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RIDING OUT THE NOUGHTIES January 11, 2010

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics.
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That journalists are second only to estate agents in the untrustworthiness dept. is evidenced by my pre-Xmas claims that I would take advantage the festive hiatus to pen a quickfire stream of blogs, whereas in fact I only managed three of the blighters. And now that normal service has been resumed, I’m trying to catch up – a process hampered by events, dear boy, events… including of course the extreme weather you’re heartily sick of. However this morning’s planned tirade on the cultural importance of the motorcycle was thrown off-kilter during my hungover breakfast by some half-heard R4 pundit reflecting on the impact of eBooks on the reading public, much as I myself had done in a blog ten days ago.

Not that I wished to reprise this so soon afterwards, but it brought home the rapid pace of cultural change which, coincidentally, was also the unspoken theme of a brace of BBC2 retrospectives I’d just watched on the Noughties. The two major conclusions drawn from these well judged documentaries, at least by me, was that western society’s cultural values were increasingly dumbed down by the proliferation of communications technologies, this in itself fueled by a nation’s economic imperatives driven by demands for instant gratification regardless of whether it is earnt or merited, demands that could in fact be met by the availability of cheap credit.

THE VICIOUS VIRTUOUS CIRCLE    In particular I was impressed by the Guardian’s Economics Editor (and Paul Foot lookalike) Larry Elliott, who noted that by running down our manufacturing base we and America had allowed China to build up theirs. The consequence of this enabled Western consumers to buy increasing quantities of cheap Chinese exports, thus allowing our interest rates to plummet so that we could borrow more which then pushed up the value of our houses so that we could borrow more money to buy more cheap Chinese exports!

Raising this subject with a friend this afternoon he averred that in due course this could backfire on China whose mushrooming affluence would put them where Britain and America were 10-15 years ago, i.e. looking around for cheap manufacturing elsewhere as its citizens would no longer accept dirty, boring factory jobs so that in the third world country we’d then become opportunities for an industrial revival would soon emerge. It’s a nice and not unfamiliar argument, but although we thankfully wouldn’t be around to witness it I rather doubt this scenario, not least because as a nation we’d have long lost the skills to staff and manage large-scale manufacturing, but also the speed and scale of technological development makes it impossible to predict what the industrial landscape will look like in ten, let alone thirty years’ time.

WHEELS FALLING OFF    Which brings me back to where I’d intended to start, namely motorcycles. We once had a thriving motorcycle industry which, as we now all know, was ultimately hobbled by greed, under-investment and a myopic inability to note what was happening in the far east, or at least to take it seriously. However just as it had when post-WW2 workers sought cheap transport to get to their factories and shipyards, and their sons were motivated to become ton-up boys by iconic images of Marlon Brando, the motorcycle remained an essential if unexceptional presence in  British culture. And although the British bike industry was in its death throes by the 1970s, I was lucky enough to launch a couple of magazines during a golden decade of motorcycling fuelled by a bewildering choice of efficient and exciting Japanese machinery that was affordable to all.

But as motorcycles became faster and more complex, and therefore more dangerous and expensive, they increasingly became toys for the affluent and also the subject of public and political opprobrium in a risk-averse world. As we exit the Noughties the omnipresent motorcycle we’ve taken for granted for sixty odd years looks set to disappear, replaced by a few bespoke machines owned but rarely ridden by rich old  collectors. And why is this? Well worldwide sales of the primarily Japanese-built bikes have plummeted this past couple of years with the consequence that the ‘Big Four’ marques are cutting back their ranges, sharing production and if some darker rumours are correct, in some cases planning to give up motorcycle production altogether. Even America’s Harley-Davidson, whose costly but technically antediluvian machines until 2008 enjoyed booming sales to wannabe outlaw bikers in the media and banking, have slashed staff and closed factories.

But this isn’t all due to the ongoing recession because in Western countries bereft of their own indigenous manufacturers, trade associations and user interest groups are riven by factionalism and too weak to turn the tide of onerous legislation – particularly with regard to the obstacles aspiring bikers now face in getting a licence to ride… even assuming they can afford the vast sums required to insure and buy the bikes that tempt them. Which of course increasingly they can’t, and why would they want to when a Nintendo Wii costs under £200? After all, politicians know there are few votes and even fewer jobs in what has long been merely a dangerous recreational pursuit with anti-social overtones. Even the despatch riding trade which provided employment for a few thousand die-hards in our larger cities and steady sales of bikes and spares for their importers is, thanks to the digital highway, dying on its wheels.

So along with paperback books, CDs, newspapers and all the other trappings of society my generation took for granted, it looks like the mass-produced motorcycle will have disappeared by the time we enter the next decade. But as fresh new and undemanding gee-gaws emerge to obsess us, will we as a society regret it? Probably not, but I will personally.

