Some call them modern classics, others call them neo-retro bikes while some choose not to coin a special name at all. Just motorcycle is good enough. But what ties them all together is that they are all seeking to create an experience that has its roots in a bygone era. They are meant to evoke nostalgia in those who have experienced the original and would like to relive the glory days, and a deep sense of yearning for a newer generation brought up on a diet of the golden past. Welcome to the world of nostalgia motorcycling.
The idea isn’t particularly new either, for the Americans never really moved away from it. Frankly, neither did one Indian manufacturer. And now, others have discovered (or shall we say, re-discovered) it too. What is interesting though is that each manufacturer (from a different part of the world) has a different, and dare we say unique, way of exploring this format of motorcycling.
Over the course of the next few pages, we’ll take a look at how this genre of motorcycles is being explored by each of these manufacturers. As you will realise, each of them (spread over vast geographical distances) has a unique approach and philosophy to motorcycles and motorcycling of this kind. And, consequently, they go on to put something unique on the table.
Brit bikes : A double cradle frame and a parallel twin is the way to go, say the Englishmen
So what makes a bike a British classic? A double cradle frame into which nestles a parallel twin are the first things that pop up at the top of my mind. These two things working in conjunction are practically the essence of virtually all British classics.
Don’t agree? Just step into your time traveller (in this case YouTube or Google) and look for café racers. No, not the modern age custom jobs – both by individuals and factory produced, but the originals that we are at pains to mimic. Almost nine times out of ten you’ll see a parallel twin housed in a double cradle frame. It didn’t matter if the bike in question was an Ariel, a Vincent, a Triumph, a Norton or even a Triton (a garage build where riders would take a Triumph engine and shoehorn it into a Norton featherbed frame, the best such in the business). The moot point is that if you’re aiming to create an archetypal British classic now, you will need to retain these two critical aspects to ensure that the character of the bike is not unlike the classics of yore. And who better than Triumph Motorcycles to know this?
Possibly the only genuinely British motorcycle maker in existence, this Hinckley based company has been using its legacy to the hilt with a complete range of what the company terms ‘modern classics’, including the Bonneville, Thruxton, Bobber and a Scrambler (the latter is yet to go on sale). After all, having started operations as far back as 1902, Triumph can lay a near proprietary claim to the Brit bike legacy.
The Street Twin, you see here for example, is a contemporary take on the original Bonneville silhouette. Yet, in spite of its contemporariness, the Street Twin retains everything that would make it a British classic. That stripped back styling showing the steel tubes of the cradle and that exposed engine, the latter having been crafted with faux fins (otherwise incongruous on a liquid-cooled engine) to imitate the air-cooled twins of half a century ago, hark back to a simpler age where motorcycling was more about a sensorial experience than a technology race.
Indeed, Triumph has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the Street Twin (or any of the other Bonneville spin offs) stays true to its classic British roots despite being a thoroughly modern machine. The aforementioned faux fins exist for purely cosmetic reasons. As do the carburettor lookalikes (the bike is fuel injected and the throttle bodies are housed within these). Kudos to Triumph for keeping British authenticity at the core rather than using it as a tool to tom tom just its own legacy (which is as vast as it is illustrious in its own right). Take that single large clock crowning the classically round headlamp. To me, it seems strangely reminiscent of one Vincent Black Shadow. Even the ergonomics of the motorcycle are such that you are transported to a different era the moment you swing a leg over the bike. It’s like riding a bike from the past but with none of the niggles of the past to bug your weekend ride; thoroughly modern in safety and dynamic ability. Just what the doctor ordered.
Italian twist: Why re-build a classic when you can create a modern bike that just has to look retro cool?
While the British have chosen to pay homage to their roots with their range of modern classics, the Italians have chosen an entirely different path. With the Scrambler, Ducati’s line of thought was simple. To them, the bike was a rendition of what the original from 1962 would have evolved into had Ducati not stopped its production at all. Not unlike that conversation where you stop abruptly at a certain point and leave the subject only to pick up from where you’d left off, at a later date.
