Common Tread

Undercooked: Bikes before their time

Jan 26, 2018

Timing is everything, right?

Nope, not that timing. I mean it in the Ecclesiastical sense. To everything there is a season — including the proper time to release a bike. The only thing harder than picking stocks is picking trends, so you can’t blame a manufacturer when a large-scale collaborative effort, like creating a new motorcycle, happens just a little outside the sweet spot. In that vein, Some motorcycles simply come before their time, are sales flops when new, and are most appreciated after they are gone. Here are the most notable examples in American motorcycle history.

Kawasaki W650. Kawasaki photo.

Kawasaki W650/W800

The W650 is an echo of the Kawasaki W1 and W2 of the late 1960s and 1970s. Those bikes, in turn drew from BSA designs, because Kawasaki bought a portion of the Japanese company Meguro, which built motorcycles under license from BSA. When the W650 came out in 1999, it still had the old Britbike look, but it was far from being a straight copy. The W650 used a bevel-drive OHC, four-valve-per-cylinder head, a balance shaft, and featured wet-sump oiling — pretty notable departures from early English machines.

Kawasaki beat Triumph to the punch with this bike, selling it in the United States in 2000 and 2001. Triumph didn’t roll out the Modern Classics line until 2001, and it steadily gained steam from there. Despite having a kicker for authenticity points, the almost-20-horsepower deficit of the W650 helped seal its fate in America. The motorcycle remained on the market for years in Europe and was replaced by a fuel-injected W800, a bored-and-stroked 650 (without a kicker) that arrived in 2011. But by that point, Triumph had firmly established its rep in the minds of retro and standard riders by getting the recipe just a bit closer to what riders wanted, and the Kwak faded into relative obscurity.

Sport 1000
Ducati Sport 1000. Ducati photo.

Ducati SportClassic Series

Various incarnations of the SportClassic series were sold from 2005 until 2010. The bikes were not sold in large numbers. The recipe was the same one all retro bikes follow: classic good looks, modern ease-of-ownership. The groundswell of home-built bikes didn’t take off until after The Great Recession, in part for financial reasons. Much like the W650 above, the SportClassics went head-to-head with the Triumph Thruxton, which though down on power, offered similar styling for considerably less money.

Perhaps the market has seen the error of its ways, however. At the time of this writing, just eight years after the last one rolled off the line, the price to obtain a clean used example is from two to three times the original retail price of these bikes.

Harley-Davidson XLCR. Harley-Davidson photo.

Harley-Davidson XLCR

Every time Harley-Davidson steps outside its narrowly defined box of “traditional heavy cruiser,” it seems, things go badly. The XLCR is a pretty good example of this. Here was a bike packing nearly 60 ponies. (Not bad for 1977. In fact, this was the fastest production bike Harley had ever sold.) It also boasted triple-disc brakes, a wicked siamesed exhaust, alloy wheels, slinky bodywork, and a neat little bikini fairing. However, it was a little tubby, and the rather noticeable rake didn’t quite offer the handling the looks suggested. The bike was not really appreciated by the cruiser crowd, and by 1977, the Sportster was no longer a hot bike for the street, so riders who wanted a genuine fast bike avoided it, too.

After two years, H-D pulled the plug on the XLCR. Like most of the other bikes in this article, the price to obtain one currently is quite high, maybe due in part to rarity. However, other evidence exists that indicates that these bikes were out-of-season. Check out, for instance, these kits to convert modern Evolution Sporties into XLCR semi-clones made by Mecatwin. And of course, there was this gem, the motorcycle race from Black Rain.

Look closely, and you’ll see a much later Evo Sportster, all dressed up to look like a bike Harley offered for sale 12 years earlier. The Sportster went on to be reimagined by riders in so many flavors — flat tracker, scrambler, bosozoku, and yes, even cafe. However, that was long after the XLCR had its day on the showroom floor.

Honda NT650. Honda photo.

Honda Hawk GT

This may be the quintessential example of a bike built before its time. In the United States, this naked, aluminum box-framed 650 cc Honda V-twin was sold from 1988 through 1991. The NT650 was simple, sprightly, and generally neglected on American sales floors, due in large part to its high price. Common Tread contributor Mark Gardiner bought one, and has some opinions on what happened with this bike.

“Although it's only speculation on my part, I think that the Hawk seemed overpriced to a lot of buyers, at a time when they looked at four-cylinder sport bikes that seemed (and probably were) faster," Mark says. "Later on, buyers like me fell in love with the small, light, mass-centralized Hawk precisely because it wasn't some bloated four [cylinder].”

