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Motorcycle Live 2011 at the NEC

Frankly, I was a bit underwhelmed.£38 for two tickets on the door plus another £8 to park the car isn’t a bargain when added to the £40-odd quid for fuel and food. Fortunately I had free tickets. I wasn’t impressed having to wait over 20 mins in a windy bus shelter to be picked up by the shuttle either – I could have walked in 7-8 mins if I’d realised the wait was to be that long.

OK, it was a Thursday and not a weekend, but it really was very quiet. No queues to get in and as we entered the No 3 hall, it was clearly not exactly heaving inside.

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For the UK’s premier bike show, it was worryingly empty. There are stands where I can get any photo I want with barely a person in the shot! Even the new Ducati Panigale had just a couple of people looking at it as I snapped off a couple of pics.

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I walked round the entire show in just under 2 1/2 hours – in the door sometime about 2:20, out the door about 4:45. OK, I didn’t spend a lot of time poking and prodding the bikes, though I did take quite a few photos, and there was nothing I wanted off the bucket shop stands, so mostly wandered straight past those too… but last time I went we got there at 11am and had barely got round when it closed. The only personality I spotted was Steve Parrish.

So was it really a smaller than average show? Was it really poorly attended? Memory can be fallible but compared with my last visit where there was a scrum round any bike a tiny bit desirable, it was easy enough to sit on anything. The big boys were there but there seemed to be a dearth of smaller stands – few specials builders, I didn’t spot any electric bikes (there were several people exhibiting everything from an electric bicycle to the full size ‘leccie bikes the AA used last time round), the only oddball I noticed was exhibiting a diesel police bike, and there wasn’t much in the way of scooter manufacturers either.

I talked to Nich Brown on the Motorcycle Action Group stand. He said it has been busier on the other days, but the overwhelming impression is that it’s not a busy year for exhibitors or visitors.

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Scooter chic fails to pull in the crowds!

And given the distance that people have to travel, 5pm seems very early to shut – that time tosses the attendees out straight into Birmingham’s notorious rush hour. The queue towards the M42/M6 wasn’t moving at all, so I went the other way towards Birmingham and was very glad I did… it took maybe 20-25 mins longer to get to Oxford than the GPS was showing for the motorway route (which of course wasn’t moving).

Aside from the Panigale (yawn) the only really new bikes that I spotted were the Triumph Explorer, the Honda NC700 range and the 750cc engined Guzzis (which look just the same even if they are totally redesigned around a new motor). There were a few restyle jobs (eg, the 1000 Versys which just looks silly and an 800 Beemer) and some smaller stuff.

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Sales hit of the year has been the Triumph 800, and I think Triumph are smart to build the 1200 with shaft and go for BMW’s jugular. Reliability will be an issue – or rather the willingness of a Triumph dealer to match BMW on fixing things that go wrong.

Although the Honda Crossrunner isn’t new, it’s the first time I’ve seen one in the flesh. Essentially re-inventing the VFR800 is an interesting move. I think Honda have realised the VFR1200 did not hit the spot – people bought a 750/800 tourer because it was a good jack of all trades at a reasonable price and as far as I can see many haven’t upgraded to the VFR1200. It might be seen as a competitor to the K1300S or the ZZR1400 but ditching the VFR800 left a gaping hole in Honda’s model range.

But innovative styling? Take a look at a Bimota Mantra from the mid-90.

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Remarkable similarity, isn’t it?

Next port of call was the new NC700 range. A lot of column inches have been devoted to the new twin cylinder engine and common chassis that secures the wheels on at either end of the three different models; a ‘standard’, an adventure tourer and a maxiscooter.

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We’re used to the kind of thinking in the car world that makes economies of scale by creating a small van out of a saloon by tacking a metal box on the back. For the manufacturer of course, the economies that come from building multiple models on a single platform are obvious, and in fact it’s always been something of a surprise to me that there’s not more use of ‘families of models’ building on the same chassis or engine.

There are plenty of examples from the past – without going too far back into the history books, I can think of Honda’s 250/400 Superdreams, the modular 750/900/1000/1200 Triumphs, BMW’s K75/K100 just as a few examples.

In the four wheeled world, neither the car driver nor the van driver would worry about the association of one with the other. The question is can Honda pull off the same trick with the NC700 range? Personally, I doubt it.

I think that they’ll struggle to overcome the prejudice that the NC700S/X road bikes aren’t ‘overgrown scooters’, however attractive they are on the outside.

And one of the big issues in that prejudice is going to be the motor.

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Back in the car world, the van may get the 1800cc diesel plodder, but at least one model of the car normally gets a sporty petrol engine. But with the NC series, Honda have elected to keep the motor identical.

It may be long stroke, it may be tuned for torque, it may have excellent fuel economy, all of which may be excellent news for an urban commuter bike which spends most of its life round town or on clogged up arterial routes.

But for the other two? Riders will want a bit of get up and go, and whilst the 500-650 class is pretty stagnant, Honda haven’t even got close to the performance of the SV650 or the ER-6, let alone their own CBR600F or Hornet! I can’t see the average adventure bike rider being too worried about the helmet storage space under the tank, either.

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Worse still, is that the ambiguous power output falls between licencing stalls – it’s too pokey to sit in the 33hp restricted licence bracket and in a couple of years time when the new 3rd European license directive means riders will be looking for intermediate power machine, it’ll look anaemic.

Siamesed inlet port and single throttle body? Aside from the trick clutch, it’s old technology designed decades ago. Nor can clever marketing speak about keeping mass low disguise the all-up weight. The only explanation is budget materials and manufacturing techniques to keep costs down.

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What else? I liked the looks of the Norton a lot, and a classic ‘street scramber’ Royal Enfield that caught my eye. The Husqvarna TE630 SM looked like a beautifully built piece of kit, hopefully with some durability that the 610 my brother owned totally lacked. And the Panigale? Maybe the days of the underseat pipe are done and for good engineering reasons, but it can’t match the original 916 for jaw-dropping loveliness.

Down in the small capacity classes the non-Japanese machinery is catching up in quality. And looking at the stands, the Japanese seem happy to cede that battleground without too much of a fight. Shades of the 60s. History repeating itself?

Final point. Why in 2011 do luggage kits still look like a bunch of washing up bowls bolted to some scaffolding? More and more luggage kits are coming factory fitted – why aren’t they better integrated with the bike’s bodywork? I remember making this point about the Triumph Sprint three or four years back. Nothing has changed.

And that was pretty much that. I did get to quiz the rep on the Dunlop stand about why my Roadsmarts wore out so quickly (under 4500 on the XJ6) and he was a bit gobsmacked… he wasn’t certain but thought the OE tyres supplied to Yamaha were probably a different specification to the tyre Dunlop supply over the counter to customers. I’d figured that out when I realised they weren’t dual compound.

And we did get a free Kawasaki calendar from that nice Mr Chris Walker too!

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