The joy of motorcycle magazines, part 1

Motorcycle magazines have been a part of my life for 45 years. If you’re anything like me, chances are your attic and garage are crammed with back issues of a whole raft of magazines that you’ll never part with, no matter how many times you move house. They brought you pleasure in years past and, hey, who knows when you might want to see what your favourite road-tester had to say about the MV Augusta 750S should you be lucky enough to acquire one at some future date. Right?

Well, that’s my excuse. I first fell in love with bike mags back in 1970 when I was a 16-year-old in Dublin. Riding pillion on a friend’s CD175, we’d headed out to Bray and found a motorcycle dealer whose clientele included the city’s motorcycling elite: the Guzzi Ambassador and CB750-riding members of the Dublin Motorcycle Touring Club. There, among the relative exotica, was a counter full of second-hand motorcycle magazines.

I bought a glossy number called Cycle for the princely sum of 10 pence and fell madly in love. Here was a beautifully written, exquisitely photographed and technically erudite bible that was to shape my vision of motorcycling for years to come. One particular feature that captured my imagination in that first issue was a story called “The Sunday Morning Ride”. Lavishly illustrated with page after page of glorious pics, it told of a group of American riders that would meet and ride a stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway every Sunday morning before stopping for a steak breakfast at some cool diner.

The CB750 was still a relative newcomer, and a real rarity where I lived, but these guys on Route 1 had scores of ‘em! There were Commandos, Bonnevilles, Tridents, Rocket 3s, Harleys, CB450s. And the scenery! That curving road caressing the frothy edge of an impossibly blue Pacific Ocean. Heaven! And these guys did this every Sunday…

I went back next weekend and bough some more issues of Cycle, and went on buying it whenever I could find it until its sad demise in the early ‘90s. I still regard it as the ultimate motorcycle magazine. The writing was in a class of its own from the likes of Gordon Jennings, Cook Neilsen, Phil Schilling and Kevin Cameron.

Cycle cover 001

The road tests were prodigious, with every engine stripped to its barest essentials and lovingly photographed. Engine technicalities were covered exhaustively and explained in terms I could understand. Power figures, acceleration times and top speeds were all faithfully recorded with a zeal that knocked spots off anything available in the UK bike press. Comparison tests assembled all the contenders in a given class to find a winner (although on one memorable occasion a 750 shootout pronounced the infamous Kawasaki triple the winner – a questionable result).

The fascinating annual chase for the AMA Number One plate was covered in detail, and readers knew that Kenny Roberts was something special long before he burst on to the world stage. The careers of Mert Lawill, Cal Rayborn, Gary Nixon, Yvon duHamel, Pat Evans and many more unfolded monthly before your eyes.

But it was the photography and design values that really set Cycle apart. Huge colour plates would show off major new bikes from every conceivable angle, and it was inevitable that when the CBX came out it was Cycle that removed the front forks to create an awesome shot of that mind-boggling (for 1979) six-cylinder mill.

Being Americans wrestling with a foreign language, however, even Cycle didn’t always get it right. Once, they highlighted in huge letters a quotation from racer Gary Nixon, saying: “I would never of believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”

Nothing lasts forever, and sadly Cycle was merged with Cycle World which, though very worthy, was not quite in the same league at the time. It’s a far better mag today.

Bike first issue 001

Three other magazines captured my imagination in the ‘70s. Still a kid in Dublin, I wandered into Eason’s (a sort of Irish WH Smith) in O’Connell Street one day in 1972 or thereabouts in search of Cycle and walked out instead with the launch issue of Bike. Wow! Remember that issue, with the metalflake gold chopper on the cover? To an 18-year-old with a purple-and-white YR5 (what a great bike that was), Bike was a breath of fresh air. It had the balls to be irreverent about bikes it didn’t rate, when the British tradition was still largely of the “all the controls fell easily to hand” variety. The photos! The choppers! Uncle Bunt’s Chop Shop! The women! Ogri!

The cheeky upstart not only survived but thrived and is now probably older than most of its readers. Back in the ‘70s, it spoke to a generation of motorcyclists still high on Easy Rider and as much into music as they were into bikes, and lifestyle biking was born in Britain. I’m sure it outraged many in the motorcycling establishment of the day, and that’s what made it all the more exciting. I didn’t always agree with what it said, especially when it condemned the then-new Gold Wing for being nothing but a two-wheeled car – essentially because it was the antithesis of the Ducati 450 Monza that was that particular road-tester’s personal choice for day-to-day transport.

MCI cover 001

Close on Bike’s heels for me in the UK market were the touring-orientated Motorcyclist Illustrated (MCI) and the inimitable Motorcycle Sport. Both included features and road-tests by people who knew how to string words into a decent sentence and who wrote entertainingly and knowledgeably about bikes. The writing of Dave Minton was one of MCI’s great assets, and both magazines were graced by readers’ letters that were light-years ahead of the “My Beezer’ll see off any poxy Jap crap” that were the staple diet of Motor Cycle Weekly and Motor Cycle News in the 1970s.

Ah yes, the British weeklies. As a died-in-the-wool bike mag fan, I always had to buy both, even though the sensible choice at the time would be to buy neither. We hear about the dumbing-down of the British media, driven by the tabloids, but MCW and MCN got there years before any of them, giving us a diet of drivel punctuated by fatuous nicknames for any sporting hero and a liberal dose of exclamation marks. They were indispensable for anyone wanting to keep abreast of the week’s sporting news, and handy for their classifieds, but the editorial generally left me yearning for the next issue of Cycle or Bike.

The weeklies nevertheless had a huge readership relative to most of the monthlies and their frequency generally gave them a head start over the rest when it came to tests and features on new models. From time to time they employed road-testers who knew their arse from their elbow, but even they were emasculated by a shortage of space for a really penetrating assessment. For that, you had to wait for Cycle or, perhaps two months later, one of the quality British monthlies.

The reliability of road-tests in the weeklies was well illustrated by the launch of a Yamaha 750 custom in Spain. Both weeklies rode identical bikes along the same stretch of Spanish coastal twistery on the same day. One castigated the bike for its soggy handling and awful road-holding, while the other said it handled beautifully and went around corners as if it were on rails. Fortunately, MCW fell by the wayside and MCN improved greatly over the years and is still with us.

Sailing serenely through all these years of change has been Motor Cycle Mechanics. Month after month, it showed us how to decoke our Suzuki 500 twins, repair stripped crankcase threads on a TR6, replace worn clutches, fit better brake pads, lube our cables… Thank God the Japanese came along and made obsolete such encyclopaedic knowledge of 101 ways to get your hands dirty. The fact that it survives to this day as Classic Motorcycle Mechanics is a tribute to the competence with which it has been put together by successive editorial teams.


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