Apr 15, 2010


All Rights Reserved © 2008 Thomas W. Day

After an afternoon teaching an MSF Experienced Rider Course, I got into a conversation about the new bikes I'd be interested in owning. It's always fun to dream about a bigger budget, a bigger garage, and unlimited time to play with extra toys. I'm pretty happy with the few toys I own and really don't fantasize about owning a collection of bikes that I would rarely ride. Still, there are a lot of cool motorcycles and when guys get together to talk about bikes we don't bother with practical considerations.

When I started talking about some of the cool small Japanese bikes we don't get in the US, the Yamaha WR250X Supermoto, the Kawi Versys, the updated Kawi Ninja 250, and even some of the weird new scooters, the other riders wanted to talk about Euro-trash and big chrome weirdness. I'm as fascinated as the next guy by the old country and some of the freakin' strange stuff that old guys swing a leg over in the interests of aging-male-psychology, but the conversation stopper came pretty quickly when one of the guys said, "Japanese bikes are well built, but I like a motorcycle that has personality."

Wham! I'm out of the conversation, tuned into listening to the other guys discuss "personality" while I try to figure out what that means when it comes to motorcycles. Webster's says personality is "the quality or state of being a person" or "the complex of characteristics that distinguishes an individual . . . " Ok, motorcycles with personality sounds like the ultimate in anthropomorphizing inanimate objects. Disney would be proud.

I'm only half-on-board with vehicles with personality, though. I admit to cursing my motorcycle, shop tools, the unfairness of life, and the atmosphere surrounding my workspace when my tiny brain fails to grasp basic mechanical properties or forgets where I put the 10mm box-end ten seconds after I last used it. I don't, however, believe that any of those targets of my rage hear a word I say.

1'cause you got personality,
Walk, personality
Talk, Personality
Smile, Personality
Charm, personality

So, I did some research on the bikes my new friends mentioned by browsing bike reviews of motorcycles with "personality." Immediately, I see phrases like "the bike mysteriously turned itself off twice in hot weather," "neutrals could be found between every gear," "high altitude oxygen depletion was fixed with a . . . kit," "operational quirks," "infuriating feature that caused the headlights to switch off when the twin cooling fans would turn on." I found those comments on a single page describing the experience with three Euro-exotica bikes. Whipping through bike rag after bike rag, I see these kinds of comments passed on, and over, as calmly as my wife relays an important telephone message from a telemarketer.

So, personality means "design flaws?" I can only hope not, but from my own experience with European motorcycles I could believe that is part of the mystery. If that's part of the attraction, I'm only going to be more confused. I've been around odd motorcycles my whole biking life. I sold Ossas for a short while. I have friends who own and have owned everything from eastern European dirt bikes to Bimotas and Vincents. Honestly, I wouldn't consider heading into the back country on any of them. Between the lack of parts, dealerships, competent mechanics, factory support, and the penchant for Euro-complexity, the whole experience is too high-maintenance for me. What do I know? I've been married for 42 years because I lucked into a low maintenance, high reliability woman when I was young and impressionable and I have no motivation to test my luck again.

It's in the reliability area where I most dislike personality the most. When I was young and stupid, I owned a British car (an MGA) and, before and after, a couple of British bikes (a BSA and a Rickman). Both experiences taught me that "personality" in a motor vehicle should be left to folks who have no family, friends, life, or interesting hobbies. A buddy in California owned a Mercedes and a Porsche, both were highly regarded models of those brands and both were broken more often than running. I tried working on the Porsche for one weekend and was embarrassed for the 25% German of my heritage. Plywood floorboards? Didn't Henry Ford give that up after the Model T?

My experiences with European bikes, both as an owner/rider and as an entertained observer, have convinced me that I do not want mechanical personality in my motor vehicles and I don't like being in the vicinity of motor vehicles with personality. Part of my aversion to riding with other people is that I have spent too much of my riding time ferrying another rider back to civilization to obtain parts, tools, or a pickup to rescue one of those personality-laden bikes. In 350,000+ miles of riding, I have never had the pleasure of having that favor returned. Maybe I haven't put in enough time traveling in groups to earn payback, but I have put in enough time to know that it's easier to rescue myself than it is to get tangled up being the rescuer. Add poor engineering and parts unavailability to the mix and I choose to enjoy this kind of personality in the safe confines of museums.

I don't get personable style, either. Some of the personality bikes that other folks rage over leave me cold, appearance-wise. Those ever-changing Euro lines that are supposed to be so stylish just look dated and over-stated, like last year's Apple laptop or big hair and bell-bottom jeans. Of course, some of those bikes just photograph poorly, like the KTM Duke.

My friends say I´m a fool
But over and over
I´ll be a fool for you

Not me. I'm a big believer in the adage, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." You can argue that riding motorcycles is risky and foolish and I can't disagree with your logic, assuming you are using logic for that conclusion. Money is the root of all evil. Eating meat is bad for your cardiovascular system. Bread is fattening. Beer makes you stupid. Going outdoors is dangerous. Urban air is full of carcinogens. Rural air is contaminated with bacteria and poisons. The globe is warming, the poles are shifting, and the sky is falling. Some risks have a bigger payback than others. I don't need to experience the wonder of motorcycle personality more than the few times I've suffered that affliction.

I accept all of the nasty things of life and more, but I don't want any backtalk from my motorcycles. I just want to ride them, go places on them, look cool standing beside them, and swear at them when I do something stupid with, or on, them. If my motorcycle has opinions or eccentricities, I don't care to know about it.

1Lloyd Price, "Personality"


Anonymous said...

I just bought my 1st 'no-personality laden' Japanese bike - a Yamaha FZ1.

Still getting over the fact that it sounds like a sewing machine, but man, is it reliable! ;^)

Can I make this my new tag line?:

"Personality" in a motor vehicle should be left to folks who have no family, friends, life, or interesting hobbies." Tom Day, 2010.



Anonymous said...

I get what you're saying, but from what I hear the new Triumphs are reliable and relatively "personality" free, using your criteria. I like their new Bonnevilles. It's nice to see some traditional standard motorcycles that don't look like Power Ranger props. However, you still have the problem of parts availability when on a trip. That's a big problem with most non-Japanese or HD cycles.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree (or, at least, mostly agree). The new Triumphs and a few other Euro bikes are trading in personality for functionality. I'm a huge fan of that movement.