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1. OldHack - January 11, 2010

Hate to say it but I think you’re right, mass-produced motorbikes, at least for Western markets, are on the way out. Two-wheelers will probably be banned from the roads anyway. Which leaves off-road riding (including race tracks) with specialist bikes on government designated areas.
Heil Hitler!

2. Pete - January 11, 2010

I wonder if there is a correlation between the diminishing number of motorcycles and the falling price of secondhand cars. Where the bike used to be a cheaper alternative transport in the days when families aspired to even one car, now you can see three or four cars vying for parking space outside dwellings.

The motorbike is increasingly becoming a middle-aged rich man’s toy although perhaps not at quite as fast as rate as is theoretically possible, due to the fact that they regularly fling them down section’s of the A44 in Wales after misjudging their born-again abilities. The urban motorcyclist is a different breed of course, subverted in the last decades by the resurgence of the scooter, but more prevalent because of the congestion busting ability that two wheels offer.

I have fond memories of my despatch riding days but even then the fax machine cut deep in-roads into the work available and I hate to think what it must be like to ply the trade now. At least in those days we were able to rob some business from the film runners of Wardour Street who found their 35mm film products transferred onto conveniently portable VHS tapes that fitted very nicely into a motorcycle top-box.

Re Harley Davidson’s contraction – hurrah!! The Manchester United of motorcycling, usually championed and coveted by people who know nothing about bikes….

3. colin higgins - January 11, 2010

I blame the sportsbike, that scooterfication of the motorcycle which consumated the long courtship of bike as plaything. Alongside the 4×4, the parasurfer and the snowboard, the motorcycle morphed into an object entirely of bourgeois entertainment and mid-life crisis. The innards became occluded, almost virtual, something for a data sheet pissing contest and the attention of people who know what they do.

Bikes always had something of the fantastical, even grotesque about them but they’ve atomised in a score of finely differentiated yet imaginary genres of toy. Even suggesting such a thing marks one down as a Belstaff clad cumudgeon but if you want to know when motorcycling took ill, it was when the sexy bits became hidden under the plastic antimacassar.

Pete - January 11, 2010

Ah, but when you crack open the throttle on one of them, and it fires you up the road at warp speed, it is a fantastic experience. The modern high performance bike is a joy to ride (caveat: less so on some of them if one is tall) and once ridden for a while it is a sad experience to go back to something more utilitarian. Not that there is anything wrong with utility of course but there is more to motorcycling, I think.

My last despatch bike was a Yamaha TDM850, a sport/trail hybrid – genuine fun to ride and able to cope with rural excursions as easily as town work. Not an out and out sports bike but sportier than many used in the job. When it was laid up for a while and I had to use a plodding company Kawasaki the sense of liberation was enormous when my bike was back on the road. You appreciate these things when you ride 40,000 miles a year.

Your assertion that the sexy bits are what is now hidden is interesting. I would say that for many people it is the over all look that is the sexy element. Like clothing on a fine looking man or woman, it could be said that the outerwear enhances the form underneath, and conversely the naked mechanics can be a bit lumpy and disappointing – unless one is a pornographer or gynaecologist….

4. David Cobbold - January 11, 2010

Mark, in his blog of January 11th, has once again hit several nails on their heads in his inimitably, seemingly random, but highly effective gonzo manner.

Will the motorcycle disappear? Probably. Will we regret it bitterly? Of course, otherwise we wouldn’t be reading this stuff. Does it matter to the future of humanity? Of course not.

Colin is right when he says “Bikes always had something of the fantastical, even grotesque about them”. But he is wrong in blaming just one category of the grotesque for the group’s possible future demise.

I applaud, with Pete, the contraction of that ultimate piece of nostalgic humbug (not to mention the floods of bad taste that accompanies it) in motorcycling: the hog. But one cannot honestly put any more blame on this aspect of the motorised two-wheeled world than on, say, scooters and their riders’ weird habits.

Change of times was part of Don Quixote’s paradox. Long live windmills!

5. George Snow - January 11, 2010

Hey Mark, The writing has been on the wall since the 70’s. Of course our society is in decline and we no longer build motorcycles, motor cars, aeroplanes, railway locomotives, or even electric kettles- and our sons are destined to become manual labourers on the forthcoming Chinese railway projects. When overturning one set of values in the 60’s we couldn’t but help overturn them all.

The rise of the twin peaks of intolerance- liberalism and feminism- has undermined our society no less so than Christianity undermined the Roman Empire.

Extreme Conservatism breeds motorcycles. (And tolerance.)

Pete - January 12, 2010

“Extreme Conservatism breeds motorcycles” – what, like BMW and Zundapp combinations complete with machine guns?

6. colin higgins - January 11, 2010

Ah, but the bike used to be about transport, even if it was mostly a transport of delight. The Triton always existed as a fetish, light comic value, beefcake for those who like a bit of camp muscle but no one expected its successor to become the default motorcycle.

