Until Covid-19 put paid to the expo season last year I hadn’t missed a single Motorcycle Live since I first passed my test in 2009. A family event, my Mum views it as a nice day out with the family where she can snag a few bargains on next year’s touring gear. My brother and his wife poke sceptically at bikes while meeting up with friends. I use the opportunity to corner bewildered staff and bombard them with technical questions, climb all over every motorcycle I can find and try to take motorcycling’s metaphorical temperature.
My motorcycling obsession – and there is no other word – is about everything on two (or more wheels). I never got into it for the culture, or the machismo, or the bragging rights – I liked the machines. As such, stepping into the hall at the NEC is just…fantastic. Doing so on a weekday and discovering that there are half as many people crowding the space was a wonderful surprise, allowing me to get more time with more bikes. I usually come with a list of specific machines to get up close and personal with, but also try to get an overview and see if I can put my finger on the pulse of the British motorcycling industry.
This year was always going to be a bit weird; Covid-19 hasn’t gone away, and there are some manufacturers who, after getting stung last year, clearly gambled on the show not happening at all. But even ignoring the fact that the only Yamaha products on display were T-shirts and that the entire Piaggio Group failed to materialise, there was still something rather flat about the show this year. The stands that were present were a little more restrained; marketing budgets and general uncertainty contributed to this, but so did customs and border issues, slimming Honda’s line-up and stranding most of Ducati’s bikes in France.
Half the bikes I’d seen announced in manufacturer press releases in the previous weeks and months were absent. I was curious about the newly-updated Yamaha T-Max 560 and the all-new Moto-Guzzi V100 Mandello would have had my attention. Ducati’s Desert X was notable by its absence, and Triumph were only showing a camo-wrapped ‘pre-production’ version of its (since revealed) Tiger 1200. But even if those bikes had been there, they wouldn’t have been anything truly revolutionary. The only genuine surprise was BSA, unveiling for the first time their re-launched (Indian-owned) brand and very aesthetically-convincing new Gold Star. And that’s just a dressed-up old BMW/Rotax engine in a retro chassis.
It was cool to see (and sit on) Harley-Davidson’s new 1200cc adventure bike, the Pan America, and the suspension that automatically lowers as you come to a stop is a neat addition to the genre. Their new Sportster uses the same water-cooled engine and comes with so much plastic cladding that it makes a Kawasaki Ninja look naked by comparison. I like flat bars and I like feet-forward riding positions, but not on the same bike. I’m sure we’ll see ergonomic variants of that platform in the years to come as noise and emissions regulations strangle the life out of their air-cooled engines, but on this occasion, I was left feeling somewhat underwhelmed.
And honestly, that’s my overriding impression of the entire show, and indeed motorcycling as a whole at the moment. In theory, we’ve never had it so good – choice, build-quality, features, performance…we’re living in a golden age of motorcycling. And yet, there’s no excitement, no passion, and no risk. Late-stage motorcycling has figured out what the best way to solve every problem is, and no-one’s trying anything new. They simply benchmark the leading competitors and remix their own version. And if a manufacturer is already the segment leader, then they just iterate and tweak the formula, so as not to upset their existing customers.
The Moto-Guzzi V100 Mandello should be a seismic event; Guzzi is finally going water-cooled! Piaggio has clearly decided the brand will live on and has stumped up the not-inconsiderable investment in an all-new power plant. But by all accounts, it’s yet another ~110bhp two-box half-faired sports-tourer. Harley-Davidson making an Adventure bike should have stopped the whole motorcycling world in its tracks, but instead, we’re informed that it’s merely another credible entry in the fully-saturated 1200cc Adventure market. One neat new innovation does not a groundbreaking motorcycle make. It seems churlish to complain about a bunch of really good new motorcycles simply because they’re not blowing my mind, but that’s what gets people out into showrooms. Nobody gets so giddy they can’t resist rushing out to buy a bike that’s basically the same as the one they already have.
Honda’s new NT1100 is literally a restyled Africa Twin with a smaller front wheel. Same engine, same frame, same electronics suite. The Japanese manufacturer had more stand-space dedicated to a display of old Fireblades than their “all-new” sports-tourer, which says a lot. Suzuki’s GSX-S 1000 GT is an updated GSX-S 1000 with panniers; they fixed the obvious flaw from the old model and executed an extremely questionable styling pass. On paper, it finally trades blows with the Kawasaki Ninja 1000SX, but ignoring aesthetics it does nothing whatsoever to get my attention. That aside, Suzuki had nothing new to offer, and so tried to distract everyone with old race bikes instead.
