What is it about some bikes that they develop a cult following? Spanner puts on his detective hat and identifies four of the best.
Say the word ‘cult’ and images immediately spring to mind of strange rituals, weird beliefs and lots of unusual sexual practices. Academics define a cult as a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many as extreme or dangerous. It sounds a bit like motorcycling, doesn’t it?
Transport may be the religion and riding the cult element of it but, even inside the world of bikes, there is further fragmentation and even more obscure obsessions. INFO MOTO went deep underground for this story and is able, for the first time ever, to reveal the top four ‘cult’ bikes.
By definition, popular bikes can’t be cult bikes. Honda’s CB750/4 can’t be considered a cult bike because its appeal was spread all over the motorcycling world. Why wouldn’t you like the single cam Honda and who doesn’t want one? If everyone is a member, it can’t be a cult.
Being popular doesn’t turn a bike into a cult icon but neither does being unpopular. Nobody really liked the Kawasaki 750 Twin and it eventually just faded out of sight. There isn’t a small group somewhere that meets and midnight and drinks blood to commemorate the blandness that pervaded Kawasaki showrooms between ’76 and ’79.
Some consider the owners of GS-series BMWs a cult but there are too many of them. It would be more accurate to compare them with a religion – probably Lutheranism. Air-head BMWs are getting closer every year to cult status but aren’t quite there yet.
Cult of personality
Where things can get confusing is when a famous personality gets so associated with a particular bike that it’s hard to tease apart the cult of the person and the cult of the machine.
The resilience of Brough Superior owes a lot to the fact that Lawrence of Arabia rode its models. While George Brough never got around to producing a T.E. Lawrence model, MV Agusta wasn’t so shy with its race star, Giacomo Agostini. Ago won eight 350cc world championships and seven 500cc titles between 1965 and 1973 and, while he finished his racing career with Yamaha, his name will forever be associated with the MV marque.
MV released the F3 800 Ago in 2014 with a price tag of $32,990. Only 300 were made and each bike came with a hand-signed tank. No, it’s not on our list of cult bikes because they’ve all disappeared into private collections, the owners don’t associate with each other and you never see them on the road.
Besides, unlike the Mike Hailwood Ducati which is a definite contender as a cult bike, Ago wasn’t specifically attached to one particular MV model. He certainly never raced the bike named after him.
The ‘new’ iteration of Brough Superior has recently released a ‘Lawrence’ model (March, 2021) to cash in on the personality index but you’ll need to put aside between $80,000 and $100,000 if you want to join what is destined to be a very exclusive club.
Then there was ‘Easy Rider’. People had been modifying bikes and building choppers in the US long before the 1969 film was released but the ‘Captain America’ bike burned deep into the American psyche. Peter Fonda who rode it in the movie claims he had a hand in its design but the finished product had vastly more lengthened and raked forks than he’d specified and he claims it took weeks for him to learn how to ride it without looking terrified.
There is much myth and legend around the Captain America bike but two were made with one being destroyed during filming and the other being melted in a warehouse fire in 2010. The design has been extensively copied since 1969 and even Harley-Davidson has an example in its museum collection.
Arguably more important for cult motorcycling than ‘Easy Rider’ was ‘The Wild One’, a film dealing with motorcycle gangs and anti-social behavior released in 1953. It made Marlon Brando a cultural icon for young rebels and it still resonates today but the film’s real significance was it showed people how much fun you could have by standing up to the establishment.
In INFO MOTO’s humble opinion, Brando was eclipsed in the movie by ‘Chino’, the leader of the Beetles motorcycle gang which took on Johnny’s Black Rebels MC. Lee Marvin played Chino and allegedly based his character on Wino Willy Forkner who was already notorious as a member of the Boozefighters MC which was involved in the original Hollister town-trashing on which the movie was based.
Prior to ‘The Wild One’ motorcycles in films were hardly ever branded but much was made of Johnny (Brando) riding a Triumph Thunderbird 6T. Triumph America objected at the time to having its reputation tarnished but the film helped cement Triumph in the American marketplace.
Chino rode a ’49 Harley-Davidson Hydra Glide but the real Wino Willy and the rest of the Boozefighters would have undoubtedly been on H-D WLAs.
Just as cult members usually over-venerate their leader, cult bikes are worshiped by their followers and hardly anyone else. You either get the bike or you don’t. Engaging with a cult bike gives you entry to an exclusive club of like-minded souls who share your understanding and passion.
Enter this dark world if you dare…
Harley-Davidson ’42 WLA
This is the bike that started the whole goddamn thing. Harley-Davidson produced the model to support various military campaigns during WW11. It was based on the civilian WL model which appealed to the army because of the low maintenance and alleged reliability of the soft, side-valve, 740cc engine. The ‘A’ in WLA stands for ‘army’.
