Is Your Motorcycle "Real?"

I had a discussion with a brand snob recently and apparently one of my motorcycles isn’t “real.” I was reminded of this exchange today when I saw an article on the AMA website about the 2008 Buell 1125R.

2008 Buell 1125RIt appears that Buell, a subsidiary of Harley-Davidson, was allowed to look elsewhere for a powerplant for its newest sportbike. The bike uses a liquid-cooled V-twin designed by Rotax and looks very interesting. In addition to the excellent write-up on the bike, AMA has a great interview with Erik Buell about the bike’s development.

I doubt that this bike will spark any great controversy, given that people have wondered for years when Buell would get around to building a sportbike that’s not powered by an air-cooled XL Sportster engine. So while it’s a big step for Buell, I expect this bike to be a beloved addition to the family.

Not so my BMW F650GS, also powered by a Rotax engine, which was recently scorned by some fellow as not being a “real” BMW. “BMW never made a 650,” he sneered.

So what makes a motorcycle a true example of the marque? Does every part need to roll off a company assembly line? BMW doesn’t make my tires, either — does that matter?

There’s no argument that the engine is the heart of a motorcycle but does it have to be built in-house? Do Aprilia Mille or KTM owners have to put up with this?

I recognize that there will be some motorcycles that will never be considered genuine. Would anyone consider the short-lived revival of Excelsior-Henderson related in any way to the classic American motorcycle introduced by William and Tom Henderson in 1911? It was just a pricey cruiser that didn’t offer anything particularly special, and it’s not an Excelsior-Henderson no matter what the badge said.

But the BMW F650? This bike has been sold by BMW for more than a decade and built by BMW since 2000. It appeared on the BMW factory team in the Dakar Rally. It’s not some orphaned model thrown together to make a quick buck — it’s been revised over the years and has led to the new G series of BMW 650s.

I guess this is more about bike snobbery than about motorcycles. Some people would like to forget BMW made anything after the airhead twin. I imagine every brand has built a motorcycle than someone, somewhere, deems unworthy to be considered “real.”

I don’t think I’m going to worry about those people. I love my fake BMW.

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6 Responses to Is Your Motorcycle "Real?"

  1. David Iadanza says:

    I bet everything written after the statement that the reborn Excelsior Henderson was “…just a pricey cruiser that didn’t offer anything particularly special…” may have been just as interesting as what was written up till then.

    …wouldn’t know myself. Anyone who is just as guilty as what he accuses, i.e., snobbery, does not deserve my continued attention. They DO, however, merit my ‘X’treme amusement.

    Was the “brand snob” referred to in the opening line the man in the mirror?

    If you ‘X’tract your cabeza from your Beamer bum long enough to reread what you wrote, you’d see that your defense of Buell outsourcing its’ powerplant, and your point that homemade pizza doesn’t mean you grew the wheat or tomatoes (maybe it was me just made that point), was simply a thinly veiled love note to your own horse of choice. Even snobs fall in Love.

    The resurgent Excelsior Henderson was notable in many regards. Retro design, leading link suspension, fuel injected four valve offset cylinders, not to mention that the founders–as incompetent business managers they were–brought into production a completely proprietary design within five years. No small feat.

    To characterize this fantastic machine–mine and nearly 2000 other owners opinion–as you have, is the epitome of what you disdain as “snobbery”. And I might add, ignorance of the facts.

    Me, I only like two kinds of bikes: old ones and new ones…..


  2. tom says:

    David, let me start off by saying that I haven’t ridden your bike. And I’ll admit that perhaps the phrase “just a pricey cruiser” sounded harsher than intended — that the bike was another entry into an already hotly contested segment of the market. The reviews that I read of the bike — both at the time and what I could find recently — characterized the bike as a fine, well-designed machine that performed admirably. It sounded like a viable option to similar high-priced cruisers.

    I’ll stand behind the intent of the statement however — that the new Excelsior-Henderson was handicapped by a high-price tag without being distinctive enough to capture the hearts and minds of the mainstream marketplace. Despite the features you point out, it just didn’t set itself apart enough to survive. The pricey cruiser market is a very tough market indeed.

    In the context of the point I was actually trying to make, I still think your Excelsior-Henderson has very little connection to the legacy of the original brand. If you ask a fan of the vintage marque when Excelsior-Henderson stopped making motorcycles, I suspect they’ll say 1931. Just as I suspect that you would not say that your motorcycle was originally introduced in 1911. Am I mistaken? Do you love your motorcycle because it’s the great American EH of yesteryear, or do you love it regardless of the name? It’s a sincere question — believe me, it won’t be the first time I’ve been wrong. 😉

    None of which is intended to be a reflection on your judgment or anyone else’s. It does look like a great motorcycle and one I would have considered if I’d been in the market for a cruiser in 1999. If we ever run into each other on the road, I’d love to take it for a spin. True Excelsior-Henderson or not, it’s definitely a rare piece of motorcycle history.