This difference in philosophy between the Italians and the Brits makes itself more than apparent on the bike itself. Of course the first thing you notice is that cool retro stance with a flat seat and high and wide handlebar; the minimalist bodywork replete with a period round headlamp and the single offset round clock. The other thing you notice almost immediately is the use of a steel trellis frame (a fairly modern form of motorcycle chassis construction) and Ducati’s air-cooled 803cc vee-twin engine. It leaves you in no doubt that this is as modern as it is a classic. As a matter of fact, I’d say it’s more modern than it is an authentic classic.
You see, the people Ducati are chasing with this motorcycle aren’t the guys brought up on a regular diet of nostalgia. Instead, the Italian firm is going for those who want to feel as cool as the dudes of the day ever did but with access to thoroughly modern tech. So here there are no faux carbs that remind you of a simpler era. The engine is fuel injected and Ducati has no problems telling that to the world. After all, a modern classic is just that, a modern classic. So, where all others have fitted their bikes with right side up telescopic forks, this Ducati gets USDs. Similarly, the single round clock is another nod to the now and not the then, for it’s a completely digital unit (and dare I say, funky) while the headlamp houses an LED light guide.
But it’s still a retro bike in more ways than one, especially its turn out. There is of course the Scrambler styling aspect that is so 1960s and 70s but over and above that is the ergonomics of this motorcycle. You sit on the motorcycle like you would have on a Scrambler from the days gone by, thanks to that flat seat. The handlebar is tall and wide, not unlike what Steve McQueen rides in that seminal biking documentary ‘On Any Sunday’. The foot pegs are high and slightly rear set and the 13.5-litre petrol tank is slim. As a result, the ergonomics of the bike are such that it is easy for you to stand on the pegs to ride through dirt like you would have done on the original. The final indication that in spite of the Scrambler’s efforts to be a modern motorcycle it is still a classic at heart is the etching on the flap on the fuel cap lock – Scrambler 1962.
In many ways, the Scrambler is like a window into the past. It shows you glimpses of what has already gone by without really taking you back there and making you live through times when bike riding was positively dangerous and reliability was never taken for granted. That time is not coming back and the Scrambler knows it better than anyone else. So it’ll tell you the story of what it was like and then bring you back to the present day when you swing a leg over this modern machine and ride it to the horizon. Safe in the knowledge that you’re on a far more reliable and capable machine than what your father, and certainly your grandfather, had access to. That is the beauty of the Scrambler from an all-new rejuvenated Ducati of course.
Yankee iron: What’s modern about a classic? You only get the real archaic thing across the Atlantic
Cross the Atlantic and the modern classic scene is somewhat different. There’s more of classic and less of modern here. It’s almost as if time travels slower in these parts than it does elsewhere. The tendency to hang on to elements of the old manifests itself much stronger among American bike makers than manufacturers in any other part of the planet. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at any good ol’ American cruiser and you’ll get the point almost immediately. Without having digested even a single line of this paragraph. And if you want to further rub it in, the Jap Big Four have had to junk overhead cams for push rods in their own bent iron machines to mimic the better selling old sluggards!
While the British have dug the double cradle frame out of the sands of time and re-created a classic with modern machinery and the Italians have made a modern bike that merely looks like a classic, for the Americans the double cradle frame never went out of fashion. Move over twin spar beam frames and trellis frames, if the steel cradle was good enough for our fathers and grandfathers to take to wars then they’re good enough for our roads.
The other aspect of Yankee motorcycling that hasn’t really changed is the American fixation with the V-twin configuration. Irrespective of brand or displacement, if you want an authentic American cruiser then it has to be a V-twin. Even when Harley-Davidson developed a modern liquid-cooled engine for its V-Rod with none other than Porsche, the configuration could be nothing but a V-twin. Anything else would be out of character. Push rods could be replaced with twin cams but it just had to be a V-twin format, and preferably air-cooled. Most importantly, for the American rider, the desire for that sensorial experience of motorcycling was never replaced by anything as mundane as the need for speed, and given how straight most American roads are, there wasn’t any particular need to work on evolving handling characteristics either. As a result, most American motorcycles offered that slightly raw experience that the riders were looking out for in the first place and with an exhaust audio to match.
