Thursday, August 6, 2015


Zombie Cycles – They’re For Real
(This article originally appeared as a column in Cycle World magazine)
Can the lovely Kate Moss help revive the Matchless brand?  Does it matter?
Shakespeare asked, ‘What’s in a name?’ but in business, an established brand with emotional resonance is pure gold.  It takes time to build a good reputation, so instead, would-be manufacturers have gone name-shopping in the graveyard. They’re busting up the crypts of old motorcycle companies, ones we buried decades ago with cries of lamentation and tales of better days.  The new grave robbers are suit-wearing copyright lawyers with shovels in hand, but they don’t want bones – they’re negotiating fees to legally chisel business names from the family crypt. Once in hand, they’re pasted onto a brand new machine, which bears no family resemblance for the simple reason they aren’t family at all. They’re zombies and clones.
What's wrong with this picture?  The new prototype Matchless
Dead motorcycle brands sleep under our soil – thousands of them since the late 1890s, from every corner of the world.  90% are gone and forgotten, but a few potent names –Indian, Vincent, Cyclone  – have seen miserable, limping attempts at resurrection. Cyclone was the most technically advanced American motorcycle of the early 20th Century, an OHC V-twin 70 years before the V-Rod. After Cyclone died in 1916, a series of new owners gave it CPR (Cash Promoting Resuscitation), but it never made it off the slab.  I’m sure we’ll see another ‘Cyclone’ soon… zombies aren’t easy to kill. It’s the same with other powerpacked names like Crocker and Vincent, but the corpse of Indian has been fluffed, powdered, and electrified more than any other.  But who knows – Polaris might make it live.
The Polaris Indian Chief - 900lbs of bling
It’s important to distinguish Zombies from Clones. A Clone is a reproduction of a specific model, long after the factory closed. The practice began in the 1980s, when demand for new Norton Manx and Matchless G50 parts reached the point of whole-motorcycle production. Most racing clones are distinctively marked, and present no real issue to collectors or historians. It sucks when they’re passed off as genuine by wishful thinkers (Velveteen Rabbit syndrome), or by outright forgers. Most commonly cloned are American Board Track racers like Harley-Davidson and Indian ‘8-Valves’, and nowadays these glittering replicas race over auction podiums, in greater numbers than ever appeared on racetracks.  So anyone who wants a brakeless, suspensionless, and historyless 8-Valve can own one. Huzzah. Don’t assume clone equals cheap, though; repro Guzzi V8s, early 4-cylinder Italian GP racers, and Brough Superior SS100s will set you back six figures.  They’re replicated by passionate enthusiasts, who long for the past…although their devotion reminds me of Joyce McKinney, the ‘Mormon in chains rapist’ who cloned her dog in Korea. But they’ve revived some really cool bikes with a rabid post-mortem demand, like Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. albums.  These (nec)romantic flame-bearers just want to keep the old names alive, sometimes by cloning, and more recently by zombification.
The best of the lot - the new Brough Superior SS100
A Zombie is a dead motorcycle brand that's been revived by an unrelated business, with a tombstone rubbing glued on the gas tank. Zombies carry no DNA from the original brand, and typically feature a hypothetical update of the original machine's lines, inspired by ghostly whispers. Sometimes it works - witness BMW's spirit-capture of the Austin Mini.  Most zombies can’t survive long in the real world, because mass-producing motorcycles takes massive financial backing and a serious dose of R&D. The majority remain boutique or bespoke machines – the undead in fancy finery – or prototypes that elicit genuine horror. Lately, zombies have starred in transparently cynical attempts to cash in on a fine old name, by hiding terrifically ugly bikes under junkie-chic supermodels. The goal is selling gear, not gears: apparel is the real business. Even so, name-robbing can’t harm old reputations, and the zombies and clones roaming our streets are just another facet of the bizarro world of contemporary motorcycling.  Ask any teenager; the Undead can be fun and sexy, even if they're Frankenbikes.
The Horex prototype, which seems to have died on the operating table...
Revived motorcycle brands:

Brough Superior, Matchless, Ariel, Indian, Horex, Norton, Bultaco, Crocker, Ossa, Hesketh, Benelli, Paton, etc…

(copyright 2015 Paul d'Orléans)

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