    So my clumsy wording notwithstanding, can anyone give me a better example of a motorcycle that’s not a real example of a marque? Is there no such thing?

  3. David Iadanza says:

    It is with great care that I craft my posted words. Even so, intent is often misperceived. I meant no offense by my post and it was not posted defensively, but perhaps only in defense of the Super X. Your response was that of a gentleman, thank you.

    As far as the price issue, I could have bought three SX’s today for what I paid for my first in 1999. (Third Blue n Silver off the line, I own two now.)

    At the time, I felt that what I was getting was well worth the money in comparison to the other cookie-cutter models of similar heavyweight American made cruisers. No regrets there.

    However, I do agree that perhaps the price, among other considerations, was a stumbling point of an newly introduced motorcycle. Of course the so-called “Indian” available at that time was selling well at an even higher price. Perhaps that fact had more to do with greater name recognition. It certainly was not because of its’ revolutionary design.

    So therein lies your answer: the reborn Indian had far less in common with the marque that inspired it than Excelsior Henderson.

    I encourage you to go to the website and read the history tabs that describe both the old and new machines.

    Do I love my Super X because of the bike it is or because of the bike it represents? The answer is yes to both.

    Both were pioneers in their design and in the marketplace. Both wrote pages into the history of motorcycling. And sadly, both fell victim to an unfavorable economic climate; in 1931, the Depression, and in 1999, trepidation by investors,, (according to the Founders Hanlon…Praise Be Their Holy Names and Blessings Upon Them).


  4. tom says:


    I didn’t take offense at your post, nor did I consider your defense of the Super X defensive — you love the bike you ride. Don’t we all? I think my 1995 BMW Paris-Dakar is one of the most beautiful things in the world, even though some think it’s a wierd-looking beast.

    Indian was indeed the first bike that came to mind when I posed the question, but now I’m afraid I’ll incur the wrath of modern Indian owners. 🙂 I actually think the new Indian did a pretty good job of capturing the spirit of the original in its styling.

    I think that both the ’99 Super X and the Gilroy-based Indians should be evaluated independently of the historic marques, but what do I know.

    While researching some of my response here, I think I’ve found a much better example of a “not real” model — the imported British motorcycles rebadged as Indians in the fifties, after the company had stopped its own manufacturing operations.

    In the end, maybe there really is no such thing as a model that doesn’t count. If I got my hands on a mid-fifties Indian, would I love it any less? Would I feel bad that it was actually a Royal Enfield with a different name tag? Or would I talk endlessly about the history of the marque, its trials and tribulations, the legacy it left behind, and the events that led to my British Indian?

    I think I’d love to get my hands on one of those fake Indians!

  5. Bob Burns says:

    I’ve taken some time to think about this. The conclusion I’ve reached is that I’ve never owned a real motorcycle.

    It started with my 1973 Honda CB 750. I would occasionally be asked when I was going to get a “real” motorcycle. This meant that someone thought I was unhappy riding my old Honda, and wanted to know when I would be buying a Harley Davidson.

    Years later I would be asked the same question, but from a different angle: How could I be happy riding an old bike? When would I be buying a “real” motorcycle, meaning something modern with cutting edge performance and massive horsepower? And the finance and insurance payments to match?

    I did finally buy a modern bike, first a Triumph Speed Triple and later a Triumph Tiger. Of course neither of these were “real” motorcycles. One of my co-workers completely flipped out when he saw that I’d bought a new bike and it wasn’t a Harley, another one has derided my Triumphs as not being “real” Triumphs. Presumably because they have reliable electrics and they don’t piss oil all over the place.

    My dirt bike isn’t “real.” I forget why though – either because it isn’t a two stroke or because it’s got drum brakes.

    Then we get into my latest motorcycling hobby – racing. I have a 1970 Honda CB 750 that I race with the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association. I’m pretty sure I don’t have a “real” race bike. But the reasons vary.

    a)It’s not a “real” historic racer because it isn’t from Europe. Apparently the Japanese have no racing history.

    b)It’s not a “real” race bike because it started life as a street bike. Although in the 70’s it was pretty common for a guy to race the same bike he rode to work. And it’s 2007, so I’m pretty sure the 70’s can be considered history.

    c)It’s not a “real” race bike because it’s a four stroke.

    d)It’s not a “real” race bike because it isn’t the latest and greatest high-tech stuff available.

    So. Here I am, with an entire garage full of bikes that aren’t “real.”

    Why the fuck am I so happy, then?

  6. tom says:

    Hey, Bob. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. I hear you guys all had a great weekend in Wisconsin.

    Yes, I think you’re right. I’m willing to bet that every bike ever made has someone out there who feels that it’s inadequate in some way. And I’m just as sure that every bike has someone who thinks that it’s the best bike ever.

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