The Iron 883 you see on these pages is in fact one of the best representatives of the American classic. Its construction is ridiculously simple, a big V-twin housed in a beefy cradle, a raked out front fork and a small petrol tank (remember petrol stations in the US aren’t anywhere as scarce as they can be on Indian highways).
According to Harley, the Iron 883’s styling harks back to the original Sportster that had taken the American motorcycling scene by storm back in… wait for it… 1957! That the Yanks remember the year in itself is a thing from the past, just joking of course! The simple single analogue clock with minimal read outs is another nod to a different era. Why on earth would you need distractions like a digital console and multiple readouts when all you really need to know is if you’re on the correct side of legal speed limits? Okay, so you need to know if you’re running out of fuel so the easy solution is to put a low fuel warning lamp.
But nothing pays more homage to that time gone by than the way a Harley rides. There is a certain raw edge that makes the machines characterful. There are no attempts to mute vibrations (or sound) any more than what is needed so that you can feel the bike under you. The bikes make you believe that if you’re a dyed in the wool biker then a little bit of character, in other words inconvenience, is nothing to complain about. Rather, it should be enjoyed. And that’s precisely what you do on a Harley-Davidson Iron 883.
Indi-genous classic : After 190 years of being ruled by them, we took their classics and showed them how it’s done
Back in the 1970s, the Enfield Bullet was already a classic! At the time it wouldn’t be unfair to say that it was a British classic, having been designed by Royal Enfield’s English designers at the company’s Redditch factory and put into production in 1932. In fact it wasn’t until 1955 (17 years later) that the bike would start being assembled on Indian soil. But that was then.Today Royal Enfield can proudly claim that what they have – the Bullet, the Classic and the Continental GT, are in fact Indian classics of a Brit hue.
So what is it that makes an Indian classic? As a matter of fact, anything associated with the Bullet would qualify, including a thumping single cylinder engine spewing oil (even a tiny leak has to do) and a single downtube frame where the engine is a stressed member. While other manufacturers used other types of frames and engines, it is the Bullet that has outlasted them all and has come to signify an Indian classic. The first move from classic to modern classic happened when Royal Enfield dumped the old cast iron engine and replaced it with the UCE (unitary construction engine where the gearbox was integrated with the engine) and also moving the classic British right foot gear shifter to the left, thus making the bike easier to ride for a generation brought up on Japanese machines which adopted the universal shift pattern. But the frame and the look, plus the performance and quality continued pretty much unchanged (save for the Thunderbird, which is an offshoot of the Bullet really).
Royal Enfield launched its first genuine modern classic amidst much fanfare in 2013 when the Continental GT made its debut. It was a modern take on a classic machine of the same name that Royal Enfield of the UK created in its dying days. The Continental GT sought to bring the best of old world British motorcycling to a new generation with this café racer and to remain as authentic as possible the company commissioned the renowned Steve Harris (of Harris Performance, which Royal Enfield has now bought) to create the double cradle “featherbed” like chassis and Mark Wells (formerly of Xenophya) to style the bike. The consequence was a motorcycle that indeed looks the part of a classic (our bossman’s favourite). The detailing on the petrol tank and the cap, the bar end mirrors, the twin pod analogue instrumentation and the default single-seater configuration made it look like a genuine café racer from the Swinging Sixties.
At the heart of the Continental GT was the 535cc air-cooled single that created a thump not unlike the engines from back in the day. Thanks to the magic wrought by old man Steve, the Continental GT’s chassis handled exceedingly well. Not to mention, the bike cut a smart figure on our Indian roads. Yes, it has its flaws but it is still a machine that we can be proud of, a genuinely indigenous classic. Shame it came only 40 years too late!