INFO MOTO finally calls it: the 10 ugliest motorcycles of all time. Spannerman did the judging – and he knows a fair bit about ugly…
In compiling our list of the 10 ugliest bikes of all time, IM has set its own parameters. It’s unjust to pick on bikes built before 1950 as function was the dominant design motivator and style an afterthought. From the swinging ‘60s, how things looked became arguably more important than how they worked.
Japanese bikes, in particular, developed an identifiable style. The ‘70s and ‘80s saw the UJM phenomenon – the Universal Japanese Motorcycle. None of them were ugly but they all looked more-or-less the same in that they consisted of two wheels, an engine, a chassis, a two-piece instrument binnacle and no fairing.
When aerodynamics became part of the styling mix, it made things worse. If you put a bike in a wind tunnel and shape it to reduce wind resistance, the answer is always the same: bikes with fairings end up looking like other bikes with fairings.
Meanwhile, in manufacturer’s design departments and in independent design studios, workers were coming up with distinctive design ideas. Manufacturers were torn between producing product that satisfied the conservative buying public or taking a bold step forward that may revolutionise how buyers behave. Most of the ugly bikes in this feature belong in the second category: advanced ideas that didn’t get traction.
Glyn Kerr (founder and past president of the International Motorcycle Design Association) would defend many ugly bikes (one of which, at least, he designed himself – Yamaha’s TDM850) on the basis that they weren’t innately ugly but they pushed too far outside of the parameters of conventional acceptability. Glyn says that ‘beauty’ is a mixture of aesthetic excellence, desirability, exclusivity and timing. Most of the reverse is true of ‘ugly’, particularly timing.
Designers aren’t always to blame. International bike shows are littered with ‘concept’ bikes where manufacturers test the acceptability of design ideas. The bike looks fabulous, the public responds positively and the manufacturer turns the project over to the technical producers who have to face myriad problems in getting something which looks remotely like the concept off the end of the production line.
Among our ugly bike list is the Bimota Mantra which started out with an integrated front profile but ended up having to use the headlight from a Yamaha FZR600 to meet the design regulations in America. One change can turn a bike from beautiful to ugly. Various international regulations can have a big affect on the finished product. The Ducati 750S which is arguably at the top of the list of the most beautiful bikes of all time was released without indicators or a starter motor which would have detracted from its overall appearance.
Australian Design Rules (ADR) which determine if bikes can be sold in Australia or not can have a significant influence on how a bike actually looks in the showroom. Some changes have been made recently but distributors here have regularly been obliged to make ugly extensions to rear mudguards and extend the distance between indicator lights to allow them to be sold.
What remains, of course, are bikes which are ugly without any particular excuse. Some of them were bold design moves by the manufacturer to stretch the boundary of what is acceptable but others were the product of committees that ended up thinking the finished product met all their requirements without understanding the buying public would simply laugh at it.
This can be cruel. Worthwhile technical exercises can pass into oblivion because of public disapproval of the appearance. Honda’s CX500 series isn’t included in the INFO MOTO Top 10 list because we respect what Honda was trying to do. Everyone who ever bought one loved it. Its nickname of ‘plastic maggot’ was richly undeserved and it’s a shame Honda didn’t continue to develop the concept and force it into acceptance.
On the other hand, a committee inside Honda persevered with the DN-01 without, seemingly, any advice on how it would be received in the marketplace. Its spectacular failure demonstrated the limits of the envelope you can push if you want to break with tradition.
If you’re a slave to aesthetics, avoid the following…
Times were tough in Brazil in the late 1970s. To protect its industries and workers, the government had cripplingly high duties on imports. Even though it didn’t have an indigenous motorcycle manufacturer to shield, these duties applied to bikes as well.
The crisis arrived when Brazil Police announced it could no longer keep its fleet of aging Harley-Davidsons going and couldn’t afford to replace them.
