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MC Dispatch

Reader-submitted rides, reviews and stories


Is Newer Better?

by Alison Green


Tags: new, motorcycles, bmw, maintenance,

r1200r 

A BMW test rider aboard a new 2009 BMW R 1200 R. Sure it's faster and sleeker than an old Bemmer, but is it better? 

Occasionally I prowl about on bike-related “forums” on the web. There are plenty of interesting and clever people out there who are willing to share their expertise on all things motorcycle. As I ride somewhat-venerable BMWs, these are the sites to which I gravitate. I’ve picked up quite a few tips; I have been amused, entertained and occasionally annoyed. The very few times that I have participated, someone out in the etherland has kindly supplied me with the information that I sought. Neat! 

Back to BMW’s. The old ones are solid, reliable, clunky, slow, and highly sought after by many. The not-quite-so-old ones, say 1970 thru 1985, are even more reliable, slightly faster, solid, sometimes also clunky, and seemingly bulletproof. They are also very user friendly when they need attention. I can attest to this first-hand as my bikes have survived years of my meddling with their works and still perform without surprises. The modern generation of Bavarian bikes are simply astonishing in their complexity, handling, speed, comfort, and through-the-roof prices. Very few will argue with most of these claims. So why don’t I get a newer ride? 

Subconsciously, I have been arguing with myself for some time in an attempt to justify the purchase of a newer machine. After all, my ‘new’ bike is now 25 years old. Neither of my bikes is speedy, and many things need adjusting – frequently. But over and above the budget issue, there has always been the niggling suspicion that newer might not mean better in total. There is no argument that the components are much improved: especially power, electrics, brakes and suspension and handling. In other words, the bikes are leap years ahead of the older models in almost every respect that one could mention. 

Does this not mean that the bikes are better? What is missing? Why hesitate if the wallet can cope? 

Number one on my list is character. This is hard to define and very personal, but any bike with so much plastic shrouding just doesn’t do it! Styling for the skateboard set just doesn’t grab me. Besides, I’m old fashioned enough to want to see at least some of the motor! Also, I am not convinced that I am rider enough for the horsepower on tap on most big new bikes. 

The second factor is attitude. Not mine – but the manufacturer’s!  I just couldn’t put my finger on it until I came across a thread on the BMWMOA forum.  Most of the machines produced since 1995 were never intended to become members of the family.  These bikes have high-tech, computer-driven, complex systems that very few can understand, let alone repair or even maintain. These bikes are not meant to be user friendly if things go wrong. If you buy into the market, you are expected to have every little twitch dealt with by the dealer. Warrantees are good for three years – often five, and then you are encouraged to trade up to the latest and greatest and start all over. The intended market is well heeled and doesn’t wish, – or know, how to do even basic maintenance. After three years, if something goes wrong with the bike it is usually serious, expensive and dealer-service only. ABS and integrated brake systems, fuel injection, computer chip technologies controlling all engine functions: these aren’t for even the talented home mechanic. You are essentially expected to buy into the philosophy of ride and trade up! Don’t try to understand it, don’t tinker with it, just ride it then trade it in. Impress everyone with all of the latest technology and go faster, always faster… 

I suspect that this same attitude has crept into all manufacturers who serve the North American motorcycle market. Certainly that is the way of all automobiles on the road. It isn’t wrong, but it definitely isn’t right for me. 

