I headed down to the NEC bike show this week to check out what’s new, hoping that the fast growing cafe scene might be having a bit more of an influence on the big corporate machine that the UK’s bike industry has become.
After so much coverage and special pullouts of the retro biking scene in the mainstream bike press recently, I fully expected to see more stripped-back 70s style cafe racers and bobbers, and much less in the way of racebikes and cruisers with tassels and airbrushed dragons, but I hadn’t expect to see the event dominated by so many adventure bikes and factory streetfighters.
I guess it’s a step in the right direction, from fantasy Xbox biking to real biking experience, but to me the mainstream industry and press are still boringly focused on outright performance and electronic rider aids, with just a handful of maverick companies going back to the basics that are inspiring so many of us to ride.
Gilsons is one such company, building stunning custom cafe racers based on the carbed Triumph Thruxton with alloy tank, red frame, upgraded engine and suspension, as well as wider rims and a proper stripped-own custom look.
They have also built a very cool bobber on the same Thruxton platform, but with a custom built frame and plenty of one-off parts. They really are properly customized machines, but the best bit is that you can probably get them serviced at your local Triumph dealer.
I spoke with Mike Gilson for a while about the high level of attention their bikes are generating, which is completely understandable when you see one in the flesh. They are much better looking in real life than in photos, perhaps because bikes with ally tanks are hard to photograph – or perhaps the rear end needs trimming down a little?
I’m told they are great to ride, with much improved handling and performance on a significantly lighter bike than the donor with many heavy OEM parts thrown in the bin. They definitley look pretty svelte.
There are a few other manufacturer’s out there dabbling in the world of the Cafe racer, Bobber and street-tracker, but we’ve seen most of them already.
Moto Guzzi are the one mainstream manufacturer who seem to have their eye firmly on this niche, and although they didn’t show the stunning half-faired cafe racer they were teasing us with in Milan last week, they did had the V7 in it’s various guises, and it’s a great looking base bike that could easily be stripped back even more to create a reliable modern old-school cafe custom.
The big surprise (for me, anyway) was Royal Enfield, who have been re-making and re-importing the old school Bullet and other old-school models for a while now. They clearly get what’s happening out there, as they have a proper alloy-tanked cafe racer called the Clubman that looks custom straight out of the box – for a little over 5 grand.
Ok, with 500cc generating just 28bhp it’s gonna very slow, but for anyone un-troubled by the need for speed, or cornering like Rossi, this could be a contender for some genuine cafe cool at a good price. Chop that oversized rear fender off and it’s quite a looker.
They also had this pretty authentic looking Bobber on the stand, which looked like it was straight out of an American custom shop. (…unless of course, it was, cos I can’t find this bike on their website?)
Norton were there with their slightly over-priced Commandos, which they are lovely bikes to look at, but they need to get their act together with pricing and delivery if they want to be more than an expensive luxury for extremely patient and patriotic aficionados.
I really think they are stunning to look at, and I wish Norton the best of luck, but they’re not quite special enough to be so expensive and hard to obtain, or basic enough to be affordable… I’m not explaining myself very well, but for some reason I don’t want one – at least not at the current price – but I feel like I should. …Maybe someone can explain that to me at some point, cos I can’t put it into words. Surely we should all want one of these?
Yamaha were there celebrating their racing heritage with a few old racers that moved my soul.
Although it’s a little off piste for the Bike Shed I also had to post these two modern classic racebikes. Both are stunners that surely no-one would kick out of their garage?
All in all I’m glad I went to the NEC and I’ll go again, but being there reconfirmed how much I’m losing my interest in what the mainstream motorcycle industry are producing these days.
I think they’ve lost touch with why many of us want to own and ride motorcycles. For me it’s about the pleasure of ownership, the passion, the culture, great riding, hanging out with friends and great times. Not top speed figures that are pointless on any British roads or lycra-clad dollybirds masquerading as salespersons (although I’m not complaining that they were there…)
But I’m not drawn to timless old-school bikes because I want to ride around on 70s classics that remind me of my misspent teenage youth, far from it. I like speed, reliability and modern handling, but not if all the fun is taken out and replaced by the technology and press-driven fad of the moment.
In most modern bikes from the mainstream factories, Style has been replaced by Fashion, Good engineering has been replaced by Gadgets & Gizmos, and as a result biking has become anodyne and homogenous instead of visceral and life-changing.
…It just doesn’t move my soul.