Why Are Retro Motorcycles So Popular?
Why Are Retro Motorcycles So Popular?

Old designs but modern twists 

There's something intrinsically rock and roll about motorcycles. A feeling that runs deeper than comprehension. I've always considered them as time-travel machines. Not because they can travel through the fabric of space, but because of their ability to suspend it. A badge of honour they so flamboyantly wear on their sleeves with the way they look. Lately, though, many of these two-wheeled Tardises have started to look the same. Old, but not really. Retro, but not really. Boring, some of them yes, definitely. 


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BSA Gold Star 650 


It appears as if the boundary for motorcycle design has somehow been pushed the other way around, and not always because of heritage, but to capitalize on a trend that has plagued today’s zeitgeist. So, why is the needle moving backwards? “The trend of classic motorcycles is riding on the coattails of legacies, especially those of Jawa and Royal Enfieldt, where a lot of millennial buyers spent their childhoods with the originals in the immediate family or close circles. Internationally, the current lot of affordable, retro motorcycles have given new life to born-again bikers,” says Priyadarshan “PD” Bawikar, Assistant Editor of ZigWheels and BikeDekho. What Bawikar implies is the pull of a simpler time that has us looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses. But if the past was this good, why did we even change anything?  


“There are eras to motorcycle design,” shares Ashish Singh Joshi, CEO of Classic Legends, adding, “You have to look at motorcycle design through three different stages - pre-war (WWII), post-war and the 80s. Each of these eras represents three different and distinctive design languages, the first two of which were led by British or European designs.” 


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Ashish Singh Joshi, CEO of Classic Legends 


After the Second World War, western countries heavily industrialized themselves. However, while they could mass produce, they lacked the finesse to do so. “Whatever the British motorcycle industry was manufacturing in the 60s and early 70s was all technology from the 30s,” adds Joshi. Resources for more complex work still ran low, which somehow worked both in the favour and against the motorcycles of that time. Look at any old Nortons and you’ll notice a smooth blend of curves and lines, hand-beaten panels, and a nice dash of chrome plastered everywhere, to hide imperfections. Yet, these motorcycles of yore were a literal pain in the ass, or arse, to ride. Gooey-greasy stuff would often leak, components would fail, and the performance just wasn’t enough. 


Then came the Japanese, with a WWII-sized chip on their shoulder, wanting to innovate everything with the speed of their bullet trains. Initially, they tried to stick to the time-tested formula by designing Japanese motorcycles the English way — case in point, the initial avalanche of Meguro motorcycles. But things didn’t work as they wanted them to. This is when Japanese motorcycles went from being design-led to becoming production-led. “They could manufacture everything within a certain tolerance, which the Western world was just not able to,” shares Joshi. Processes became more efficient and the motorcycles themselves began to look more sophisticated, thanks to the evolved machinery.  



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Ducati 851


This is what changed the face of motorcycles. Until the 70s, all motorcycles were naked models. However, with the advent in technology, well machined panels were introduced to hide the mechanicals. The curves and the minimal lines were traded for strict angular shapes, that again quite literally, had no room for imperfection. The Italians played their parts too, taking a similar route as the Japanese, but with the added bit of flair. In fact, the 80s saw some of the most innovative designs and equally bar-raising performances - the Honda Shadow, Honda Africa Twin, and Ducati 851 - a cruiser, an ADV, and a sports bike. Suddenly, the motorcycle silhouette looked drastically different, more modern. 


As economies flourished, so did customer demands, along with the infrastructure. Everything needed to be mass-manufactured, which became its aesthetic in a way. Clean-cut lines and angular designs were everywhere, from clothes to buildings, and also motorcycles. Fast forward to today, while mass manufacturing and clever engineering has made motorcycles more accessible, it has also favoured efficiency over art, and perhaps even the soul. A necessary but inevitable evil. As a result, motorcycles today look like Lego pieces, each year bringing a shinier, new angular, more toleranced block.  


