Moving Targets

Reader Contribution by Richard Backus

What we call classic is something of a moving target, and while some will disagree, I put the three “modern” bikes featured in this issue — BMW’s wild 1989-1993 K1, Harley-Davidson’s unexpected 1994 VR1000 and Suzuki’s more staid 1985 GS1150E — firmly in that category.

When BMW released the K1 in 1989, its radical styling turned off BMW fans in particular, who reacted in something approaching mute horror at the K1’s decidedly un-BMW appearance, its bodywork punctuated by lurid ketchup or blue and yellow paint schemes with screaming yellow graphics.

I loved it, however, and so did a few others. In his 1989 report in Rider, Clement Salvadori praised the K1 as an “ideal sporting bike.” Rolling on the throttle to test the K1’s capacity, he reported effortless 100mph cruising through Italy’s Gran Sasso mountains. The downside? A price tag approaching $14,000, enough money to buy two of the finest and fastest new sport touring bikes from Japan, like the Kawasaki Concours and Yamaha FJ1200. Although I think time has been kind to the K1, it surprises me that even today it still inspires the same kind of love it or loathe it response it did all those years ago, with more people apparently still in the loathe it camp.

Harley-Davidson’s wild VR1000 created similar confusion in the Bar and Shield crowd when it was first unveiled back in 1993. Granted, it was never really intended to be a street bike (a missed opportunity according to tester Alan Cathcart), but it pushed some of the same aesthetic buttons as the K1. It sported the traditional orange and black Harley colors, but in a wild Jekyll and Hyde presentation, with one side of the bike black and the other orange, a scheme that continued to the frame even though it was hidden by the VR1000’s very un-Harley-like acres of plastic.

The K1 and the VR1000 are both important bikes, but for somewhat different reasons. Even though the K1 failed in the marketplace, the exercise seemed to embolden BMW, which was slowly working to release itself from a decades-long association with air-cooled opposed twins. For Harley, the VR1000 exercise seemed to have an almost opposite effect. Unfortunately for Harley, the VR1000 was no match for its competition on the track, and unlike BMW, Harley was experiencing record growth with its traditional air-cooled V-twins, a decades-long association it was keen on maintaining. Change came slowly at Harley, and the VR had long disappeared in the rearview mirror by the time the radical — for Harley — 1,250cc liquid-cooled V-Rod (a bike whose V-twin engine shared direct DNA with the VR1000) was introduced in 2001.

In contrast with those two bikes, Suzuki’s 1985 GS1150E was greeted with enthusiastic appreciation for its refined and powerful engine. Heralded as the return of the standard Universal Japanese Motorcycle, it was roundly applauded for bringing old-school horsepower back to the street. Missing in most discussions was any praise for its awkward styling, a fact that betrayed something of a conditioned response to new Japanese bikes of the period. By 1985, we were used to Japan’s Big Four dressing their bikes in a multitude of different fashions as they battled for market share. The GS1150E may not have been perceived as an aesthetic triumph, but that didn’t seem to matter because it was exactly what we expected from the Japanese.

In contrast, the VR1000 never really had a chance, and frankly it’s amazing it was ever built for its intended track duty, much less to homologation street levels. Meanwhile, the K1 pushed too many of the wrong buttons, especially for the BMW faithful, many of them still trying to come to terms with BMW’s foray into inline fours starting some years earlier. It was just too much, too soon, a feature shared by many of motorcycling’s greatest designs.

Richard Backus

Motorcycle Classics Magazine
Motorcycle Classics Magazine
Motorcycle Classics Magazine Featuring the most brilliant, unusual and popular motorcycles ever made!