The Future: a user’s guide…

When it comes to motorcycles, the future of,  we don’t need to speculate. Because we already know what’s going to happen. Here’s how. 


If you want to figure out how things are going to shape up, you have to look back –  before taking a snapshot of the present. A commonly held consensus is that of all post war decades, the 1980s was the real watershed in bike design – although in manufacturing terms the action began a bit earlier, with the rise of the Japanese IL4.  Nevertheless, the 1980s started with classic Brit twins still being assembled in the old school manner and ended with the VFR 750 in the showroom (and the Fireblade waiting in the wings). Contemporary biking owes so much to what went on in between: beam frames, mono-shocks with rising rate linkages, swing arm development, USDs, the genesis of unconventional front ends, radial fitment as standard, ditto water cooling. It is impossible to put precise dates on what is essentially an evolutionary process, but you get the drift.  Crucially, the period also saw a move away from the idea that more power justified more weight – a key conceptual leap.

Current production small / medium capacity machines with strong design ethos point the way  from past to  future. This is the Japan only Honda Solo, based on the reliable Cub motor.

The interesting thing is why the massive surge forward at that point in time – and over relatively few years… The 1980s was arguably the first true decade of the global market place: by the end of the 70s, the Japanese had begun to dominate around the world, and innovation would secure their tenure at the top – ensuring massive R&D budgets (relatively speaking). In addition, many key components on a mid 70s motorcycle would have been familiar to someone riding a pre-war bike, so a spot of re-thinking was overdue. Thus a combination of economic factors and technical advances in manufacturing paved the way for the golden years.

Today, the industry is once again undergoing considerable change for the same two reasons, although the context is crucially different. Economics is stil the driving force, but this time it’s all about conservation of resources: bikes using less fuel to run, and less raw materials to make, equals shifting more units for less cost. The design and technology element of the revolution this time round is based on electronics: specifically engine and ride management systems. And as at the end of the 70s, we’ve been experiencing a regrettable move back to overweight machines, a subject dealt with previously (Z800 etc.). The Japanese in particular have been horrendously remiss in tackling this manifestation of bloat, still being prone to turning out bland, heavy machines – but they are also best placed to exploit a whole new market, courtesy of their familiarity with the 400 class, which we suspect holds the keys to the mint…

A return to the ‘small is beautiful’ ethos is good news for lovers of lite – and the lightweight division is where the real competition will be, courtesy of sector market growth, already well evidenced: fuel prices and escalating costs can wake up the most jaded planner. And whatever we think of them, the new cross border harmonisation of learner restrictions has introduced a more level playing field, providing a usable template for manufacturers. The key signifiers are in place, and we reckon the next ten years will see as radical a change as biking experienced in the 1980s.

Honda’s FTR 230 has a cultish following outside Japan, being brilliantly suited to urban riding.

If you’re interested in shifting units, it’s not just sportsbikes which don’t matter anymore. Big bikes don’t matter either – both in global sales terms and in design trends. Consider: what bikes do exceptionally well is transport people on mileage restricted journeys across crowded environments. They are also capable of returning a combination of high mpg with a favourable power to weight potential. Sure, they can tour, but for most people touring is a two wheel fringe benefit, not a core use. Ergo, big heavy bikes represent a contradiction in terms. And just as the utilitarian future will be dominated by lightweight, medium and small capacity machines, so the sporty future will be dominated by forced induction versions of the same bikes. 400 and 600 four strokes will be as big as anyone needs on overcrowded roads, because they will be capable of well over 100 bhp, courtesy of forced induction – superchargers will return to the fold, albeit in scaled down guise. A 400 making (for example) 100 brake and 140 kilos at the kerb sounds like a tasty recipe, and the technology is right here, right now. We’ll see the new breed in a variety of formats: current Japanese 250s and 400s already come in a number of guises around the same motor, from faux flat tracker to retro roadster, as our images show. Lean burn, auto advance / retard and a host of car derived management systems will see 100 mpg as a realistic, every day target rather than a rose tinted dream.

Sir might prefer something more sporty?  The classic sports 400, bar none. Lighter and much more powerful than the new Ninja 300, but the very fact that the 300 exists at all is testimony to the resurgence of small.

