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The Resurgence of Retro Styling

I’d like to talk about something that I love about motorcycles: There’s something for everyone! No matter what you’re interested in, there’s a bike out there somewhere that will fit your needs, bring a smile to your face and make you wish the ride would never end. Variety is the spice of life, and there’s no shortage of variety in the motorcycling world. Just take a look around your showroom, — there’s a bit of everything out there, right? A few sport bikes over here, a bagger over there, maybe a muscle cruiser on display right by the front door? You get the picture.

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Here, I want to dive into the recent retro styling trend in motorcycles. In all honesty, this is a bit of a passion project for me. You see, I love these bikes — I can’t get enough of them. Ever since I can remember, I’ve lusted after the Triumph Bonneville and Thruxton. These bikes are absolutely iconic not only for their physical presence but also their strong and robust heritage. But I’ll come back to Triumph in a little bit. First, let’s define “retro.”

What Is Retro?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines retro as “imitative of a style, fashion or design from the recent past.” Some people say that trends are cyclical. The motorcycling world is not immune to this phenomenon. It makes sense to me that certain styling trends would reemerge. A bike designer could be influenced by a bike he or she loved as a kid, then build a more modern take on it today.

Triumph Bonneville T120
Triumph Bonneville T120

Where Do We See This in the Motorcycling World?

So, what are some examples of retro styling in modern bikes? In my eyes, there’s no better example than the modern, liquid-cooled Triumph engine. Yes, I know that some purists might gag when they read “liquid-cooled” and “Triumph” in the same sentence, but bear with me. These engines are cooled by a small radiator on the front of the frame just behind the front tire. So, why do I see what looks like air-cooling fins on the cylinders? Style! This also applies to the throttle bodies, which mimic the appearance of carburetors.

These parts are designed more for aesthetics than for function; the important thing is that they look the part. Think of them as tributes to the decades of air-cooled engines that came before them. A sign of respect, admiration and that Triumph is trying to remember its heritage while keeping its eyes on the future. And the future is always changing, thanks to advances in technology and tightening emissions regulations. Like it or not, change is constant.

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Retro-styled parts or components are fine, but what happens when the entire motorcycle is designed in a retro style? Triumph is a good example of this with its modern classic bikes. To the untrained eye, these machines look like they were built years ago. Moto Guzzi is another standout brand with a clearly defined look and style as well as its unique, transverse-mounted V-twin engines. The Honda Shadow Aero boasts wire-spoke wheels and classic-styled flared fenders, looking like it was plucked right out of a photo from the 1970s. The modern Suzuki SV650 is very similar in appearance to the original that was released back in 1999.

Indian Chieftain
Indian Chieftain

I can’t talk about retro styling without bringing up Indian Motorcycles, now owned by Polaris. In my humble opinion, Indian has nailed retro styling better than anyone else in the market. While it’s true that Harley-Davidson has a lot of history and it has several models that are styled after classic bikes, I have to admit that the modern Indian motorcycle lineup is something special. It’s hard to think about Indian bikes without picturing leather tassels, big beards and the 1970s. But while the styling of its modern bikes is deeply rooted in its 100-plus year history, the bikes are 100% modern underneath.

Retro on the Outside, Modern on the Inside

It goes without saying that standard equipment will vary from one manufacturer to another. These are just a few things I’ve observed in modern, retro-styled bikes.

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The past decade has brought a number of technological advances to the motorcycling world. Anti-lock brake systems (ABS), traction control, wheelie control and selectable driving modes are just a few of the modern safety systems that have found their way into modern bikes. These systems help to keep riders safe and prevent them from losing control of the bike. This is especially helpful for inexperienced riders. Fuel injection and electronic controls have made modern bikes far more reliable than those of previous generations. Rider comfort has come a long way as well with such technology as cruise control, keyless ignition and advanced instrumentation.

Triumph Speed Twin
Triumph Speed Twin

And, let’s be honest: Tire compounds, braking systems, suspensions and basically every component on today’s motorcycles can benefit from decades of engineering and manufacturing experience. Manufacturers can use what they’ve learned in the past to build lighter-weight, stronger, more reliable and more nimble motorcycles. I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but I find this exciting!

Let’s look at the 2022 Yamaha XSR900 as an example. The 890cc, liquid-cooled, dual-overhead camshaft (DOHC), inline three-cylinder in this bike is a powerful one, and inexperienced riders could quickly get themselves into trouble. To improve rider safety, the bike now features a state-of-the-art six-axis inertial measurement unit (IMU). The IMU uses sensors to measure three-axis angular velocity and three-axis acceleration forces. Why? The data is used by the new rider-aid systems, which include lean-sensitive traction control, slide control system (SCS), front wheel lift control system (LIF) and brake control (BC) system with lean-sensitive ABS. This is some seriously advanced technology for a bike that is priced under $10,000.

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You may even find features you didn’t know could be had on two wheels. I, for one, did not know that the Indian Chief features an available touchscreen gauge display that looks like a round, analog gauge pod. I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better example of blending modern technology with retro styling.

Indian Chief
Indian Chief

Retro Is Cool

The 1980s seem to be the focal point for much of the retro styling we see in bikes today. The big standouts in this segment would be the Yamaha XSR700 and XSR900 as well as the Kawasaki Z650 and Z900. These bikes in particular seem to nail the retro recipe. The combination of wide, flat tubular handlebars, round headlights and mirrors, along with the classic style of the fuel tanks and the seats make for visually appealing bikes.

Kawasaki Z Series
Kawasaki Z Series

BMW has its R nineT, Ducati has its Monster and Scrambler, and Suzuki has its well-priced SV650 V-twin, just to name a few. Triumph, Harley-Davidson, Indian, Moto Guzzi and Norton all have retro styled models in their lineups as well.

Let’s review. What is retro? It’s a recipe for a bike that’s fun and exciting to ride and brings a smile to your face every time you lay eyes on it. Ingredients include but are not limited to an exciting powerplant, a nimble chassis and classic styling mixed with modern tech. If bike manufacturers get the recipe right, you’ll end up with a bike that is not only exciting to look at but exciting to ride too.

BMW R nineT
BMW R nineT

The key is striking the right balance. If the bike is all retro styling with no modern features, it might feel hollow and probably won’t appeal to today’s riders. If the styling isn’t quite retro enough, the bike might not capitalize on consumer nostalgia. So, bike manufacturers need to tow that line and find the right balance if they want to see strong sales. In fact, Triumph posted strong results in 2020. Of course, the pandemic created an air of uncertainty at the time, but in general, motorcycle sales across the board soared in 2020 and 2021, as reported by the Motorcycle Industry Council. Even so, at a time when off-highway motorcycles were up 50.3% over the previous year, such positive results from a classic, on-road manufacturer only reaffirm riders’ love affairs with retro bikes.

I mentioned the Ducati Scrambler earlier on. Earlier this year, Ducati announced that it had sold its 100,000th Scrambler. Not too shabby for a bike that has only been around since 2015. With the right combination of style and features, I think it’s safe to say that retro is cool — and it sells!

Kawasaki W800
Kawasaki W800

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