Rediscovering Literary Moto-Archaeology | Perspectives


As I write this I'm still two weeks away from riding, my broken left wrist mostly healed but my doc's advice-"don't go too quickly here"-keeping me from doing too much, too soon. I could probably ride to and from work, but with even a low-speed tip-over likely to re-break the wrist, I'm too chicken to try. The annual family vacation to Maui is next month, and the last thing I want is to be wearing a cast there.

So I continue to pursue non-riding moto-activities, one of which I've recently rediscovered-literary moto-archeology. For me, few things are better than a cache of '70s and '80s motorcycle magazines, a well-lit garage filled with cool bikes, a grizzled riding buddy or two, rock 'n' roll in the air and a fridge stocked with enough adult beverages to keep things lively well into the evening. It works as a solo act, too, digging through archives for a particular story, year, motorcycle or magazine that fires some long-forgotten circuit in my cranium. It's an ink- and wood-pulp-based time machine of the highest order.

It happened just the other night as I leafed through Motorcyclist's March 1980 edition, an issue pressure-packed with cool stuff: a Honda CBX/Suzuki GS1100 comparison, a feature on the Superbikers event from Carlsbad, a tech piece on Honda's first Pro Link-equipped motocrosser and highlights from the Tokyo Motor Show including Yamaha's RZ250LC two-stroke and XS Eleven, and Kawasaki's mammoth KZ1300 Six.

The CBX still manages to freak me out nearly 30 years after its debut. Designed by Sensei Irimajiri, it had six cylinders, a layout recalling Honda's-and Iri's-brilliant Isle of Man GP racers of the '60s. Honda's new-generation CR250 motocrosser also debuted in the issue, featuring liquid cooling (a first for a 250) and a radical new single-shock suspension system. Yamaha's water-cooled RZ250 was shown, precursor to the RZ350, modern bikes that carried on the tradition of the R5 and RD350/400 series. And the shaft-driven XS Eleven (called "Excess Eleven" by some) was out to gain some respect in the notoriously displacement-hungry U.S. market.

What struck me most powerfully looking at that issue, those bikes and that particular era was the vast amount of mechanical experimentation going on, the lack of design orthodoxy and common technology used. You had six-cylinder engines and flexy, skinny-tube frames competing against more traditional inline-fours in more rigid chassis assemblies; four-valve cylinder heads versus two; air-cooled motocrossers with dual-shock rear suspensions battling bikes with newfangled single-shock chassis and liquid-cooled engines; two-stroke streetbikes versus four-strokes; and on and on.

It was a hugely exciting time, a near-religious one for some. Each month the magazines brought news of some significant new technology chunk, one that, if successful in testing-or on the Grand Prix, Superbike or motocross circuits-would eventually find its way to a local showroom, where enthusiasts could-and did-wallow in it. Remember Yamaha's 20-valve FZ750 of '85? I still recall drooling over a freshly uncrated one at Plaza Cycle in Salt Lake City. And what of the first GSX-R750s that began appearing later that year (most of them Canadian-spec units ridden south for the summer)? Aluminum frames and a layout straight from Europe's racetracks. Unreal.

For me, a 40-something with a bit of perspective on the streetbike scene, that sameness quotient is a significant part of what's missing in today's moto-culture. That's not a slap on today's bikes or technology; current machines are functionally impeccable and offer more performance than most humans can use or appreciate. It's just that, with technology moving in waves-and the '70s and '80s being watershed decades in terms of two-wheeled technology jumps-the orthodoxy and incrementalism of today's bikes has me a touch bored. Everything's pretty much status quo: inline-three/four or V-twin engines with four valves per cylinder; aluminum (or lightweight tube-steel) frames; near-universal fuel injection; reasonably conventional suspension and steering systems; 17-inch wheels, etc.

Of course, it's quite possible we're experiencing one of the wave-troughs that occurs every decade or so. It's happened before. And if that's the case, there are likely plenty of cool, new mold-breaking two-wheelers on the horizon. And that's a good thing.