H-D made over 90,000 of them during the war years with around 30,000 going to Russia. They were present in every theatre of war which involved the Americans who didn’t seriously engage until after the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. Despite production until around 1952, all WLAs carry the production year of ’42.
Young men returning from war service snapped up the cheap army surplus WLAs because they reminded them of their military service and the war had sharpened their appetite for danger. The Boozefighters MC, one of the first ‘bikie gangs’, was full of returned soldiers with a heavy dose of patriotic fervor. The bikes they rode had to be made in America.
When the Americans went home after the war, stories emerged of Harleys in crates being buried in various parts of the world, including Australia. A remarkable number of riders had an uncle or a cousin who had worked with the Americans and knew where batches of bikes could be located still in the crates and wrapped in greased paper.
The story was believable in that it was more expensive to take equipment home from places like Australia than it was to leave it (look what they’ve just left in Afghanistan!). Seventy-six years later, the hunt continues.
It’s undoubtedly true that the US Army dumped some surplus equipment after the war but most of it was sold off on consignment. Robert Beanham who owned Modak Motorcycles in Elizabeth Street in Melbourne (sadly, recently closed as a physical shop but still operating on-line) picked up 600 ex-military motorcycles (yes, 600) after the war in a sale-by-tender auction. How it worked was you put in a price for the 600 bikes and Robert’s bid was the highest. There were plenty of Brit bikes in the pack but also lots of WLAs.
The army-spec WLAs had to be converted to street bikes and creative solutions to this problem arguably started the modified/chopper movement which led eventually to the ‘Captain America’ bike in ‘Easy Rider’ and beyond.
It also meant that hardly any WLAs in the ‘States survived in original form. The Cold War which starved Russia of western goods encouraged Russian riders to maintain the 30,000 WLAs they had and, ironically, builders in the US who wanted original WLA stuff had to source it from Europe.
Cult bike? Absolutely. Its nickname was ‘The Liberator’ and its association with war, victory and patriotism gave it symbolic status. Harley-Davidson was making better engines even before the war (Knucklehead) but nothing said ‘freedom’ quite like a ‘42WLA.
The WLA owner
He’s swallowed every part of post-war USA attitudes and values. He’s seen every John Wayne movie ever made and thinks America would have won in Vietnam “if the politicians hadn’t got in the way”.
He votes conservative and supported Trump even though he lost his job on the production line almost immediately Trump was elected and hasn’t worked since.
He treats modernity with suspicion and thinks technical advances like disc brakes, radial tyres, traction control and the like are for people who don’t know how to ride real bikes.
He’s a loner but mixes happily with the thousands of other loners who think exactly like him. This takes place mostly on-line, at night, when most normal people are asleep.
While the history of motorcycling is littered with endurance highlights like riding around the world on a BSA Bantam, it wasn’t until the Japanese arrived that the possibilities of wild adventure was opened up to the masses.
It started with the Yamaha DT-1 in 1968. Here was a light, dual-purpose bike with a reliable engine and a cheap price. It sold splendidly but it was a two-stroke. In 1976, Yamaha achieved the impossible: it released its first ever four-stroke engine in a substantial rethink of the DT-1’s success and the XT500 stamped itself into the history books.
So reliable and solid was the XT500 that Yamaha in France modified a couple (only slightly) and entered them in the first Paris-Dakar Rally in 1978. This was a 10,000km trek from Paris to the capital of Senegal, Dakar, across the Tenere desert.
The event was won by Cyril Neveu on an XT and he didn’t just win the bike class – he was first overall of the 182 starters, cars included. To prove it wasn’t a fluke, he did it again in the 1980 event. While Cyril has faded into history, the reputation of the XT500 still spans the globe.
The demand for the bike and encouragement from Yamaha France saw Yamaha produce a replica of the rally-winning XT in 1983. It was, of course, called the Tenere, and was identifiable by its massive 30 litre fuel tank.
Called the XT600Z with the type code of 34L, the first Tenere had a front disc brake, a monoshock rear end and 235mm of rear wheel travel. An electric start was introduced to the second generation Tenere in 1986 making adventure travel even more attractive to the masses.
While the fuel tank capacity was reduced to a more realistic 23 litres, the second-gen model had engine revisions including bigger valves and a revised air filter system which lifted power from the original bike’s 43hp to 46hp.
While other manufacturers quickly got on the bandwagon with adventure bikes of their own (including BMW with its very successful R80G/S which eclipsed the Tenere in the 1981 Paris-Dakar), the Tenere had already captured the hearts of the adventure-minded and it sold its socks off particularly in France (20,000 in ten years) where the story started.
