Rolling back the years

Rolling back the years

Retro riding is on the rise thanks to a heady mix of classic mechanics, timeless fashion and rebellious poster boys like Steve McQueen. Josh Sims charts the new wave of old biking.

It costs well into six figures in any currency. And perhaps that is to be expected. The Brough Superior, after all, is not only a hand-built motorbike, but one with history: the company behind it was established in 1919, made its last motorbike at the outbreak of World War Two and, notoriously, this was the bike on which Lawrence of Arabia was killed in 1935 (swerving to avoid a pedestrian, an accident so celebrated it lead to the introduction of the first motorcycle helmets).

The difference is that this Brough is bespokemade now, an exact replica of the 1927 spec original, built at a rate of just five bikes a year by the original, recently re-launched company.

Nor is Brough alone in being part of a growing retro bike scene. British bike brand Triumph, for example, has seen a resurgence thanks to the launch of its ‘modern classic’ line of 60s-style bikes, notably the Thruxton and Bonneville.

Royal Enfield has launched an updated Bullet 500. Norton has also been revived. These are throw-backs to the post-war eras of classic biking, when, in the UK, so-called Ton-Up Boys raced up the A1 to eat egg sandwiches at the Ace Cafe, and in the US, Marlon Brando ensured bikers were forever associated with rebellion thanks to his role as Johnny in 1953’s ‘The Wild One’.

They have also prompted a new wave of highprofile urban bikers, the likes of Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Ewan Mcgregor, for whom the style is a large part of the appeal.

“The retro bike scene is a growing sub-culture that is part of the same non-conformist interest in vintage clothing,” reckons Brough’s new owner, Mark Upham.

“It’s an appreciation not only for the very high standards of products made in the past, but for its original design, of lasting influence.”

It is, of course, also an appreciation of cool - one the brands understand. In 2009, Triumph, ahead of the curve, became one of the first classic bike brands to launch not a technical biking clothing range, but a t-shirt line.

In part to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Bonneville, the shirts featured old ads for the motorcycle, as well as, inevitably, images of Triumph fan Steve McQueen.

Triumph has collaborated with designer Paul Smith on a small collection too. That motorcycles with the styling of yesteryear but the tech of today might well find a ready market - akin to car industry’s embracing the past over recent years too, Ford with its relaunched Mustang, VW with the Beetle, BMW with the Mini, and so on - is an idea catching on beyond classic British makers too. David Angel is owner of the UK’s F2 Motorcycles, Europe’s biggest dealer of Ural motorcycles, a name unfamiliar next to brand giants the likes of Harley-Davidson, Ducati and Kawasaki, but arguably more characterful all the same.

For one, the Ural comes not from the great biking nations of the US, Italy or even Japan, but from Russia and, as Angel points out, “there are still some people who would equate any bike out of Russia with poor quality, though that’s certainly not the case now”.

For two, Ural motorbikes are the essence of pared-down, uncomplicated, elemental mechanics - its original manufacture was launched in 1942 in order to mobilise Soviet troops against German invasion, so a hardy machine capable of dealing with rough roads (which turned out to be a reverse engineered and beefed-up BMW) was essential.

“And that has always been part of the Ural’s appeal, because it has always offered huge potential for tinkering and personal improvements,” Angel adds.

And, last, but certainly not the least, the classic Ural bike - at around GBP12,000 - comes, wait for it, with a side-car.

Angel, naturally, can sing the praises of the side-car: enough space for luggage, or camping equipment, or, if you must, a friend, but without sacrificing the flexibility and freedoms of the motorcycle to explore the back routes and backwoods.

“It’s not about speed. It’s about having a great time getting there,” as he puts it. Indeed, it seems a loss that the side-car has largely disappeared from the roads over the past half-century - a product, Angel explains, of the advent of the small, economical and affordable car during the early 1960s, which meant that, “unless you were passionate about side-cars, there wasn’t any reason to own one,” he says.

“In fact, there still isn’t any reason to own one.” Apart, of course, from its history - Ural takes its name, for example, from the Russian mountain range near to which production was moved later during WW2 to avoid Luftwaffe bombing - its sheer retro charm - which ensures a dedicated owners’ club - and its stylishness among identikit macho super-bikes."

Not that riding a motorbike with side-car should be dismissed as beginner’s stuff. Rather, Angel assures that riding three wheels requires training and practice to counteract the asymmetric balance of weight.

“You have to read the road ahead all the time,” he says, noting how the thrill of riding an old-style motorbike might well be most strongly felt less in the style stakes as the fact that these machines will not, unlike their more modern counterparts, ride themselves.

“That’s what makes riding a Ural so exciting against other motorbikes. It’s a much more involving ride. You need to be in control.”