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From the Field
By Steve Parker

Motorcycles offer all the high-tech of cars and then some

Anti-lock brakes, electric start, turbochargers and fuel injection, satellite navigation systems, the most sophisticated cylinder heads in the world, carbon fiber reinforced pistons and other internal engine bits for lightness, great mileage and speed, carbon fiber, fiberglass and exotic plastics body parts, powerful stereos that’ll knock you and your passenger out of their seats, halogen lighting with enough candlepower to light up a new moon Baja at night, adjustable suspension setting front and rear --- it’s all waiting for you at your local motorcycle shop.

The neat little secret of motorcycle technology has always been, and very much remains, that two-wheeled vehicles are the test “mules” of what eventually winds up on mass-produced four-wheelers.
The first five-valve cylinder heads were called “Genesis” and were seen on Japanese Yamahas well before Audi ever offered them to the car-buying public. Anti-lock brakes were put on German BMW motorcycles before most cars or trucks ever considered offering them.

Likewise, the “flat” cylinder layout still common on BMW bikes presaged the use of that engine style in Porsche, Subaru and other cars of today. In the mid-‘60s, Toyota brought out a sports car called the S2000, which was campaigned in this country by the legendary Dan Gurney, a car which was built under contract to Toyota by Yamaha. And Yamaha built the powerful V6 engine in the SHO high-performance version of the Ford Taurus. Even “all-wheel” (two-wheel) drive and automatic transmission motorcycles have found their place in the pantheon.

Of course with the upside of the popularity of bikes, there’s a negative, too. With 2002 sales up a remarkable 9.4 percent, the U.S. motorcycle market is celebrating 10 consecutive years of rising sales. In 2001, new unit motorcycle sales topped 850,000 in the fourth straight year of double-digit increases. Continued strong demand for two-wheelers beat that mark in 2002, with total motorcycle sales of more than 937,000, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC). Total car and truck sales are about 16 million annually, so almost one million two-wheelers sold is a pretty good figure.

Here’s the bad news: More machines, fewer well-trained riders, more wrecks. Motorcycle fatalities rose for the fifth consecutive year in 2002, to 3,276, the most since 1990. That compares with a low of 2,116 in 1997. MIC offers a series of great training programs around the nation. Find out where there’s one near you by visiting Your local dealer will also have info on MIC.
Honda was the first motorcycle maker with the guts to produce a “superbike” more than 30 years ago, the world’s first mass-produced large displacement sports machine.

Kawasaki and their 900cc Z1 model grabbed the hearts of minds of fast riders and their police counterparts all over America (see any episode of “ChiPS” for a look at the classic Z1 in full cop trim). Kawasaki, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, produced three-cylinder, two-stroke sport bikes so fast and unpredictable that the handlebars came standard with adjustable steering dampers!
Suzuki has become known for their bare-bones “naked” street and sport racers, blindingly fast machines which strike fear into anyone who has ridden them, equipped as they are with what even veteran bikers call a “severe pucker factor”.

Suzuki was the only Japanese manufacturer to produce a consumer version of a rotary-powered motorcycle, a heavy, super-fast and expensive piece of technology which never caught on. Racing sanctioning bodies made it illegal because they didn’t know in which class to put it, and finally Great Britain’s Norton borrowed the unique engine technology to use on their police pursuit motorcycles.
I road-tested a Suzuki rotary (the RE-5, if I remember right) for a magazine when they first came out, and today there’s an RE-5 in the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Talk about feeling old! But motorcycling technology changes much faster than in the automotive world.

When Mazda introduced their Miata in 1989 as a 1990 model, it was hailed as a sports car with all the fun, good looks and power of a classic British roadster, but with the dependability of Japanese machinery. It was, in essence, an MG which would start every morning. Almost a quarter century later, Miata is still going strong.

Miata might have taken a lot of people by surprise, but to anyone who had been involved in motorcycling since the ‘60s, it was just the natural progression of things.

In 1969, Honda shocked the motoring world with the introduction of the first superbike, the CB750. Producing almost 70 horsepower from a four-cylinder engine, the machine was the first street bike to use a front disc brake, turned out almost as much horsepower as the then-state-of-the-art MV Agusta racer from Italy, came equipped with turn signals (then a motorcycle novelty) and cost, at the time, as much as a Volkswagen Beetle.

These were the days when Europe’s Triumph, BSA, MotoGuzzi, BMW and of course, the USA’s stalwart Harley-Davidson, ruled the roads and the world’s race tracks.

Japanese machines were small, cute and noisy, not meant to be taken seriously by anyone other than college students and bongo-banging Beatniks. While the Honda “Dream”, introduced in 1959 as a 305cc model, saw the phrase “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” go a long way towards changing the “outlaw” image motorcycling had acquired since the end of WW II, it was that CB750 which brought Japanese mass production, reliability and safety to the forefront among two-wheelers.
Today, motorcycling is dominated by the major Japanese manufacturers, a smattering of European makers (though that British industry, like their sports car market, is all but gone), and America’s Harley-Davidson remains a powerful contender in the marketplace. A company called Buell, which started out making very expensive custom bikes for the high-priced set (known as Rubbies --- Rich, Urban Bikers), is now a division of Harley.

Harley itself, after going through several iterations in the past decade, is once again headed by members of the original founding families of the company, and the quality of their latest machines is on a par with some of the best in the world. And anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes in motorcycling knows that Harleys are not known for their reliability. Harley now has their own museum in Milwaukee, the company is downright respectable, and the engine in their radical new V-Rod was designed by ----gulp! --- Porsche!