I like my bikes to be user friendly, even when they are not behaving properly. Besides, I’ve given up trying to impress anyone else. I can’t – my bike doesn’t go fast enough! -- Alison Green 

peted
12/26/2008 8:43:27 PM

Technology luddites promote the perception of a dealer-centric marketing model. The operative phrase “if something goes wrong” is a fallback for riders of antiques requiring “frequent adjustments” clinging to any unreasoned justification for riding less safe, less efficient, more polluting machines that are promoted by magazines devoted to praising their bygone era. I can agree on the plastic issue, and feel slightly ashamed that I have a modest aftermarket plastic windscreen that makes a daily one hour commute much more tolerable, particularly in the rain. However the character of my modern full-face helmet with integral Bluetooth headset attached to an iPhone, provides an occasional phone contact, continuous podcasts and audio books, and occasionally directions when lost. If older is better, I just can’t abide the historical Manson-family friendly characterization of a helmet-less biker on a brain deadening, muffler-challenged twin chanting the mantra that “loud pipes save lives” at the top of his lungs. Nor are the old traditional riding accessories better. I rode for years with leather, but will never again invest in leather when my bug-encrusted synthetic armored jacket, pants and boots provide much more than Fonzie’s studded leather jacket. The myth that ‘older is better’ is a self-deceptive chant of the occasional tinkering motorcycle enthusiast in the perennial sunshine of SoCal, not one believed by bikers that use two wheels for their primary transportation.


peted
12/26/2008 8:37:40 PM

Though I won’t willingly part with my 73 Toaster or 76 90/6, neither do I ride them with the same level of confidence that my 04 R1150R with ABS provides. Never intended to be members of the family?! Just because it may be a bother for me to ride 100 miles to see the nearest dealer every two years to have the ABS purged? My modern BMW has a predictable and reliable “character” that, over the last 77,000 miles, has demonstrated to me stopping power and control with a fuel injected, catalytic-converter clean acceleration unequalled in safely, speed, and reliability. Conversely, my antique’s “character” demonstrates barely adequate brakes, an aversion to cold weather starting, and handling that is heavy and ponderous. The antique’s can barely keep a charge on the battery, let alone power the heated grips, seat, jacket, and gloves that turn the modern BMW into an all-season ride. The idea that antiques are “user friendly” ignores the collection of special tools required for their maintenance. Start with a bulky exhaust nut wrench, and don’t forget the knowledge that taking off the engine cover without disconnecting the battery will likely fry the diode board. Going deeper requires more specialty tools for swing arm, clutch, main seal, and the friendly application of heat to remove the transmission cover for replacing bearings and seals. All necessary operations for a 25-year-old bike. In what universe is setting the point gap or troubleshooting an errant condenser considered family-friendly fun? I don’t fool with the brains in the engine or the brakes, but neither do they make their presence felt, except through an innocuous flashing light, reliable cold starts, and an incredible ability to stop quickly in the rain by simply squeezing on the front brake lever. What level of understanding is needed to squeeze as hard as you care to on one brake lever while a computer perfectly proportions the braking between front and rear, all the while making sure that the whe


ron angert
12/26/2008 7:47:36 PM

I had the same problem. I ride a '68 R60 and the 'modern' bikes are a 1981 R100 and a 1980 R65 (being returned to road worthiness) but I wanted a bike with better brakes and a little more fun for short runs in the mountains and riding the 10 miles to work. I started with Honda Ascots and advanced to Honda Hawk GT that, even with a chain (How does one maintain one of those?) is a pretty easy keeper. My local Honda dealer is good to get me parts and the service guys would work on it if I asked them to. So far I have done it all myself with the help of the internet groups. And both of these old Hondas have character. Find someone with a Hawk and take it for a ride. IF I were tall enough and rich enough to buy a new BMW I doubt that I would. I agree with all you said.


chuck west
12/26/2008 4:34:50 PM

Right on! I've been a motorcyclist for about fifty years. After a long dry spell of some ten years, I got back into motorcycling. Actually, my head and heart never left it. I have had my share of plastic sheathed land rockets, but when I went out looking for my "new" bike I got a classic Triumph Thruxton. Now, it can be said that the new Triumph Bonnevilles are modern bikes, but they still harken back to the truly classic bikes rather than the newer high tech bikes. And, don't mistake that I don't like a bit of speed. I can't remember who said it, but I couldn't agree more: "It is more fun to ride a slow bike fast than to ride a fast bike slow." Chuck