A Question of Motorcycle Character

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If a motorcycle is old, bits fall off it at every corner and if it constantly dumps oil out everywhere that means that motorcycle has character right? Or is it just an old clunker that has seen better days and should have been sent to the great scrap yard in the sky?

I struggle with the concept that just because a bike is old and has a lot of mechanical issues it’s foibles are excused and it is affectionately labeled as having character. Yet a modern bike, a Honda for example, starts, stops, goes well and doesn’t break, yet is considered by some to be bland and boring. Is it the challenge of keeping an old bike running that gives it character over a modern motorcycle that does everything it’s supposed to do efficiently and quickly?

I honestly don’t have the answer but perhaps there are some things to consider before stating categorically that a bike has character.

Character is defined in the dictionary as a distinguishing feature or attribute that makes someone or something stand out in a group from everything else.

That’s easy to understand, but where it gets really complicated is with modern motorcycles.

If a Harley-Davidson doesn’t go around corners very well is that what you should expect and accept as just being character? But turn that around to a Japanese cruiser that doesn’t handle well in the curves and tell me, does that make it a bad bike?

All of this is subjective, as anyone who is into motorcycles has a valid opinion. A Yamaha to one guy is the perfect bike while to another it’s not fast enough or doesn’t handle the way they would like, or they hate design of the fairing.

gs
Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman riding BMW’s in the film Long Way Down.

Is character on a modern bike then defined by its heritage or by the way it looks? The BMW 1200GS Adventure is made by a German manufacturer with a rich 90-year history that has established itself as an aspirational brand (particularly in the car world). Yet by having unconventional suspension, a flat twin engine and a lineage of being the bike to cross continents with does that mean the GS has character?

At the heart of all motorcycles is the engine. How that motor performs and sounds makes that bike what it is. But does a single, twin or triple have more character than an in-line four?

If you look back over the past couple of decades there have been some terrific bikes that have really stood out from the crowd and developed a huge and loyal following.

honda-fireblade-cbr-900
Honda Fireblade CBR900

Honda’s Fireblade, the Kawasaki ZX-10R and the Yamaha YZF R-1 for example. Yet there were bikes that followed these three that performed just as well, looked as good but have already been consigned to the history books and been forgotten.

This trio I mention here I’m told all have character. I don’t understand this. I have no doubts about any of their abilities, or what they are capable of. I simply can’t understand out why they stand out over anything else. But they clearly have this indefinable tag known as character.

So the only conclusion I can come to is this: character on a modern motorcycle means different things to different people. Maybe it’s the way the bike looks, the way it rides or even the exhaust note. Or it could be the equipment that the bike comes with or the fact it was made by a company that has a long and storied history. In fact perhaps all modern bikes have character and it’s a case of one bike appealing to you over another for whatever reason you decide.

I’m actually beginning to think that it’s not even the bike at all that needs to have character. It’s what you do with it, where you ride it and what experiences you have with it that that gives that motorcycle character.

I still haven’t found an answer to any of this. However, I do know one thing. On a wet winter’s evening faced with the prospect of either kicking over an old bike with character, or one that starts at the turn of a switch that will get me home quickly and safely I know which one I will choose every single time.

What do you think makes one motorcycle stand out from another and gives it that edge that’s sometimes referred to as character?

Related Links:
HFL: Murphy’s Law for Motorcycles
HFL: From Hollister to Manhattan — How Mainstream Media Impacts Motorcyclists
HFL: Losing My Motorcycle Mojo

  • Diego Martinez

    I think that it is more a difference in the sort of character than in the quantity. A four cylinder is a bit more eager and jumpy, a single is a bit more mellow and easy going. It’s more a matter of compatibility with your steed, where you ride the bike with a character that works with your character.

