While a lot of attention is given to the importance of the British motorcycle industry, at least up to the 1960s, the rest of Europe also had incredibly diverse motorcycle industries, even if many of them only appeared after World War 2. Significantly, while the British motorcycle industry imploded in the early 1970s, the European manufacturers survived the Japanese onslaught and went on to thrive impressively, releasing models into new categories with ever-increasing success, while others continued on a set path and still maintained success. If we take Europe to mean the UK as well, there is an impressive line-up of classic, must-have motorcycles that have emerged in the past 75 years. Here, we list ten of the best.
Philip Vincent had very definite ideas about motorcycle design and the bikes that bore his name were bristling with innovative engineering solutions. He was very much of the ‘less is more’ school of thought and many components on his bikes did more than one job, while others were noticeable by their absence. For example, the large V-Twin engine was used as a stressed member of the frame, to which the headstock and cantilevered swing arm were bolted. Vincent’s philosophy was summed up thus: ‘“What isn’t present takes up no space, cannot bend, and weighs nothing.” The wheels could be quickly removed, and the rear wheel was reversible, with the brake drum and final drive sprocket able to be mounted either side of the wheel. The Black Shadow model, with its top speed of 125mph, was the fastest production motorcycle in the world in the 1950s.
9 BSA Bantam – 1947 to 1971
When the British and Americans were offered the drawings and rights to the small DKW RT125 motorcycle after the Second World War as reparations, few realized how important it would be, especially to BSA, who took on the project in the UK. Powered by a 125cc two-stroke engine, it was small, light and easy to ride and BSA would go on to produce an estimated 500,000 of them in the following 23 years, making it the best-selling British motorcycle of all time. Uninspiring it might be but, like the Vespa in Italy or the Honda Super Cub in Japan, the BSA Bantam provided cheap transport for a war-ravaged population that needed desperately to get back on its feet. It was also hugely successful in competition, especially off-road.
We’ve chosen the 1938 Speed Twin and not the 1959 Bonneville as Triumph’s most significant model for one very good reason: the engine. There had been multi-cylinder engines before the Triumph Twin, but the beauty of the Triumph engine were its compact dimensions, making it resemble a twin-port single cylinder engine, good power and smooth running. The Speed Twin model also benefited from Triumph boss Edward Turner’s eye for style, completed by the attractive Amaranth Red paintwork. With the coming of the Second World War, Triumph’s rivals were unable to develop their own parallel twin engines so that, when peace came in 1945, Triumph had a six-year head start over the competition, a lead it never relinquished through to the end of the British industry in the 1970s.
7 Vespa – 1947 Onwards
The Piaggio group manufactured aircraft before and during the Second World War. Prevented from continuing after the war ended, Piaggio turned to motorcycle manufacture to address Italy’s urgent need for affordable transport for the masses. Corradino D’Ascanio had presented his ideas for a scooter to Innocenti but had been rebuffed, so he took his ideas to Piaggio, who immediately saw the benefits of enclosed mechanical parts and the front leg shield that further protected the rider. The wheels were interchangeable, a spare wheel was carried and gears were changed via the left twist grip. Introduced in 1947, by 1950 60,000 were being produced annually and the Vespa (Italian for ‘wasp’) remains a symbol of Italian design and style to this day.
6 BMW R80G/S – 1980
Before the BMW R80 G/S, owners would ride lightly modified pure road machines, such as BMW’s own R75/5, off-road. The G/S (in German, ‘Gelande/Straße, or ‘off-road/street’) was developed specifically for off-road work and took victory in 1981 in the Paris-Dakar rally, repeating this feat in ’83, ’84 and ’85. Powered by BMW’s 800cc boxer twin engine, suspension was by longer forks at the front and BMW’s Monolever suspension at the back, which featured a single-sided swing arm, with the drive shaft running through it, enabling quick rear wheel replacement. The R80G/S was the start of a line of so-called adventure motorcycles that would come to dominate markets all around the world in the following forty years.
5 Laverda Jota – 1976
What would motorcycling be without Italian style and engineering? Ducati, Aprilia and Moto Guzzi are well known but of equal importance in the 1970s was Laverda, another motorcycle manufacturer born out of the ashes of a devastated engineering concern after the Second World War. Initially, the factory produced small-displacement motorcycles of high quality but, alongside the likes of Ducati, started designing much larger motorcycles to counter the competition from the Japanese. The best of these would become the Jota, powered by a lusty 1000cc three-cylinder engine (Jota is a Spanish dance in 3/4 time). 90 horsepower gave a top speed of nearly 150mph, making it the fastest production bike at the time. As with all Italian sports bike of the time, it was big and beautiful as well as being fast and handling well.
The ultimate in Italian exotica, a two-wheeled Ferrari, Lamborghini or Maserati. Enormous racing success in motorcycle Grand Prix racing from the 1950s through to the 1970s was supported by the sale of small-displacement road models. In 1966, a four-cylinder road engine was developed from the GP engines, pre-dating Honda by three years but it was not a success, being heavy and expensive, not to mention ugly. Then, in the 1970s, a line of 750cc models was built, all impossibly complex, fast and utterly beautiful, not to mention expensive – about three times the cost of the Honda CB750. Not surprisingly, few were sold and motorcycle production ended in the late 1970s, only to re-start under new ownership in the early 1990s.
3 Ducati 916 – 1994
It might not have been the fastest sports bike in the 1990s, but it was Italian, sexy, fast and red and became the dream of any red-blooded motorcycle enthusiast, helped by success in World Superbikes, then at its peak of popularity. Designer Massimo Tamburini took inspiration from design features of the Honda NR, including the under seat exhaust mufflers, narrow dual headlights and single-sided swing arm. The 916 was physically compact and featured typically Italian aggressive/beautiful lines, while the engine had less peak horsepower than rival Japanese sports bikes but a much broader and flatter torque curve. It looked like nothing else and still today has a distinctive style that has never been copied.
2 Royal Enfield Bullet – 1948 Onwards
How could we not include this one in the list? Not the most exciting or important motorcycle, for sure, but having been in continuous unchanged production since 1948, it deserves recognition. The India connection commenced in 1949, when the Indian army ordered Bullets for border patrol work and Royal Enfield opened a factory to build them from kits sent from England. When UK production of the Bullet ended in 1962, the Indian-owned arm of the company continued production, which continues to this day. Simple, slow, but full of character and charm, none of the modern crop of ‘retro classics’ can hold a candle to a Bullet for authenticity and constant investment continues to improve the basic design.
The 950 Adventure was KTM’s first foray into the increasingly important ‘adventure bike’ market, as popularized by BMW with its GS models. Right from the beginning, KTM adventure bikes were seen as being much more hardcore than BMW’s offerings, which were considered heavy, bland, too soft and unsuitable for serious off-road riding. With the 950 Adventure, KTM forged its reputation as the serious off-road competition choice and, for certain, you needed to know what you were doing if you were to keep things under control. Tall and uncompromising, the 950 Adventure was the genesis of the modern KTM adventure bikes which have lost none of the ability but have added a huge dose of manageability. If you want an exciting ride, then a 950 Adventure is for you.