There was a time when the upright parallel-twin engine configuration ruled the motorcycle world. Some of the most beautiful, and indeed, some of the best-handling and fastest bikes you could buy were configured like that. Norton Commandos, Triumph Tigers and Bonnevilles, and the Matchlesses, to name a few, ruled as kings of all they surveyed.
It was all Edwin Turner’s fault. He started it. In 1937, Triumph brought out the Speed Twin, which carried the new engine he’d designed, and the world changed. Up until then, the mainstay glory of British motorcycling was the single-cylinder so-called “thumper”. Yes, it pretty much just “thumped” along, its single-cylinder earnestly flailing up and down along the hedgerows of England, but it was neither a pleasure to ride, or offered much in terms of performance.
Performance was for those who could afford such things. And there was pleasure in that performance. Great pleasure. Brough Superior offered that performance from its larger capacity V-twin engine. But it cost a year’s wages. Poor people got to thump. Lawrence of Arabia got to go 100mph.
And so we all very much loved the upright twin when it came along. It was torquey, sounded great, and could be hotted up to a certain point, whereupon it exploded and killed you. But we motorcyclists understood that, and we loved the upright twin in spite of that.
But because we are fickle, we only loved it until the in-line four came along and changed the motorcycling world again. Here was an engine that really went. Like, seriously. The Japanese spear-headed this power craze with the invention of the CB750, the very first “superbike”, and then what followed was just better and faster and crazier. The Kawasaki Z900 and then 1000 re-wrote all the records again.
There were also flirtations with insane three-cylinder two-strokes with crazed powerbands and zero handling abilities, and people were maimed and killed, but rejoiced because motorcycling had become the very thing it was always destined to be – an obsession brewed in pure danger and redolent with risk, but which rewarded those who survived with everything the restless human soul craved.
As we left the Seventies and headed into the Eighties, shit got crazier. There were six-cylinder bikes for the truly deranged, and different lunatics were doing unspeakable things to American V-twins to make them go far harder than they were ever designed to go. Power obsessed and possessed the motorcyclist far more deeply than that demon ever managed to posses Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
The Italians tried, but all they could offer were V- and L-twins and bikes that handled superbly well, but were as reliable as a teenage daughter, or soft in-line fours that had cranks made out of cheese.
The British motorcycle industry had died off. No-one wanted the upright parallel-twin anymore. It was the cardigan of the motorcycle world. And that, along with a whole bunch of other stuff beyond the scope of this piece, put paid to some of the greatest motorcycle marques ever made.
And so things ticked along for quite some time. In-line fours continued to be the nil plus ultra of performance motorcycles. Of course, there were always American and Japanese V-twins offered in cruiser-style bikes, some exciting flirtations with in-line triples spear-headed by a re-born Triumph factory, and the stubborn persistence of Ducati to keep building L-twins that handled like race bikes, but spent a lot of time waiting for utes on the side of the road.
We were still all about accelerating like hatred itself – and up until the recent advent of the V-four, nothing could approach the in-line four for that special “I wanna see God!” feeling when you pinned your R1 bastard in third.
Then two new gods entered our lives.
The god of Endless Economic Growth was the first. Our rulers had made an important socio-economic decision which impacted directly on our craving for high-powered motorcycles.
Say hello to Keynesian Economic theory and neo-liberal economic policy, whereupon we all became obsessed with eternal economic prosperity and growth, provided the Poors knew their place and were happy to stay there.
That this came at a huge human and social cost was not important to our rulers. It was Joshua 9:23, just as the Bible stated: “Now therefore ye are cursed, and there shall none of you be freed from being bondmen, and hewers of wood and drawers of water…”
Someone has to make the beaut shit we all cannot live without, right?
At the same time, the other god came along. The god of Safety. Overnight, our rulers decided we were no longer responsible enough to appreciate Safety properly, so they were going to enforce it upon us. This was most evident in Australia, where the population is stupid and complacent enough to go along with such paternalistic nonsense.
The propaganda was relentless. The policing was quickly dialled up to medieval levels. And eventually, most of us came to believe our rulers knew what was best for us, and we chose to worship the vile god of Safety as we had been instructed to. It didn’t take all that long, either.
How this impacted on motorcycling demographics is fascinating. Old dinosaurs like myself, chafed and bucked and roared and yelled at clouds, and still went often into the temple where the gods of Speed and Fun and Risk and Glory sat and laughed with us.
But that is not what was happening to the younger generations. Where once a teenager could be counted on to be a risk-taker par excellence, that teenager was now more risk-averse than a resident in a retirement home.
