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22nd July 03
What's the difference between the greatest ever, or the most likeable bike? Dave Minton conducts a philosophical investigation...
You may find this hard to believe coming from a journalist now in his elder years steeped in vintagents and classics, but for the best of reasons -- education, elucidation and entertainment -- I subscribe regularly to Bike magazine. My only serious criticism is its preference of superb photographs over fine text. But such an unsatisfactory state of affairs -- because one good word evokes a thousand pictures -- is, alas, a constant through most modern publishing wherein the picture has become the word.
A few months ago Bike encouraged its readers to vote for the -- and I quote -- 'The Greatest Bike Of All Time.' When published this was headed 'Your 100 Greatest Bikes Ever.' Readers listed their top five bikes and one worst, which were duly tabulated by Bike staffers into the greatest 100 and worst 10.
At which point I'm stuck, mired down in my own incredulity, because with exceptions so rare that they were clear aberrations, the top five were all current models! The top 17 were all modern in the sense that they conformed to current production and design standards. Not until 18 was a anything of yesteryear nominated and that, predictably, was a Vincent Series C Black Shadow.
When I raised my doubts over the veracity of the list of all-time greats with pals, the usual reaction was a Gallic shrug and comment to the effect that people vote for what they know. Hmmph. I doubt it. Ask a crowd of people to identify the world's greatest tropical rain forest and most will nominate Brazil's Matto Grosso: few, if any, will have visited the place. In any case, are Bike readers so bereft of the fundamentals of their own two-wheeled culture that they lack all awareness of its history?
A long time ago, during my Fleet Street days, I asked the editor of our publishing company's magazine Antiques Guide why, at least among its readers, it was that everything old was venerated. This he abruptly dismissed as popular myth. In fact 95 percent of the old furniture under discussion was correctly discarded as unworthy of occupying further space in the world. What we see in fact represents only a tiny minority of the total but the near-1000 year span of furniture ensures that time sifts out the junk, so the surviving remainder is rightly treasured. Thus, lovers of antique furniture are educated by a variety of means into appreciating only the good and great extant. They cannot all have sat in Chippendale or Hepplewhite chairs but know from records, literature, expert opinion and good conversation whereat creative art and sound craft meld. Are us connoisseurs of the two-wheeled form so different?
Keep that paragraph in mind, because we now find ourselves required to consider our language -- English. In particular its etymology. So excuse me while we return to the very foundations of our culture -- language. In Britain, a nation better known for its pragmatism than its vision, there dwelt during the 18th century a minor philosopher by the name of Thompson. He claimed, with every good reason I suggest, that there could exist only one true philosophical debate. This was the meaning of words; for unless all parties concerned were in concord over what was under discussion, understanding, let alone agreement, would remain forever beyond reach.
You see where we're going? What did the well-intentioned Bike actually mean when it requested votes on the 'Greatest Bike(s) Of All Time'. Even more pertinently, what did Bike readers understand in the same question?
It's all very well to disagree because complete harmony, after all, would be disturbingly flavourless. In reality I can hardly argue with the first choice, a 1993 Ducati 916 which, as the anonymous compiler so accurately commented was, 'The bike that made Ducatis truly desirable and forced an engineering U-turn from the Japanese.' I am tempted to prefer the 1974 750SS because in Imola spec it won the Imola 200, since when V engines have turned our heads with their magic. But the 750SS for all its formidable performance did not much in its time influence the transverse four-commited Japanese. No, that responsibility did indeed lay with the 916.
But the second was a FireBlade, the third a VFR750, the fourth an R1, the fifth a CBR600. Something, surely, has gone very, very awry with a list of the 'Greatest Bike(s) Ever' when the top few are all modern and all more-or-less of the same mould? It seems to me that Bike readers decided to vote for the motorcycle they liked best of all, not the greatest; from which I perceive a tragically collective washing of brains. Now I've more-or-less tested the lot and, while as impressed as only an enthusiast can be who cut his teeth on 1930s Brit singles before moving on to 1960s sport twins, I'm damned if can identify most of Bike's preferences as anything more than supremely refined motorcycles.
Some years ago I spent time putting a Vincent Black Prince and a Honda Blackbird through their paces together. They shared similar-ish names and were designed to a near-identical bailiwick -- that of the grand turismo. Not to beat about the bush, after two hours on the Blackbird, the first five minutes aboard the Black Prince was pretty ghastly. The old Brit V-twin rattled its bones in dreadful protest, was slow, cornered insecurely, lacked brakes and, in short, brought tears of dismay to my eyes. How could I ever have loved my own Black Shadow so passionately?
