Let’s keep it real. In terms of engineering, handling and performance, mid-century motorcycles were kind of awful, crude and wobbly protomorphs of the ultra-fast, super-stable, ever-starting wonder machines of the modern era. I rode an old BSA a few months ago and felt like I was going to fall off as soon as I heeled the kickstand. The fundamental changes in moto-tech -- fuel-injection, monoshock/swingarm rear suspension, disc brakes, emissions controls, you name it -- make riding vintage-era bikes feel like trying to log onto the Internet with a rotary phone. And yet bikes were cooler back then -- raw and elemental, with a stark, stripped functionalism. So it’s no surprise that “modern classic” design should appeal to the growing population of older, first-time riders looking to buy the kinds of bikes they imprinted on in their youth. Here are three that reprise a classic, emotional design from the grand era of two-wheel rebellion, in the context of current technology.
Triumph: McQueen for a day
First question: What, if anything, has Triumph Motorcycles -- reconstituted after a devastating factory fire in 2002 -- paid the estate of Steve McQueen? The iconic leverage of the new Triumph Scrambler pivots almost entirely on McQueen, who rode a Triumph Enduro in the 1971 documentary “On Any Sunday” and a Triumph in the WWII thriller “The Great Escape” (racer and stunt rider Bud Ekins doubled for McQueen in the famous jump scene, and the Triumph doubled for a BMW, lore has it). For guys who really want to channel the Steve, the Triumph Scrambler obliges. You can even order an optional “278" number board, McQueen’s entry when he raced in the 1964 International Six-Day Trials in East Germany. How bad do you have to have McQueen Fever to know that?
The Scrambler is the latest of four Modern Classics bikes from Triumph, and it might as well conjure ‘60s California with a Ouija board: the two-tone paint, chrome escutcheons and rubber knee grips on the tank, bench seat with white piping, exhaust pipes intertwined like crossed fingers (though back in the day, the pipes were on the left side). Much like the echt Bonneville Scramblers, it has gaitered front shocks, wire wheels, wide flat handlebars and relatively knobby tires (Bridgestone Trail Wings).
Which in no way should lead you to believe this is a true dual-sport bike, a la Ducati Multistrada. As soon as the tires touch gravel, form and function part company. The Scrambler -- based largely on the Bonneville T100 streeter -- has a wet weight of about 500 pounds and tires that are not much more trail-able than your average street tire. Also, the historically faithful rear coil-overs don’t surrender much suspension travel, so the Scrambler rear starts to jackhammer at moderate speeds on chuck-holed fire roads.
Yes, it can be taken off pavement -- the Scrambler suspension has been raised 2 inches over the Bonneville, for improved ground clearance -- but I didn’t expect it to be quite so much of a, um, scramble.
This is essentially a road-purposed bike -- more specifically, an urban commuter. Between the gloss-black frame rails is Triumph’s 865-cc, dual-overhead cam parallel twin -- the same mill as in the nostalgia-themed Thruxston and Bonnie T100. However, the engine has been slightly detuned for more low-end torque (51 foot-pounds at 5,000 rpm) at the expense of horsepower (54 hp at 7,000). The bike steps off the line nicely and can clear four-wheeled traffic without much trouble. But the bike strains a bit at higher rpm and quasi-legal interstate speeds. The rider strains a bit too. The lack of a windscreen, combined with the very upright riding position, makes for a face-first buffeting that would shame a North Sea gale.
What this bike truly is, is easy. Make that effortless. The seat height and relaxed riding position is a huge relief from the Nigel-the-human-cannonball posture required on sport bikes. The handlebars are easy to reach. The seat is soft, the engine note well-tempered. This bike is two-wheeled Paxil. It is also -- though I’m sure this isn’t the sales pitch Triumph would trumpet -- a perfect beginner’s bike.
If you push the Scrambler, it does have some reserves of street performance. It drops into a corner with finesse -- all that extra leverage from the big handlebars -- and holds a line well. It has good lean angles and makes side-to-side transitions with less drama than Sunday morning C-SPAN. The handling is seamless and reliable, with low-speed agility and parking-deck maneuverability. Like I said: easy.
The bike is carbureted, not fuel-injected, so riders will have to pull the choke and let the engine warm up a bit before it falls into a shuffling chuff. With a fuel economy in the neighborhood of 50 miles per gallon, the dead-simple Scrambler makes an excellent commuting bike, while offering a hugely romantic presence on the street. Expensive? Rather. Nobody said being Steve was going to be cheap.
