Motorcycling's early, confusing years

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I’m working on a project that allows me to travel back in time for a look at what’s happened to motorcycling over the past 50 years. So far, it’s been a fun, as well as educational, journey.

At the beginning of the ‘60s, motorcycles were barely an industry. When Honda entered the market in 1959, it was like lighting a fuse on a rocket. Seemingly overnight, we went from a country with a few hundred thousand registered motorcycles to one of over a million. What had been a curiosity became mainstream in a relatively short time span, and right behind it came a trunkful of problems, including several interest groups, some of which we’re still dealing with today.

Prior to the ‘60s, motorcycling was relatively unfettered by rules, laws or regulations. An OEM built a bike, made sure it had all the necessary equipment ­— two wheels, engine, handlebars, headlight and taillight — and shipped it. Dealers uncrated it, serviced it and sold it. A customer walked in and bought it. It was all pretty simple.

The explosion in sales was accompanied by an explosion of dealers, many ill-equipped to be dealers, and buyers ill-equipped to ride. Typically, a dealer started with another primary business, a service station, hardware store, bicycle shop, you name it. While most knew about sales, many had no concept of the term “service.”

The OEMs were also to blame in this context. Most were unprepared for the influx of customers, the harsh conditions to which their products would be subjected, and the new consumers’ lack of interest in tinkering. As a result, they failed to supply the training required to keep bikes on the road, and in many cases, they couldn’t deliver service parts on a timely basis, if at all.

The customer? For most of them, this was their first motorcycle. The few who already knew how to operate a motorcycle had probably first learned from a friend, who’d also learned from a friend. The rest relied on the dealer to teach them. Teaching consisted mostly of a dealer finding a nearby open spot, or quiet side road, explaining the various controls, and then letting them practice the drill statically a few times before sending them wobbling their way down the road.

At this time there wasn’t a standardized shift location or pattern. Bikes shifted on the right or left, the shift pattern could be first up then three down, or first down then three up, or it could be one through four up to neutral and repeat (rotary shift). Most bikes had gotten rid of the manual spark advance, but not all. Kick-starting was the method du jour, and that usually required a special ritual involving priming the carb and rotating the piston to near TDC, and then leaping onto the kick top to hopefully get things moving.

Most motorcycles didn’t come with rearview mirrors, turn signals, or brake lights actuated by the front brake.

The motorcycles that began to come in from Japan were cheap, nonintimidating and hip. Boomers had just started graduating from high school, and the lure of these tiddlers was overwhelming. It was almost the perfect storm. Suddenly where there had been no motorcycles, they were all over the place, making noise, disturbing the peace, and flooding the roads with hard-to-see vehicles. Accident rates rose, and although auto accidents and deaths were also on the rise, a motorcycle accident usually involved a young person.

As a result there were proposals and in some cases laws enacted to cover things like standardization of brake location on the right, special licensing for motorcycle operators, mandatory helmet, eye and foot protection, daylight lights, rearview mirrors, turn-signal indicators, brake lights actuated by the front brake, handlebar height limits, and laws prohibiting the modification of OE mufflers. To make this happen more quickly, in 1966 the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act mandated that states do something about motorcycle safety or risk losing 10 percent of their federal road-building funds.

Of course, the proposals that engendered the most heat were mandatory helmet laws, though every proposal had its opponents, and the magazines were filled with letters indicating that if any of these laws were to be passed, it would doom the sport.

Well, here we are 50 years later. While retail sales have been down, judging by the number of motorcycles on the roads, particularly on a weekend, motorcycling is doing very well. Mandatory rider education, licensing, standardization of controls, etc., didn’t kill the sport, but likely attracted more people to it.

We still have the issue of mandatory helmet laws and noise. The call for adequate footwear never went anywhere, though it’s a good idea. We have a helmet law in California, but it’s a sham. Many of the helmets offer no protection, and after an initial spate of enforcement, as long as you have something shiny that resembles a helmet on your head, you’re OK.

Finally there’s the noise issue. Irritatingly loud exhausts are still with us after all these years. A bill recently signed by California Gov. Schwarzenegger is draconian, leaving no room for personalization. All motorcycles built and sold after 2013 must have the original OE exhaust intact, to be confirmed by the OEM’s statement of certification stamped into the muffler.

Will the industry survive noise regulation? I think so. We’ve survived everything else!

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews November 2010 issue.