But time and miles passed and, adjusting to the half century old twin, piece by precious piece I began to get the measure of the Vin. Two hours later we were flying, Vin and me, as the greatness of its design permeated my soul.
A return to the Blackbird's saddle revealed a motorcycle that once more I revelled in the instant I was aboard. It was for all practical purposes faultless, designed to impress the least talented among us. Now, let's not get snagged by the kissing cousin of greatness -- character; that seductive trap we'll by-pass. Nor must we be confused by what we like. I liked the Blackbird more than I liked the Black Prince. I would be mad not to. It was by almost any standard flawless, which even its heyday was not a charge to stick easily to a Black Prince.
But the fact that along with Bike readers I liked the big Honda more than the big Vin is no measure whatsoever of greatness.
The chasm separating the two is this. The Vin was an original and a technological and design pioneer. It was one of the first scientifically designed motorcyles, at least in Britain. This may be recognised in its valve train, its front and rear suspension and its frameless chassis, all of which, and more, were incorporated after great deliberation over the failings of orthodoxy.
And, of course, in a variety of guises it broke every world speed record its users attempted for two decades and more following WW2. Therefore the big Vin twin, as nominated by Bike readers in 17th place, is an indisputably great motorcycle which throughout history will continue to gather accolades. The fact that the limited material technology of the day denied Phils Vincent and Irving the means to wholly fabricate their ideal in practice, is not a measure of weakness but one that demonstrates their commercial courage in finally achieving a compromised production.
But the Blackbird, which was awarded Bike's 10th place, is an equally indisputably ultra-orthodox motorcycle. Its great strength -- its compelling magnetism -- is its very conservatism. Apart from volumes of sheer niceness for their owners (and deservedly huge profits for their maker), Blackbirds have contributed nothing to motorcycling. Blackbirds are excruciatingly good motorcycles, flawless in every way, refined almost beyond the credible, but so also are a least a dozen of their kith and kin from elsewhere. Therefore they cannot be great however admirable they most certainly are.
Here we have reached the old philosopher Thompson's point. We can progress no further until we agree over the meaning of the word 'great' -- etymology. I don't like to do this because it can spoil the fun but we need a dictionary. To avoid mistakes I have checked two, both quite different and both very new. These are The Oxford Reference Dictionary and Readers Digest Universal Dictionary. Each devotes a quarter column to 'great' and each lists approximately 15 commonly used examples of the word's meaning. The overweening impression given by their primary meanings is of things and events far beyond the norm -- extensive, extreme, powerful, influential, pre-eminent etc
With this in mind I cannot by any stretch of my imagination nominate a Yamaha RD350LC, a Suzuki GSX-R1000, a Kawasaki Z1, a Suzuki SV650, a Triumph Speed Triple, an Aprilia RSV Mille, Fazer, Jota, CG125, CX500, Diversion, DT125, Hornet or most of the Bike bunch selected as anything more than technically prosaic and historically unmemorable.
Are modern riders so myopic as to honestly believe that with only a half-dozen exceptions, all the world's truly great bikes have been built in the past three decades? Come off it!
Let me ask you this. Where did all our modern motorcycles come from? Thin air? Obviously not; so to what do they owe their development? I will not suggest that you try to list 100 machines, but see if you can round up, say, a dozen. 12 truly great bikes, bikes that by design and performance were milestones in motorcycling history and that set the pace for others to follow. Concentrate on the word great. Not good, not fun, not likeable, not personable, not characterful, nor even reliable nor fast nor stylish. But great.
You don't have to have ridden them, you don't have to wish to own one, you don't have to even like them. You are pretty unlikely, for instance, to own or even desire a Chippendale chair, but in all probability you will be fully aware of the great niche it fills in the history of furniture design. As a motorcycle enthusiast you should without question have a fair grasp of the powerfully influential and pre-eminent (great) motorcycles that have lead to where we are today. I assure you, it will not begin with a Model P Triumph and go via a CB400F or a B31 nor end with a Hayabusa.
To get the juices flowing, here are my suggestions, with brief reasons why, although in no particular order apart from chronology.
