In the real world, there’s no such thing as the ultimate motorcycle—no bike that excels at every type of riding, whether it’s touring, cruising, sport riding, commuting, or doing it in the dirt. And, of course, there’s more to a motorcycle’s appeal than functionality. The way a bike looks, sounds, and feels are also essential to the experience, but appearance and exhaust note are subjective, and one is not necessarily better than another.
I like an unfaired bike with all of its mechanicalness on full display, but I can also appreciate the beauty of a 1994-98 Ducati 916. I love the rumble of a big V-twin, but the wail of an inline-4 at full song is equally enticing. In addition, what’s important to you in a bike can change over time.
When I was younger, carving corners and the power of a sportbike was everything, and I couldn’t imagine a machine better than my 1984 Kawasaki Ninja. That kind of riding doesn’t interest me as much anymore, and today I’d much rather go for a cruise on my 2003 Harley-Davidson Road King.
The closest thing to an ultimate motorcycle is the one that does it for you at a particular time and place. Having said that, there have been rides when I wished my motorcycle worked as well in certain situations as some other bike that I’ve owned, times when combining the best features and characteristics of both bikes would have resulted in a sort of virtual ultimate motorcycle.
BMW pioneered adventure bikes, and I had a 1988 R 100 GS. I bought it to be able to do some exploring in the South Jersey pine barrens and make other trips, as well as commute. While the big Beemer was comfortable and handled well on the street, its weight and 50/50 dual sport tires made it somewhat of a handful on the trail.
My virtual GS then would have been one that performed in the dirt as well as the 1975 Yamaha YZ250 I had in my teens. At just over 200 pounds, that MXer was less than half the weight of the BMW, and with its full knobbies and innovative long travel monoshock suspension, instead of pushing and plowing, it seemed to glide over the sugar-sand trails.
Another ride I would have appreciated less weight on was when three friends and I rode the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I was aboard my 1994 BMW K 1100 RS. For most of the trip, I couldn’t imagine a better motorcycle—comfortable on the highway, plenty of room for gear in the factory luggage, and capable enough on the parkway’s twisty roads.
But when we got into the really tight stuff, like the Tail of the Dragon, with its 318 corners in 11 miles, it would have been more fun if the Beemer could have shed 150 pounds and become a virtual K-bike that was as light and flickable as my 1982 Kawasaki GPz550 had been. The GPz was the lightest, fastest, and best handling bike in its class in the early 1980s, and the bike of choice for the club racers of the day. It was my first street bike and, of course, I couldn’t wait to move up to something bigger. I wouldn’t appreciate that 550’s nimbleness until later.
My 1978 Ducati 900 SD Darmah was the standard version of Ducati’s famed 900SS. With its Tartarini design, bevel-drive V-twin power, gold Campagnolo magnesium wheels, and booming Lafranconi exhaust, it was a pleasure to ride or just gaze at. But, Ducati reliability and quality control in the 1970s weren’t what they are today. In fact, in the early ’70s, Cycle World magazine had a test bike show up with a fly cast into the fiberglass tank! My virtual Darmah would have combined its Italian flair with the rock-solid dependability of my BMW R and K bikes, instead of the oil leaks, electrical gremlins, and other problems that regularly bedeviled the real machine.
When first switching from one of my “normal” left-side shift bikes to my 1971 Norton Commando 750 and its right-side shifter and one-up, three-down shift pattern, I sometimes mistakenly snick the shifter down into what I think is first and promptly stall the bike. This inevitably happens when I’m stopped at a light in traffic. It’s then that my virtual Commando would retain its classic bike simplicity, but still have the ‘electric leg’ button like all the rest of my bikes, so I wouldn’t have to kickstart it with all those honking cars behind me.
Right now, the ultimate motorcycle is an imaginary concept. The evolution of the motorcycle has continually arced toward further specialization. But with continual advancements in computerization, electronics, and electric power, who knows what will be possible in the future.
Photography courtesy of Mecum Auctions
Mike Grady is Motorcycle Enthusiast and Expert at MOTORCYCLEiD.com