Triumph added a half-fairing and luggage to their Trident to make the new Tiger Sport 660. I’m sure it’s fine, and I can summon zero enthusiasm for what will, I’m sure, be a very competent and practical entry in the segment. Honda added slightly bigger panniers to the Goldwing and refined a bunch of their scooters slightly. BMW added radar-guided cruise control to their R1250RT. Ducati rebranded the Multistrada 950 into the Multistrada V2, raising the price and reducing the engine performance to get past EU emissions regulations. There are updated variants of most of their bikes, so I guess they’re all better now…?
Kawasaki added some electronics to the Versys 650. Royal Enfield had me temporarily excited when I spotted a Himalayan with the 650cc twin-cylinder engine from the Interceptor, but I later learned that this was a third-party one-off and not a production model. CCM are still selling unlimited new variations on their 600cc single-cylinder naked retro thing, and KTM boosted their 790 Adventure to 890cc to create the new 890 Adventure. I’m sure it’s just like the old one, but slightly quicker.
We’ve got a real problem here, folks. I normally find all motorcycles exciting and interesting, and yet looking at the current showroom options leaves me cold. There’s nothing new, nothing exciting, nothing that might make me sell everything in my garage in order to claim as my own some all-new and revolutionary new two-wheeled machine. The closest we’ve come of late are Kawasaki creating an insane 200bhp supercharged sports-tourer (a few years old, now) and Ducati stuffing a V4 in their already-excellent Multistrada. Light-weight adventure bikes are apparently all the rage, but Yamaha’s existing Tenere 700, MV Augusta’s new Lucky Explorer, and Aprilia’s just-released Tuareg 660 were all no-shows.
In theory, this apparent plateau could be explained by the fact that internal combustion motorcycling’s days are certainly numbered. The dates are already set for cars, and it’s only a matter of time before the two-wheeled world is given its own deadline. Against that backdrop, it makes sense to reduce the models and engine choices, re-use platforms, and recycle existing, winning formulas. Now is the time to maximise profits while they still can, because manufacturers sure as hell aren’t ready for the electric revolution.
Super Soco and various other Chinese manufacturers are working hard on building credible urban-use 125-equivalents for reasonable money, and at the other end of the spectrum you’ve got £20,000 Zeros and Livewires. There’s nothing with reasonable range, reasonable performance, and a reasonable price tag, which puts us about 10-15 years behind where electric cars currently are. My own calculations suggest that fitting enough batteries into an electric Ninja 1000SX to match the petrol version’s performance would result in a 750kg motorcycle. Electric cars are averaging over two tons, or around double that of their petrol forebears at the turn of the century. Like an obese diabetic vacationing at an all-you-can-eat fast-food buffet, Motorcycling can’t survive that kind of weight gain.
In short, I think that the entire motorcycle industry is holding its breath. No-one is spending any money developing any radical new internal-combustion motorcycles because they don’t know if that investment will pay off before the technology is banned. They also don’t want (or aren’t able) to sink the vast sums required into battery R&D, and know that current technology can’t meet their current customers’ expectations on price, performance, or range. They’re hoping that someone in the car world, where deep pockets are engaged in extremely expensive research, makes some kind of breakthrough (solid-state batteries, batteries-as-chassis etc.) that suddenly makes electric motorcycles a realistic proposition, and are saving up to buy said tech when it becomes available. They’re probably also hoping that said technology becomes available before internal combustion two-wheelers are banned from showrooms.
Those of us who like to travel or don’t want to have to recharge every 70 miles when commuting or riding for fun will just stick to used bikes, maintaining what we have while we wait for electric bikes to become genuinely competitive. But many motorcycle manufacturers simply won’t survive that gap, if it comes. They need sales year-on-year to maintain R&D and staff budgets that will be required to develop, build, and sell future motorcycles. You need a healthy industry to attract new riders and fight over-regulation. If the new-bike industry goes into hibernation, it might never reawaken.
So; if you’re in the market for a new motorcycle, then go out and treat yourself. Enjoy it while you can. That’s what the whole industry is doing right now…
First published in Slipstream January 2021