Question: Which motorcycles do you consider to be the quintessential classics of history?
The Ducati 916? The Honda SuperCub? The Vespa? Maybe… except that the downside of being immortalized is that over time this list of classic motorcycles becomes a touch, how to say… “obvious”..
So what about the unsung and underappreciated outsiders in the industry?
The eccentric eccentrics, the bikes that identify as a little “Alt”… or, as they say, the cult bikes.
So while these cult classics may not be the “best” motorcycles ever made, these curiosities have carried on their heritage for good reason.
CLICK HERE for #12 to #7 in Part 1
Nothing says ‘cult classic’ more dramatically than a motorcycle with such a notorious reputation as a handle to ride that it’s become known as a ‘widowmaker’.
The two-wheeled equivalent of that super extreme chili sauce you’re about to try despite its health warning, early versions of the Suzuki TL1000S quickly became known for being unpredictable and difficult to ride.
At the heart of the problem was the revolutionary TL1000S, but also, as it turned out, a faulty rotary-damper rear suspension that Suzuki had developed to negate the longer wheelbase needed to squeeze its 90-degree V-twin engine.
With its ultra-sharp geometry, Suzuki had succeeded in its objective of keeping the TL1000S compact…
However, it also made him all too happy on the road. This forced Suzuki to install a steering damper, but not before its reputation was damaged.
Twenty-five years later, however, many see the TL1000S as an antidote to today’s modern, technological sportbikes…both as a reminder of just how raw a high-performance motorcycle can be, but also why safety is always better.
5 – Ducati Sport Classic
It’s not often you see the words ‘Ducati’ and ‘flop’ in the same sentence, but it does happen very occasionally as demonstrated by the Ducati SportClassic, an embarrassing rarity in the Italian firm’s illustrious timeline.
Previewed in 2003 and hitting the road in 2006, the SportClassic represented a throwback to the “modern classic” of the 1970s with designer Pierre Terblanche taking inspiration from Mike Hailwood’s 1978 Ducati 900 against all odds on the Isle of Man for this 21st century reinvention.
However, while the angular 900 looked modern for its time, the SportClassic bore little resemblance to its traditional looks and bulbous proportions.
Designed for lazier pursuits, the SportClassic might not quite fit Ducati’s DNA, but it felt premium, fun to ride and desirable in its own way.
However, it was not a big seller and just three years after its launch Ducati quietly dropped the SportClassic from its lineup.
Nevertheless, as is often the case with “misunderstood” motorcycles (i.e. cult motorcycles), the SportClassic continued to find a posthumous following, which kept asking Ducati for its return…
4 – Husqvarna Nuda
While Husqvarna’s recent history is rather marred by a muddled identity – a symptom of a revolving door of owners that has gone from Cagiva to BMW and now KTM over the past 15 years – the Swedish firm has nevertheless always drawn some quality, still underestimated, models out of the bag at that time, mainly the Nuda.
While his tenure under BMW management was brief – just six years between 2007 and 2013 – Husqvarna’s association with the German giants gave birth to this cheekily titled, sharply styled nude based on the decidedly clunky BMW F800.
While today it doesn’t take long to recognize KTM’s origins once you take a closer look at Husqvarna’s current lineup, with BMW the connection was barely noticeable, so much so that the The more engaging Nuda was arguably superior to the F800.
With a fashion-forward look inspired by its supermoto heritage and evoking the spirit of Steve McQueen on his beloved 400 Cross, the Nuda was such a statement on its own it was hard to believe it emerged from the F800. frumpy.
Even the engine was different, with Husqvarna enlarging the unit to 898cc and increasing the power to 105bhp.
However, the Nuda was also difficult to categorize, being too wild a supermoto in a conservative naked class, while too conventionally naked to be considered a gnarly supermoto.
Lacking a kudos on one end and a hooligan image on the other meant the Husqvarna Nuda failed to resonate with buyers and sales were slow at the time. Today, however, he is a cult star.
Indeed, when we featured the Nuda among Visordown’s top 10 flops that deserve a second chance at the end of last year, of the ten bikes featured, it was the Husqvarna that received the most endorsement as a what an unknown gem.
Proving again that sometimes we just don’t know what we have until it’s gone…
3 – Norton F1
As electric power comes to spell the end of the internal combustion engine, the changes on the horizon are a reminder of how ubiquitous ICE technology has been over the past century…and how it has killed off alternative approaches, such as the rotary engine.
