The Wide World of Motorcycles – Types, Styles, and Genres
To the casual observer, if it’s got two wheels and an engine, it’s a motorbike and that’s the end of the story right there. However, we know better. Today though, there seems to be a dizzying selection of makes and models to choose from, with a separate strand of biking DNA to follow for each style of bike. The truth is, it’s been like that from the beginning.
A quick look at the history books tells us that when the first motorcycles got past that whole, let’s strap a steam engine to our bicycle stage, they began to look more like the motorcycles we recognize today. More importantly, they became less of a novelty – having to fill your engine with coal and work up a head of steam before you can judder down to your local bar, kind of ruins the spontaneity. Also, they became more reliable and attractive to the buying public as a genuine means of cheap transport.
Timeline wise, we’re looking at the early part of the 20th century. The British motorcycle industry was well established. Motorcycle factories in mainland Europe were developing, and Indian and Harley Davidson were already shouldering each other out of the way for US dominance.
It was the beginning of the motorcycle organization. In fact, the competitive races promoted by the FIM (Federation of International Motorcyclists) in Europe and the FAM (Federation of American Motorcyclists) in the USA, are largely responsible for providing different directions along the motorcycle’s development and style path.
Road racing competitions were common throughout Europe (the Isle of Man TT started in 1907) and off-road trials, later to become scrambles arrived not long after. And why is this important? Because it is the one defining factor that began the divide in the different types of motorcycle.
In the beginning, regardless of whether you raced on road or dirt, everyone used the same ‘straight from the factory’ bike. As things progressed, road racers wanted to go faster, stop quicker and go around bends smoother. This pushed engine technology, brake development, and frame design.
Whilst on the dirt, manhandling a heavy unwieldy road bike through the mud soon led to reducing the bike’s weight, modifying suspension to soak up the bumps and fitting high-level exhausts to keep the gunk out.
The story in America was very much the same. Both Harley Davidson and Indian knew that winning races meant increased bike sales. This made Harley push the envelope on engine development and saw them dominate the new sport of Flat Track racing. It was also a Harley mounted rider that set the land speed record in 1937, when Joe Petrali thundered along the Daytona straight at 137mph on an aerodynamically designed 61ci Knucklehead.
I hate to do this to Harley fans everywhere, but I must add this quick tale. Seven years earlier in Cork, Southern Ireland, Joseph S. Wright took a 1000cc supercharged JAP Zenith V-twin to 150.7mph wearing little more than a pointy helmet, wooly pants and gloves taped to the sleeves of his jumper.
Anyway, the point I’m making here is that it is at this juncture that motorcycles, due to different racing heritage, evolved along different paths. Road racing’s never ending need for speed would eventually lead us to today’s superbikes. Whilst those early cross country village to village races eventually led to the development of adventure bikes.
Obviously, that’s a very generalized version, because not only can we branch off into all the different types of road racing (from Moto GP to Drag Racing) we can further divide the road bike into several subcategories, such as commuter bikes, sports bikes, dual sport bikes, superbikes, cruisers, retro’s supernakeds etc. etc. All with their very own specifications and requirements, and it seems entirely new categories being dreamt up by marketing men every season.
The same goes for their off-road relatives. Here, we find motorcycles refined specifically for Moto Cross, Trials Riding, Super Cross, Flat Track, Enduro, and Scrambling.
As always in the motorcycling world, the potential for unit sales drives innovation. And so, today we are presented with such a wide and varied selection of machines on the showroom floor that the decision as to which style to go for, will probably come down to who you watch on TV.
Enjoy Sons of Anarchy? Then it’s a Harley FXR for you (maybe just pass, on the awful T-bars). Steve McQueen float your boat? if so, a Triumph Scrambler awaits. Or perhaps you like getting your elbow down with Valentino Rossi, then there’s a Yamaha R1 with your name on it.
Now, this is where things get even more interesting. We know that motorcycle racing, whether it’s on track or field, leads to technological advancement that invariably finds its way to the motorcycle buying Joe Public. But just look at how technology from both genres crosses over.
