Written early in the era of the UJM, it’s true to say that things have changed a lot since then but for bikers of a certain age, e.g. ancient ones like me, there remains some residual, if tiny, pride in what was the British motorcycle industry and a sliver of hope that there might still be one again. But with the recent Norton debacle in mind and the fact that most Triumphs are built in Thailand that takes wishful thinking into the realms of fantasy. Ironically, the July issue of Bike magazine has a piece about the current manufacturing bases of once nationalistic marques like Benelli and Royal Enfield and asks does this now matter? Probably not to today’s few younger bikers, but it still doers to me.
IN THE MOTORCYCLE PRESS OF late, you may have noticed such weird-arse concoctions as flat-four Hondas and exotic European rotary-engined sickles with astronomical price tags.
Have such bizarre bolides caressed your imagination and whetted your appetite for a smattering of fact, or at least intriguingly writ rumour about these technological gizmos? Do you yearn for an inkling of the True Story if such there is behind such awesome ironmongery; a glimpse of the dedication and unfailing conviction of a small group of inspired and perhaps slightly eccentric chaps who burnt several gallons of midnight oil to get the thing onto the showroom floor?
Well if so, you can forget it.
For a long time now I’ve idly turned my thoughts to what makes a truly great piece of machinery, and it’s not just dependent on how many cylinders and camshafts a vehicle has bestowed upon it, or even the aesthetic impact of its visual appeal. Whilst both of these considerations may certainly contrive to carve out a niche in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame for any self-respecting supadupabike, there is still the little matter of legend to contend with.
Once, well before my time I hasten to add, the motorcycle world was full of such latter day exotica as Woolers, Scotts and radial-finned Guzzis with exposed flywheels. Very often the responsibility for the appearance of such machines in the exhibition hall, to say nothing of your local dealer’s window, rested in the hands of one or two rather gifted men. Some of these people, like Phil Irving for example, became contemporary legends: household words in the motor-cyclist’s vernacular. They were known, respected, and expected at any minute to spring some new masterpieces on a not wholly unsuspecting market. The motorcycle rags were full of their supposed plans – artists’ impressions of what the new so-and-so might look like and fuzzy photos of mysterious prototypes taken surreptitiously at misty morning practice sessions.
“Most of the new models mean as little to us as a newly announced brand of cat food.”
What all this loquacious balderdash is leading up to is a statement of blatant, probably unpalatable fact; there’s no mystery attached to the motorcycle industry any more. Or at least very little.
Most of the new models that appear before our eyes – usually in the form of a “show report” in the weekly motorcycle papers mean as little to us in human terms as a newly announced brand of cat food. It would certainly not surprise me if Suzuki presented a 12-cylinder five-stroke at the next Tokyo show. A picture of its perfect, gleaming, technically brilliant self would appear in the rags with a paragraph or two by way of PR puff and that would be that. No- one would be really surprised. Neither would anyone be totally distraught if the thing never actually appeared on our shores in the long run, because we have long since accepted, albeit subconsciously I suspect, that the responsibility for inventive wizardry in the cycle world rests with nameless corporate planners in some remote Oriental industrial combine.
As L] K Setright (Famed if eccentric fellow columnist and friend – MW) will be quick to point out, this in no way infers that technological barriers are not being pushed forward, but it seems to rob us Anglophiles of the excitement that motorcycle development once generated in the forties, fifties and early sixties. We’re out of touch with what’s happening; separated by differences in language, attitude and the scope of an industry ruled by ethics more akin to those of Detroit and Dearborn rather than Small Heath and Meriden. Which I find sad.
Were Britain’s bike builders thriving and developing new machines, rather than trying desperately to maintain our interest in hastily updated designs which are decades old, I’m sure our enthusiasm for new models when they were finally and officially announced would be greatly enhanced because it would be informed enthusiasm.
Personally I’m intrigued by the sort of “leaks” – some of them deliberate factory ploys to assess advance opinion – one sees in car magazines. Take, for instance, the slew of background stories and profiles surrounding Malcolm Bricklin and his astonishing “safety sports coupe” which are littered like holy grail in the US motoring press. (A failed forerunner of the failed DeLorean – MW). The car is about to go into mass production with a panting, highly expectant market practically banging on his dealers’ doors.
Once again in this column I’m making analogies with the four-wheeled world, something I know aggravates quite a few readers who consider that this being a cycle mag, I should temper my language accordingly. Well see here gentlemen, much as I admire Japanese (and especially Italian) motorcycle design, I yearn for the day when some new, practical and above all exciting British bike hits the streets. But in the last few years what have we had?
Well there was the BSA/Triumph OHC 350, cancelled at the last minute for financial reasons. Then there was the KRM, now an unfinished project that’s up for grabs to the richest crank. And even the bold little Mickmar engine project seems to be taking an awful lot of time – and gearbox components? – to reach the market. The NVT rotary? Well I’ll believe it when I see one in the showrooms. (Had to eat my words here, or at least chew on ’em slightly – MW)
Somehow it seems that whatever hot scoops there are to be had in the two-wheeled world are only available to American magazines. It’s in them that we read about Benelli 6s and Kawasaki 750s months before they appear, and it’s in US publications that we get some sort of: coherent background gossip about these new scoots. It is because of the traditional hesitance, nay reticence, of British importers to light their fires in advance of new products, that we’re confronted with the latest Japanese offerings only when they hit the Quayside? Or is it simply that the powers that be in Japan regard the UK as a minor market not really worthy of serious press cultivation? I’d be interested to hear your comments, care of this office.