Customers worldwide gladly pay $75,000 for Harley models which cost $20,000 in the US, and the site of 70-ish Japanese couples cruising the road to the top of Mount Fuji on their Electra-Glides, wearing full leathers and riding gear, is surreal, but believe me, I have seen it in person.
The company sponsors the Love Ride, one of the biggest fundraisers for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, a southern California event which annually draws more than 20,000 bikers, all led by biker enthusiast Jay Leno. (I did a POPULAR MECHANICS magazine piece on Leno’s motorcycle collection before he got THE TONIGHT SHOW gig. After he signed that huge contract, he started collecting cars in earnest! But he always did all the mechanical work on the bikes himself, favoring obscure makes like the British Brough.).

Small-ish Euro makers like Aprilia and Ducati still serve as the “Ferraris” of the two-wheel world, high-priced, super high-performance makes which made their bones on the world’s race tracks.
There are even some all-new start-up American motorcycle manufacturers, some using well-known names like Indian, and veteran auto racing champion Dan Gurney has gotten into the act with a powerful, comfortable bike dubbed Alligator.

Sales are stronger than ever, the choice for buyers is stunning, there are as many niches in the two-wheeled world as there are in the car and truck markets, if not more. Sportbikes, sport/tourers, dual-purpose, naked sport bikes, and standards are for sale. Even scooters like Vespa (which means “wasp” in Italian) are making a strong comeback in the USA.

What happened? We did. Baby Boomers.

“We” got older, we want to stay young, and in addition to buying that classic Mustang which we always wanted when we were in high school, a lot of us are adding a two-wheeled conveyance to our stable.

And we want to feel rough and tumble tough. Sometimes a wimpy SUV just won’t do the trick. Darn the kids! Get out on the open road by yourself or with your woman (and plenty of women hit the road with their men on the back, too!). There truly is something special about hopping on a Harley, firing that big twin up, feeling that exhaust note screaming “potato, potato, potato” rumbling through your body and the neighborhood, which is quintessentially American. Hop on a Harley and the first things you feel like doling are drinking a beer and outrunning a cop. It’s in our genes, I think.

What are we buying? Big, fast motorcycles. While they are sure fun to ride and look at, that’s not always the best idea for the first-time rider. Falling off a motorcycle, even a stationary one, will hurt. All larger displacement bikes weigh in excess of 600 pounds. Having one of these brutes land your leg or hip or arm can spell disaster. What would be written off as a minor fender-bender in a car can easily become a fatal accident on a bike, especially if the rider is not wearing proper safety gear.
But, the big bikes remain the most popular on the sales charts. Dan Gurney’s Alligator machine is a case in point of a small manufacturer using technical prowess to answer some of the safety questions.

Older folks, the ones buying the most bikes, tend to be a little heavier and shorter than they were in their youth. This means a tall riding position is really a danger, making the machine hard to control, especially when stopped. It’s crucial that both feet can easily touch the ground when you’re on a bike and not moving.

Gurney’s Alligator is built specifically to address this situation, with the fuel tank under and behind the rider, making for an exceptionally low center of gravity.

Take it from me, as a short guy who has dropped a lot of motorcycles in the past 30 years, the Alligator is tough to fall from! Gurney’s Alligator is powered by a single cylinder 710cc modified Honda engine producing about 70 horsepower (the same output as the original Honda CB750 in 1969). Contact the ever-young Gurney, the only man to ever win a Formula 1 race in a car he designed, built and drove, at All-American Racers in Santa Ana, CA at for more info.

Another bike getting a lot of attention is the Harley-Davidson V-Rod, their first really all-new machine in over 30 years. In 2001, Harley stunned the cruiser world with its $17,995 VRSCA "V-Rod" A 106hp/72LbFt, modern liquid cooled 1130cc (60 cubic inches) powered, DOHC, 4-valve per cylinder V-twin, in a raked-out, trick-looking dragster-ish chassis. Harley knows who their buyers are, too, and the seat height on the powerful V-Rod is a mere 26 inches, making it suitable for tough little beer-drinking guys (like me!). (More info at

It is the “sport/tourers” which hold the most fascination for many buyers. These are large displacement machines, usually four cylinders (though the Honda Gold Wing is a 6 displacing almost 2 liters at almost $20,000!) with the comforts of a tourer but some of the speed, handling and braking capabilities of a sports machine.

A few of them are gorgeous works of art, as well, such as the BMW R1150R (German, and featured in a recent James Bond film and priced at a cool 10 grand) and the Moto Guzzi (Italy) Stone Touring P.I. (no, I don’t know what the name means --- but the machine is pure eye candy!).

Machines from resurrected companies like Royal Enfield (the $5,000 500cc Bullet) and Indian (Roadmaster and Vintage, both at near $25,000 with engines displacing 1,700cc’s) are sweet to gaze upon, even though their only ties to the original companies are their names.

A new machine assembled in America from parts worldwide is the Victory, at $15,000 and 1,500cc’s, a powerful retro-styling statement. And almost any motorcycle bearing the name Ducati, Aprilia or Triumph will set you apart from the pack when it comes to that Sunday cruise to the Rock Store on Mulholland Drive in the Santa Monica Mountains.

I first learned to ride on a Triumph Tiger Cub in about 1973. My first bike was a Yamaha Enduro 175, and soon after that, I moved up to a Honda CB550-4, a machine I still own and which at the time (1976) was the perfect size and power for me as a relatively new rider. The difference between those machines and today’s offerings are simply astronomical; really the only thing they have in common is a gear shift lever and two wheels.

About the Author
Steve Parker is a two-time Emmy Award-winning journalist living in Palm Springs, CA, where he produces and hosts automotive-related radio and TV shows) Steve Parker THE CAR NUT / THE CAR DUDE. Over 30 Years of Emmy-Award Winning Automotive Journalism on TV, radio, in newspapers and magazines.