ANALYSIS > By Mark Barnes, Ph.D
New Appreciation for Old Motorcycles
I WAS NEVER a vintage motorcycle guy;
advanced technology was my passion.
But two recent events have nudged me
toward adding an old bike to my stable.
First, the Vintage Festival at Barber
Motorsports Park plunged me into
the world of two-wheeled yesteryear,
where a seemingly endless variety of
machinery and enthusiasts reminded
me how much diversity exists beyond
the confines of modernity. For a true
technophile, the past actually couldn’t
be more intriguing!
We talk about the multitude of
increasingly specialized, niche-market
bikes. Such observations imply that
motorcycling has become unprecedentedly variegated, with more unique
designs than ever before. Well, yes and
no. We now have categories that weren’t
in the lexicon of our youth—adventure
bikes, supermotard riffs and hipster-clas-sic styling exercises, to name a few.
But this explosion of designations
isn’t all expanded variety. There have
also been shifts toward greater homogeneity as the usefulness or appeal
of particular designs has prompted convergences in engineering and aesthetics
toward the patterns that work/sell best.
For example, there are significant differences among today’s power cruisers.
But step out of the present to appreciate
the vast array of mechanical solutions
to motorcycling’s age-old problems, and
the distinctions between those power
cruisers shrink from small to microscopic. It’s true in every other category,
too. The niches may be more numerous, but the machines within them are
Considering the temporal dimen-
sion is like adding depth to length
and width. The environment expands
exponentially, with the variations
among modern motorcycles just a thin
layer of foam atop the ocean of their
predecessors. However, quantity doesn’t
equal quality. Just because old motorcy-
cles approached challenges from more
angles doesn’t mean they had more
success. In fact, the flip side of the engi-
neering convergence principle is that
most of those delightfully inventive,
divergent approaches proved inferior
and died out accordingly. But “quality”
can be defined in many ways. While a
fascinating engine design may not have
been very efficient or effective, it might
still be extremely entertaining. And
motorcycles are used for entertainment
at least as much as any other purpose.
OBJECTIVE DATA LIKE acceleration
and braking numbers establish the
superiority of the latest, greatest hardware, but not so with subjective factors.
Who can say any particular motorcycle is more enjoyable, given that we
each enjoy different things to differing
This brings me to the second event
that sparked my interest in vintage
bikes. My buddy Russ let me ride his
1976 Bonneville 750 on a spectacular
autumn day. I’d heard Russ recount
travails with this bike in the past, and
it misbehaved before we even left his
driveway: the ticklers on both Amal
carbs stuck open and gushed fuel! The
cause remained mysterious, but they
settled with more jiggling and we didn’t
wait around for something else to go
wrong. I was apprehensive about the
next mishap occurring with me in the
saddle, but such thoughts vanished
quickly as I succumbed to the old Triumph’s charms.
Although the Bonnie’s vibration far
exceeded that of anything I’d ridden
since adolescence, it was more amusing
than offensive. Steering was startlingly
crisp and light, as was the transmission.
It even kicked over easily. The pegs
seemed impossibly high in relation to
the low, flat seat, but only at first, and
the oddly swept bars felt surprisingly
natural. Engine response was confus-
ing. On one hand, revs built slowly and
deliberately, and my initial impression
was of laborious sloth. But I noticed
considerable grunt was always on tap—
very pleasing! The oxymoron “sporty
tractor” made me smile.
THE WHOLE WAS truly much more
than the sum of its parts. Eventually, I
realized that this was the most distinctive ride I’d been on in many years!
Cliché or not, I had been transported
back in time. The soundtrack in my
head was by Bob Dylan, Simon &
Garfunkel and other folksy artists from
the 60s and 70s. Disco may have been
ascendant when this bike was built, but
the Bonneville sustained an earlier vibe.
There was no hurrying to the next thing.
That doomed the Meriden factory, but
there’s a good reason these machines
maintained a cult following despite
their flaws and limitations.
I cruised contentedly, without
interest in performance envelopes or
g-forces. The aura emanating from that
sonorously thrumming collection of
antique parts was plenty entertaining.
By modern standards, Russ’s bike had
weak brakes, a lazy, paint-shaker motor,
poor reliability, flimsy suspension,
blah, blah, blah. All of that just made its
magical delivery of pleasure even more
Lately, I’ve been unexcited about
spending the fortune required to put
cutting-edge technology in my garage.
Maybe my next bike won’t be from the
future, but from the past. And, given
the greatly enlarged range of possibilities, choosing an old bike may be more
exciting than choosing a new one. MCN
Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist, in
private practice since 1992. He has written
extensively for MCN for more than 20 years.