Compact, lightweight, high-revving, there are multiple attributes in rotary technology that make them superior to an ICE on a motorcycle, perhaps even enough to offset the trade-offs in oil consumption and uncertain durability.
After Suzuki tried and failed in the 1970s, Rotary lay dormant for over a decade until Norton was convinced by Brian Crighton to choose a different route for his RCW588 race bike, which eventually became F1 on the road.
With its large wrap-around body, boxy lines and menacing black livery – subtly accented by JPS’s signature gold decals – the rotary Norton F1 is as dark, mysterious and deliciously desirable today as it was in 1991.
Existing in the golden age of sportbikes where a game of one-upmanship between the Japanese giants drove the game forward quickly, F1 withstood those comparisons as comfortably as it stood out as a curiosity, an exclusive on top of that. .
Alas, the F1 would not be the bike to popularize rotary technology, with its brief resurrection beginning and ending with Norton in the early 90s.
However, existing as one of the most unique motorcycles ever made, the legend of the Norton F1 and rotary technology will live on forever in cult folklore.
2 – Honda Motocompo
At a time when e-scooters are all the rage as convenient, practical and easy-to-use modes of transport, we think Honda is missing a trick by not reviving the brilliant little Honda Motocompo.
Even the origins of this adorable, quirky folding scooter qualify the Motocompo for this preview. Developed in the spirit of “things you didn’t know you needed in your life”, the Motocompo was introduced as an accessory option on the Honda City subcompact car.
As the City was designed specifically around its dimensions, the Motocompo – nicknamed “trabai” or “trunk bike” – was essentially a two-wheeled equivalent reflecting the City’s small, light and easy urban credentials.
When paired with the City, the Motocompo seemed like a rather superfluous machine that didn’t quite serve Honda’s intended purpose. Plus, it took up all the trunk space in your car…
However, when you separate the two and see the Motocompo on its own, its cult appeal couldn’t be more evident.
So while it looked like a sewing machine on wheels when folded, when unfolded the Motocompo was charmed like a dinky, low-slung scooter that was never anything less than a giddy hoot to ride… as long as you don’t go overboard.
With its fire engine red finish, retro typeface and unique packaging, Motocompo’s legacy lives on today as one of the weirdest and most wonderful two-wheelers ever made.
1 – Cagiva Elephant & Cagiva Mito
It may be because Cagiva is no longer an active motorcycle brand
Or because the Italians – until recently, anyway – were tired of playing in the mud.
Or because the era of snap, crackle and pop pocket two-strokes is over.
Either way, all we know is that it’s hard to look back at the Cagiva Elefant and Cagiva Mito without pining for these unassuming icons of their time.
We’ll avoid attempts to synopsis Cagiva’s complex history as owner and proprietor of multiple brands over time, but certainly the Elefant ‘trail’ off-roader and Mito mini sport bike have been his finest moments as two models who embody what it means to be a cult motorcycle. So much so that we’ve given them equal footing at the top of this recap.
A desert road dual-sport motorcycle fitted with a Ducati V-Twin engine in most of the many forms available, the Cagiva Elefant was a curious creation with a nice name.
However, it also had charm in droves, the slab-side rally-raid-inspired utilitarian looks looking rugged, yet unintentionally fashionable, while the injection of Ducati DNA also gave it plenty of character on the road.
The Elefant was capable of that too, as evidenced by its assertive victories in the Paris-Dakar Rally with the Elefant 900 in the colors of Lucky Strike, a machine that has become such an icon today is as much a head-turner like anything exotic…
Which is good since Cagiva’s other opus – the Mito – was the piccola mini-me version of the Ducati 916, arguably the most exotic motorcycle of all time.
While one might consider mimicking one of the world’s finest motorcycles before shrinking it down to pint size to be sacrilege, in reality the Cagiva Mito was the perfect homage as a stylish affordable, easy to ride, eager to please urban racing.
Indeed, when it comes to facsimiles, the Mito is well judged, right down to the GP-spec handling and two-stroke zipper that might give you as much goosebumps on city streets as a Ducati gives you the open road.
Alas, with the two-stroke era halted by tougher emissions regulations, the end of the Mito in 2012 also meant the end of Cagiva…at least for now.
After all, that’s the thing with “cult” characters…they can never die. In fact, many – one day – leave to come back…
CLICK HERE for #12 to #7 in Part 1