What Brazil was making at the time were Volkswagens and a motorcycle powered by the ubiquitous Type I 1584cc four-cylinder engine was quickly assembled. We’ve used the word ‘assembled’ rather than ‘designed’ because there’s no real evidence of the latter. The Amazonas, as it was named, was a collection of parts which allowed forward motion. Using what was ready-to-hand without thinking about weight resulted in near 900lbs of road presence.
The VW gearbox was used as well, adding to the weight but also providing a reverse gear.
There’s no need for us to criticize the looks of the Amazonas as the image on this site speaks for itself. Surprisingly, the bike developed a cult following in South America and the 450 which were produced went on to record very long service lives. Production started in 1977 and ceased in 1989.
This is a Very Big Bike. The VW engine provides plenty of torque but doesn’t rev hard and the 45 horses produced struggle with the bike’s weight. The torque available means it’s just as fast riding up a cliff as it is in a straight line.
Car tyres and very mediocre brakes mean it’s actually a relief when the top speed of around 140km/h is reached and you no longer have to work out how to control the beast. Short suspension travel with no dampening encourages the Amazonas to wander across the road at anything above 80km/h but it made a very suitable escort bike for the police.
It’s bad enough to make something ugly from scratch but it’s arguably worse when you take something beautiful and deliberately desecrate it. It’s like drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa.
Norton got the moustache crayons out after it saw the movie ‘Easy Rider’ in 1969 and produced one of the world’s first production custom bikes based on its Commando model. It threw away a perfectly comfortable seat and replaced it with a hideous, overwrought, gothic, high-back unit which was not only uncomfortable for the rider but made it near-impossible to carry a pillion.
The ape-hanger handlebar wasn’t supported and flexed alarmingly in use. Realising the finished product was almost unrideable, Norton gave owners an excuse to stop regularly by reducing fuel capacity to just 4.5 litres.
‘Easy Rider’ actually has a lot to answer for. While Norton was the first, many other manufacturers hit their otherwise nice bikes with the ugly stick and called them ‘customs’. For the Japanese, it simply meant taking a host bike and fitting it with a 16-inch rear wheel and raised handlebars. It killed looks and handling in one blow and clogged up the floor stock of dealers all over the world.
Most Hi-Rider Nortons went to America but a few came to Australia and New Zealand. You could buy an 850 Hi-Rider in 1974 for the princely sum of $2050.
Norton didn’t have enough money in 1971 to fully ruin the Commando. The Hi-Rider kept the original wheel sizes and chassis dynamics meaning a Hi-Rider still feels a bit like the host bike. The engine is the same and that amazing spread of torque can almost make you forgive the aesthetics.
Had Norton been better cashed-up, it would have invested in a smaller, fatter rear wheel and raked and lengthened the front end, making the bike not just ugly but also unrideable.
As it is, it’s fairly easy to convert the Hi-Rider back to standard specs, hiding the shame of the original purchase.
The fact that H-D has survived is a small miracle given the Russian roulette it played with the brand over the years. Putting its name on Aermacchi 250 and 350 singles was possibly excusable but the H-D brand on the tank of a 125 two-stroke semi-trail bike was seriously asking for trouble.
The Harley-Davidson Topper was its worst decision. It was the only scooter H-D ever produced and, even by Harley standards, it was a shocker. It was based around a 165cc single-cylinder, two-stroke engine which was started by a rope coil just the way your dad used to start his Victa lawn mower.
Twelve-inch wheels were driven via a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and the plot was stopped by five-inch drum brakes.
The boxy, slab-sided design did the job of hiding the scooter internals but made the finished product look like a motorised esky. The model was available between 1960 and 1965, providing an excuse for having to pre-mix the two-stroke fuel but not explaining, given Italy was turning out truly beautiful scooters, why it had to end up looking the way it did. Hadn’t H-D ever seen a Vespa?
To add insult to injury, the Topper wasn’t just ugly but also unreliable. Your dad’s Victa had a cooling fan as part of the engine design but the Topper engine didn’t, meaning it would overheat if forced to idle for too long. It was also common for road grime to infect the transmission and cause the belt to slip.
