If you didn’t know better, you might assume that motorcycles today fall into two categories: cruisers (choppers) and sport (crotch-rockets, super-sport).1 And ever since they were invented, choosing a motorcycle has always been as much about your style of rider as it is about your style of riding. That may leave some riders feeling like they have to choose between Biker Boyz and Sons of Anarchy.
Fortunately, a handful of manufacturers still cling to breathtaking, timeless, classic styling. Several of them demonstrate that an adrenaline-packed ride doesn’t need to compromise style. In this list I’m not focused on power and performance so much as I am on personality. These are bikes steeped in heritage.
Here I pay homage to a few bikes that never fail to turn heads – not because they’re fast, loud or colorful, but because they’re inimitably cool. In order to make the list they needed to still be in production, and they needed to be reasonably priced. And I’ve listed the cost of each bike here in Chicago.
ROYAL ENFIELD BULLET
Royal Enfield bikes were originally produced by the Enfield Cycle Company, founded in 1893 in Redditch, Worcestershire, England. The company was sold to Norton-Villiers-Triumph in 1968, and continued producing motorcycles until 1970 when the company was closed. However in 1956, Enfield of India licensed the name and started producing motorcycles. In 1995, Enfield of India purchased the rights to the Royal Enfield name and continues producing bikes to this day. The flagship model, the Bullet (and the Continental GT, based off the original Bullet), now holds the title of the world’s oldest motorcycle brand.
Engine: Single Cylinder, 4 stroke, Air-cooled
The most recent (third) incarnation of the Triumph Bonneville began in 2001 and continues through today, produced by Triumph Motorcycles Ltd., England’s largest motorcycle manufacturer. Not only does the retro styling of the Bonneville make it timeless and attractive, but she continues to enjoy heaps of praise from motorcycle enthusiasts worldwide. Triumph refers to its existing models as “modern classics” because whereas the looks of the bike remain the same, the entire motorcycle has been overhauled. Look close enough and you’ll realize that even its “carburetors” are actually redesigned throttle bodies made to resemble carburetors.
That doesn’t seem to have slowed its growth in popularity at all. And I will continue to drool as I pass these bikes in Chicago. (Ha! Pass… who am I kidding. But my Suzuki TU250X is a gas.)
Engine: Air-cooled, DOHC, Parallel-twin
Suzuki’s TU250X was the best fit for me because it was comfortable, low and lightweight – perfect for a first bike. Its responsiveness, easy-going ride and low-end torque also made it a nice bike for the city streets.
This is Suzuki’s second generation of this bike, based off the Universal Japanese Motorcycle designs of the 1960s and 70s. Shortly after this time period, accused of homogeneity in their design (hence the term ‘universal Japanese motorcycle’), Kawasaki, Yamaha, Honda and Suzuki started to branch out into what we know today as sport bikes.
Since its release, the Suzuki TU250X has also enjoyed heaps of critical acclaim for both its style, and its fun ride. And for as much as I have lusted after the Triumph Bonneville, I love this bike. (Oh, and it’s quite literally half the cost.)
Engine: Single-cylinder, fuel-injected, air-oil cooled SOHC
URAL PATROL AND GEAR-UP
If ever there was a handbook titled How to be a Badass, riding this motorcycle would be in the first chapter. Why Vladimir Putin chooses to ride a Harley instead of one of these is lost on me.
IMZ Ural Motorcycles trace their roots back to 1941 (coincidentally the same year as Jeep) when the Soviet Union obtained the designs for BMW’s R71 motorcycle. (A bi-product of the non-aggression pact signed in 1939.) The original bikes were manufactured for the Soviet Army during WWII. In fact Stalin was concerned that the original manufacturing facility in Moscow was too close to the Western front (in range of German aerial bombers), so the factory was moved to the town of Irbit where the Ural mountains meet Siberia.
Some modifications to the original crankshaft in the 90s allowed Ural cycles to pass EPA emissions standards and be sold in the United States. And thus began the love affair. Because what motorcycle ride is complete without a river crossing and hacking apart a fallen tree with a machete? (As an aside – Cycle World’s review is priceless.)
Engine: Air-cooled, boxer twin
HARLEY DAVIDSON IRON 883
For as much as I love Harleys (and being from Wisconsin), I hesitated to include a Harley Davidson in this list. But what draws me to the Iron 883 is the styling reminiscent of Harleys from the 1940s. I included a picture below for reference.
As opposed to the Urals that started production in 1941, 15,000 Harley-Davidsons were put into combat service as early as WWI. And through the 1920s, Harley-Davidson was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. In WWII, more than 90,000 Harley-Davidsons were produced and supplied to Americans and Canadians in WWII. 30,000 Harley-Davdisons were supplied to the Soviet Union during this same period.
Engine: Air-cooled, Evolution®
MOTO GUZZI V7
Moto Guzzi is yet another storied, European brand with racing heritage. Dating back to 1921, Moto Guzzi claims to be the longest-running manufacturer of motorcycles in Europe. Conceived by two Italian airplane pilots after WWII, Moto Guzzi was one of three manufacturers to lead the world of Grand Prix motorcycle racing through the 1950s. Strangely enough, Piaggio (owner of Vespa) and Moto Guzzi came to an agreement in the 50s – Piaggio would not manufacture motorcycles (with large wheels), and Moto Guzzi would not manufacture scooters (with small wheels). Nearly 60 years later, Piaggio would purchase Moto Guzzi.
In 2008, Moto Guzzi revealed the V7 at the Motorcycle and Bicycle Manufacturers show in Milan. By mid-2008 the motorcycle was available in Europe, and by 2009 was available in the U.S.
Engine: 90˚ V-twin engine, 4-stroke
Can you think of any motorcycles I might have overlooked? Send me a comment below and let me know!
1 Yes, I know this is an oversimplification. But I leave categories like touring bikes and dual-sport/dirt bikes off this list because these bikes are made for such a specific activity (and -er- demographic).