  • Michael Howard

    A bike has character when those who adore/admire them ARE characters. ;)

  • Vitor Santos

    Well the problem is human beings are a strange thing. We dont like perfection, if everything runs smoothly and as a expected its boring, there no fun it. That’s why i suspect people love this old bikes, keeping it running smoothly every day must be challenging therefore fun.
    This character thing its a broad subject as you said it, it can come from personal experience, brand history, achievements or even famous people associated with the bike.
    My bike for example, i probably own the most soulless and characterless bike in the word, everything i read about it before buying told me how good, how safe and well built it was but by god it was boring, it was marketed as a safe bike for women for crying out loud…
    And that was why i bought it! This was my first bike, my entry point to the motorcycle world and so i toss out all my teenage exceptions and look for the most well built, reliable safe and also boring used bike i could find.
    Oh my little honda cbf 600sa, let me tell you something all those reviews were wrong!!! After owning it for around 8 months and after finishing a 1370 miles trip around my country all by myself i fell in love. Boring and reliable is good, its giving me tons of confidence and iam learning a lot every day i ride, Theres a beauty about being in the middle of nowhere and be able to rely on your machine, that my friend is character!

    • http://metabomber.com/ Jesse

      I am with you; there is something wonderful about unquestioning reliability. A bunch of miles (almost 40k) have been put on this scrappy F3. While every panel, peg, cover and lever has scrapes, scars, or rash, she’s my moto-buddy, and I would be hard pressed to see her go.

      • NOCHnoch

        I’m with you…my 5th gen VFR800 has 33k miles, and at least another 100k of life left in her

        • http://www.motard.ca/ Guillaume Béliveau

          Shhhhhhh… Honda fanboys… !!

          • NOCHnoch

            Proud to be both a Honda fanboy and a VFR cultist…both for good reason! :)

  • William Connor

    Character is a lot of things. Perception maybe more than anything. What one person finds character in another dismisses immediately as something else. I agree with Vitor on one thing, we don’t like perfection as humans. I will add however we are always striving to be perfect. That is why some bikes have character, because the individual adds their ideas of what the perfect bike is and it becomes more than the sum of it’s parts. Love or hate HD they are as much about the owner as it is the bike. Sometimes it’s the mechanical beauty of a bike, Ducati’s have that particular look and stance that you know immediately what it is. It started with the 916 and continues through.

  • Brian

    character as defined by the age and uniquity.
    bike = 30+ years old- it has character because it is still a running and riding machine in use regardless of its quirks.

    bike = 20+ years old- it has character because of its less commonality and some of its modifications or personalizations

    bike = 10+ years old- it has character from the mileage it has and the trips, stickers, markings it wears to identify where it has been and how hard it has been ridden and used.

    bike = 5+ years old- it has character because of its radical modifications for unintended purpose or re-engineering of original design for better execution of purpose.

  • Thatmanstu

    A bike has character when it is thought of as more than the sum of it’s parts.it’s hp numbers or lap times….you had might as well ask what is art? It certainly isn’t photographic reality. I find that a bike which speaks for it’s designer,builder or past riders has “character”…hard to say that about a CAD designed and robot built bike. Even though certain “character” bikes have just that parentage…they convey a different message. The sportbikes you mentioned transcend the metronomic perfection of the assembly line,therefor they can be considered to have “character” by some….if you believe a GS carries the spirit of the Dakar in every mile ridden,then you probably find it to have character…etc. etc..I wouldn’t worry your head too much…you know character when you see it,and if you never see it,then,it is you and not the bikes that are missing something…

  • di0genes

    You may remember, but probably prefer to forget, that filthy blanket, stuffed toy, or even a plastic lid from a coffee jar that you could not bear to be separated from when you were an infant. We befriend inanimate objects even when deep down we really know it is just a ‘thing’. This is much easier with a motorcycle then say, a refrigerator, although I really love my 60 year old gas range, but not as much as my KTM.

    Why a KTM 640 or a Perfection 39″ four burner 2 oven cookstove says more about me than about KTMs or gas stoves.