Get this: it was also available with a sidecar, possibly making it the slowest production outfit ever.
Lastly, there’s the name: Topper. What were they thinking?
Starting a Topper was relatively easy: apply the choke and pull the rope. As with most two-strokes of the time, if it didn’t start in the first couple of pulls it was wise to give it five minutes rest to avoid fouling the plug. It’s CVT made it difficult to push-start.
Once it was running, it was twist and go. This is actually a fairly big engine compared with what else was on offer in the day and the Topper was capable of 70km/h with reasonably good acceleration.
The wheels were solid which put added stress on the already overwhelmed leading-link front suspension and the five-inch drum brakes were never up to the task of stopping it quickly (or at all).
The riding position was a perch with its only blessing being that once you were sitting on it, you couldn’t see how awful it looked.
BMW R 1200 C
A fake ad did the rounds when Porsche released its first Cayenne model with an image of the car and a tag line which said, “Why should we just stick to things we’re good at?” The same could apply to BMW’s attempt to conquer the custom cruiser market.
BMW’s chief designer at the time, Dave Robb, was responsible for the R 1200 GS and, eventually, the S 1000 RR so it’s not that he’s without talent.
Before it was released it was the feature bike in the James Bond movie, ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’. You don’t get product placement in Bond movies without a lot of money changing hands so BMW had a big investment in the R 1200 C before it even hit the showrooms.
Some mystery surrounds what happened to the 40,218 examples produced in as much as with a number like that, you’d think they’d be a more common sight.
With a 60hp engine (as opposed to the same engine in the R 1200 R which produced over 100hp), James Bond was indeed courageous to attempt the stunts in the movie.
Stripping back the bodywork as the design did meant the visual awkwardness of the Telelever front suspension was on display and so were many other awkward technical features usually hidden on BMWs by fairings and body panels. If you stripped Scarlett Johansson’s body back to its skeleton, you’d lose what made it attractive in the first place. BMW should have thought about this before it signed off on the build.
Despite its looks, the fundamentals of the R 1200 C are sound and it’s a nice ride. The engine is very soft compared with other models in the range which share it so there’s not much excitement at the top end.
The upright riding position is comfortable enough and assisted by an unusual arrangement with the pillion seat which can be folded up to make a backrest for the rider. It’s a cruiser, after all, so there’s not much point in criticising the effect the wind has on you as speeds increase.
The soft tuning results in a top speed not much over 160km/h but, again, what would you expect from a bike like this?
Two improved versions appeared during its 1997 – 2004 reign: the R 1200 CL which was a full dresser that eliminated the nausea induced by the appearance of the host bike and the Troika, an outfit.
Sacha Lakic, the Yugoslavian-born designer of the Mantra, never meant it to turn out the way it did. The Mantra was Bimota’s attempt to produce a sports roadster with more general appeal than its cutting-edge but exclusive sports models.
The bike Lakic uncovered for Bimota at the 1994 Cologne show wasn’t as visually disturbing as the eventual production model but still had significant aesthetic issues.
As with many prototypes, the realities of mass-production can affect the final outcome.
Instead of the shapely and small headlight on the concept bike, Bimota ended up using the headlight from Yamaha’s FZR600 which was twice the size. Similarly, to have fuel in the original location on both sides of the bike, the tank areas had to be fattened out, making the bike much wider than Lakic had intended.
There were a lot of other detail changes made to accommodate production of the 454 examples which eventually made it onto showroom floors, allowing Lakic to despair over the gap between the original design and the finished product. Worse for Bimota was that the engine for the Mantra was from the Ducati 900SS which was available at the same time for half the Bimota’s price.
Lakic accepted the criticism leveled at the bike’s appearance but claimed it was still influential. “Regardless,” he said, “it made me smile when BMW a few years later released the F650 Scarver on which the front part clearly had been inspired by the Mantra.”
If this feature covered the top 20 ugly bikes instead of just the top 10, the Scarver would probably get a dishonorable mention.
