DTW Looks at Bikes for Non-Bikers
DTW likes to present itself as a dogma-free zone and, in general, we think that this is so. We cover four wheels without prejudice of value or social status. But once we step outside that, things change. When I was at school, with youth’s preference for factions, it seemed to be that you were either a car person or a motorbike person. I suppose there were people who were neither, but contempt or, at best, pity for them was the only thing that united car and bike lobbies. I was firmly in the car camp, and remained there until my late twenties, when I discovered bikes as well. But many car folk really have no interest in bikes, which makes writing about bikes on these pages a minority pastime.
Maybe some readers have been inspired by Dave Fisher’s excellent recent piece on motorcycle adventuring, and would like to savour at least part of that experience. But, generally, why don’t bikes appeal to drivers? In essence safety, convenience and, possibly, image. But sometimes car drivers do take up two wheels for reasons of practicality – say the need to make a long commute into a congested town. How well are these reluctant bikers served?
First there is the matter of getting a licence. My motorcycle training involved teaching myself to ride on a friend’s ‘sports moped’, which I could ride as fully qualified on a car driving licence, then hiring a 125 on which to take my test. The test was more or less two trips round the block without falling off, so the sum total of my road time with L plates was about 1 hour. After that I was free to buy the meanest bike I wished, though I confined myself at first to a modest 500.
Today it is more complex in the UK. If you got a full car licence before February 2001, you can ride a moped fully qualified, otherwise you need to go through the rigours of Compulsory Basic Training, a Theory Test and a Practical Test and, even then, if you’re under 24, you are still restricted to what you can ride. A moped (from motor and pedal) no longer actually requires the ancillary bicycle type pedals, but it must have an engine smaller than 50cc and a maximum speed of less that 45 km/h, so the chances are that, unless you are just tootling around city centres, you might want something a bit larger that will keep up with normal traffic – this assumes that you don’t go the common, simple (usually) but potentially illegal route of derestricting a moped to produce more power.
So, assuming you aren’t interested in graduating from powerful sports bike to ludicrously powerful sports bike to insanely powerful sports bike, what does the market have to offer you?
Since Enrico Piaggio’s 1946 Vespa and Soichiro Honda’s 1958 Super Cub, stylish, reliable and affordable two wheel transport has been available to those who don’t hanker to be Brando’s Johnny of the Wild One or his various successors. Conceptually speaking, the motorcycle industry is even more conservative than the car industry and, although leaking oil might be just a fond memory, most of the bikes of today stick to a similar template which relies on the good balance of the rider, and their willingness to be exposed to the elements.
Other projects have come and gone, such as the interesting Reliant engined, semi-enclosed Quasar produced piecemeal from 1975 to 1982. For those who don’t like leaning on corners, there has always been the trike. Usually with two wheels at the back, these have ranged from the Piaggio Ape and Harley-Davidson Servi-Car workhorses to the custom built chopper style trike. In 1970, the time-servers who ovesaw the atrophy of the British bike industry were stewards to the release of the BSA Ariel-3, a leaning 3 wheeled moped. Although the concept had some ingenuity, it was of course a cheapskate device and, justly, a failure. Honda revived the idea in 1981 with the Stream, again not a success although the technology lives on in the Honda Gyro delivery vehicles.
But all of these had two rear wheels, whereas having the two wheels at the front is the more stable configuration, and one of the Quasar’s creators, Malcolm Newell, was working on a trike with a leaning double front wheel when he died prematurely in 1994.
At one time the image of BMW Motorrad, the bike manufacturer, was quite different from that of BMW the sporting saloon car maker. Although having historical success in racing and record breaking, their post war products were, generally, aimed at the ‘mature motorcyclist’ rather than the ‘balls-out biker’. Their long standing flat-twin was the staple, supplemented for a while by three and four cylinder in-line engines, all fitted into comfortable frames, with shaft drive and, often, sensible fairings.
There were some ‘sports’ models, but they weren’t intended to compete with the likes of Kawasaki Ninjas. However, over the past decade, just as the car division has moved aside from its ‘ultimate driving machine’ tag in order to produce cars for a wider market, so the bike division has become less conservative, culminating, for the while, in the super-fast and super-competent K1300S.
