Rise of the Retros: What’s Old is New

Rise of the Retros: What’s Old is New

It’s no secret that the influx of vintage-styled motorcycles making their way to U.S. shores has increased over the past few years. Undoubtedly, Triumph paved the way for this invasion back in 2001, when the manufacturer re-introduced the legendary Bonneville.

Interestingly, Kawasaki brought the W650 to North America two years prior and met with little success. The W650, an undeniable Bonneville “clone,” failed to capture the hearts and minds of buyers at the time and sales were slow. When Triumph offered up the real deal to U.S. and Canadian buyers, it sealed the fate of the W650, and it was pulled from the North American market. It has since gone on to become somewhat of a collector’s bike here in the states, likely due to its short production run and limited availability.

First introduced in 1959, the British-designed and built Bonneville’s outward appearance has changed very little. Sales of the bike peaked in 1967 and subsequently slowed throughout the 1970s, primarily due to the arrival of the Honda CB750 and the UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle). Undeniably, the Japanese bikes of that period proved to be better built, more powerful and more reliable, and the end of the Bonneville was in sight by the early 1980s. In 1988, production of the bike made popular by the likes of Steve McQueen ceased altogether.

Surprise, Surprise!

In 1997, Triumph Motorcycles Ltd secretly began designing a new Bonneville. Using the late 1960s version of the bike as their template, the manufacturer was determined to get it right. And get it right they did. Since its reboot in 2001, Triumph has sold over 140,000 of these new Bonnevilles worldwide. In 2016, the bike received a makeover with the addition of water cooling, a bit of a restyling, and the availability of either a 900cc (T100) or 1200cc (T120) engine.

Monkey see, Monkey do

As the consumer base for these vintage-inspired machines continues to grow, more manufacturers have come to answer the call of riders seeking a return to simpler times and simpler lines. Honda brought the CB1100 to the states in 2013, BMW’s R nineT followed in 2014, the Ducati Scrambler in 2015, and Yamaha responded the following year with its XSR900 and again in 2017 with the SCR950.

No list of retro-inspired creations would be complete without including the Moto Guzzi V7 and V9, the Royal Enfield line, as well as the entire lineup from Indian Motorcycles and Harley Davidson, both of which inarguably draw heavily on the past for design inspiration.

Smaller displacement vintage-style motorcycles like the Suzuki TU250X and the Yamaha SR400 attract new riders every year. With their light weight, low seat height, and upright riding position, they make excellent starter bikes.

The Road to Now

While both Indian and Harley’s lineups harken back to bikes built in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, others, like Triumph, Ducati and Honda look to bikes from the ’50s, ’60s and 1970s for inspiration. Outwardly they may appear “old,” mechanically they are anything but.

Electric start, E.F.I. (Electronic Fuel Injection), modern and/or improved suspension and ECU/ECM’s (Electronic Control Unit/Modules), liquid cooling, and more: All of this means lower emissions, better handling and, I have to say, better reliability. If, like me, you do your own service, a laptop with diagnostic software and an interface cable to connect to the bike’s ECU or ECM are mandatory tools.

While much of the demand for the old-school style motorcycle has been driven by 20- and 30-somethings, many riders (myself included) have come back to these types of machines as they bring to mind the motorbikes they first threw a leg over.

What made the original Bonneville and UJM’s so popular (aside from the fact that they are just plain cool) was and is the ability to customize or personalize them. Many were chopped, bobbed, stripped or scrambled. Manufacturers have recognized this and now offer a range of bikes based on a basic platform. But I’ll save my musings on that for next time.