Get Smart: Ducati’s retro racer
This may be the most beautiful bike it’s ever been my pleasure to get off of. Built as a “tribute to the timeless styling” of racer Paul Smart’s winning mount at Imola in 1972, the spectacular Paul Smart 1000LE is, in point of fact, a tribulation -- a wrist-breaking, back-searing, neck-cranking Bimini atoll of human factors engineering that reminds me why I’m not a MotoGP rider. Not that I need reminding, particularly.
The culprit, of course, is the authentic reach from the saddle to the down-turned, close-set handlebars, a geometry that puts much of the rider’s weight on the wrists. This didn’t present so much of a problem for Smart on his cafe racer (the 750 Imola Desmo) because he was draped over the oversized gas tank most of the time, cornering for dear life. Also, I reckon, Smart had wrists like a gorilla. With the New-Age Paul Smart bike, the tank’s lower profile makes it more difficult to lean your weight on ; and besides, you look kind of silly belly-flopped on the bike as you putter from Nordstrom to Starbucks. I’m good for about a half-hour on this bike before the kickstand’s call becomes irresistible.
And yet, what a stunning piece of machinery. Built around Ducati’s standard-issue 1-liter, L-twin, four-valve, fuel-injected desmodromic motor (putting out 92 hp in this application), the Paul Smart departs from its vintage antecedent in that it doesn’t cover the engine with full fairing. And there it is, in all its naked air-cooled aggression, all matte black and polished aluminum. The color design of this bike is amazing. The front fairing, fender, tank and seat bustle are painted in miles-deep silver metal-flake paint; the 43-mm inverted Ohlins front forks and the oil reservoir of the single Ohlins rear monoshock are burnished gold; and the chrome-moly trellis frame is done up in my new favorite color, Ducati sea green.
Fire it up and it sounds just like a modern Duk, with a not-quite-even idle rhythm and harsh/hoarse, steely chirr coming from the desmo valve train. The big black side pipes are pretty thoroughly corked, and it makes me wonder how much horsepower would be gained simply by switching to the optional closed-course pipes. Twist the throttle grip, though, and the sound gets angry and full of menace, the sound of sharpening axes. The super-expensive, limited edition (2,000 copies) Paul Smart moves out, um, smartly, and the straight-cut gears ring with a bright metallic sound -- is it ka-ching?
This is a reasonably quick bike, with a wet weight of about 430 pounds, and the chassis is developed enough to handle it all. I was curious to see if the bike’s unusual asymmetrical trailing arm rear suspension, with the single coil-over mounted on the left, felt differently when powering on in left and right corners. Nope. The Paul Smart is plenty reactive at the helm, thanks to the closed steering angle, and seat and footpeg position that practically has you dragging a knee at a stoplight. A slight weight shift under braking, a touch of inboard pressure, and the bike drops into a sweeping kestrel arc. There’s not a lot of trail in the front geometry, so to keep the front end from feeling busy there’s a hydraulic steering damper as standard equipment. Or, it might be there just to look cool.
The workmanship is beguiling. Everything is milled, or polished, or seam welded to museum standards. In fact, I wish I had a set of the Ducati’s insanely gorgeous 2x320 mm cross-drilled front discs to hang on my wall. I bet Paul Smart himself would have liked to have had some of those too.
To be sure, the Paul Smart is more an aesthetic than performance exercise, a glorious paperweight for which the riding experience is secondary, or tertiary (anyone for quaternary?). But for those 15 or 20 minutes before your arms fall off, it’s a hell of a ride.
Harley’s faithful neo-Springer has sprung
I was walking through Barnes & Noble the other day when I saw a book about Harley-Davidson history, and there on the cover was this bike: a Softail Springer Classic, with the black and burgundy paint scheme.
This surprised me. Not the 1948 FL Panhead, the hard-tail icon on which the Springer is based, but the cleverly crafted, electric-start replica that debuted in 2005. I suppose the new bike best exemplifies what the company is about: full-blown, wet-handkerchief nostalgia served up with none of the technical downsides of truly vintage machinery.