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Ducati 1299 Panigale R Final Edition 


While modern motorcycles look and go fast, their style often ages quicker than they sprint. You can distinctly tell the difference between a 2008 Yamaha R15 and the 2023 Yamaha R15. But what exactly about mass-manufacturing leads to this? Additionally, why does the classic retro silhouette, still look timeless? "Proportions and stance," says Bal Ghataore, Head of Design at Jawa Yezdi and BSA Motorcycles. "The difference between retro-styled and contemporary motorcycles primarily lies in their inspiration and visual cues. Retro bikes are typically more minimalistic and less complex. The key element of a classic bike is its stance—slimmer and lower. Once you nail that proportion and balance of components, you've got a timeless classic, whether it's from the 60s or the future."  


But more than the visuals, a classic design also shows you the good ol’ times through a nostalgic sepia tint, hiding its inaccuracies of the past, just as the Japanese and Italians did, but in a deeper way through clever marketing. “There are four key aspects of retro marketing that need to be woven together to effectively evoke nostalgia,” says Joshi, adding, “The first is Allegory, meaning stories you can relate to from the past. Then comes Arcadia, the idealized version of those memories. You know, like recalling the sweetness of climbing a mango tree for fruit, but conveniently forgetting the falls. Next up is the aura, giving the past a bit of a halo effect. And finally, we have Antinomy, the essential paradox that often accompanies nostalgia.” 


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But retro trends aren't just confined to the automotive industry; they're popping up everywhere, including in footwear. Remember the sudden popularity of New Balance dad sneakers or the enduring appeal of the Air Jordan 1 silhouette, which sees revisions with each new movie franchise release? What makes them work, aside from the visual elements, are three key factors Joshi explains. "Firstly, it needs to be Instagrammable, meaning it looks good. Secondly, it must perform its intended function. And thirdly, it should carry some history. Can you find anything if you Google its name or term? These are the three factors that attract today's younger buyers to older products." 


Yet, not many have been able to walk the fine line. "There is a little bit of art and there's a little bit of science which blends. Anybody or everybody does retro, but nostalgia is difficult," shares Joshi. And blending the two is more challenging than meets the eye. With modern tech like better components, wiring, and mechanicals, also come more modern problems, like where does all this stuff go in a retro-styled motorcycle that needs to look minimal? "One of the biggest challenges is packaging all these systems into a bike that is, in essence, as simple as possible," shares Ghataore. 


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Priyadarshan "PD" Bawikar On The Jawa 350 During Media Rides


Elaborating on similar challenges faced on their bikes, Joshi further shares, "There's very, very little coverage; it's mostly under the seat and behind the side panels. So, we try to maximize all of our tight spaces. The headlamp cowl becomes a hub of wires and connectors, as there's nowhere else to hide them. The wiring harnesses are designed in a specific way to accommodate all the connectors needed. Additionally, being liquid-cooled, there are crisscrossing water hoses to consider, along with packaging the radiator and fan. These factors present multiple challenges. Could we have opted for a non-liquid-cooled motorcycle? Perhaps, but then we'd sacrifice the performance synonymous with Jawa or Yezdi bikes." 


What Joshi implies is that the envelope, contrary to beliefs, has been pushed in terms of motorcycle design. Retro motorcycles may look old, but their guts are new. When it comes to other elements that may seem like niggles in 2024, it all comes down to cost. When it comes to other sophisticated hardware like upside-down fork instead of a conventional setup and alloy rims instead of spoked wheels, the additional bump in performance is inevitably accompanied with higher costs. 


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Anis Shaikh with his Suzuki Katana “Hannah The Katana” 


A few, however, seem to have found a sweet spot. "A great example would be modern Husqvarnas - just retro enough without feeling classic, and with the right modern elements to not feel anachronistic," opines Bawikar, who himself is not a huge fan of retro-styled motorcycles. 


On the flip side, Anis Shaikh, Photography Editor at Overdrive, who owns the Suzuki Katana, also shares Joshi’s thoughts. "Any retro-modern vehicle will carry a story with it. A heritage that makes the purchase a little classier," further elaborating on his purchase adds, "I do follow a retro lifestyle, and I want the vehicle to complement me. Elements-wise, the old Katana was the first motorcycle with that dipped-down seat and higher tank design. And yes, the square headlamps. Aayehayee." 


Isn’t that motorcycling in a nutshell? The feeling of Aayehayee both when you’re on it and off it? Inherently, it is the essence, the act of riding, the rock and roll of it, that remains true through every transition. And it is this essence that will remain no matter the trend. 


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