The fact that Bimota mostly sourced engines for its bikes from other manufacturers has always made them feel a little like kit bikes or a bike you built yourself by combining the best bits of all the other bikes you like.
Often, for Bimota, this has worked well and the Mantra is no exception. The proven Ducati 900SS engine is matched with a rigid but very light oval-section aluminium trellis frame with the engine as a part-stressed member. Combined with Paoli suspension, the result is excellent handling and even the bulbous fuel containers help by keeping the centre of gravity low.
In fact, the handling is a little too good in that the low-set footpegs and low-hanging exhaust system can be grounded at will.
The Mantra was supposed to be a comfortable ride and it is. It’s the most comfortable of all the Bimotas and, as with the Harley Topper, you don’t get to see how ugly it is when you’re actually riding it.
Remember sitting in class at school and drawing cars of the future in your exercise book instead of listening to the teacher? The Vision could have been the result of this design technique.
Its swoopy lines and bulbous dimensions make it look like a non-riding artist’s impression of a bike, not an actual production motorcycle. It almost looks like something you’d wear rather than ride.
The Vision first showed up as a prototype at Sturgis in 2001 and was mostly remembered because of the amount of plastic bodywork it used – more than any other Polaris vehicle including on its ATV range.
Despite their size, the carrying capacity of the side panniers is too small for a helmet, although you can fit two in the topbox.
There’s always a market for the extreme end of anything: biggest engine; most expensive; widest tyres; longest rake and the like. The Vision explores the extreme end of shape and it’s a place Harley-Davidson and Indian will never go. It’s possible there will never be another production bike which looks like this.
When you sit on a Victory Vision, you immediately notice that two-thirds of the bike is in front of you and one-third behind. The handlebars have to have an extreme backward sweep so the rider can actually reach them.
There are no problems with the 106 cubic inch engine as Polaris has been an engine builder for long enough to have got it right. It’s a heavy bike, though, and this tranquilises the response from the throttle. It’s still grunty, mind you, and no owners complain about the torque and passing ability.
If they’re good riders they notice quickly the lack of cornering clearance but if you wanted a sports bike you wouldn’t have come here in the first place.
The tragedy of the Vision owner is the constant uncertainty over whether the crowds the bike attracts are laughing with you or at you…
Buell RR1000 Battle Twin
You have to wonder how Erik Buell kept his ship afloat for so long. His business history is a string of failures tied together by hopeless optimism and a surprisingly loyal customer following.
Erik worked for Harley-Davidson Research and Development from ’79 to ’84 and clearly made a lot of friends. H-D supplied engines to Buell as he developed various iterations of an American sports bike. His focus was on engineering and styling was an after-thought, although it could be argued that nobody was ever going to make a Harley engine in a sports package look pretty.
Among Buell’s worst efforts was the RR1200 Battle Twin with its fully enclosing bodywork. Instead of the hiding the ugliness, the fairing panels became the ugliness. Erik didn’t care much because the bodywork had been extensively wind-tunnel tested and actually worked. Even with a H-D engine, the factory race bike was capable of around 180mph.
The huge front guard was unique at the time and the graphic lines on the bodywork accidentally made the barge-arse rear of the bike look even bigger.
If Buell had access to Honda’s money, there’s no doubt he’d still be around producing interesting bikes and he’d even have time to consider how the bikes actually looked as well as how they went.
Around 50 RR1000 Battle Twins were produced using XR1000 engines and 65 RR1200s using the Evo Sportster engine.
Despite how it looks, the Battle Twin was actually quite a small bike with a very short wheelbase, making the riding position cramped for anyone over 5’10”. The aerodynamics were good enough to manage noise so that Battle Twin riders often discovered they were travelling faster than they though and, in its class in the mid-‘80s, it was a fast bike.
It was also time-consuming to maintain as anything non-H-D supplied would either undo or fail on a regular basis. Erik saw the big picture rather than paying attention to detail. The Dell ‘Orto carbs Erik used had return springs so stiff that hand cramps and arm-pump were part of the riding experience. Unlike the race bikes, production models also had a very clunky four-speed gearbox.