1: 1905 Indian 39 c/i (640cc) V-twin. While this may not have been the first V-twin, because Peugeot built one in 1904, it was unarguably the greatest because it set a format all others in the USA were to follow. Moreover a two-speed gearbox, clutch, all-chain drive and an utterly indefatigable engine made this what was probably the motorcycling world's very first 'gran turismo'. In a variety of guises it also won the 1907 proto-ISDT and the 1911 IoM TT.
2: 1906 Triumph 3 1/2 HP model. Perhaps, and I do say perhaps because Humber, FN, AJS, P&M, Peugot and Indian were also pioneering some admirably sound machinery, perhaps Triumph in this model more than any other demonstrated to a doubting world that motorcycles could be reliable. It was equipped with mechanical side valves, when most were depression activated. Its crankshaft ran on ball bearings at a time when crude lubricants hastened the destruction of 'popular' bush mains sometimes within the first day. Its ignition was by Bosch's HT magneto when the failure of rickety trembler coils was endemic. And it was offered with a rear wheel hub clutch, which for all its fragility widened the scope of motorcycling beyond young, fit, intrepid young men. If that sounds like an exaggeration then ask yourself how you would cope starting a 130 lb clutchless, fixed gear (4.5:1 ratio), motorcycle over unmetalled roads while wearing full, and very heavy, riding gear. At this period in Britain motorcycle sales were falling fast as public disillusionment settled. Almost single handed, Mauritz Schulte and Charles Hathaway with their 3 1/3 HP Triumph rescued Britain's faltering industry from potential disaster.
3: 1914 Peugeot 500cc ohc parallel twin. Barely acknowledged outside France, this extraordinarily advanced range of bikes were pioneers, although probably not originators, of ohc valve operation, becoming sohc in 1920. They were also the world's first successful parallel twins and were so fast and reliable they won just about everything their riders put them to.
4: 1920 AJS 350cc ohv single. When Howard Davies won the 1921 IoM Senior TT on his Junior ohv Ajay it signalled the end of the sv as an efficient engine in Britain. As a matter of passing interest, it so impressed Davies that he founded his own company, HRD with ohv engines, which lead to HRD-Vincent of course. Of greater significance was AJS's motorcycle pioneering of the hemispherical combustion chamber skull. Until ousted, but only after the greatest difficulty, by modern shallow wedge and semi-bathtub chambers about 60 years later, it ruled unopposed. All too few people now appreciate the debt of gratitude the British motorcycle industry owes to the early intensive research into engine efficiency by AJS's founding Stevens brothers.
5: 1922 Moto Guzzi 500cc GP Normale ohv single. Carlo Guzzi and Giorgio Parodi (the 'GP' part of the model name) founded a range of flat singles which were usually streets ahead of their British counterparts in terms of chassis design. They were eventually picked up and improved by the genius of Giulio Carcano and through the 1930s and into the 1950s their ohc derivatives more than any gave Norton a terrible time around the race circuits of Europe.
6: 1929 Velocette 350cc KTT. When Harold Willis, Velo's development chief, gave motorcyclists the first commercially produced, positive-stop foot-change gearbox, it changed motorcycle design no less profoundly that the adoption of the clutch had. Until then even racing machines' power characteristics had been limited by a need for a wide torque band as to reduce hand gear changing to a minimum. For the same reason gears were usually limited to three. But the advent of the ergonomic foot-change permitted designers to increase bhp by the simple means of concentrating on the higher rev-band, and riders to maintain those heady revs by means of constant and convenient gear-shifts through close-ratio, multi-speed clusters.
7: 1937 500cc Speed Twin. It goes without saying, surely -- Edward Turner's baby. It changed not only motorcycling but the world at large. So superior to all else was both its appearance and its performance that it and its progeny (T100, TR5 Trophy, T'bird, T110, T120, TR6 Trophy, T140 and all their myriad kin) wiped the floor with all forms of competition (except GP) on both sides of the Atlantic for over 20 years and set the style of motorcycles right up to the present day (eg; Kawasaki W650). And it was Triumph's success in the USA that stimulated Honda into exploiting that market and all that it entailed. Nothing else has had an impact even remotely comparable.
8: 1938 125cc DKW RT125. This was the machine that after WW2 was shared around the Allies as a Reparation of War. In Britain BSA turned it into the Bantam, in the USA as the H-D Hummer, in Russia the 125 Vostok, in China also it was built, while presumably through American influence in 1947 Yamaha founded its two-stroke success on the YA-1, another remodelled little 'Deek'. In the hands of such as Brian Stonebridge, who was to move on to Greeves, Bantams more than any other machine were to prove to an incredulous moto-cross and trials world that diminutive 'strokers' could turn the tables on hefty big 'thumpers'.
