The Neo-Custom Movement Is Great, but Don’t Forget How Good Modern Motorcycles Are

One change to a motorcycle can bring chaos, and herein lies the fascination

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Technical Editor Kevin Cameron shares his wealth of motorcycle knowledge, experiences, insights, history, and much more.Cycle World

The artist, scientist, and engineer influence one another because they share the same world. Physicists of 1900 were nervous because theory and experiment could not in important respects be reconciled without making upsetting assumptions. Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and others earned their places in history by resolving some of the inconsistencies, but only by accepting the unacceptable—that space, time, and even causality are not absolutes. Every cellphone depends for its operation on their conclusions. In art and music, the “absolutes” were human conventions such as the French Academy or wealthy patrons. Approved art came in a frame and hung in museums. All else were daubs. Music was classical, while jazz and rock ’n’ roll were threats to civilization (but the coming of the phonograph offered the choice to millions—care to dance?). Adding further upset, engineering magnified human possibilities by driving tunnels miles through mountains, annihilating distance with steam power, and accomplishing powered flight. All this was high-calorie nourishment for human imagination and the arts.

Although it’s fashionable in philosophic circles to regard the physical world of the sciences as a “social construct,” we know that if the discoverable regularities of physics (some call them laws) aren’t respected, bridges will fall down. Yet the more rigorously we organize knowledge, the more it becomes a prison of right answers. In the arts, such consequences are absent, giving the imagination liberty to explore without limit (aside from the questions: Will it sell? Will I eat?). Setting the imagination free is hard for us humans, but the arts set an example that is useful for all of our works. The achievements of Einstein, Stravinsky, Otto, Picasso, and the Wright brothers required looking at the world with fresh eyes. We hope a similar creative partnership operates in our own motorcycle subculture. Play is an essential human activity that has been loosely defined as whatever we do that has reversible consequences. All our works advance by making playful “trial assemblies” of ideas to see what pops out.

One way to expand our understanding is to attack a difficult problem. In motorcycling, racing has been a major example. As with all increase of understanding, discovery brings us more questions than it does answers. During the 500cc two-stroke Grand Prix era, for example, it was found that a power increase usually made lap times slower. There are so many things happening at once on a motorcycle that a change to any one thing is more likely to bring chaos than improvement. Therein lies the fascination!

On the side of the arts, the New Custom movement began with its “brown bikes” on which everything was deliberately understated—making a clean break with choppers (See? No chrome, no metalflake). Lately builders have taken up something I will call “radical tech”: running through a number of ideas that have proved dysfunctional on bikes that must meet objective tests of performance or safety.

Among these are the now-comical mechanical anti-dive linkages of 1980, the long series of ever-less-radical alternative front ends from ELF/Honda, and flat or steep swingarm angles that squat or jack on throttle. I worry about those people sometimes. What if they rode those things?

The evolution of the motorcycle has been incremental rather than radical.

It was assumed 30 to 40 years ago that ideas imported from Formula 1 would revolutionize the motorcycle just as the rear-engined Cooper-Climax racing car transformed Formula 1 in 1959. But it seems the interrelated nature of the motorcycle resists revolution: A small one occurred in 1935 when Guzzi won the Senior TT with a bike equipped with workable rear suspension. That year Norton’s rigid bike lapped at 85.05 mph, but two years later, with its fi rst crude rear suspension, it jumped to 90.27. Six percent. But today, the record is 135 mph.

Later, when little 350s won the Daytona 200 in 1972-73 because big 750s destroyed the skinny hard-rubber tires of the day, Dunlop and Goodyear brought us another modest revolution: the first "100-horsepower tires"—wide, round-section slicks. They nudged the numbers from a race average of 98.17 mph in 1973 to 105.01 a year later—a change of 6.9 percent. And they inspired the super-grippy production tires of the present.

Aside from such mini revolutions, the evolution of the motorcycle has been incremental rather than radical. There are certainly folks out there who want to believe it’s just that the manufacturers are too timid to “go bold,” as the custom builders and boutique-makers like Bimota have done. Despite that, the record shows that incremental change continues to advance the state of the motorcycle art, while “great leaps forward” have failed.

Want to appreciate progress? Try one of the admired 50-year-old classics. Immobilize its front wheel between your knees, and notice that you can easily "steer" its handlebars many degrees in either direction. With flex like that, you can forget responsive steering. Start it up and see arthritis- generating vibration at idle that sets the front wheel to whipping forward and back. Sample its fussy starting in cold weather. Check snap throttle response with quick wrist motion and get ht-nnn—it cuts out completely.

Meanwhile, inhale its exhaust, rich in the aldehydes and ketones of incomplete combustion, spiced on full throttle by the tang of nitrogen oxides. Carburetors were brainless devices that ran rich in summer, lean in winter. Pull the brake lever—yep, it resists lumpily because its cable control is equivalent to pulling the bare wire around an unlubricated tree trunk.

I’m reviewing the shortcomings of the past to illustrate how marvelous the motorcycles of today are. Stiff structures give us fast, accurate steering. Disc brakes stop us quickly, with proportional-lever feel rather than squashy resistance. Internally balanced engines are smooth, neither vibrating fasteners loose nor anaesthetizing our nether parts. Digital fuel injection gives us no-fuss cold-starting, sharp throttle response, and greatly reduced exhaust emissions. Controls are easy and positive. The bike accelerates, stops, and turns at a higher level than most of us can use. This is the result of years of well-researched, detailed refinement.

By The Numbers

135.452 Lap-record speed in mph set by Peter Hickman in the 2018 Isle of Man Senior TT.
1916 Year Albert Einstein’s theory of “general relativity” was completed.
60 Horsepower of the 1973 Yamaha TZ350A roadracer