As part of a project I’m working on, I’ve been trolling through old magazines, reading old road tests, reviews, impressions, letters to the editor and editorials, and going over the environmental and social issues of the past few decades. What’s remarkable about going back 50 or so years is to see how little has changed in some categories.
Motorcycles, accessories and gear have definitely gotten better over the years, as have road tests and event coverage. What hasn’t changed much are issues like noise, land use, helmet laws, image and proper motorcycle displacement for a beginner.
One issue that has come off the front burner is the answer to questions like “I’m 16 years old and buying a new motorcycle. Do you think a Honda 305 or a Triumph 500 would be OK?” In the ‘60s the usual response was “You should start with something between 50cc and 125cc, gain experience and then move up to something bigger.” The 50s made from 2 to 3 bhp; the 125s made from 7 to 9 bhp — and those were the OEMs’ claims, so the power was probably less. In either case, whacking open the throttle at an inappropriate moment wasn’t likely to bring a drastic end to the novice rider in his search for the limits of performance.
Fast-forward to today. The best guess is that a 250cc Ninja, the most popular 250cc streetbike, makes about 25 bhp. Looking back, my first two motorcycles — a 1958 DKW streetbike and a Honda CB160 — combined didn’t make that much power. In any case, the Ninja’s probably not a bad starter bike from a performance standpoint, but as I said, this seems to have faded as an issue, and most young riders view a 600 Yamasukawahon as a good platform from which to launch their motorcycle life. I wonder how many end up scaring themselves out of the sport while trying to keep up with their more experienced buddies.
The noise issue continues as it has for the past 50 years, and is in fact getting worse. The frequent question is “Will an open pipe improve the performance of my motorcycle?” The answer is “No, not unless a lot of other changes are made.” The recommendation is that riders stick with the stock exhaust system not only for its performance benefits, but for the good of the sport and the continuing friendship of their neighbors.
With the most recent boom in motorcycle sales, and the penchant for and availability of alternative pipes, we are now treated daily to an 1812 Overture of resounding, explosive exhaust noises, and in our reluctance to allay the problem, we’ll probably soon have legislation that effectively kills the aftermarket but does keep new bikes at a softer, more melodic song.
Ape hanger handlebars were a big deal in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and then went away for a while. You rarely saw them in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but now they seem to be flourishing like mushrooms after a rainfall, at least in California. The physics of riding a motorcycle haven’t changed. They weren’t a good idea in the ‘60s and aren’t a good idea today, maybe worse given the traffic density now versus then. You’d think a person would want to have as much control over the direction of a motorcycle as possible — then again, maybe not!
In the ‘80s, the industry, buried in a deep and lingering sales slump, decided that the problem with motorcycling was its image. (Maybe it was, but I suspect it was more of a demographic thing.) The thought was if the industry could make this image more acceptable, we’d be able to turn the market around. As a result, Discover Today’s Motorcycling was launched and continues to this day, working to provide a desirable image of what motorcycling is all about. The same problem existed in the ‘60s, at which time the AMA launched a program to correct that image, which was perceived to be that of an “outlaw.” While this problem is largely behind us, we are now cursed with the problem that the existing image, while not that of an outlaw, isn’t hip enough for Gen Y’s taste, so we need to change it to something more appealing.
The issue of motorized access to public lands has existed at least since the ‘60s, probably longer than that. But off-road use in the ‘60s was not a major issue. The population of the U.S. in 1961 was about half of what it is today, and there were vast areas of desert and, I presume, forest land in the Northeast that could be used without much hassle. As the population grew, riders had to travel farther and farther to enjoy their sport, as housing was built on land formerly used for riding. But even back then, it seems some bureaucrats were closing access to certain areas on nothing more than a whim. Land usage is more of a problem today. And it’s one that requires the efforts of both industry and user groups. It seems that some gains are made over here, and lost over there. This is one area that is constantly changing but doesn’t go away.
Finally, back in the ‘60s California closed its freeways to motorcycles of less than 15 hp. New York followed suit, and now I think it’s a national law. The questions at the time were: Who polices this issue? How does an officer know that a vehicle is 15 hp or less? What about those bikes that can exceed the 65 mph speed limit? Why are they banned? This issue has pretty much gone away. About the only two-wheelers that meet this criteria are scooters, and most scooter riders don’t want to mix it up on the freeway anyway.
This story originally appeared in the Dealernews October 2010 issue.