The first sentence of every description of the Yamaha XSR 900 must include the phrase “neo-retro,” and this one is no exception. It seems to be a somehow apt descriptor, but I don’t think any of us really know exactly what we mean when we say, write, or read it. Is it really a word? It is two prefixes (prefices?) linked together without a root. It is certainly an oxymoron, although “neo-paleo” would be a more perfect diametric pairing. Personally, I would be very excited to see a neo-paleo bike. Something made of meat.
I suppose we must conceded that “neo-retro” is a word, inasmuch as people are using it and somehow investing it with some meaning. Neologisms like this often take some time to find their proper semantic place, and this one seems to be at that crisis point where it either hones itself to something useful or just become another useless filler word. Time to drill into that word and extract the real meaning so that we all stop throwing it around so promiscuously.
First, let’s make some important exlusions to be clear what “neo-retro” is not. Some would say that “neo-retro” means a technically and mechanically modern machine that wears styling taken from the past, like the new Bonnevilles or Moto-Guzzis. But no, that is simply “retro.” “Neo-retro” must reinterpret. It is Post-Modernist, not Classicist.
It is also not the uninterrupted making of the same thing for decades. No-one refers to Harleys as “neo-retro” or even “retro.” They are simply Harleys. Indian Chiefs might be “retro,” because there is a discontinuity between the current machine and the precedent. You have to leave home in order to enjoy homesickness. You can’t be nostalgic for something that’s just always been there and never left. Oddly, people often refer to Royal Enfield as “retro,” which is wrong due to this Continuity Exemption. I think people call Royal Enfields “retro” because they themselves have re-discovered (or just discovered) them, and therefore what’s old is new to them, whereas in fact what’s old is simply old. (The Contintal GT would be an exception to the Exemption, and thus could rightly be called “retro.”)
OK, let’s look at the latest exemplar of “neo-retro”: the Yamaha XSR 900:
What about this design is retro? What clues tie this bike to, say, the 1970s? Apart from the round headlamp and the optional bumblebee livery, not a damned thing. We could go through the bike piece by piece by piece and not find anything that ties this bike to the past. Look at it: the tank? The frame? The engine? Even the fenders? Anything? OK, maybe the tank badge. The name, certainly, is a reference to the venerated XS 650, a prince among UJMs, but that’s it.
Every single thing about this design is modern. It doesn’t even look like what someone in the 1970s would imagine a futuristic bike would look like – they would probably assume a bike of the future would be some kind of Craig Vetter Streamliner deal.
Perhaps the only truly retro thing about this image is the clothing of the rider.
Let’s take another example: the BMW R Nine T:
Of course this bike has the “classic” BMW Boxer engine, but that is not retro – that’s merely a staple powerplant that is still in BMW’s regular lineup. (Would you call the R1200RT “retro”?) Again, there is a round headlamp, but surely that can’t be it? Everything on this bike is thoroughly up to date, both technically and aesthetically. The trellis frame, the brakes, wheels, seat, components, suspension, lines, curves, forms – it’s all neo, and where’s the retro?
Contrast this with the new new Bonnevilles, which carefully and knowingly extract details and proportions from old bikes to create their new composition. There are little Easter eggs for connoisseurs. They are modern, but they make aesthetic allusions with the precision of a McKim, Mead, and White, and no-one would question that the genre of these bikes is “retro.”
Yet we are compelled to describe the XSR 900 and the R nine T (and let’s throw in the Honda CB1100) as “neo-retro.” We almost can’t help ourselves. Why?
The truth is, when we look for historiated styling cues, we are looking at the wrong thing. What’s retro about these bikes is not the design details or specific allusions to past models. In fact, it’s not styling at all: it’s design at a deeper level.
The “retro” in these bikes is an attitude of simplicity. Unadorned, bullshit-free. Unassuming, but direct and tough. It’s a recognition that many of the products (not just bikes) that we use every day have become encrusted with features, complications, and upgrades that stand between us and the pure enjoyment of the object. It is the opposite of the plastic engine cover under the hood of your Audi. It’s the same ethos as the naked bikes taken in a slightly different direction.
Our nostalgia for older bikes is closely tied to how much fun we had on them. It seemed that the bikes had character. That character was rooted in the direct experience with the machine, unintermediated by other amenities. Now we are being offered bikes that present that kind of character without the flip side of those simpler bikes – unreliability. We are seeing technology in the service of a better experience, rather than tech for its own sake.
It’s also a reminder that a motorcycle does not have to be either a sportbike or a cruiser. It can just be a bike. And you don’t have to choose between being a pirate or a squid. You can just be a biker.
There was no better time, when things were simpler, people were more honest, and beer was free. In that sense, nostalgia is naïve. But there were great ideas and moments of delight in our collective youth that are worth remembering. If “neo-retro” brings us fun, honest bikes that look good and ride great, we are all for it.