Why can’t a motorcycle be more like an automobile? This question has been asked for most of 100 years, asked by practical-minded people who have seen auto sales recover from recessions while motorcycles have been much slower to do so.

By 1900, automobiles had lighting systems, a free-engine clutch (no need to stop the engine to stop the vehicle), multispeed transmissions to combine hill climbing with useful highway speed, and weather protection. They were initially playthings of wealthy sportsmen.

Motorcycles, by strong contrast, kept to a model of Spartan simplicity because they initially sold to members of the middle class who wanted more than a whiff of the motoring craze that was exciting royalty and captains of industry in la Belle Époque, 1871–1914. To make that cheaply available in a time before mass production required keeping things simple: one cylinder, single-ratio belt drive, and pedals in reserve, should technology falter or a hill prove too steep.

This theory was proposed: If bikes became more like cars, their sales would rise with those of cars.

In the US, Ford’s mass-produced car put an end to steeply rising motorcycle sales in 1913, but in England, motorcycle registrations climbed and climbed, outnumbering those of cars until the mid-1920s. To better serve families that had no hope of affording a motorcar, big British singles were purposely designed to haul ever-larger sidecars. Today, sidecars are treasured by those who embrace their quirky impracticality, but in 1925 they made possible a family outing to the shore. Mum, dad, and the children. Side-curtains for weather. Box lunches.

Honda NC750X
Affordable, efficient, practical: Back in 2014, staffers praised the Honda NC700X—now known as the NC750X—for its unparalleled user-friendliness. Editor-in-Chief Mark Hoyer called the NC700X “the easiest-to-ride full-size motorcycle I’ve ever tested.”Honda

As motorcycle sales fell behind those of cars, this theory was proposed: If bikes became more like cars—cleaner, weather-protected, low in vibration and noise, and, above all, conservatively un-sporting—their sales would rise with those of cars. As the Great Depression of 1929 struck down so many makes of motorcycle, Matchless offered its strange Silver Hawk, which was a narrow-angle V-4 aimed at customers they wished existed. AJS in the same period showed an air-cooled V-4 that no one, themselves included, could afford. Such projects failed to ignite the market.

At that time, the physical impediments to realizing the car-bike were production methods and price. For car-like smoothness, a bike needed more cylinders. For weather protection, it needed more structure and weight. For greater cleanliness, it needed machining precision not then available, and to replace the inexpensive but maintenance-intensive drive chain required precision gears. All these things cost money that most motorcyclists didn’t have, and the strange appearance of the resulting vehicle repelled many for whom motorcycle ownership had become a distinction. Diluting “motorcycle” with 50 percent or so of “car” destroyed that distinction.

Car-bikes had another go at the English market after World War II. Velocette gambled on its underpowered and water-cooled LE, Sunbeam on the S7, whose fat tires would be right in style today, and Vincent’s fully fiberglass-enclosed Black Prince, which squeaked like a truckload of Styrofoam coolers. None enjoyed significant sales. People who wanted car features bought cars.

Honda PC800
A baby Gold Wing? From Cycle World's 1989 road test: "The Pacific Coast is much more than a downsized touring bike. Honda believes this new model represents a significant step in its continuing effort to produce motorcycles with a broad appeal." MSRP was $7,698.Cycle World

In 1960, when US motorcycle sales totaled less than 60,000, Honda and other Japanese manufacturers arrived with an easy, inviting bridge over which non-motorcyclists could cross to become motorcyclists: hundreds of thousands of small-displacement machines, inexpensive enough to be discarded if they weren’t fun. But they were fun.

To a non-motorcyclist, car-bike experiments of recent times—Honda's 1990s Pacific Coast and more recent NC700X, for example—look just like motorcycles. Non-motorcyclists were their hoped-for buyers: The PC800 was aimed at a theoretical customer in stylish all-new clothes who owned a German car, wanted a bike, but found existing bikes just too…raunchy and, frankly, challenging. For them, PC would be a teddy bear on two wheels—just right. And NC700X, built with scooter fit and finish, its parallel-twin now displacing 745cc, was intended to lure to showrooms untold thousands who thought a motorcycle the ideal "urban vehicle" save for two faults: no onboard lockable storage and the rorty, are-you-man-enough question that traditional motorcycles ask: When do we leave for Patagonia? And, can't you lap under 1 minute, 29 seconds?

The irony is that today’s motorcycles have in the meantime acquired most of the qualities proposed as essential by the car-bike theorists: They are low in vibration (multi-cylinders and/or balance shafts); they are clean (O-ring chains, shaft drive); they start electrically and offer electronic aids and connectivity; and the steam-locomotive nakedness of the past is replaced by shapely modesty panels. They may not offer weather protection but Aerostich, Dainese, and others definitely do. Then what’s stopping their sales from expanding without limit?

Motorcycles, in becoming as complex and full-featured as cars, are now priced like cars. Can the industry again build a bridge that non-motorcyclists want to cross?

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