role models and clearly know the difference between a real American motorcycle and some knock-off in tin and plastic.
There’s a fork early on in the road for every motorcyclist in America, with paths going off in opposite directions. A life membership in the brotherhood of righteousness is part of the authentic Harley-Davidson experience. A life sentence among the damned is reserved for the atrociteurs.
Choose carefully, `cause there’s no turnin’ back.
They call me . . . The Highwayman