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!