The emotional center of gravity on the Springer is its twin-fork, levered front suspension that uses springs (and a damper) under the headlamp to absorb bumps. The design goes back to the days when Harley and Davidson were pups. It was phased out in 1952 (for good reason, I might add) and brought back in 1988 on the Evolution-powered Softail FXSTS. That bike continued in production until last year, when it was replaced by the new bike, the FLSTSC.
The previous Springer had chromed forks and a skinny front tire, so it didn’t really look much like the ’48 FL. Not so the Softail Springer Classic, which to most people looks like it just trundled out of a time machine. It’s just gorgeous. The forks are powder-coated a glossy black. The deep skirted fender between them has a frosted running light. The front wheel and tire are major: an MT90B16 72H with a 5.2-inch tread width, wrapped around a 3x16-inch lace wheel. The chrome nacelle of the headlamp, the cow-horn handlebars, the wraparound aluminum trim splitting the two-tone paint job (our tester was black cherry and black), the tombstone tail lamp -- all obsessively faithful to vintage Harley craft.
The Softail series, of course, is based on an illusion. The triangulated frame looks like a hard-tail -- the top frame rail slopes to the rear axle -- but actually, there are two spring-damper assembles hidden under and behind the engine.
Good thing, too, because the front suspension of the Springer is out to lunch. The cool-looking chrome springs yield only about 2.3 inches of suspension travel, so that anything like a big rut or pothole causes the assembly to chatter and clank -- yes, clank! Meanwhile, the fat wheel-and-tire package means there’s a lot of unsprung mass at the end of the forks. At highway speeds on anything but glass smooth asphalt, the front tire oscillates like kra-aazy. I was actually laughing inside my helmet as I bounded toward Gardena. O-o-o-o-o-o m-y-y-y-y-y G-o-d-d-d-d-d!
No, this bike is for plush, steady, bone-lazy cruising, for which, I hazard to say, there’s no better bike built. The riding posture is supremely comfortable, astride the wide tush cushion. The cow-horn handlebars -- beach handlebars, if you like -- curve back to a natural hand position. The footboards, with the big car-like brake pedal on the right and the heel-and-tow shifter on the left, leave your feet planted as if you were sitting in your favorite reading chair. Fetch me my slippers and pipe.
In other respects, the Springer feels a lot like other Harleys. There’s the serviceable 96-inch, 45-degree V twin pushrod engine, with dual cams and four overhead valves, which produces 88.2 foot-pounds of torque at 2,750 rpm.
Harley doesn’t offer a horsepower figure, but my guess is about 65 hp, pitted against about 800 pounds of Milwaukee’s finest. There’s the scandalously clunky six-speed gearbox. Unlike other Harleys, the Springer uses a single-piston front brake caliber over an 11.5-inch disc, which doesn’t come close to the stopping power needed on this size bike.
If you have to get on the binders, expect the rear wheel to skid, because it will.
So it doesn’t handle like a Japanese super cruiser. So it’s slow and doesn’t stop very well. Compared to a ’48 FL -- which I’ve never ridden, I must confess -- this bike must feel like a rocket ship. All those looks and electric start too? Sign me up.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
2006 Triumph 900 Scrambler
Base price: $7,999
Powertrain: 865-cc, DOHC, four-stroke parallel twin, air-cooled with carburetors; five-speed.
Horsepower: 54 hp at 7,000 rpm
Torque: 51 foot-pounds at 5,000 rpm
Wheelbase: 59.1 inches
Seat height: 32.5 inches
Weight: 451 pounds (dry)
Final thoughts: Peaceful, easy wheeling
2006 Ducati Paul Smart 1000LE
Base price: $14,995
Powertrain: 992-cc, L-twin, four-valve, four-stroke with desmodromic valve train, air-cooled, fuel-injected; six-speed.
Horsepower: 92 hp at 8,000 rpm
Torque: 67.3 pound-feet at 6,000 rpm
Wheelbase: 56.1 inches
Seat height: 32.5 inches
Weight: 398 pounds (dry)
Final thoughts: Grand duchess of kickstands
Harley-Davidson Softail Springer Classic
Base price: $17,545
Powertrain: 96-cubic-inch (1,450-cc), 45-degree V-twin four-stroke, OHV, four-valve, air-cooled, fuel-injected; six-speed.
Horsepower: 65 hp at 6,000 rpm
Torque: 88.2 pound-feet at 2,750
Wheelbase: 64.5 inches
Seat height: 25.9 inches
Weight: 708 (dry)
Final thoughts: Aged and ageless