Sportsbikes went the way of everything else, a decadent novelty so focussed they disappeared up their own ergonomic fundament. I agree sportsbikes shouldn’t carry all the blame but they started this targeted nonsense; tourers were no longer a bike with a screen and some Cravens, they had to be capable of driving to Prague and back, no doubt with a self-emptying catheter and arse massager. Trail bikes became oxymoronic and developed 1100cc engines. Something died.

This more is more stuff was allowed to happen because the middleweight, the bikes that gave motorcycling a compass, were misrepresented as A Bit Rubbish instead of the engine of the biking business. The people whose bikes paid the rent ( I was one too ) saw their real value and ignored the jibes but there weren’t enough of us/them, so cartoon bikes inherited the earth (or Middle Earth in custom’s bike’s case).

I’m off for a cup of tea and a nice piece of cake to dream of 500 twins. Preferably ones without retro anywhere near them.

7. David Cobbold - January 11, 2010

Tough call, 500 twins with no retro in sight. The cake had better have some interesting stuff in the filling.

8. WTK - January 11, 2010

I only see BMW’s ridden in the dead of winter in the US. Feelings about Ducatis which have a great following in the US?! Insurance is cheap here but if you ride long enough you will go down. Of 7 accidents only one has been the fault of the arse in the saddle. Just random thoughts…..

9. Martin Craig - January 11, 2010

Modern bikes (faired and unfaired) still score maximum points in the bat-out-of-Hell stakes for those of us happy to risk our licenses (& now our freedom, not to mention our lives) on a daily basis. But unless we’re willing to sacrifice speed and macho kudos to go for an Enfield Bullet or similar, most new bikes fall down very badly on fuel consumption.

I would want any new bike to be able to (1) get up to speed quickly in traffic (2) handle all town, A & B roads & motorway riding and (3) do AT LEAST 65 mpg. Instead, the kinds of bike I fancy nowadays (mostly marketed as ‘streetfighters’, he blushed) do 1 & 2 very well, but at the expense of not much more than 45 mpg on a good day with a light touch on the throttle.

Unless manufacturers start offering new bikes with all three attributes I see no great point in making a cosly upgrade from my 1991 VFR750 (in fashionable white). If they persist in chasing the ‘fast group on a trackday’ lobby’s credit cards at the expense of the rest of us, then their demise will have been well-earned.

I think Hopkins, S. ‘L’. (1962) expressed it best when he said, “An ah broke down, an ah cried a lil’ while…”

10. George Snow - January 12, 2010

Try this liberal scum

Tom Stewart - January 12, 2010

George, would you please post whatever it is somewhere where I don’t have to register to view. Life’s too short for Facetwit.

While I’m on, Naked bikes proved most popular in ’09’s declining UK market (20% down on ’08) with Supersports a close second, ahead of Scooters/Mopeds and way ahead of Adventure Sport, Custom, Sport/Tour, Trail/Enduro and Touring, in that order. So, love ’em or loathe ’em, plasticfantastic sportsbikes aren’t done for yet.

11. markswill - January 12, 2010

I’m seriously impressed with the amount and scope of the comments laid at the feet of this latest rant, some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t, some of which are a revelation and some of which I don’t even understand. But rather than reply in detail, or at all really, I’ll just give a tip of the fedora to all and sundry as I think my work here is done.

12. George Snow - January 12, 2010

I’m just looking for the ‘post by email’ option…… then all will be revealed

Mark, you’d love this machine. Better than a poofy Italian sportscar…

mark williams - January 12, 2010

Can’t wait Giorgio!

BTW, how’s your, er, medical condition? Fully restored, I hope.

Fucking FREEZING here and 15 ins of your namesake outside.

Best – MW

13. George Snow - January 12, 2010

You know Mark, The ‘Post by Email’ function requires several seconds of consideration… which I’m never prepared to lose…. but I have posted the iconic snap on my own server…..

….. so you see what a Triumph Motorcycle of the Will will do.

mark williams - January 12, 2010

Fantastic! Who needs a car?

MW

Tom Stewart - January 13, 2010

I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t that. I’m tempted to ask how all the controls might have worked, but the answer might give me a headache.

14. Chris Hodenfield - January 12, 2010

Here in the northeast corner of the USA where I live, one rarely sees a young guy on a motorcycle anymore. There is still, I’m glad to say, the hellraiser element, who prefer xtreme sport bikes outfitted for drag racing. Otherwise it seems to all be the greybeards, which I don’t resent but I don’t want to see the mighty sport go away.

It might be different down south.

Americans became obsessed with safety 20 or 30 years ago and that had something to the decline of bikes here. I think the average parent here would prefer their son sign up sweep for land mines in Afghanistan than ride a motorcycle. The insurance companies have also done their part.

Whenever the fuel prices skyrocket, people start talking bikes again. Curiously, there are lot of over-70 folks toddling around on mopeds here in the summer. It’s kind of funny.
But I do wish I saw more kids on them.
Scooters are not as easily affordable as they once were. In the ’60s, every high school parking had dozens of bikes in the corner.


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