The god of Safety ruled his or her life with an absolutism that Stalin would have envied. The propaganda had worked. The policing had worked. And all that now remained was for us dinosaurs to get into the tar pits, and a wondrous safe new world could carry on.
Bike manufacturers continued to build high-performance bikes – seemingly unaware of what was happening, certainly in Australia. Electronics made sure the most useless fool could still ride one of these weapons, and performance figures we all once thought insane became par for the course. There are several bikes that make over 200 horses. The Rocket Three churns out 221Nm of torque. Tyre technology has advanced to a point that few will ever find the limits of their hoops, brakes are invariably great, and suspension has advanced to a level where most people never even bother adjusting it.
We were and still are actually living in the Golden Age of high-performance motorcycles.
Then, in the space of a few short years, the sales of superbikes, and sportsbikes in general, fell off a cliff. People just stopped buying them – most markedly in Australia. The sales of Harley-Davidson continued to boom. There’s nothing high-performance about a Harley, and as the motorcycle demographic aged and was no longer able to ride a sportsbike, or even felt the need to, it chose the cruiser option.
Adventure bike sales also took off. People wanted to get off the roads and onto the dirt. And they rightly thought Adventure bikes were capable of that, as well as being great bitumen tourers that didn’t push you into a racing crouch like a superbike did.
Yes, the aging demographic was at play here, but this was also a direct result of the insane level of policing and the ever more draconian penalties for even minor speeding infractions. Get caught doing 270 in a 100 zone on a deserted road somewhere out west and you’ll be shot on the side of the road like a dog, as well as being heavily fined, and placed on the six o’clock news for committing a Crime Against Humanity.
This was our new motorcycle reality, and superbikes simply had no place in it. Where it was once possible for a mad-eyed teenager to go and buy an 1100cc in-line four, whack an L-plate on it, collect a series of hot girlfriends, and be the very avatar of cool, this was now over.
Teenagers could now look froward to years of wearing fluoro vests and riding breathlessly slow so-called Learner Approved Motorcycles (LAM), before being allowed to ride the fun stuff. This was almost a death-blow to motorcycling. Right at the time in life when a young man (or young woman) seeks to be the avatar of cool, and drink deeply from the cup of life, he or she is relegated to a bike and an outfit that make him or her a laughing stock.
It was no longer cool to ride a bike. Safety had won.
Job done. Now the dinosaurs had to die out, and our Not Very Brave New World was here.
Simultaneously, the world’s economic stability and prosperity was shaken to its core. Neo-liberal economic policy was struggling to deliver in its promises, the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and the middle class was coming under serious fiscal pressure. Then the Plague hit, and we were in a perfect storm.
The motorcycle industry responded. This perfect storm has seen the re-birth of the upright parallel-twin motorcycle engine. And it is a massive rebirth. There are very few motorcycle manufacturers who are NOT offering a range of bikes powered by this engine configuration.
It is cheaper to build than the in-line four, the triple, or the V-four. Modern materials and technology (and spinning the crank 270 degrees) make this cardigan of an engine far more interesting and fun to ride.
It also appeals to new riders and nervous riders on a very fundamental level. It delivers its power in a most benign and almost gentle fashion. It is not intimidating in any way. To be perfectly honest, not all the sorcerous electronics in the world can take away the sheer inhuman thrill of cracking open the throttle on a Panigale, S1000RR, R1, or RSVR. There just aren’t a lot of people who want that anymore.
Once upon a time, that was everything all of the people who rode bikes wanted. Except those weird wee-smelling Moto Guzzi and BMW Boxer twin riders. They didn’t want that at all. But they were in the tiny minority. The vast bulk of motorcycling wanted the monster acceleration, the screaming engine note, and the comparatively better handling and braking that went with bikes designed to perform.
But that is over. For the moment, anyway. We are in the Time of the Cardigan. And to be fair, it is a much, much better cardigan that it ever was in the past. Yamaha’s MT-07HO, Suzuki’s GS8, Honda’s CB750 Hornet, Aprilia’s Tuono and RS 660, and KTM’s 890 Duke R – are all decidedly un-cardigan-like.
In the right hands, they can carry incredible corner speeds, and ridden well, they are more than a match for any superbike through the twisties. Of course, they will not liquify your bowels with their acceleration, and you may only see the face of God now and again, instead of every time you open the throttle. In real terms, they are no “safer” than any bike. You can die just as effectively at 40km/h as you can at 240km/h.
They are, in fact, a very clever and entirely reasonable response from the motorcycle industry, which, as we all know, exists to sell bikes and make money. Like any business, making bikes has to be profitable. And if the zeitgeist, such as it is now, means the cardigan needs to be reinvented, then rather than curse, one must enjoy the candle that has been lit. And maybe try one on for size.
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Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.