Let your orbs meander over the Yamaha Sakura, a concept bike shown at the last Tokyo Motor Show. Do you find its shapes, familiar, pleasing?
That’s the whole idea behind retros. Classic styling cues—in this case, air-cooled V-Twin motor, spoked wheels, big, round headlight, crisply shaped fuel tank, flat seat—but with modern brakes, electrics, oil-tightness and reliability. It’s a formula that certainly has worked in the four-wheel world; witness the new Ford Mustang, VW Beetle and Mini Cooper.
The first modern retro bike? Probably the Honda GB500, which first saw the light of day in 1989 but was obviously inspired by the great British Singles of the 1950s. GB. Great Britain. Get it?
Said our own Peter Egan after a stint on the authentically kickstart-only Thumper, comparing it to the real thing, “Riding an older British motorcycle can be, at times, like going dancing with your great aunt. You have to take it just a little slow, show some respect and hope to God she remembered her heart pills. The GB500, on the other hand, takes you backward in time, to when your great aunt was young and beautiful and could go all night and drink you under the table.”
Problem with the GB500—and many other retro bikes that would follow—was that the saturation point for buyers willing to plonk down payments was pretty low. After two years of slow sales, the GB went bye-bye. Ironically, it’s now seen as a cult bike, a true latter-day classic, and its value on the used-bike market continues to climb.
Other Japanese retros also had short production runs. Kawasaki’s Drifters, at 800 and 1500cc, were obvious homages to the 1940s’ Indian Chief. Debuted in 1999, they were both gone by 2006. We called the 1999 Kawasaki W650 more faithful to the original Triumph Bonneville 650 than the new Bonnie from Hinckley, but it had just one more year before it was unceremoniously axed.
Of course, when retro works, it’s a wonderful thing. Most of Harley-Davidson’s catalog, it can be successfully argued, is anchored in the past. A time traveler from 1965, first year of the Electra Glide, would have no trouble picking out the 2010 version of the bike from a football field away.
And that new Bonneville, in its various iterations, has become reborn Triumph’s most popular bike—and, no doubt, its biggest money-maker. Ducati’s SportClassics, throwbacks to the company’s GT and SS models of the 1970s, have also found enthusiastic homes.
Maybe the lesson here is that if you’re going to copy history, make sure it’s your own.