A perfect example is the 2017 KTM 1290 Super Adventure R. This 160 horsepower off road capable monster has more electronics on it than a space shuttle including, lean-sensitive ABS, traction control, and even a tire pressure monitor that displays on the dash consul. And where did all these electronic rider aids spring from? The Ducati 1098 R superbike, which used its race track proven electronics for the first time on a road bike in 2008.
All well and good, but what have dirt bikes given to the road biking fraternity? I’m glad you asked. Take a look at the 1975 Yamaha YZ250, the Japanese two-stroke moto crosser, developed in the US that became so successful it dominated the dirt in America for decades. Apart from being the test bike for reed valves and power valves, it was the first of its kind to have single-shock rear suspension. Honda may call theirs the Pro-link, Suzuki the Full Floater and Kawasaki the Uni-track, but there’s not a sports bike on the road that doesn’t use a variation of it. And it all started with a Yamaha dirt bike.
Cross-fertilization of technology is one thing, but now the fashion for motorcycle manufacturers seems to be creating a base model that can transform into different styles of bike. This can be seen perfectly with the BMW R nineT.
Launched as a retro styled, stand-alone model, it was soon followed by variations on the theme in the form of the Café Racer, Scrambler, Urban GS, the Racer and now the Pure. Add to this, a leaf out of Harley Davidson’s book, by providing an extensive range of factory produced accessories and BMW have got a blank canvas motorcycle flexible enough to span several genres.
The same can be said of Ducati and their Street Scrambler. Hitting the scene in 2014, Ducati produced an 800cc air-cooled street bike with green lane potential. Initially, in four variations, you can now buy the Scrambler in Icon, Classic, Enduro, Full Throttle, Desert Sled and Sixty2 forms. There’s even a Café Racer version!
So far, we’ve looked at the different types and styles of bikes available and the heritage and influences that caused them to evolve. As we’ve seen, motorcycle manufacturers with their eye on the ball often spot a hole to fill in the market (Triumph with their retro roadsters) and latch on to an existing one (every Japanese manufacturer in the cruiser market). Or if they’re particularly clever, invent one themselves (the very first adventure bike launched by BMW). But one thing we haven’t mentioned yet is custom bikes.
This opens up a whole Pandora’s box of possibilities and as with mainstream motorcycles, what started off with just a few basic types has now mutated into a whole interwoven custom universe.
Strictly speaking, those riders way back in the 1920’s and 30’s who dumped big heavy standard parts off their bikes to race on dirt or track, can be considered the first customizers. But in general terms, it was post-WWII when things on the custom scene officially kicked off.
In the US, it was disillusioned GI’s forming themselves into groups and clubs that began to ‘Bob’ their bikes by removing the deep fenders and other non-cool looking parts from their machines. They generally kept the stock frame and steering geometry, to keep the end result cheap and practical. And so, the Bobber was born. Fast forward 80 years and its usability and style make it one of the most popular types of custom bike around today.
Choppers followed the same original path of ‘chopping’ away excess parts but took a more stylized route. In altering the geometry or creating an entirely new frame, changed the whole look of a bike. Forks got longer, gas tanks and rear wheels got smaller, front wheels thinner and handlebars higher. Choppers were very much an acquired taste and invariably garage built. However, the success of the movie Easy Rider, exposed the public to ‘the coolest bikes on the planet’ and the chopper craze and more importantly, chopper builders, took off.
In the UK, the Café Racer became the weapon of choice. Derived from a combination of factors such as the race bikes of the TT and the reoccurring theme of disenchanted youths the world over, wanting to look different from the rest. Greasers stretched out across long tanks, clutching tiny fork top clip-on bars, with feet tucked back on rear sets.
From these three very basic types, we now have an entire sub-division of custom motorcycles from which they evolved. From the Bobber, we have Brat style, Flat Trackers and Street Scramblers. Choppers led to Low Riders, Pro Street, Draggers, Softails, Rigids, and Fatbobs. Whilst Café Racers were the front runners of the streetfighter, drag style and Ratfighters.
Regardless of what type of motorcycle or style you choose, there’s no right or wrong. There’s never been more choice in the showroom and going down the custom route is only limited by the imagination. Just be assured of one thing, whatever two-wheeled direction you take, you’re standing on the shoulders of giants.