WHAT’S WRONG WITH SEAT OF THE PANTS ROADTESTING?

WhichBike? March 1982

I originally titled this ‘In Defence of Trousers’ but that was deemed a bit too obscure for WB? readers… and maybe the then staff themselves. So naturally essence of sour grapes influence this column – freelancers, as I then was, being rather low of the pecking order when it comes to testing state-of-the-art megabikes. The slightly tart editorial disclaimer at the end of my otherwise restrained and carefully considered prose was, however, rather uncalled for! And testing-wise, IMHO things haven’t changed that much since 1982

Another of Hunt Emerson’s brill cartoons, repro’d here in blue as the B&W one had a crease down the middle

THE ABSURD BATTLE CURRENTLY being waged by motorcycle magazines for the title of Most Respected/Authoritative/Pompous Organ is probably as baffling to you as it is irksome to me. In the interests of mental health, I will therefore try and put it into perspective.

Let us first of all go back to the Olden Days, when editors were merely content to try and make theirs the “best” magazine – a task they soon tired of – and for not entirely implausible reasons: What is the “best”? How do you establish the quintessential qualities of a journal that panders to crude sexism, loud behaviour and the worship of mobile ironmongery?

Well, Superbike (a long and arguably well-dead mag – MW) for example, figured that tits-a-go-go were a recipe for success. Motorcycle & (let’s not forget) Scooter Mechanics (ditto – MW) rightly assumed that a lot of oily oiks would rather see pix of stripped Dominator gearboxes than those of naked female flesh. Bike, for which I must shamefully bear a measure of guilt, encouraged lawlessness and beer-guts from the cosy confines of a Peterborough prefab. And Motorcycle Sport (see above – MW) rode blissfully along in a time-warp and made frequent editorial allusions to the imprisonment and subsequent torture of anyone who owned a Japanese bike and/or had not yet reached the age of 72, etc, etc, etc.

Did that make any one of them the ‘best”? Of course not. But staffs and publishers acted as though they were all sitting comfortably on the pinnacle of excellence until, that is, a few years ago when certain unimaginative media corporations, suffering from a lamentable lemming mentality, found it de rigueur to launch a bike mag. It was then that lofty practices like “market research” and “readership profiling” began usurping a publishing psychology that had hitherto relied largely on the slurred bigotry bandied about in lounge bars on the Isle Of Man.

Something called New Motorcycling Monthly really threw a spanner in the woodpile by publishing a page of test data illustrated by an extraordinary melange of coloured hieroglyphics, comprehensible only to those with a BSc in Maths. This was supposed to outsmart the opposition at a stroke, as it had for some reason dawned on their publishers that Hard Facts were what gave a magazine credibility, and credibility got you readers. Because it came from one of the two stables that were then enjoying a virtual duopoly in motorcycle mag publishing, NMM’s fancy test read-outs were achieved at the Motor Industry Research Association’s facilities in Warwickshire, to which the two

large publishing combines had access. This was supposed to lend even more kudos to the whole scam.

What everyone was losing sight of at this point was that, although an accurate list of mechanical and performance detail is all very nice, these are only relative to the abilities of the hack in charge. Rule One of Reading Motorcycle Magazines is that you should never overestimate the intelligence or sobriety of biking journalists. Any idiot can copy out a factory specification or ring up a chap in the importer’s service department to find out how many links there are on a Hy-vo chain.

Likewise, there is no embargo on electronic timing gear, and the punctilious despot in the green eye-shade – that’s an editor to you and me,
sunshine – who trumpets membership of MIRA as if he were Moses holding up the Ten Commandments, is only kidding himself.

A quick bash round MIRA’s test track will certainly yield a set of figures that are indisputably accurate. But it also stands to reason that a light, experienced and quick-witted rider is going to coax higher speeds out of a fully run-in machine than some tubby novice plucked from the Wisbech Weekly Globe and planted on a brand new 1100cc Turbo-Macho a month earlier. All that’s happened since the quest for accuracy and detail became fashionable is that the various rags are trying to better each other’s figures, all of which result from the same equipment and the same circuit.

