Common Tread

The most important stat not on the spec sheet: Smiles per hour

May 16, 2017

What makes a particular model of motorcycle enjoyable to its owner? Does enjoyment rise with the cost? With the power or the amount of chrome?

Martin Moto owner Dennis Martin recently invited me to attend and help out with the Bonneville Demo Day at his dealership, which gave me a chance to sample the latest wares of Triumph’s Modern Classics line, which are some of my favorite motorcycles, in terms of styling. I was able to hop on any motorcycle during the many riding sessions conducted throughout the day, as long as it wasn’t claimed by a potential paying customer (after all, Dennis is running a business).

I was able to ride, in succession, the Street Twin, T120 Bonneville, the Street Cup and the Thruxton. This gave me the opportunity to research an idea I have expressed in Common Tread article comments: What makes a motorcycle the “right” motorcycle for you? What brings a rider the most smiles per hour?

But first, in a nutshell, here are my impressions of those four models:

  • Street Twin: I immediately noticed the broad spread of torque and the flickable feel. Felt like a more powerful and modern incarnation of my 1979 Honda CB400T.
  • T120 Bonneville: The additional power over the Street Twin was immediately noticeable, but so was the additional weight and height. Once moving on the rolling hills of Berks County, however, the Bonnie handled the curves well.
  • Street Cup: Felt light and nimble, unlike some café racer bikes with a low clubman handlebar or clip-ons. As the ride leader picked up the pace, the Street Cup, though derived from a budget standard, was surprisingly competent.
  • Thruxton R: With an inverted fork and Öhlins twin shocks, this bike handles better than a retro can be expected to handle. Other bikes are quicker, but the Thruxton’s broad spread of torque made it pull like a freight train as I pushed to keep up with the ride leader and a customer on a Street Triple. The word I used to describe the Thruxton R when I returned from the ride was “silly.”

My point is not to review these bikes, however, but to examine why they made me smile. In a way, I could use the word silly to describe all four of them. I mean, there is no practical reason for these motorcycles to exist. None are exceptional touring motorcycles. There are certainly more capable motorcycles available, from a performance standpoint. There is one statistic, however, where the Modern Classics rank very highly, in my opinion. That statistic is smiles per hour.

Suzuki Hayabusa and Honda CBX
Fast 40 years ago or fast today? The right motorcycle for you is the one that makes you smile. Photo by Lance Oliver.

All four Modern Classics made me smile, but the one that produced the highest smiles per hour for me was the Street Cup. No, it did not have the raw power or handling capabilities of the Thruxton R, but I am not trying to set lap records when I zip around the Pennsylvania countryside.

In my opinion, too much of the motorcycle discussion is focused on the stat sheet. I am guilty of this, too. (Search my comments following Common Tread articles to see just how guilty.) We obsess about horsepower, weight and performance per dollar (I am particularly guilty of the latter). As such, we may not give some very good bikes a fair shake. I have deliberately avoided riding the Yamaha FZ-07 because I felt I needed the power of the FZ-09. After riding the Street Cup and the Thruxton R, and enjoying the Street Cup more, I am hungry to put the FZ-07 through its paces. I can say the same thing of the Moto Guzzi V7, which I have brushed aside because of its low power, despite owning several low-power vintage motorcycles.

I rode my old Suzuki Katana 750 to the Martin event. It has performance similar to the Thruxton R, but they get there in a much different way. On the way home, I pushed the Katana as hard, if not harder, than I pushed the Thruxton R. The Thruxton R was the more enjoyable ride (thanks mainly to the ample torque). More smiles per hour. When I got home, I took my CB400T for a spin. The CB rides similarly to the Street Twin. Although the Street Twin has more power, for me, the CB400T provides me with more smiles per hour, despite being far less capable.

1979 Honda CB400T
How can a 1979 Honda CB400T outperform a 2017 Triumph Street Twin? Only in the Smiles Per Hour stat. Photo by Tom Byrne.

What matters as much, if not more, than the stat sheet (at least for me) is the feel, the sound even the smell of a motorcycle. Some call it “character.” In today’s world, where every product is expected to be perfect right out or the box, quirks and idiosyncrasies are considered design flaws. Well, in a way they are design flaws, or at least represent compromises the manufacturer had to make, for one reason or another. As long as quirks do not result in reduced safety and reliability, they too can add character.

This is what draws many of us sorry sots to vintage motorcycles and cars. When motorcycles lose their character, they become too appliance-like for me. Trust me, I love my garage refrigerator and ample amount of liquid refreshment it can hold, but in spite of it running reliably, year in and year out, it does not stoke the same fire in my soul as the Suzuki GT380 sitting a few feet away.

My BMW F 650 GS is a motorcycle refrigerator. It does its duty flawlessly, but I truly do not look forward to riding it, at least not as much as my other rides. It can rack up the miles, but not smiles per hour.

What I’m trying to say is it’s not about which bike is quickest, or quickest for the money, can cover the most miles, cross the roughest terrain or looks the most bad-ass. None of those things matter if it does not provide you with sufficient smiles per hour, and no motorcycle is the “wrong” motorcycle if it brings a smile to the face of its rider.