Yamaha continues to use the Tenere name to this day but the cult bikes are the first two: the 34L and the 1VJ. The cult lives on in Australia in the form of the ‘Tenere Tragics’ who conduct a ride each year which can attract up to 100 entrants.
These rides aren’t for the faint-hearted, either. The 2018 event went from Hervey Bay in Queensland to Dubbo in central NSW – bay to bush. The 2019 event was run somewhere in South-East Victoria. COVID-19 willing, the 2021 event will take place later this year. The new Tenere 700 carries a proud history.
The Tenere owner
You see them either by themselves or in a small group down the end of the bar. They have the look of people who know something you don’t and are not prepared to share it. To them, road riders are vermin.
Most normal people are pleased to have a tank range of around 250km so they can get blood circulating in the arses again while fueling up but not Tenere riders. A 500km stint is just a warm-up and, of course, they do half of it standing up.
They’ve been everywhere you’ve been but not by the route you took – their route was the ‘interesting’ one. They’ve also been to plenty of places you wouldn’t even dream of going and derive great pleasure in talking about it front of you. They can pronounce Mongolian place names like locals and can speak whole sentences with sometimes only four words of recognisable English.
Even when it’s cold, they’ll unzip their 30 year-old riding jacket so you can glimpse their Lefortovo Tunnel tee-shirt and they’ll laugh and nod knowingly at trigger words you don’t understand – “Aha, Yurt butter tea…” “Ger Plov…”
They have plenty of time to stand around the bar because of all the time they’ve saved by never washing their bike or their clothes. Conversely, it takes them 20 minutes to leave anywhere because of all the straps, Velcro, buckles, hooks and fasteners on their boots.
Honda postie bike
In case you ever wondered why Honda has been so successful internationally, look no farther than the introduction of the C90 in 1966. It made a great farm bike with its automatic clutch but was also a handy road bike in congested cities. It sold its socks off until Honda decided to completely revise it as the CT110 in 1980.
Okay, the ‘complete revision’ was essentially a larger hole in the cylinder making it now 105cc. Front suspension changed as well over time from a leading link to telescopic forks but, other than that, Honda has been making the same bike since 1966 – that’s 55 years of manufacture without any costs for development work or even substantial retooling. It’s money in the bank, year after year.
And no, the 55 year-old bike isn’t a niche seller. It has regularly appeared at the top of road bike sales charts in Australia and New Zealand because it was the post office’s bike-of-choice for mail delivery – hence the moniker ‘Postie bike’. It’s attraction for posties was its centrifugal clutch which means it doesn’t have a clutch lever, allowing mail deliverers to stuff letters into mailboxes without the engine stalling.
The CT110 for most markets came with a gear ratio reduction box which was activated by a small lever under the transmission case. It was around a 2:1 reduction which halved the modest top speed of the bike but allowed it to climb the wall of a house. Farmers got these as AG models but they weren’t road-registerable.
Postie bikes came without the reduction box but could be road registered. If you wanted one before 2009, you had to wait until the posties had clocked up between 20 and 40,000km on them and they started to appear at auctions. From 2009, Honda has had road-registerable CT110AGs available to the general public.
In 2013, Honda introduced a replacement model coded NBC110 which had essentially the same engine but electric start and fuel injection. Australia Post also decided to change the colour scheme from the traditional red and white to ‘pearl verdue green’.
Thousands of bikes were delivered in this colour before it became obvious that the greens and yellows blended in too well with suburban gardens, making the bikes invisible to passing drivers. One lucky company in Victoria won the contract to paint all the new green bikes red and white again. If you want to find out if your postie bike was originally green, look for the colour sticker under the seat. The green code was GY138P.
Even after 55 years, the C110 is still a very sweet ride. The engine is reliable and forgiving, running costs are low (three litres per 100km), the bike will go just about anywhere and, with its auto clutch, it’s possibly the best learner bike on the market.
Watching posties tool around on them has made them a very familiar sight in Australia and New Zealand. On top of that, the model has a weird beauty. Auction CT110s are snapped up but it’s still possible to get them cheaply.
There are plenty around for $1500 although, contrary to popular belief, you can kill them by riding them flat out all the time (90km/h). Their reputation for reliability came from the constantly varying revs of postal work and low engine speeds.
Proof of their cult status rests with the Postie Bike Challenge, a yearly event where postie bikes are asked to do absurd distances in the name of adventure and charity. The company that runs the event supplies the bike and promises bitumen, sand, dirt, gravel, bulldust, snow and river crossings.
The latest iteration, the CT125, suggests Honda has twigged about the ‘cult’ status: they look like the original bike but cost about $7000 while you can buy a CB125 for far less than half the price. Don’t expect to see too many CT125s on the road but the legend will take a long time to die.
The postie bike owner
He’s never owned a motorcycle before and won’t own one again once the glamour and fashion of ‘riding a motorcycle’ wears off.