BMW still does offer more staid bikes, such as its 650cc maxi-scooter, but it has stepped away from its ambitions of 15 years ago to produce a new kind of two wheeled vehicle that made no attempt to pander to macho biker philosophy. Styled and built by Bertone, the BMW C1 was introduced to great fanfare in 2000, with 124 cc or 176 cc Rotax engines. It was no lightweight, with a safety cell enclosing the rider who could be held in place by seatbelts so that, even if the bike fell on its side, they would not make contact with the road. This allowed BMW to succesfully lobby for exemption from helmet laws in various countries, though not the UK. A roof and windscreen gave weather protection.
A pillion passenger could be carried, but outside the safety cell, exposed to the elements. This was one of various downsides to the ungainly C1. It was met with some scorn from ‘real bikers’ whose received wisdom in the event of a spill was to separate themselves from the bike as soon as possible and who viewed intimacy with the elements as being a major reason for biking. This might not have mattered, except the intended customer base also felt there was something not quite right about the concept. After disappointing sales, BMW stopped making it in late 2002, though it was revived briefly as an electric powered concept in 2009.
Piaggio have long been the manufacturer for those who don’t want motorcycles. Indeed, in the 1960s, ownership of a Piaggio Vespa, or a rival Lambretta, was viewed as an act of aggression by many British bikers. Having survived for many years under Agnelli ownership, under Roberto Colaninno it has thrived with clever products. The retro ET series from the start of this Century, a descendent of the 1946 Vespa, proved very popular to city workers seeking to avoid congestion charges or crowded commutes.
Ten years later its MP3 series addressed the safety issue more convincingly than BMW had. Available in various models from 125cc to 500cc versions, it used a clever version of the sort of tilting front twin wheel arrangement mentioned previously to give additional stability on slippery surfaces but, unlike the C1, the MP3 is actually a fun thing to ride. Additionally the 400 and 500cc versions, with a wider front track, are technically 3 wheelers and can be driven on a car licence.
Another project from the same time as the C1 was the Adiva, developed by an independent Italian design company, but marketed by the volatile Benelli motorcycle company between 2001 and 2006. This had a superficial similarity to the BMW, but was really a cleverly designed scooter with luggage space and a foldaway roof, offering weather protection but no additional safety benefits. This, I have first hand ownership knowledge of, having ridden one for 4 years, until 2006 when irationality got the better of me and I returned to the inappropriately large engined motorcycling fold. Light and nimble, it offered remarkably effective weather protection to someone who finds the on-off struggle with waterproofs an irritation. From 2007, Adiva themselves carried on with the concept and their current model is the AD3, with a Piaggio type double front wheel. Possibly this is the perfect machine for the reluctant biker.
I now digress from objectivity to point out that there remains another bike for non-bikers, though here we enter the realms of my personal dogma. That is the bike that we old geezers promise ourselves for our retirement, or when the kids leave home, or when we sell the company. Which is the Harley-Davidson, the full-fat, farting Hog. I’m going to generalise crassly here, because I have met some H-D owners and found them to be perfectly well-adjusted, nice people and, if you are reading this, I naturally assume that you are the exception, rather than the rule. However teenage memories of Easy Rider, followed by a career of having to toe the sartorial line, too often results in the late-career crisis purchase of a bloated V Twin from Milwaukee with high bars, front mounted pegs and, naturally, a very shiny H-D logoed leather jacket to complement – Badass Biker Gang by way of Burton’s Tailors.
Already I’m feeling a killjoy for criticising a reasonably harmless personal choice and I admit that my antipathy would not be so extreme were it not for my great dislike of the sound that the things make. But since every flatulent combustion offends my ears I keep looking at the riders and thinking ‘for God’s sake, don’t act your age’. Yes, with my ownership history of a Benelli Adiva and a Moto Guzzi California I am very clearly in the realm of glass houses here, so it’s only fair that you should reciprocate with your contempt, but my plea to you is ‘just say no’.