Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Pitfall Of Refinement


I recently had the opportunity to ride a vintage 1970 Triumph Bonneville. I had been contemplating the purchase of a vintage motorcycle to give me something simple to tinker with. Old cars are easy to work on compared to modern ones but they also involve far more components than bikes. Cars have interiors, lots of painted surfaces, hundreds more parts and take up a whole lot of space. My desire to have and preserve something nearly as old as myself could easily be satisfied by a vintage motorcycle. The Bonneville was a logical choice:  I already owned a 2008 version, they are plentiful and staying within a brand that I owned several t-shirts for would keep wardrobe costs down.

I'd already spent time on a BSA Lightning and Norton Commando so my first ride on the vintage Bonneville wasn't as shocking as it otherwise may have been. The most notable difference between vintage and modern is the level of Noise, Vibration and Harshness, or NVH. The vintage bike has a lot of vibration compared to the modern machines. Vibration on a motorcycle can be terribly fatiguing as it will travel through the handlebars, seat and foot pegs into your body. Some vibration can actually be pleasant; I found the staccato beats through the seat had an almost massage-like quality. Generally, however, less is better. Beyond NVH concerns I found the old drum brakes better than expected, shift feel competent and handling near equal to my 'modern' 2008 model. The bike had a heavy, solid feel to it that didn't suggest it was portly (it actually weighs much less than my '08) but rather that it was put together with stout materials. Overall it was better than I expected in some ways...yet a disappointment in others. I spent an entire weekend astride the old Brit and contemplated many times whether it was a bike I was passionate enough about to undertake ownership. I had to reluctantly admit that, while it was a fun experience, the vintage Triumph didn't fill me with a feeling of "Yes, I have to get one of these". Oddly, I did get that feeling from the similar vintage Norton Commando I rode previously. Though a more difficult machine to keep running properly, the Norton remains on that list of Things To Consider. Perhaps a topic for a later entry, I'll just say now that the Norton has all of the NVH shortcomings of the Triumph but brings with it other sounds, sensations and a level of interaction that pushes you to think of the 'negatives' as more of an experience than something to be tolerated. The Triumph has some of that but not enough to drive it over the hump from 'tolerable' to 'charming character'. This 'feeling' is very personal and infinitely variable between individuals and should not be taken as a 'slam' against the Triumph.

The simple fact is that I vastly prefer riding my 2008 Bonneville over the 1970 version. Though it shares a very similar appearance the bikes are completely different. Modern engineering, machining and materials come together to make a motorcycle that is smoother, more powerful and more reliable than its predecessor. Has it lost much of the 'charm' of the original? Purists will think so. I would have argued that it is simply a better machine and welcomed the modern take on a classic design. However, there is now a new generation of the venerable Bonneville. With the addition of water cooling it represents another chapter in the evolution of a classic model. My air cooled Hinckley version represents leaps and bounds over the Meriden model I recently rode. How much further advanced could the water cooled model be?

I took a test ride on one at a dealer demonstration day. The new version is advanced as one would expect, with much improved suspension, better handling and brakes, smoother power delivery and other refinements. By any technical measure the new bike is an improvement over the one I have. In fact, I was reluctant to ride the new one for fear that I may feel compelled to trade mine in. Instead, I came away truly conflicted. While the new bike is 'better' the riding experience felt less involved. The machine was almost too smooth. While it was certainly the equal of many modern bikes that don't attempt to adhere to a classic look, in its pursuit of a broader market the new Bonneville has lost some of its character. It felt more homogenized. I rode my '08 home from the event completely baffled as to which I would choose should something happen to my current motorcycle. The very things that make the new bike better are also the things that make it less appealing.

I suppose each generation regards its version of a particular bike or car as the gold standard for all that preceded or follows. There may be no right answer for everyone as to what constitutes the correct mix of technical perfection and indefinable passion. As we stumble towards autonomous cars I wonder if we have lost so much character in our vehicles that we no longer care to drive them?