The use of 16-inch wheels was fashionable at the time and they worked as well on the Battle Twin as they did on any other bike but made it unsuitable for quick rides on rough roads.
On a smooth surface, the production RR1200s were capable of 225km/h.
Designers know they’re taking risks when they move outside the accepted conventions of style. Like the Buell RR1000 Battle Twin, Ducati’s decision to release a fully enclosed motorcycle in 1986 was a shock to the system. Also like the Buell, Ducati had done extensive work on streamlining so if you could ignore how the finished product looked, you could appreciate how it functioned.
Prior to the Passo, Ducatis showed everything: every external component of the engines, chassis and bodywork was on show and even riders who rejected the Italian narrative thought the bikes were beautiful.
While the Paso was named after Renzo Pasolini who died in 1973, the bike was a statement about the future. Massimo Tamburini dreamed of a time when the benefits of aerodynamic efficiency would dominate design theory and Ducati was going to get in early. He was right about aerodynamics but wrong about how it could be applied to motorcycles without alienating the buying public.
Only 4863 of the 750s were sold between 1986 and 1988. The replacement Paso 906 looked pretty-much the same and suffered the same fate in the showroom. The final iteration, the 907ie, was a much better sorted machine but the damage had already been done and it sold a mere 2303.
Had Tamburini asked INFO MOTO for advice at the time, we would have told him that the Paso looked too much like a car; that motorcyclists wanted to see as much of the motorcycle as possible and, in 2017, retro models that reference the time before the Paso were selling as well and often better than the spaceship future models.
The enclosing bodywork of the Paso hid a number of technical problems, not the least of which was the use of a Weber carburetor which would have been more at home in a Fiat and which required sensitive use of the throttle to allow the engine to run cleanly. Coupled with persistent electrical problems, the bike’s reputation suffered. Oh, despite the aerodynamic bodywork it was relatively slow as well with a top speed around the 200km/h mark.
The replacement Paso 906 wasn’t any better. The last of the range, 1991’s 907ie, had the problems sorted and had moved from 16- to 17-inch wheels, improving the stability of the bike at its 230km/h top speed. It was too late, of course, to rescue it.
Tamburini went on to design the ground-breaking 916 which showed you could fit a bike with a fairing without hiding most of the components riders want to see.
We know we said we weren’t going to pick on old bikes but the Ariel Leader, produced between 1958 to 1965, is too ugly to ignore.
Like the Paso and the Victory Vision where the future is imagined in the design, Ariel threw everything it had at the Leader. Its list of features hinting at modernity included an extendable lifting handle for easy centrestand use, accessory hard luggage, a windscreen top extension, a clock aperture built into the dashboard (yes, it had a fucking dashboard) and, in a world first for bikes, it had flashing indicator lights.
The basis of the Leader was a 250 two-stroke engine and the bike’s designer, Val Page, housed it in a monocoque backbone made from 20-gauge pressed steel panels. Appalled by the visual result, Page quickly tried to hide everything with fully enclosing bodywork but it only made things worse.
Page was probably inspired by the fully enclosing bodywork of the Vincent Black Prince released four years earlier but should have noticed they stopped making Black Princes just one year after they started.
Possibly blinded by the revolutionary flashing indicators, the English magazine Motorcycle News made the Leader ‘Bike of the Year’ in 1959 and 22,000 of them were produced in the seven-year model run.
Forgetting why the full bodywork was put there in the first place, Ariel produced a stripped version of the Leader called the Arrow. The jury is still out on which is visually the most offensive.
With most bikes, once you’re actually riding them you can forget what they look like. What you usually see is the top of the tank, the handlebar, the instrument cluster and the headlight shell. Unfortunately for the Leader, there was plenty of ugly to look at while you were riding as well as when you were stopped.
The two-stroke 250 exhausted itself at 110km/h but was happiest below 80km/h. For its time, this was reasonable performance. With its trailing-link front end and small drum brakes, speeds above this were risky anyway.