Meanwhile the electric vehicle dream has taken on nightmarish qualities: making those batteries is one of the more environmentally damaging processes we engage in, from the precious metals mined in questionable conditions to enable their production, to the pollution caused by the manufacturing process itself. The fact that vehicles in many territories are then typically plugged into a coal fired power station pales in comparison to the plundering of resources required to build electronic powered vehicles from scratch; and of course the more you use a battery, the shorter its lifespan (as smart phone users will readily testify): the spectre of limited resources to make batteries has already caused transport planners pause for thought… The reality is that for at least the next twenty five years we’re going to see a power source mix, from ethanol and similar bio-fuels (on which the environmental jury remains firmly out), to electric and conventional. The fact that petrol and bio-fuels are going to be in the mix means that the internal combustion engine will stick around too: despite the problems, fuel which is part cultivated still seems to be the realpolitik horse to be on. Hydrogen powered production units remain a long way off, tethered to a distant event horizon. Whereas the future for battery powered motors is uncertain, electronic recovery systems will go mainstream. Think of the forces we waste: those hoover pipes on the ZXR 400 could be doing something useful after all….  Bike tech lags behind car tech, sometimes by an alarming distance , but KERS related road stuff will come on two wheels as well as four, while the sun and wind will help keep things ticking over – the first production solar paint job can not be far away.

The 250 D-Tracker, another fun urban trail bike, is the DT go for – some territories only offer a 125.  

The big plus is that the future is going to make riding more rather than less exciting, because light equals fun – the Newtonian physics of corner speed can not be gainsaid, not matter how much you like inexcusably heavy 800cc production bikes – and technology will help keep road surface demons at bay. All this matters, because motorcycles are not merely utilitarian: people  also  ride for fun, and corners are a big part of that fun.  Talking of fun, strokers will be back – but not as we knew them. DI technology is improving all the time, but in a world where fuel efficiency and emissions matter big time, the fine tuning of the new stroker breed has taken a lot longer than optimists hoped. But it will happen – because with those key obstacles removed, the new two stroke generation will fit the future profile of motorcycling hand in glove.

The CB400 SS motor (above) has cropped up all over the shop…

… like here, in proddy IoM guise…

… and here, with exotic casings (Gravel Crew special, above)

… and in classic GB 500 guise.

We can also see a lo-tec renaissance, which sounds a million miles from the future we’ve just described. But lo-tec is also eco friendly, because it implies vehicle longevity. If you can look after something yourself, you are less likely to throw it away or sell it. In all corners of Planet Bike we’re seeing an increased demand for (and valuation of) old school, air-cooled bikes. These are not merely the prerogative of Clerkenwell based trustafarians with an eye for retro, or Parisian stylists with a yen for cafe racers, or even of old fashioned old school, shed based bikers with dirty hands. Look at Royal Enfield: it’s easy to forget that without utilitarian motivated Asian sales, the company wouldn’t be here now: lo-tec is well suited by more demanding environments than the A1, because you can fix it on the spot… most of the time.

Key trends in summary:

  • Lightweight, medium / small capacity domination with forced induction options
  •  A mixed fuel platform including increased bio sector for the next 25 years
  • The internal combustion engine to remain supreme for at least the same time frame
  • Practical application of recoverable and renewable power sources
  • Fuel efficiency improved by smaller capacity trend and electronic management
  • Modular design with interchangeability according to  customer requirement
  • Emergence of lo-tec in parallel with the above

And that’s the future sorted. For the moment.


2 thoughts on “The Future: a user’s guide…”

  1. Think you made some good points here Nick. Look at the new(ish) Honda 700 based on the Jazz engine. It’s a reasonably priced bike, which offers very practical biking with very good economy and enoigh performance.
    However, I seem to remember a lot of the biking press not liking it or not even getting what it was about, when it was first released. Now all the mags seem to love it.
    Is this because, they have realised that this bike does make sense for what it aims to acheive and maybe after feedback from their readers?
    Is big better? Well as a rider of a grunty ZRX1200, I’d say yes, as I love the grunt. However, for day to day and long distance riding I prefer the much lower powered TDM900 – it’s easier to ride and does a lot more to the gallon!
    I have ridden a VFR400 and it is simply a brilliant bike. Imagine a 400 with more power and torque and it would be very exciting indeed!
    People either ride a bike for leisure our out of neccessity (cheap transport) or as a lifstyle choice.
    I think we will continue to see the Chinese impact the Japanese manufacturers as their bikes improve. This will offer bikes which are good enough and fairly cheap for those that ride out of neccessity. This will mean everyone else will need to raise their bar in order to differentiate/account for the extra cost.
    I agree that moving forward small bikes will become the norm and only those with serious dedication and large wallets will be able to run big bikes..

  2. I only hope that the future will also bring back some classical styling which means harmonious and simple, low key (but high quality) paint jobs; frames and tinware that exhibit organic lines and a return of the engine as an important piece of the overall visual design….unlike bikes of the past three decades. I have recently been reading about the effects of water/alcohol injection which allows a much higher compression ratio, a much cooler running engine and far better emmissions compliance….I thought it was very interesting…it could save the beautiful air cooled engine.
    I appreciate your articles, they are very good. You are one of the best (if not the best) motorcycle journalists today.

Leave a Reply