A little site called the Internet Archive makes all this possible. Back in 1996, internet guru Brewster Kahle created the Internet Archive, "a 501(c)(3) non-profit... building a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form." Kahle needed a way for users to browse the Archives, especially as websites changed and updated over time. This led to the Wayback Machine. Punch in an address, then choose "when" you want to see the site. It's useful for finding all kinds of information, but it's also pretty entertaining. That's why I traveled back in time to see some OEM websites. Don't worry, I brought back some pictures from my trip.
Anything could happen in the early days of the 'Net. BMW found that out when they discovered a Kawasaki dealer from Missouri had claimed bmwmotorrad.com. The dealer fixed old Beemers on the side, and set up shop on exactly the domain BMW'd like to have.
BMW's motorcycle presence on the Web lived at a few different addresses over the years, but they maintained an unsurprisingly conservative site aesthetic. The R1200 C product page, for example, looks pretty good for as old as it is. Other OEM pages didn't age so well.
Oh, Ducati. You delivered everything I hoped for, and more, including the ability to log into a forum and pester Foggy. Wonder how long they kept that running? Of all the screenshots I took, Ducati easily wins "Most Mentions of Brand Name on Homepage."
Harley-Davidson.com is the ugly-duckling-to-beautiful-swan story here. Just have a look at one of the early iterations of their site, from early 1997.
Manufacturers were trying just about anything back then (just wait til I get to Suzuki), and putting a warning label on your website that riffs on the cancer warnings on a pack of smokes is strange at best. Equally strange is a prose-powered appeal to early Web-surfers who had just dialed up and checked in on HD, only to find this gem.
Harley spent the coming years tweaking its site, adding features, and building pages for those Buells. A series of revamps resulted in this home page from 2004, which could easily pass for a homepage from just a few years ago. Oddly enough, Harley doesn't seem to have ever owned hd.com. Someone's just squatting on it, and seems to have been since the 1990s.
I hope I'm doing Honda's site justice here, since it's apparently best viewed with Netscape Navigator 3.0, but this'll have to do. If that doesn't tell you it's old, how about the part where you could buy an RC51 for $10,999 elsewhere on the site?
In just a couple years, Honda went from mild to wild as they dug into what could be done with a website. Just because something can be done, of course, doesn't mean is should be, and the unfortunate effect of all this is that I'll imagine a 20th Century Limited streamliner every time I see a VTX now. Thanks Honda.
You saw their site at the top, and that's because Kawasaki had my favorite old website of any OEM here. Somewhere in the early 2000s, Kawasaki's web team sat down and made a decision. Gradients. We're putting gradients everywhere. Big style points to Kawasaki, who promptly ditched that look not long after.
Remember how I was saying manufacturers were trying anything to build their websites? Suzuki went their own way. Before launching their site, Suzuki tried crowdsourcing to make sure visitors would be getting the features they wanted. Visit suzuki.com and fill out a survey... for what you'd like to see when suzuki.com's actually up and running. It's somewhat brilliant. Apparently people wanted tiled texture backgrounds and 'Busas, because that's what they got in 1999. Seriously, their Sportbikes page was the Hayabusa, with links under it to "OTHER SPORTSTREET MODELS." At least the TL was listed first down there...
Triumph, what happened? If I keep looking around with the Wayback Machine, is there a Hinckley accounting firm with an exciting, engaging website after some terrible mixup? At least your racing page was colorful. Their site's very slick today, so this might be one for the careful-who-you-call-ugly-in-high-school file.
Young cyber Yamaha had some things to work through. For starters, there was the home page. I'm not entirely sure what's happening here, but I do like the "Write to Yamaha" pen.
Things got much better later on. Yamaha took on a more magazine-style layout as companies struggled to decide what, exactly, a website should be. Giant piston background? Sure.
It's not fair to have all this fun at everyone else's expense. Here's the earliest shot I can find of baby RevZilla.com.
This was in no way a comprehensive look at old websites, let alone manufacturers, so if you'd like to do a little moto-archaeology of your own, fire up the Wayback Machine and venture back. It's fun to laugh at some of the web design tropes that have long since disappeared, but go easy on 'em. We can build simple websites with templates in minutes today, but it took countless people working from scratch to get every one of these projects off the ground. Not one, our own included, would be where it is without those growing pains.
For more information and advanced help with using the Wayback Machine, give this guide a look. Careful, yesterday's internet can suck you in.