Black Side Down

Ahead to the Past

When Heinrich and Wilhelm Hildebrand teamed up with Alois Wolfmüller to produce the world’s first production motorcycle, in 1894, they were building a machine targeted almost exclusively to a growing leisure class, a population of individuals with the time and resources to toy with emerging technology.

It’s doubtful they could have imagined how profound the motorcycle’s impact on society and culture would be. Although the motorcycle’s historically recreational status in the U.S. has limited its influence here somewhat, in other countries the motorcycle offered — and still offers — an unparalleled opportunity for personal transportation. Motorcycle sales may be slow here, but elsewhere, particularly in India and Asia, motorcycle sales are exploding.

In the U.S., increasing motorcycle sales closely followed our rise as the chief international and economic power after World War II. Twenty years later, we saw a real sales explosion following the rise in Japanese manufacturing capacity and competence that led to Japanese domination of the American market.

Yet the motorcycle in America remained at its core a recreational purchase, and often a seemingly offhand one as small Japanese and European motorcycles became available at places like Sears and Montgomery Ward, enticing customers who otherwise might have been shopping for a new lawn mower.

Changing technologies and consumer tastes led to larger and more powerful motorcycles, which increasingly elbowed smaller offerings off the showroom floor. Until recently, that evolution seemed set to continue unabated, as a growing category of ironically heavy and huge “Adventure Bikes” stormed showrooms. Then a surprise came in the fashion of a new generation of small, user-friendly two-wheelers, led by a handful of 125cc to 250cc Honda-clone-powered Asian singles. Japan’s Big Four jumped in, each offering their own take on how to make small fun again, in the process creating a ripple effect that has produced a bevy of really cool mid-size machines, a category that seemed to have mostly died after the Seventies.

Along the way, old has once again become cool. Manufacturers across the globe are digging into their corporate past, pulling styling and lifestyle cues from the bikes of yore to satisfy the changing tastes of a changing universe of riders. And if they don’t have a past, they’re buying it. Indian manufacturing giant Mahindra bought the BSA name and plans to build a BSA-badged single. At the EICMA 2017 show in Italy, now Chinese-owned and produced Benelli introduced the single-cylinder retro-cued 400cc Benelli Imperiale. Due for production in 2018, it looks more British than Italian, which makes a certain odd sense when you learn it’s aimed at the growing leisure market in India, where British thumpers of old are revered.

Royal Enfield is arguably the leading figure in the retro-themed category, a reality of ironic proportions given they were pretty much forced into that corner as they continued building the same vintage motorcycles for decades. Yet RE has evolved markedly in the past 10 years, adapting to a changing market and introducing improvements and new models, most notably at EICMA, where RE took the wraps off its first ever twin, the 650cc Interceptor and Continental GT. New it may be, but RE’s retro roots dictated its design, down to a single-overhead cam engine designed to look like a traditional pushrod mill.

As EICMA underscored, manufacturers keep looking forward, but with an eye on the rearview mirror. Like good friend Eligio Arturi said after visiting EICMA, Ahead to the Past!

Richard Backus

Switching Roles as a Motorcyclist Parent

When I was in my late teens and first started riding, my mother hated it. Not really a worrier by nature, and definitely not a helicopter parent, she was what I’d call prudently cautious, willing to accept a certain amount of risk because, hey, living is risk. And yet as rational as I knew she was, by my reckoning she harbored irrational fears of what might happen to me out on the battleground of the highway. I never gave my forays out on the open road a second thought, aided no doubt by youthful certainty and the conviction I could take whatever the road threw my way. How bad can it get? Rain? Wind? Just pay attention, ride accordingly and you’ll be fine, right? 
Whatever the conditions, it never occurred to me I wouldn’t make it to my destination, so I found my mother’s concern irritating and almost insulting, an expression of a lack of faith in my capacity. I really didn’t get it. Then my own children started hitting the road.
It’s not like I haven’t paved the way for them. I was independent then, I still am today, and I’ve always encouraged my kids — now adults — to be the same. Which begs the question: Just how surprised should I be that they both respond enthusiastically to the siren call of the road? Not at all, of course, but that apparently doesn’t rule out — and this has been surprising for me — my own rising parental apprehension when one of them does. 
The other weekend, Charlie, now 21, asked if he could borrow my 1973 BMW R75/5 for a weekend trip with his girlfriend, destination Jasper, Arkansas, and the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, a wild rock climbing competition-cum-festival in the Ozarks. I said yes, naturally enough, and set to making sure the BMW was good for the 700-mile round-trip run. Charlie’s first tour was with me last year, when the two of us rode 750 miles from Leeds, Alabama, back to Kansas following the annual Barber Vintage Festival, Charlie on the BMW, me on my Laverda RGS. I knew from that and subsequent rides that he’s developed good skills (it helps that he’s an avid bicyclist and that he took the MSF rider safety class), yet as excited as I was for him and the ride ahead, I was amazed to find myself fighting something akin to a welling fear, a worry about what could happen to him and his girlfriend on the road. And it was driving me crazy. “God help me,” I thought, “I have become my mother.”
They took off in the afternoon, a six-hour ride on two-lane roads ahead. They made it without issue, even if the weather wasn’t perfect, a fact which, perversely enough, often makes a trip that much more memorable. A mid-evening text from Charlie told me they were at their camp site, Charlie briefly describing the day’s ride as “horrible winds for the first two-thirds — and incredible riding for the last third.” Nice. At least the last part was good. And they were safe. A palpable sense of relief washed over me, and I started thinking about their return trip, now with a little less apprehension.
In the end the BMW ran fine, Charlie never put a wheel wrong and nobody tried to run them off the road. The weather may not have played out as they'd have liked, but it never occurred to Charlie they wouldn’t make it in one piece, just as it never did to me when my mother worried about me all those years ago. Ain’t it funny how life goes around?
Richard Backus