Kevin Cameron

 

We are now being asked to believe that a new kind of two-wheeled vehicle is coming into existence, aimed at a new market, and with distinctly different characteristics. One example is the new Honda NC700X and another is BMW s new (for want of a better term) super-scooters.

The idea seems to be that sports motorcycles have now become so testosterone-soaked, so challengingly fast, that only mad lads want them. Their salient features are  keep-off  warnings to regular folks who just want to have fun while getting where they want to go. The idea seems to be that the current nature of motorcycles has become too sharply focused, too narrowly defined, to appeal to more than a perilously narrow audience.

Yet established, practicing motorcyclists have already set a minefield around the question of what is, and what is not, a motorcycle. Scooters, which are known to run not on petrol but on dehydrated squirrel hormones, have on-board storage. Motorcycles do not have on-board storage. Scooters have odd-sized wheels with fattish tyres on them. Motorcycles have only the sizes of wheel you can order from Marchesini in forged magnesium. Scooters have either automatic transmissions or CVTs, but a proper motorcycle has a hand- operated clutch and six speeds operated by the rider s foot.

This grand experiment has been brewing for some time, with detectable pips on the radar from, in some cases, decades ago. If you owned billions in factory structures and production tooling, your first priority would be to keep those assets busy cranking out something that people would buy. If nobody blows hot cash into the vast balloon of industry, it cools, settles to earth, and soon develops the cellulitic dimples that signify deflation.

The first point has been the theory that zillions of potential two-wheeler-buyers are dissuaded first and most of all by clutching and shifting. Popular movies still can t resist the gag of the automatic gearbox driver somehow set adrift in an ancient Morris, lurching forward in a comic series of jerks. Motorcycles are very serious, so very few dare take the risk of being that ridiculous. And so, from time to time, Honda or Yamaha or somebody decides to equip a bike with a three-element torque converter, CVT, or DCT so that these lesser beings can operate it. And every time so far, the shame of it all has forced these seekers to flee dealerships, faces aflame at being seen trying an automatic.

Meanwhile, the scooter people subscribe to an entirely different aesthetic. They are rather like senior gentlemen now old enough to wear pink trousers with aplomb. The testosterone question is of no interest to them. I think the industry has had a good look at these people and has decided to take them seriously.

Something similar happened in a big way after the Hitler war. Britain s motorcycle industry had been through the terrible depression and the war, but still thought of its natural state as being the prosperous 1920s, when soaring motorbike registrations outnumbered those for cars. The problem was to return to that normality. The solution, it was proclaimed, was to build motorcar convenience on two wheels. Silence, cleanliness, ease of operation – these virtues would unlock a flood of sales.

Honda s US market researchers a few years ago advised that there were refined, adult seekers of the right sort of two wheeler, but they were put off by the combat-only equipment they found in dealerships. These seekers wanted a Purdy, but the industry was offering them a Sten. Build them the two wheeled equivalent of BMW auto division s  driving machine  and they would come. The product of this work was called  Pacific Coast , a sort of lighter-hearted Black Prince-ish super-scooter with an 850 V-twin engine. People couldn t figure out what this was, and I have never seen one on street or highway. I m told they went over well in Holland. But maybe now, in the internet era, things have changed?

Now I m hearing that if the chisel can be positioned precisely, a fault line can be found between narrow-focus, exclusive, serious motorcycling and an open-minded, fun-loving group of potential new buyers who will see good value in easy-to-operate automatic bikes with on-board storage, pleasant handling, and motorway-qualified power.

I wish them well, because I certainly don t want those production plants to close and their machine tools to be scrapped for a tax loss. I can see the point of widening motorcycling s focus to include a greater variety of purposes. After all, we got into this for the fun.