The Original Retro Motorcycles

A short history of the way we were, more or less.

Honda GB500 studio side view

If you’re anywhere near as old as I am (somewhere between early retirement and keeling over while shoveling snow), you might actually remember a time when nostalgia for bygone designs was pretty much the province of steam locomotive buffs and guys like my Uncle Walter, who missed his pre-war Hudson because the sheet metal was so thick. Almost no one else in America wanted anything that looked dated or old-fashioned. Newer was always better. Give us tailfins! Now take them away!

In the world of machinery, only Morgan cars and Velocette motorcycles were able to get away with designs that were frozen in time, but they seemed to be playing to an ever-shrinking audience. You had to have a strong sense of classi­cism to prefer a Velo Venom to a new Honda 750 Four in 1969. Progress was the thing, and bikes just got faster and more reliable every year.

There were companies that had great continuity of design—BMW, Ducati, Harley, Guzzi, and (while they lasted) Norton, Triumph, and BSA. But nobody was consciously trying to make a new motorcycle that appeared to have rolled straight out of a time machine.

The first feint in that direction, that I can remember, was the Yamaha SR500 of 1978, whose classic paint scheme, tank shape, and simple kickstart engine architecture flushed many of us British singles lovers out of the greenwood, money in hand. I badly wanted to buy one but couldn’t afford it because I was restoring a 1968 Bonneville, so I talked my buddy John Jaeger into buying one. Fun bike, but it didn’t actually feel much like a British single, even if it was sometimes reluctant to start. It lacked the dramatic, concussive hit of a big high-compression piston flinging you down the road while the smell of hot oil wafted up under your face shield. Basically, it felt like a nice, oil-tight Japanese single with dirt bike roots. Who would have guessed?

Harley-Davidson Shovelhead static shot

The first full-fledged retro bike I can recall came along in 1981. That was the year Harley-Davidson rolled out the Heritage Edition of its 80-inch Electra Glide, right at the transition between AMF ownership and the new regime. The Heritage Edition FLH was among the last big Shovelheads made, and it was stridently nostalgic. It had a sprung “buddy seat,” fringed leather saddlebags with conchos, wire-spoked wheels, a big windshield, and a paint scheme in olive green and orange, classic Harley colors right out of the ’20s.

Back at our old CW office in Newport Beach, California, I was quite taken with the bike, as it was a dead ringer for the Harleys I'd grown up with, so I lobbied then-Editor Allan Girdler to let me take this apparition on a road trip.

“In a strange way, the Heritage Edition Electra Glide might be the both the first real retro bike and the last one that still had the exact character and shortcomings of the very motorcycles it was trying to evoke.

My wife Barb and I rode it all the way up the Coast Highway to Seattle and then back down through the sun-baked inland valleys of the West, and I wrote a story about the trip called “Shooting the Coast” (January ’82). The bike was quite charming and comfortable to ride, though it had a few of the traditional Shovelhead vices. Engine vibration cracked a weld in the rear crashbar and also jittered the floorboard rubbers into oblivion every few days. The spring-pillar-mounted saddle was the most comfortable motorcycle seat I’ve ever toured on—solo. Quite crowded for two, however. Also, the engine did burn some oil and I had to adjust the primary chain en route.

In a strange way, this might be both the first real retro bike and the last one that still had the exact character and shortcomings of the very motorcycles it was trying to evoke. A perfect throwback, in other words. The later Evo Road Kings and Softails would replicate much of this bike’s charm but without the vintage mechanical drawbacks.

Honda GB500 airbox studio shot

After that, we seem to have had a nostalgia gap for a few years, and then Honda introduced its lovely 1989 GB500 Tourist Trophy single, the “GB” being code for “Great Britain.” This tribute to the classic British single had Black Green Metallic paint, gold pinstriping, humpbacked seat, clip-on bars, and many exquisite forged parts, with hints of Gold Star, Manx, and Velo Thruxton melded into a fun, light motorcycle. That didn’t leak oil. Or break your leg. The only disappointing element was the borrowed XR-based engine, which had a somewhat utilitarian look and feel, like something out of an air-conditioning unit. The GB500 was well engineered and relatively affordable though. Liberating, in other words, to those whose Anglophilia had so often been mixed with roadside despair.

But I suppose the same could be said of the only retro bike currently in my own small stable, a 2008 Triumph TT100 Bonneville in scarlet and silver—a useful, handsome, and agile bike that I ride all the time, though it's not exactly a carbon copy of the 1968 Bonneville I once owned. That bike had a purity and sculpted beauty that seems impossible to replicate in the modern era, but it also vibrated more, needed more maintenance, and wore itself out at regular intervals. The new Bonneville is a much better machine for someone who actually expects to go somewhere—especially at night—but it does lack the dangerous and heroic aura of the old Bonnie.

“The Honda GB500 was well engineered and relatively affordable, though. Liberating, in other words, to those whose Anglophilia had so often been mixed with roadside repair.

And there’s the rub. No one (in my opinion) has yet succeeded in perfectly combining genuine advances in modern engineering with the unaffected beauty and serious intent of an older masterpiece. Maybe it can’t be done. Or we don’t really want it done. That was then; this is now.

Nevertheless, it's still nice to see motorcycle manufacturers who bring back styling elements of their best and most timeless designs, as Honda did not long ago with its CB1100—and BMW now has with its new R nineT. While I admit being among the target customers for these bikes, I also get a little uncomfortable when I hear people say that retro designs are popular because this or that generation is trying to "recapture its youth" or that we're all trying to buy the bike we wanted when we were in high school. Seems to me this misses the point.

I don’t think most of us buy old motorcycles—or bikes that are styled to look like old motorcycles—out of nostalgia. I think we do it simply because a few designs in every generation are worth keeping. Or worth reinterpreting, with headlights that work and brakes that stop.

Honda GB500 studio side view.

Honda GB500 studio cockpit view.

Honda GB500 studio airbox photo.

Harley-Davidson Heritage Edition of the 80-inch Electra Glide.