9: 1946 Piaggio 125cc Vespa scooter. This was without a shadow of doubt the world's first truly reliable, mass produced motorcycle. It was also unprecedently rugged and durable and it set standards of styling that have yet to be bettered. But of greater significance still, it demonstrated to a disbelieving world that motorcycles could be made on advanced automated high volume production lines. It is still copied, though never exceeded.
10: 1949 Harley-Davidson 1200cc Hydra-Glide. It was this model, with its new 'Panhead' engine (which unlike its 'Knucklehead' forebear was oil-tight and reliable), its tele-forks and its cobby yet rakish styling, that set the pattern for all subsequent H-Ds. Almost every manufacturer since has listed at least one model that owes a deep debt of gratitude to Milwaukee's indolent style.
11: 1960 Honda 250cc CB72. Above and beyond even the CB750 almost a decade later, Honda's ultra-refined ohc, electric started twin proved to the world that its maker was a force to be reckoned with. It was smooth, clean, quiet, economical, at 90mph very, very fast indeed and unlike anything else, even on a race track, its 10,000rpm maximum was sustainably reliable. From the CB72 standards changed right around the world as Japan took the lead in design and performance and public expectation.
12: 1976 BMW 1000cc R100RS. Until its launch, 'streamlining' had been viewed with grave suspicion by all enthusiasts, save the odd radical. It had been banned in the 1950s by the FIM following the obvious danger displayed by unstable designs without wind-tunnel development, and there things rested. But with the onset of roadsters capable of 100 mph-plus cruising, something had to be done and BMW managed it supremely in the RS. Since its inception every manufacturer has been forced to accede to the listing of a range of models incorporating aerodynamically contributive fairings. Without this aid the 200mph Suzuki Hayabusa for example could not exist.
13: 1990 Triumph 1200cc Trophy. In building it proprietor John Bloor proved to the world, and the cynical British banking establishment in particular, that two of its sacred edicts -- being that hot metal industry and motorcycle manufacturing in Britain were of suicidal nature -- were pure nonsense. The model itself was of intentionally conservative design, if of impressive performance, and it immediately lifted Triumph once more into the big league of manufacturers.
14: 1994 Ducati 916cc 916. Because it wiped the smile of smug Honda's face and demonstrated that there are ways to success other than throwing sufficient money at a problem to sink it. Even in this computer-dominated world human genius, in the form of Massimo Bordi, the 916's creator, may triumph. Its success on the track, as well as its shape on the road, changed the direction of motorcycling.
Of course there are others, most especially in the world of road racing and competition. Such as MZ's racers of the late Fifties, which harnessed the exhaust's negative shock wave to turn the humble two-stroke into a twin-cam eater. Sammy Miller's Bultaco trials bike of the Sixties, which so deservedly humiliated Ariel, AJS etc. The Manx Norton, Yamaha's OW1, the Suzuki fours, H-D's XR750 flat tracker. Oh, an absolute bucketful of great racers. But to enter such a den is to invite insanity, for what other than winning is the mark of greatness?
Asked to name the motorcycle that as a road tester for 35 years having ridden just about every roadster built from 1930-on, and having found myself with a reputation for prefering Italian machinery, which single model I most admire and respect, which would it be? Early Triumph TR6? Velo' Viper Clubman? NSU 250 Sportmax? Laverda 750 SFC? Honda Pan European? 1938 BSA Y13 750 V-twin? 1927 Scott 2-speeder? 1929 Velo KSS? Kawaski 900 Ninja? Nope -- Honda VFR750: that's the one. But my regard for it does not make it a great motorcycle. Quite simply, it is nothing more or less than a very good motorcycle, perhaps one of the 12 best ever made since the dawn of motorcycling, certainly among the tiny handful of the best made since 1950. But it never has been nor ever will be a truly great motorcycle, because it is nothing more than a painstakingly refined development of all that has gone before.
So, reluctantly, I leave you to chew alone on the rich the cud of motorcycling's history.
You'll get your chance to vote on this subject later this year in the RealClassic poll, but if you can't wait until then to express your opinion on the subject -- get listing!
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