American Idle

Japanese classics?

It's an argument that's raged in many a club room or bar for the past half a century and despite the fact that the British motorcycle industry as we once knew it collapsed within a few years of the Japanese challenge, there is still a huge community who cannot accept the Oriental infidel this month Zim' tries to explain.


Every Christmas one of my friends throws a little holiday get together. Robert collects old motorcycles, Porsche's and shotguns with equal Enthusiasm, and those interests are reflected in his guest list, which tends to be a little eclectic, so you never know who you're going to meet there.

He also stocks a mean bar, which I was enjoying, when he introduced me to a fellow I'd previously never met, and mentioned that I was an 'authority on old bikes.' My new friend was fan of oriental motorcycles and asked me which vintage Japanese bikes were on par with the best of the British and European Classics.

Had I been sober, I might have tossed off something glib, but given the gravity of the situation, the question demanded a fuller answer. After a few words expounding on their general build quality, level of engineering and total contribution to the sport of motorcycling, all of which I admitted were both first rate and considerable, I took another sip of my favorite Canadian export, and said; "none."

He was aghast, "what about the RD Vamahas, Kawasaki H1 or H2 or Honda fours?" He asked, "aren't they all impressive bikes?" "Absolutely," I said, "I'll even allow you that the Suzuki X-6 and Le Mans, both of which I've owned when they were new, were excellent motorcycles, but as far as being true classics, along the lines of a Gold Star or Bonneville, no way."

He disagreed vehemently, and felt that some of the seminal Japanese efforts, in particular the early Hondas deserved a place on the classic rostrum. I replied emphatically that while they might have been great motorcycles, and were certainly collectible, they were in no way comparable to any of the true classics from America, England or Europe.

Naturally, the alcohol fuelled conversation went downhill from there, he held firm to his opinion, and I to mine until the involved parties agreed to disagree, though in truth, I'm certain that all we actually agreed on was that the other guy was a tool.

In the ensuing days, I pondered the question and "None" now seems a bit brusque, so after due consideration, I'd like to apologize for my boorish behavior... oh the hell with it, none works for me, if you don't like it, stuff it Now before the VJMC farms out a hit, let me explain why I feel that way.

Please dissuade yourself from thinking that my attitude is in any way jingoistic or racist, it isn't. If the first instance were true, my garage would be filled with American V-twins, rather than Triumphs and BSAs. Besides there are plenty of Japanese bikes past and present that I wouldn't mind owning, in fact two of my favorites are parked in my garage this very moment, and I plan on going to my grave still owning them.

Here's the thing; Japanese bikes are often vilified for their lack of character. When I was young I had a hard time understanding why. I figured anything capable of breaking 100mph had as much character as anyone could stand, but; I also knew there was a fundamental truth to it. I just didn't know why.

Now character is a nebulous quality in a piece of machinery you can have a pretty good piece of equipment that's as devoid of character as a car salesman, but I think we'd all agree that without it, an old bike, no matter how good it was, is just another old bike. So why is it so prevalent in certain bikes, and missing from others? I'd suggest it's because all of what I'd consider the great classic motorcycles, and a fair amount of the not so great ones, we're designed by individuals. They may have been influenced by, or had help from their peers, but by and large, those bikes were largely the work of one man.

Those designers and their work are instantly recognizable- When you look at a bike penned by Turner, Taglioni, or Crocker, there's no mistaking it; those bikes are all indelibly stamped with their creator's DNA, and it follows that the design either works for you or it doesn't, but either way, you can identify with the designer and we interpret that to mean that the bike is imbued with character.

Motorcycles from Japan are team efforts, it's their culture, and the way the Japanese corporations like to do business, and there's nothing wrong with it, some very good motorcycles have come of it, but because there is no individual to stand up and say "this is my vision," it makes it hard to build bikes that have any sort of individuality. Essentially, for lack of a better way of describing it, we say the bikes lack character. Frankly, as far as I'm concerned that alone is enough to keep them off the classic rostrum, and I know I'm not alone in feeling that way, but there's another angle as well.

The Japanese build seamless bikes in huge numbers, it's been that way from the beginning, and it looks like it's going stay that way. Unfortunately, this can make them seem appliance-like. Appliances aren't bad things, my wife absolutely loves hers', but I've never seen a magazine called Classic Appliance Guide, if you take my meaning. Granted this isn't always an impediment to stardom. The Ford model T was churned out by millions, and has been considered a classic for longer than any of the Japanese manufactures have existed but that's an exception to the rule that familiarity breeds contempt.

In the end, everyone's entitled to their opinion. For my money, I'm convinced that none of the vintage Japanese bikes will ever be accorded the classic status that something like a Brough or even an A10 currently enjoys, but tastes change, and I've been wrong before.

who is mark zimmerman?

When a High School Guidance Counsellor suggested his talents were best suited to a career robbing petrol stations, our American Correspondent left school and apprenticed himself to the first motorcycle shop that would have him. A die-hard British bike enthusiast since the age of nine, Zim' believes that there's no such thing as a Japanese classic, nor anything finer than a big British Twin, especially one that's well tuned and being ridden in anger. Zim" and his wife Brenda, share their Danbury, Connecticut home with Amos and Anya, their two over- indulged German Shepherds.

A. Est 1937

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