The British were pioneers at many things. Some were pleasant and enjoyable, like motorcycles, others not so much, like imperialism. At the very zenith of their motorcycling days, they had performance and handling, but they missed many other things – like oil-tight engines, the ability to make more power after they hit the ’plateau,’ and the ability to consistently imbue their machines with soul.
The Italians, on the other hand, understood that last bit rather well. Right from the Cucciolo days, most motorcycles from the boot-shaped nation had smashing good looks and soul. Nothing else, on the other hand, was guaranteed. When the engines worked, they turned out great. When the chassis worked, it became a transcendental piece of art. But they were hit and miss affairs.
The Germans, in their thorough, mechanical way, worked out the formulas, got it all just right and produced some masterful machinery. DKWs, BMWs and NSUs all had great mechanicals, and no reputations for chasses that could not keep up. Strangely, while the marques are remembered for their performance, no one I’ve read recently seems to idolize them in the way they would recall MV Agustas, Gileras, Triumphs etc.
But the world was different then. Nations were at war, we didn’t (and couldn’t) speak to each other as easily, as amicably or as often as we do now, and motorcycle development was almost never a collaborative effort.
When the Japanese happened on the motorcycle scene, their precision oriented culture and approach helped them in many ways. Not least of these were their amazingly oil-tight motors. And while they had the Brits confounded on that front, they also quickly moved forward, adding revs, cylinders and more and more power to the motorcycling equation. They understood complicated engines and made them reliable but had basically no clue about styling or chassis design.
Fast forward a few years and look again. Everybody learned from each other and began to fix their own weak points. The Brits gave up. The Italians began to make more sorted motorcycles, until the point where they would hit the electricals plateau. Ducatis, for years, would be famous for soul searing looks, scintillating handling, commendable performance and the ability to completely shatter its riders with menopausal electricals. The Germans grew mechanically step by step, but still had a way to go with styling and soul. And the Japanese figured out the art of cheap, fast, reliable motorcycles that also handled really well. Culturally, the world was opening up and more and more avenues of cross-cultural communication were speeding up motorcycle development.
And today, this is how it stands. I was just reading a five month old magazine which featured a comparison between the Yamaha YZF-R1LE, the Ducati 999S and the MV Agusta F4 1000S – two super-expensive, exotic Italian motorcycles. The magazine clocked the slowest lap times on the R1, but the Yamaha won the test. Why? Because it was only marginally slower. It was actually streetable as well. And it happened to be about ten per cent cheaper. Note that the Yamaha was not rated any poorer than the Italians on styling this time round. Note that the Italians weren’t criticised for having dodgy electricals or any such. Both parties have learnt a lot from each other. Hell, Yamaha was almost open about the fact that the MV F4 was a big style inspiration. And come to think of it, the brands now span the globe. Who knows which part of the globe a bike was designed in? Japanese designs have become Indian bikes. Japanese bikes have been styled in Italy or UK...
So what does the future hold? The next frontier for the Japanese is a reliable, precise, quantifiable way to inject soul into their motorcycles. The Italians have to figure out how to make’ em cheaper. The Germans have still to make serious progress beyond their mechanically appealing monsters (the new GX line of singles is a good sign, though).
Globally, cultures are converging until everyone seems to be on the same page. Will that happen to motorcycles as well? It’s very likely, I think. Is the impending homogeneity a good thing? I’m not sure. But there is hope.
Countries like China and India have both been fairly wary about ’exporting’ their culture (please keep all Manchurian and Tandoori examples out of this). Two of the most populous nations on Earth will storm this growing cultural unity. Ditto their motorcycles. In the years to come, our motorcycles will grow. In size, in stature, in capability and they will spread out. What do you think will we teach the world?