    I prefer the path less followed. I do my own maintenance and repairs even when I shouldn’t. The KTM has never stranded me, takes me everywhere except the super slabs, and was designed by people who could of made an honest living as mechanics, as opposed to say hair stylists or designers of hand bags.
    The 1951 stove is like 51 Pan Head, old, huge, heavy, primitive, dangerous and magnificent.

    And yeah, my near and dear ones would probably tell you I am nuts as well.

  • karlInSanDiego

    Patina. Mismatching oxidation on parts betraying original from replaced. Scars. Customization that wasn’t just unpacked from from a plastic blister pack, but was hand fabricated or painted in a way that even the uninitiated can tell it wasn’t stock.

    For owners assessing their own bikes, I’d say it could be deficiencies that you wonder why it left the factory that way, and then answer yourself with an excuse like, because it wasn’t Honda, and they didn’t have the resources or time. But to be character it should take more than a few miles to identify them. It should take years and fixing the same problem twice, or having to explain to a friend who is going to buy one or try riding yours.

  • markbvt

    Character is entirely subjective. In my opinion, “character” is simply the sense that the bike is more than the sum of its parts. Example: I put 40,000 miles on a V-Strom 650; it was in every objective sense an outstanding motorcycle. It was dead reliable, it handled well, it went as fast as I needed it to, it got good gas mileage, it was comfortable, etc. But it wasn’t exciting. It felt like a riding appliance; it did not have character. It was nothing more than an assemblage of motorcycle parts. But my next (current) bike was a Triumph Tiger 800 XC. From the very first ride, it felt like there was something else in the mix, some undefinable quality beyond just the parts making up the bike. Character. Personality. Soul. Whatever you want to call it. That bike has for almost 50,000 miles now been every bit as reliable as the Wee-Strom was, but it’s much more fun to ride and feels more like a participant in the adventure than a mere conveyance. To me, that’s character.

    • Mr.Paynter

      Agreed, character is definitely a motorcycle being more than the sum of it’s parts.

    • DucMan

      Good stuff.

      I own a 2004 V-Strom 650 and have put 25,000 miles on her.

      I own a 2004 Nicky Hayden Edition Honda RC51.

      I own a 1997 Ducati Monster 750.

      The RC51 sounds like a Top fuel Dragster, has championship provenance, Rossi won Suzuka on one, Dunlop won his last TT on one, Texas Tornado beat Baylis and Ducati on one, Hayden won AMA and Daytona on one. History AND character.

      The Monster is carb’d, I’ve added FCR carbs that require a certain “technique” to start the bike. Actually, you don’t start my Monster, you Bring Her To Life! Character.

      My V-Strom takes me everywhere, with zero issues, fires up at the touch of a button, every time, first time, handles like a dream, carries tons of gear, gets 50 mpg, is twelve hour in the saddle comfy, and it the one bike i would keep if I could only keep one bike. Character? Hmmmm…..

      I added an aftermarket muffler to the V-Strom to give her some character. I just got a louder V-Strom.

      YMMV.

      Cheers.

  • luxlamf

    1st thank you using the term “Character” instead of what too many dopes use and call it a “Soul” or other such nonsnese. “My Sled has a soul and her name is Valerie” makes me wince everytime time I hear another dummy say it. I believe True Character comes in the form of aesthetics to to most mixed with funcionality. Yes there are many who will Only buy a certain Name of bike without question but they are usually quickly wrote off for what they really are and they usually put very little as far as miles and instead more time into polishing and standing around talking. But my 1st bike (I saw without ever riding a bike or even considered one in my life, 37 yrs old at that time) and its styling and presence made me look into it and eventually buy it. I knew little about its Technology (or lack of) etc… My 2nd bike (still have 1st also) was a bit more thought of as it was to be Different than the 1st but still functional where I would ride it a lot and now I have to me the perfect mix of bikes. Lots of bikes I don’t like and lots of people don’t like mine, makes no difference, same can be said why do I only ate thin girls with big noses? Just do

    • Tim Watson

      Thanks for responding and your comments. Interesting points you raise. Not sure though you should eat thin girls with big noses though. That’s called cannibalism ha ha ha…

      • appliance5000

        They too shall pass.

