What is “Neo-Retro”?

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.”)

 

Got it?

 

OK, let’s look at the latest exemplar of “neo-retro”: the Yamaha XSR 900:

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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.

2016-01-10 xsr900_2

 

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.

 

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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:

2016-01-10 R9T

 

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.

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The New New Bonnevilles: A Closer Look

592C9BF9BC5047DDA8B3BCB9C228C762 The Bonneville is finally going to earn its keep. For more than a decade, it has gotten by as the backbone of the Triumph brand solely on looks and romance. Those are powerful motivators for sentimental folk like bikers, but let’s be honest, the name “Bonneville” implies speed (preposterous Pontiacs aside), and it’s a little silly to have a “214” special edition of a bike than can barely break half that speed downhill.

Bonneville and its variants have been beloved because we look good and feel good on them. They have been fun, accessible, affordable, and nostalgic without being corny or phony. (Nostalgia is safe when used as prescribed, but overuse can lead to misguided nonsense like endorsements by Zombie Steve McQueen.) The Bonneville line-up has always had a winning smile that it’s hard to say no to. Triumph have taken that strategy as far as it could go, and now they have come out with guns drawn. We’re in a whole different class now. She just walked out on the dance floor, and all we can say is, “My, how you’ve grown!”

I’m going to say what we were all thinking: thank god they didn’t fuck it up. Making major changes to something so simple and beloved is very dicey. This could have gone wrong in so many ways. But have you ever heard so much gushing over a bike nobody has even ridden yet? It’s even buzzing in non-moto circles. Did you, like me, get texts from your non-biker friends & relations asking about this?

Naturally, all the coverage is reciting the numbers & specs on these bikes, and those numbers are critical to what this line-up is about, but you can see them in any of the links above. (Although we still don’t have two key numbers: peak horsepower and MSRP.) The numbers are what will make this bike a serious competitor for the BMW RnineT, Ducati Scrambler and some Monsters, H-D Sportster 1200, Yamaha XJR 1300, and many other seriously-sporty-but-not-superbike retro-nakeds (1200cc seems to be a direct shot at H-D and Ducati. Can you imagine swiping at both of those in one punch?) We wouldn’t be adding much to the conversation repeat the specs yet again here, so instead, per our wont, we will take a close critical look at some aesthetic details and how they relate to the whole.

Let us begin by confessing: This is a gorgeous piece of machinery:

2E74F3A854CF473D9AEFD5E5D2B3D2EFWhen it’s good, British motor design is outstanding.

This is a design that is unified around speed, yes, but also elegance. The composition hangs together off the top frame line, which is tilted forward in a kinetic gesture. The proportions are compact and the curves taut. It is mature but virile. Many bikes have great design ideas in them, but it is rare that they all support a single parti so well together. The XJR1300 seems to have parts of seven different cool bikes in it. The Harley Fat Boy, on the other hand, love it or hate it, is most emphatically and unapologetically what it is.

One smart move Triumph made is making the Thruxton the king of the line-up instead of the T120. The Thruxton was always the sportier-but-its-still-not-really-sporty step-sister. It was basically the Bonnie with lower handlebars, and it looked faster than it was. Owners were practically obliged to find ways to get more zaft out of it, and of course it was also limited by its suspension. No more! It is out of the shadow of its dowdy sisters.

An important visual signal of this distinction is that the Thruxton has a different tank. The squarer, flatter more-70s, less-50s tank is distinctive, and its lower, longer proportion just make the whole machine that much leaner and meaner. They didn’t take it too far, though: those 70s tanks were square enough to lose all character. Here Triumph’s stylists used that precedent as an inspiration, not a template, and that is always the correct way to treat your historical antecedents.

Let us continue the aesthetic tour of this bike’s intimates at the tires. (Sorry – tyres.) It has sticky, sporty Pirellis, but not just any Pirellis. Did you notice that these are Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tyres? These were developed for the venerated and all-too-short-lived Ducati SportClassics, which were an epitome of the best that neo-retro styling can be. The new Bonnies have been compared to the SportClassics, and this choice of tyre could not be a more direct and specific allusion. It’s like finding the helmet of the last guy who died climbing this mountain and wearing it while you announce your own summit attempt. Subtle, but ballsy, Triumph.

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I would like now to contemplate the taillight, because that is indeed the kind of guy I am. The taillight on the Bonneville had always been this ugly, vexing blot on an otherwise handsome design. Like if David Niven wore a tacky plastic boutonniere on the lapel of his tuxedo. The alien-head orb taillight was an inexplicable hangover from the Legend/Thunderbird/Adventurer bikes of the 90s. No-one knows why they carried over this one design element onto an otherwise entirely new machine. It was the first thing most Bonneville owners changed, usually to a Lucas-copy. The new bikes have finally done the right thing: an updated interpretation (not copy!) of the Lucas aesthetic. Nice curve to the top, angled sides. A smart reference if you get the joke, but still sharp if you don’t. Is the LED ring light another allusion to the BSA-style bullet taillight? I choose to believe it is.

Thruxton_R_Detail_Rear_Light_CROP

There are many other design moments to enjoy, such as the reference to the ignition points cover on the starboard engine casing, the very tidy branding graphics on the entire line-up, the tight bar-end mirrors, and of course all the quality components (e.g. brakes, forks, shocks) that signal to any connoisseur what class of bike this is. They have also placed a small brand logo in the middle of the headlamp, which everyone seems to be doing all of a sudden. Not sure what’s driving that.

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It is also commendable that Triumph are keeping and supporting (and will be shamelessly capitalizing on) one of the Bonneville class’ best features: its customizability. We will be flooded with gadgets, and surely aftermarket manufacturers will be quick to add their own.

C3BB5136001A439AB17D1DEBE1E4504BMonza, baby.

This is of course no all-out street fighter. It’s not a best, fastest, most-torque, most-horsepower anything. What it is is a very sharp, sophisticated-looking, covetable motorbike with a big enough performance envelope for any but the highest-end riders to get everything they want out of it. It is, simply, what we all always thought these bikes should be.

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