He saw one of his hipster friends on one and it looked cool. Oh, and he didn’t realise riding a bike could be so easy! Once the milk crate has been fastened to the rear rack, all modifications are complete and he’s ready to swan around the coffee shops and record stores of his favourite hipster suburbs.
Wait a minute – he has to get a learner’s permit first. “I have to do what?” “I can already ride it – why is it going to cost so much in compulsory training?”
That hurdle finally climbed, he can hit the road. “Why are car drivers so aggressive? I’m doing 85km/h in a 100 zone but that’s all the bike will do. Best I stay on suburban streets.
Oh, it’s raining and I’m cold. There’s water running into my Converse sneakers and because I choose a cool-looking open-face helmet, the rain drops are stinging my cheeks. Maybe I’ll just leave the postie bike in the back garden until next summer…”
1969 Triumph Bonneville
You had to be there, man. The last year of the ‘60s saw the first man on the moon and the last public performance of the Beatles. Woodstock changed the world and Triumph had one of its best years exporting Bonnevilles to the US.
While the Triumph Bonneville first appeared in 1959, it went through significant changes before the golden year of 1969. The first Bonnevilles were developments of the existing T110 Thunderbird with engine improvements including a splayed-port alloy cylinder head with higher compression and twin Amal monobloc carbs.
Nobody talks about it much but the twin carbs exacerbated the inherent vibrations in the Triumph twin cylinder engine. You could go faster but it was at the cost of comfort.
Unit construction arrived in 1963 (engine and gearbox in one casing) which made the bike more compact and 14kg lighter, significantly lifting the four-speed twin’s performance.
A new eight-inch, twin leading shoe front brake arrived in 1968 and two-way damping in the front forks was also a feature courtesy of what had been learned from racing.
Competition experience also led to a stronger swingarm and overall better handling.
In fact, a Bonneville T120 won the Production TT at the Isle of Man in 1969. Malcolm Uphill set a new benchmark for production bikes with the first 100mph lap from a standing start and Dunlop, the tyre provider, was so impressed it changed the name of its K81 product to the TT100.
In the same year, T120s took the first three places in the Thruxton 500 mile endurance race. The bikes were hand built with precision-machined parts and turned out 53hp (40kW) at 6800rpm but could be revved to 7200rpm without the engines exploding. The Thruxton bikes were called T120Rs and only around 55 were built.
The ’69 Bonnie was it-and-a-bit to the ton-up boys with its combination of good looks, handling and performance. A period road test of the T120R claimed 49hp and a top speed of 123mph.
While it was always going to be swamped eventually by Japanese competition, what probably killed the Bonnie was the introduction in 1971 of the Umberslade Hall-designed, oil-in-frame chassis which lifted the seat height to a whopping 876mm. Gone were the classic mufflers, gaitered fork, bullet-shaped headlights and rounded sidecovers which epitomized Triumphs of old. The Bonnie became ungainly, slow and ugly, instantly elevating the ’69 (and ’70) model to god-like classic status.
Popular culture embraced the pre-’71 Bonneville with people like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Keith Richards and Clint Eastwood adding cool to the brand. Bob Dylan owned a T110 and appeared on the cover of one of his albums in a Triumph tee-shirt. While the ’68 and ’70 models have similar cred, it’s the ’69 that takes first prize.
Imagine a world with no speed cameras, full employment and a generation of women who believed in sex for pleasure. The ’69 Bonnie was arguably motorcycling’s finest manifestation of what it was like to be young, wild and free. No wonder the bike is a cult classic.
The ’69 Bonnie owner
The world stopped for him in 1970. He rides in a Brando jacket, jeans and fireman’s boots with the socks turned down over the top. Otherwise, it’s just jeans and a tee-shirt with a box shape in one sleeve where he keeps his cigarettes.
He’s thin (smoking and not eating does that to you) and personal hygiene isn’t his top priority. It may have been a few weeks since he last washed his shoulder-length hair.
His record collection (yes, vinyl, he never went for CDs and has never heard of Spotify) is full of The Who, the Stones, Canned Heat, Joe Cocker, Creedence and Led Zeppelin.
The bike isn’t in showroom condition because it’s his daily ride but it always starts first or second kick because he takes pride in that.
He’s a tradie and his general knowledge has been limited by the time he spends keeping the bike running rather than watching the news on TV like everyone else. His opinion of the Hinckley Bonnevilles? Don’t bother asking.
He still thinks 100mph is the epitome of high speed and his eyes glaze over when you tell him a BMW S 1000 R can do that in first gear. “Come and see me,” he says, “when the Beemer is 50 years old…”
What cult bikes has Spannerman missed? You tell us and he’ll rate them for you with a score of one to 10. Start your keyboards now!