If you closed your eyes while you were sitting on the bike (something you were tempted to do even at high speed), you could notice that the ergonomics were well sorted and the bike was actually comfortable which probably accounted for the modestly good sales figures.
It’s easy to imaging a father standing beside his new Leader and telling his son, “One day, all bikes will look like this.”
Picture the meeting in the Honda boardroom: its engineers are asked to produce a new model which will attract new buyers who were previously afraid of motorcycles. The engineers came back with the DN-01, a two-wheeler neither a motorcycle nor a scooter but with enough odd features to offend both camps. Has there ever been a scooter with a 1609mm wheelbase and no storage space? Has there ever been a motorcycle capable of 180km/h but with no wind protection and an automatic transmission?
Since Honda had made it so unattractive, it should also be hideously expensive. Check. It lasted two years and IM will buy you a beer if you ever see one on the road.
If you do see one, its rider won’t be carrying a pillion because the load-carrying capacity is only 150kg.
The lack of any storage space is also confounding. Who did Honda really think was going to buy it? The 713mm seat height would have made it appealing to shorter riders but a dry weight of 268kg would have ruled it out.
Then, of course, is how it looks. Only its mother would love it.
First impressions in the saddle are how low it is and how long it is. Its 1609mm wheelbase is a whopping 240-odd mm longer than the bulbous Buell Battletwin.
There’s an option of a six-speed electronically shiftable manual mode in the gearbox but it’s unclear who would ever use it or why. The handful of DN-01s that made it onto the tarmac would be forever stuck in the two-mode auto settings.
The DN-01 is fast enough and has excellent directional stability. What happens, though, as speed rises towards its 180km/h peak, the rider is pushed backwards by the wind, forcing him to hang on tight and providing a tiring long-distance ride.
So is it a city bike? No, it’s too long, heavy and devoid of carrying capacity. Is it a country bike? No, it’s uncomfortable over any distance. Its conception and meaning will forever remain a mystery.
Once you get started on an exercise like this, ugly bikes leap out at you even while you’re trying to sleep. Here are a few of the bikes that could easily have been included in the 10 ugliest and would certainly make the 20 most ugly list.
Sacha Lakic, designer of the execrable Bimota Mantra, defended what he did by pointing out that BMW copied it a few years later with its F650CS Scarver model. This looks like it could be true but it doesn’t rescue the Mantra, it condemns the Scarver. The Goths got loose in the BMW design department.
No list referencing ugly would be complete without including the Morbidelli V8. Its design is attributed to Pininfarina but it looks like Morbidelli ran out of money half way through the design project with the half Pininfarina completed being stuck on top of the half Morbidelli did. It’s a crying shame as it’s a beautiful engine.
Let’s not just pick on the Continentals. Suzuki’s brave attempt at a rotary-engined bike consists of a classic (even conservative) rear end, the unusual engine which they largely get away with and a front end designed by someone clearly on drugs. The cylindrical instrument panel had never been seen before and was never seen again. Given how hot the engine got, it’s possible Suzuki had no alternative to the size of the radiator but, geeze, it’s huge.
Another ‘snatching defeat from the jaws of victory’ effort from Suzuki was the GR650. One of the ugliest seats in the history of design meant the flow lines from the tank to the side-covers set the covers too low, making the bike look dumpy. The engine was a vibration-free 650 twin sweetie but the complete package was a wasted opportunity.
Yamaha mostly has never had an internal design department. Outsourcing design has provided a couple of truly excellent bikes but also a number of the truly strange. The 1981 XZ550 looked like it had been drawn up in Soviet Russia during the Brutalism period of architecture. No bike has looked like it since which is probably a good thing but it’s a shame to have lost at the same time the excellent V-twin and shaft drive combination.
Lastly, spare a though for the Honda CX500.
IM respects this bike but Honda pushed us to the limit when it ‘customised’ it with a 16-inch rear wheel and high bars. It gave new meaning to the word ‘dumpy’.