THE PRETENDERS STORM THE THRONE

WhichBike? – August 1987

I’ve never really been a fan of freeway cruisers, at least not ‘til I tested a Kawasaki Vulcan after I began writing for Bike again in 2015, but brazenly dismissing them out of hand – as was my wont and as follows – also allowed me to take a pop at Harley-Davidsons and those who buy ‘em, something I wouldn’t dare repeat nowadays.

Image: Hunt Emerson

SOMETHING ODD’S HAPPENING. PEOPLE are riding cruisers. Quite a lot of people are riding cruisers. And it seems by the end of the year, lots and lots and lots of people will be riding cruisers.

I don‘t know why this should be. Unless, that is, I act cynical (a difficult feat, as you’ll know) and hark back to the words of Mr Steve Kenward (then head of Heron-Suzuki and also the MotorCycle Association – MW) in last month’s Worldview UK. ‘Manufacturers have immense power to determine what the market buys,’ he said. ‘If they want everyone to buy 750cc race replicas, they can actually do that, and gear their profits accordingly.’

It was later during our conversation that Kenward let slip that he thought that ‘Custom bikes would be the next major trend’ in this country, but I didn’t put two-and-two together until much later. Three weeks later, in fact, when I happened to be cutting my usual stylish dash along the A23 and kept reaching traffic lights at the same time as some guy on a Kawasaki Vulcan. My excuse for not blasting past this ‘hideously ugly, tackily finished and overweight machine’ [© T. Isitt] (Our then mighty editor – MW) was that I was riding the ’67 Triumph Bonneville recently restored for our sister magazine, Motorcycle Enthusiast, which with a mere 32 miles on the clock, I was not about to do a Pee Wee Gleason on (Gleason was a famous and fearless American drag racer – MW).

After trading furtive glances as we drew up to the red lights a few times – you know how it goes – I leant over and asked him what he thought of it. ‘Not bad,’ he said. And as its incumbent pilot was of the full-face, baggy Rukka school of motorcycling elegance, and clearly not your closet Angel, my next question was, ‘So why d’you buy it?‘

Somewhat taken aback, he replied: ‘Because I like the look of it, and it was cheap.‘

Indeed.

Beguiling arguments, whichever way you look at them. Well of course the way I look at it is with mild amusement and a certain amount of disdain. Riding a poor pastiche of a Harley-D on the rain sudden, over-crowded roads of Blighty seems pretty daft to me, but then so do a lot of things considered normal by otherwise sane men. But personal foibles aside, is this the shape of trends to come, manipulated by the likes of Heron Suzuki or otherwise?

Hate to say it, but the signs are erring towards a definite ‘Go’ mode.

Consider first the impact of Harley-Davidson in this country. In recent years, Harley have footed an advertising budget that surely must be disproportionate to their eventual sales. But the net result is that their 1987 quota was sold out months ago. Alright, so that’s 130 bikes, but remember we‘re talking price tags that start at £4200 and rise to a heady £8000. (Happy days! – MW)

The only guy I know who actually owns a Harley is a big boy in the Hells Angel hierarchy, and although when I first met him many years ago he rode a chopped BSA 650, he now will barely acknowledge the existence of anything other than Milwaukee iron, much less contemplate riding it. Since my friend tends to subscribe to the ‘flsts-first’ school of social debate I haven’t really taken him to task on the impracticalities of owning a Harley in the UK even when, okay especially when we’ve been getting loaded together at the same bar. But the cost of spares, the contorted, cratered and congested nature of our roads and our inclement climate would certainly deter me from buying a Harley (but then of course my outlaw friend may not have actually, ahem,  bought his in the first place . . .)

Such considerations are in fact arguments for choosing a Harley clone – e.g. the Vulcans, Intruders and Viragos of this world – for though they ape the style of Milwaukee, they are Japanese bikes built for world markets rather than the straight, slow roads of a laid-back America. Harley-D’s advertising dismissively and relentlessly points out that these oriental pretenders are thus compromised by traditional American standards, but this hasn’t stopped the company quietly ‘civilising’ their own products in the meantime. Indeed it is some testimony to this process that enabled Harley to reclaim their lead in sales of machines over 850cc last year after a seven year hiatus.

However this is not something the Big Four are taking lightly. The latest generation of quasi Harleys, Kawasaki’s  1500cc Vulcan, Honda‘s 1100cc Shadow and Suzuki’s 1400cc intruder eschew Japan‘s previous policy of trying to make smaller, high tech and often multi-cylinder engined bikes look like big, slow cruisers. These new behemoths are big, slow cruisers whose tall 45/60° v-twin engines chug lazily along just like those of a Harley.

Perhaps the consequences of Japan’s head-on assault on the walls of Juneau Avenue are not yet discernible in Britain, but l’m fairly convinced that they soon will be. In the recent past, the Japs have tended to develop sportbikes for the world markets, and custom bikes for America, but faced with a contracting world market, they can no longer afford to develop any bike exclusively for America. So the process of dumping surplus inventory wherever a few extra sales can be picked up will not just accelerate, it will become the main platform of their marketing strategy. This means that instead of getting a few X8650 Customs, Honda Nighthawks and Kawasaki SR650s thrown at us a couple of years after they‘ve saturated the US of A, the new generation of custom bikes will start appearing in European showrooms within months of their American launch. At least that’s my interpretation of the facts as I see them and Steve Kenward’s comments as I heard them, but even if my eyes are coated with a constant film of jaundice and my ears contain built-in cynicism conditioners, there are precedents for this sort of thing.

For example, no one here demanded an endless slew of fake enduro bikes for us to ride solely on tarmacadam, Japan simply decided that they could sell more lightweights if they tarted them up that way. And if there is indeed an imminent invasion of chrome-laden cruisers for us to wallow around on, then many people who cut their motorcycling teeth on ugly little CM250s and SR250s or even, gawdhelpus, Fantic Motor Choppers, will positively wig-out when they get a chance to buy the real thing.

Ironically, however, if the ‘real things’ turn out to be relatively slow, simple, twin-cylinder four-strokes in conventionally-sprung chassis, then mainstream motorcycling will have stepped back from the brink of the high-tech, ‘speed-is-all’ overkill presaged by the GPX/VFR/ FZ sportbike faction. And that may be no bad thing for the future of motorcycling as a whole.

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About markswill

For those unaware of my glittering career, I started scribbling for the underground press in 1968 and by complete chance was appointed Music Editor of International Times when I happened to visit their office for the first time in '69 on a day trip down from Birmingham. Naturally I took all of a stoned nanosecond to accept the offer... and it's all been uphill ever since. If you really give a stuff, a full resume of my, er, resume is available on the Career page of my website, www.markwilliamsmedia.co.uk, but for now just be content to know that I'm an opinionated media junkie of a certain age who won't sit still.

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