“Yeah, well we got three more mph and seven more mpg out of the bugger than Maniacs, which should get us some more advertising,” is roughly how these types think. But it seems rather bizarre to me that readers will swap from one magazine to another just because of more outrageous performance figures. The smart-Alec approach never won me over (possibly because I’m not very smart), and most of these so-called competitors are owned by one of two publishing companies anyway, so what the heck?

From a certain amount of experience in the field, I firmly believe that the average reader doesn’t give a tuppenny toss for the outright accuracy of test figures. What he likes to see are claims at least as unlikely as those he’ll make to his pals at the Pig & Trough (“Course my XS250 does an ’undred’n’five”), plus racy accounts of how various machines recreate Randy Mamola’s last win the moment you open the throttle. Any titbits concerning the pulling power and superior status the damn things offers are a useful bonus.

On a (slightly) more serious note, the pressures on magazine staff to fill an issue every week or month clearly affect the veracity of the test reports you read. Importers with test fleets limited by the size of the UK market are under intense pressure to get as much publicity for a new machine as possible, whilst also trying to satisfy the demands of editors who want the bike before, and for longer than, the others. In America, where there’s a larger overall market and fewer magazines, I’ve been offered brand new bikes for five times as long as I have here, with the opportunity of a full engine strip down by factory personnel for photographic and information purposes. Is it any wonder that the Yank mags appear more knowledge able and better-looking than most of their British peers?

What with the weather, the frequent executive meetings in the pub, reduced staffing levels due to the editor being flown to the Rio De Janeiro Playboy Club for the launch of an important new inner tube, and the fact that the receptionist from WhichBike? just trashed the XL500, it’s even less surprising that half the “exhaustive evaluations” you think you’re reading were in fact done on the basis of a two-hour schlep between Chiswick and Cambridgeshire in the driving rain.

The importers know this, of course, but since they’re the main perpetrators of this ludicrous merry-go-round they rarely complain about inaccuracy or padding. They only react when a writer slams a particular bike in a display of negative bias, but even then the tendency is for subtle punitive measures in the guise of cancelled advertising or demotion in the test-bike pecking order. The only man who ever gave me a hard time about technical or performance inaccuracies was the irascible ex-Laverda importer, Roger Slater, and quite rightly, too, under the circumstances. But now he’s long gone, and most of the concessionaires are too busy selling lawnmowers, chain saws and an ever expanding range of bikes to be overly concerned about what’s written… unless it’s outright offensive.

Which is why I’ll knock it on the head right now, before a tiny Scottish advertising person has a heart attack. (An obvious reference to WB?’s excellent if feisty then ad. man – MW).

The fact that WhichBike? is now a fully paid-up member of MIRA in order to allow its staffers (other than Mark Williams)  total freedom to blast around on fast bikes without forever being bothered by the law is, of course completely immaterial to the foregoing – Ed.

If you enjoyed the above, or even if you didn’t, do please bung me a comment (see below) and/or sign up for email alert to future blogs using the box on the RH panel

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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.

4 thoughts on “WHAT’S WRONG WITH SEAT OF THE PANTS ROADTESTING?

  1. I wonder what the sales figures would have been if the advertisement strap line had been:
    THIS (insert bike of choice here) HAS FAR MORE PERFORMANCE AVAILABLE THAN YOU HAVE ABILITY TO RIDE IT!
    Did we the buying public really fall for being told by the “expert” journalists that the latest VFZXRGPZRR1 was 0.2 quicker around a test track therefore last years model was a pile of poo and should be burnt immediately?
    Then we also had the good old marketing men massaging figures and duping the gullible.
    I guess with hindsight, a lot people can now see what was going on back then. (Is it still happening now?) You saw it at the time and called it out, congratulations and thank you.
    No wonder you weren’t flavour of the month/year/decade with the establishment.
    Keep it up!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Sam, and FWIW and based on the few roadtests I’ve done for Bike this past few years, it IS still going on now. For starters, the mags invariably use manufacturers’ output and performance figures instead of establishing them themselves (because it’s too time consuming and expensive to do so with limited manpower and many more bikes to ‘test’ per issue than back in my days).

    Like

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