Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Fate of Classic and Vintage Motorcycling

It's been a bit since I have written a real article on the blog. Unfortunately, I have been real busy at work which in these times isn't a bad thing. The departure point for this blog post is a basically a response to the Norton Owner's Club Magazine editor Mark Woodward's lament over the lack of interest by young people in vintage and classic motorcycling. You could have fooled me. I follow over 200 blogs that relate in some way to classic motorcycling. Fashion at present is dominated by references to classic motorcycling. Even major fashion houses are producing high-end motorcycle jackets and boot. But, on closer inspection Mr. Woodward may have a point.

The current craze right now is the cafe racer and there is some pretty creative stuff out there. Cafe racer, to me, conjures up images of sleek Tritons with beautiful alloy tanks and stroked Triumph engines. However, most of the cafe racers I see being built are based on the inexpensive, ubiquitous, Japanese chassis. This is not a criticism but an observation and some of these bikes a simply wonderful. I wouldn't call it classic motorcycling as much as customizing.

The cafe trend using 70's Japanese bikes reflects the problem that vintage and classic motorcycling has with attracting young people. First and foremost, young people simply can't afford the hobby. If you follow Paul d' Orleans' blog The Vintagent then you know that prices at auctions have been steadily rising which in turn entrains the whole market. The result is that what was once an affordable entry level motorcycle now is out of reach for young riders. Second is one of social context. Pictures of many vintage events show older folks milling around static displays (Goodwood being the exception!!!). Not very exciting compared to Bottrop Kustom Kulture. I will also say that a few of my interactions with oldtimers in the hobby have been unpleasant. Requests for help turned into ridicule at how little I knew and searches for spares have been ripoffs.

On the other hand, young riders look to the cafe craze for many of the same reasons that young riders did in the 1950's and 60's. It's exciting to search for a beater bike in a junk yard, go to your friend's garage to cut, weld, and hammer away, and roll out your creation. Buzzing with your buddies around town on something you built without breaking the bank must be an incredible feeling. There are no endless searches for unobtanium and if the bike cracks up you can always go back to the junkyard. New Cafe Racer events are about camaraderie, fun, and riding rather than museum level exhibitions of painstakingly restored and polished motrcycles. Ultimately, the new cafe racer community satisfies the need for social interaction as well as social responsibility derived from repurposing stuff that would simply have been thrown away.

The solution requires a commitment on the part of veterans in the hobby to take on the responsibility of essentially training apprentices. Knowledge and management of these bikes is a treasure. Every time that information isn't passed along the collective wealth of the community is diminished. Focus must be shifted away from the bikes themselves and towards enjoying them. A clear decision must be made as to whether we are to be collectors or riders. I am not advocating risky use of historically significant bikes but an important aspect is the function. Events like Goodwood, the 49-Mile Ride, and even the Cannonball breed the excitement and sense of community that vintage and classic motorcycling needs to attract young people.


  1. the 'café craze' owes just as much to the desire of younger guys to own a motorcycle that actually looks like a motorcycle and is also pretty simple. Apart from the present day Bonneville and Moto Guzzi V7 you simply can't buy this kind of bike because the MoCos are too busy trying sell over powered ugly plastic covered Moto GP Superbike type bikes which all look the same ie: garish SeaDoos with wheels.
    The market and present consumer styling demands are looking for classic styling instead of insect/transformer styling and as long as they aren't available to buy they will be built by the enthusiasts who actually understands motorcycling scene.

  2. It is a subject that is worthy of a lot of thought and discussion. Is there a future of vintage motorcycling, and does that future involve new, younger people? Or is it a bunch of old men looking at museum pieces that they are too old to kickstart? I think it is very possible that the crowd that has found fun with 1970's cafe bikes will move on to 1960's Brit bikes, or 1950's panheads or maybe on to my love which is pre WWI machines. Yes, they are all more expensive than a moped, but I've seen plenty of kids who found enough money to trick out their modern bike, enough money that they could sell it and buy a vintage machine if they are so motivated. So ultimately I don't think that our hobby will die. It may reduce in numbers, but may increase in enthusiasm with an influx of motivated youngsters. I hope...

  3. There may be a turning point in which the over inflated motorcycles get sold at firesale prices as the interest fall off.due to the aged not able to get rid of cherished machines quick enough - just a side comment.