The unadorned, 50-some-odd horsepower motorcycle offers almost nothing in terms of rider amenities, but the people who own them now are usually positively chuffed with their bikes. Hawks have handling prowess that is vaunted perhaps beyond reality. Mark is no exception. “The thing about the Hawk is that while it's pretty shittily suspended, everything else about the chassis is fucking magical.“

The recipe for the Hawk proved to be successful — for other manufacturers at other times. The Ducati Monster and Suzuki SV650 both developed enormously dedicated fans just a few years later. The Hawk? Wrong price, wrong time.

Harley-Davidson XR1200. Harley-Davidson photo.

Harley-Davidson XR1200

Here’s another Harley. The XR featured an inverted fork, aluminum swingarm (and plenty of other lightweight alu components), dual-disc brakes, 17-inch rear and 18-inch front wheels, and a potent 90-horsepower engine. (The XR1200X offered fully adjustable suspension front and rear!) Think of it as a less potent, heavier, and street-legal updated version of an XR750 or an XL1200S on steroids. Sold in the United States from 2009 to 2012, the bike was a sales dud in America. (However, it did enjoy quite a bit of popularity in Europe.) This factory street-tracker had upswept pipes, bodywork reminiscent of a dirt-track machine, and alloy wheels utilizing tubeless tires. In spite of all the goodies, the bikes were simply snubbed.

These bikes now command huge money on the used market. Other indicators that the XR was ahead of its time: look at the groundswell of similar-looking customs that have been built similarly, as well as the almost overwhelming cheering that occurred when Indian displayed a similar custom of their own at EICMA this year.

Honda Transalp. Honda photo.

Honda Transalp XL600V

Spurg wrote topically about the interest many adventurers have in the competent-fast-but-not-too-fat middleweight on/off-road segment. While KTM and Yam are no doubt duking it out to see who can come to market first with an explosive product for the  middleweight multi-cylinder adventure segment, I can’t help but think about the Honda Transalp. Despite the fact these bikes only sold in the United States from 1989 to 1991, the specs still look pretty good: 52 horsepower from a V-twin, 404 pounds, 4.5 gallons of fuel, 7.7 inches of ground clearance, and more than seven inches of suspension travel front and rear.

And this is on a 30-year-old bike that Honda marketed as a “new-concept touring bike.” Cycle World called it “a terrific motorcycle for those of us who have to make what may be the ultimate compromise: ownership of just one motorcycle.” (If any of you read Spurg’s work, this bike sounds like… um, his dream machine.) And at $4,498 MSRP in 1989 ($9,156.61 in today-money), the prospect of too much money for not enough machine, a problem Honda is not unfamiliar with, certainly should not have been the issue.

The problem? Well, I’m not sure. I have a theory that you can feel free to pick apart. Motorcyclists were different then. Most people focused on dirt or street with different tools. Heck, the original adventure bike concept, the BMW R80 G/S, wasn’t even a decade old. Many riders had the disposable income to have multiple bikes. If you had a street bike in this time period, you were highly likely to own a cruiser or a race-rep. The sensible do-all bikes in the world sold… in Europe. In fact, the Transalp was available there for 26 years.

It’s not the same as an Africa Twin. But it doesn’t seem very far from it, does it?

Honorable mentions

I thought this time around that it might be fun to show you readers some of my notes — bikes other Zillans and I came up with, and the completely arbitrary reasons I decided not to include them. Feel free to tell me what a bozo I am!

Honda GB500: Suggested by Spurg. I left it out because I can’t think of a single single-cylinder street bike that really sold strongly in this country. Vincent Comet? Buell Blast? Royal Enfield Bullet? Any supermoto? No dice.

Honda Fury: One of mine. Right bike, wrong time, yes. However, this bike was late to the party, not early. Long gas tanks and billet-y wheels were pretty much done and gone by the time this popped onto the scene.

John Player Norton Commando: Suggested by Joe Z. (He also came up with the Transalp.) Eliminated because it wasn’t ahead of its time. The Commando was faster than a CB750, but the writing was on the wall; twins were probably not going to have the upper hand for much longer. Perhaps more importantly, the JPN was an extremely limited production motorcycle.

Münch Mammoth: Three years before the Honda CB750 heralded the reign of across-the-frame fours in this country, Friedl Münch shoved an NSU automobile engine into a motorcycle chassis he designed. The bikes made extensive use of magnesium due to their rather massive height and weight. (Hey, it was a car engine in there!) In 1968, his second design produced 88 ponies — enough that he had to design a cast wheel because spoked ones weren’t holding up to the beating. I scratched it from the list because fewer than 500 were produced, they were obscenely expensive, and the marque died primarily because Floyd Clymer, the motorcycle genius behind U.S. distribution, was in poor health and that spelled the beginning of the end. But in fairness, Münch was, you know… on to something.

What else did I miss?