  • http://www.thecushdrive.com/ Aakash

    Character is neither objective nor permanent. Motorcycles, like any fetishized object, speak to people in different ways. When a moto-journalist laments the lack of character in a particular bike, they may simply mean “Well I just wish it were a bit louder!”. Character becomes a byword for physical, sensory and emotional traits about a thing (or even a person) that are attractive, transcendent and ultimately charming. Thus, any motorcycle can have character.

  • Lee Scuppers

    “Character” is one of two things:

    A. what you think the bike says about you to everybody else. If you value that enough, you’ll put up with some extra nonsense to get it.

    B. Your memories of time and effort invested in the machine, and in your partnership with the machine. Any bike can have that kind of character, for somebody who invests in it.

  • Robert Horn

    All machines would be so much happier if they didn’t have humans burdening them with emotion.

    Now where’s that red pill….

  • Mark D

    “I’m actually beginning to think that it’s not even the bike at all that
    needs to have character. It’s what you do with it, where you ride it and
    what experiences you have with it that that gives that motorcycle
    character.”

    That is precisely it. My bike is probably has the least amount of “character” out of the factor of any conceivable bike; a small parallel twin, undersprung, weedy suspension bits, heavy steel frame, scooter brake calipers, mushy seat, outdated tires, and lame 80s styling that has not aged well. Given all the money I’ve put into it in routine maintenance, upgrades, and just plain replacement parts, I could have easily sold it on CL, used that money as a down payments on a nice new Honda 500, and financed the rest.

    But I didn’t, because I’ve been through a lot with my bike. I off-roaded it in rural Kansas and almost got killed by a herd of cattle. I’ve transported ex-girlfriends, never-became-girlfriends, a current girlfriend, cases of beer, groceries, Halloween costumes, firewood, and new suits. Its been knocked over a half dozen times, and spent too many nights in the wet, salty air, and stormed the backroads of New Hampshire and California.

    To anybody else, its a shit-heap. To me, it has character. Get rid of it? I might as well cut off my knee and get a shiny new titanium prosthetic.

  • Andrew

    two words. KZ1000 Z1R.

  • Ryan Chelberg

    I’ve always believed that a bike earns it character by living with its riders and being loved over the coarse of years. This always seems to give the bike character to their owner and also makes the term character hard to define as it definitely is a owner by owner definition.

  • ThinkingInImages

    What a great question. I agree that there’s often a motorcycle that’s more than the sum of its parts. Some motorcycles feel like they were made specifically for me. We compliment each other. I think the easiest (and vaguest) way to put it is some motorcycles are created, others are assembled.

    I’ve had motorcycles that technically were good, but they were lacking “something”. I’ve had others that had that “something”, that worked for me, but not others. (Odd, but they’re now becoming somewhat collectible.)

  • Dan Sciannameo

    That’s my 84 LeMans 3. Character.

  • ThinkingInImages

    It might be because I started with a big single but there’s something about that engine that says character to me. Maybe it’s the “pulse” and the sound. It could be that it’s simply different in a sea of near generic fours and cruiser v-twins. I’m a bit engine-centric.

    Styling has a place on my character list, too. The overall look has to flow, end to end. Everything has to look like it has a reason and purpose, without being a gimmick. I prefer a single, solid, classic color. If you peel off the “bold new graphics” and the motorcycle looks awkward, it’s not a good design. I make exceptions for KTM. The angles, colors, and graphics work on those motorcycles.

    The whole thing has to add up with a sense of design integrity and intention. Nothing lets me down more than a “looks like – sounds like – but isn’t” motorcycle. My pearl white Shadow RS let me down like that. It was a nice looking image of a motorcycle. It didn’t move as well as it looked. My 2013 CBR250R looks good and moves better than it looks. (I do miss that bark of a Supertrapp on a single, though.)

    It’s a tough question. What makes people sigh when they see a Moto Guzzi California or shake their heads in disbelief at a Honda CTX?