Do the best current motorcycles live up to the standards of old? Is a Honda or Harley in the dealer today, anything like those from years past?
20 years ago, the Edge Foundation gathered a group of thinkers and doers from a great many fields and each year asks a question of the assembled minds. The most recent question was “What have you changed your mind about?” As I scanned the answers, I came across Stewart Brand, who, you might recall, was the man behind the Whole Earth Catalog. The title of his answer was “Good Old Stuff Sucks.” From such a champion of preservation and remembering old ways, it wasn’t exactly what you would expect.
His answer recounts his experience with beautiful old wooden sailboats compared with new fiberglass models and he compares the old sash windows in a farmhouse he was remodeling with the factory built Anderson windows installed in their place. There’s a lot of romance and great memories in the old stuff but compared side by side, there’s no comparison at all, or as he puts it, the old stuff sucks. He goes on:
The message finally got through. Good old stuff sucks. Sticking with the fine old whatevers is like wearing 100% cotton in the mountains; it’s just stupid.
Give me 100% not-cotton clothing, genetically modified food (from a farmers’ market, preferably), this-year’s laptop, cutting-edge dentistry and drugs.
The Precautionary Principle tells me I should worry about everything new because it might have hidden dangers. The handwringers should worry more about the old stuff. It’s mostly crap.
(New stuff is mostly crap too, of course. But the best new stuff is invariably better than the best old stuff.)
When you see some of the junk we have come to expect as we walk the aisles of a WalMart, you might take issue with his conclusion but he was referring to the best products in any category not the low end, though you might be surprised there, too.
Which brings us back to motorcycles, how do the new bikes in your dealer today compare to the fine vintage bikes from years past? You might take issue with some modern designs, I know I do, but it’s hard to fault the quality. Like today’s cars, normal maintenance is something that comes around a lot less frequently, no need to de-coke the cylinder head before your Sunday ride, fuel injection is doing away with most carburetor issues and modern tires, paint, brakes and suspension are in a different league. When stock engines begin to approach 200 horsepower and handling, even on lower end bikes, runs rings around the best of the old, it’s hard not to appreciate how far we’ve come.
There is certainly a great deal of visual beauty and mechanical charm in the old machines, few bikes today compare well on that level (opinions, of course, vary), but technically, you seldom have to wonder if your ride will get you home.
So what do you think? How do the old motorcycles compare with the current crop? This should be interesting …
Link: The Edge Foundation – Stewart Brand
Photograph courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company Archives – copyright Harley Davidson