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15th April 2016

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Famous Last Words 36: Eighty Five BHP

When it comes to classic bikes (or indeed any bikes), how much horsepower is the right amount of horsepower? Frank Westworth has uncovered an intriguing convergence...

Do you have a favourite motorcycle? Good, good; we have something in common. Do you have a second favourite motorcycle? Maybe also a third? Having more than three favourite motorcycles is probably getting a little selfish; hogging all those motorcycles would probably be considered to be a bad thing in these politically correct and endlessly critical times. However, unafraid as I am to court the derision of everyone, it dawned on me only the other day that my three favourite motorcycles have something faintly surprising in common. Apart from having a wheel at each end, before you ask.

I am a simple soul, and prefer simple definitions to subtle, complex justifications which are usually meaningless, so… so in this case, I have defined my favourite motorcycles as being motorcycles which actually belong to me and which I ride the most. Bikes belonging to other people are fantasy bikes, because unless you own and ride the things you really do have no idea what they’re like in this, the real world. And although The Shed contains several motorcycles which some view to be aspirational classics, none of them is a particular favourite of mine. None of them. They all have an appeal, an attraction, obviously enough, but they’re not favourites.

As we hurtle once again towards the red-hot maelstrom of delight which is the English Summer – or ‘riding season’ – I inevitably find myself wondering which of the disturbingly large collection of weary and woefully under-used machines I should put on the road. This year, I’ve found myself ignoring the old clunkers, or classics, if you prefer, because they are so cheap to put on the road and to run whenever the urge sets in that I tend to leave a handful legal at all times anyway. The expensive bikes to run are the more modern ones. I selected three, as I said. Three favourites. And what do they have in common? Are they all doughty British bruisers? No. Only one is British-built, one is American and the other is British but built … elsewhere. Mostly. Are they all the same colour? No. One is red, one is black with chrome bits and the other is black with added black and the only other colour is orange – the indicator lenses. Oh, and the red rear lamp of course.

Famous Last Words 36: 85BHP
Black Bikes on ...

Maybe the engines are the same? Now you’re getting warmer. The engines are all twins. Almost all of my favourite motorcycles down the years have been twins. But apart from that, they’re decently different. One is a 600cc rotary, one is a 1450cc V-twin and the other is a 1200cc parallel twin. With orange indicator lenses.

What the bikes do finally have in common is their quoted power delivery. They all produce around 85bhp. But they are so different in the way they deliver that power and in the way they perform on the road that I found myself wondering whether now is the time to cease comparing bikes at all, whether by their capacity, their power figures or indeed anything else which is easy for a journalist to write up into something saleable to magazines and meaningful for the masses who read them.

I also discovered that the power figures quoted vary a truly remarkable amount, with the V-twin out on a limb of its very own; power quoted for that can be as low as 67hp and as high as 98bhp. The internet is a gloriously useful research tool, and everything on there is of course true. It is also a mystery of life that so many of these internet facts contradict each other.

Famous Last Words 36: 85BHP

If you care enough – which I doubt – you will have worked out that the three bikes are a Norton, a Harley-Davidson and a Triumph. And apart from their notional and possibly spurious quoted power outputs, they have another feature in common – apart from being my own favourite bolides, of course. They are all excellent machines for jaunting a few hundred miles in relative comfort, with relative ease and with a relatively wide smile plastered across the manly chops. At any point while wrestling with the weary world of magazines and becoming screen-bound in the process, I can flash up a picture of any of them and simply want to ride. Far and not particularly fast, as is my way.

The power figures surprised me, hence these words. I know many high-miles and endlessly smiling riders who maintain that a 125 MZ is at least as much fun as a Suzuki Hayabusa. And I know at least as many who consider any bike developing less than 140bhp to be pointless and unworthy of even looking at, never mind riding.

But 85bhp provides main-road overtaking acceleration and M-way cruising speeds. I could probably waste the rest of your day by proving how it is the optimal power delivery for any motorcycle, more or less, so to speak. Life – fortunately for us both – is too short. And here’s another similarity. Despite the bicycles being as different structurally as you might expect from the three manufacturers concerned, they do the same job – covering decent mileages at decent speeds with decent levels of comfort and delight – equally well.

So there you have it. If a bike develops more or less than 85bhp (+/– 5bhp, because we’re kind here at RC) then it’s either an over-muscled oaf or a feeble wimp. Neither is worth consideration. I shall post this opinion as ‘fact’ on the internet, thus devaluing your bikes at a stroke. Unless… Unless your best bike also develops around 85bhp. Do tell…

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