The Naked Truth
Design guru Glynn Kerr on two recent motorcycle designs, both naked bikes, that arrested his attention
Typically, when we think of the latest, most impressive-looking motorcycle designs, we tend to focus on the ones with an abundance of bodywork. Whether it’s the sensual flowing lines of a Ducati Panigale or the explosive drama of a Kawasaki Ninja H2, each project gave the designers plenty of freedom and acres of plastic on which to ply their art. The more minimal the bodywork, the less there is for designers to work with and aesthetics become a matter of proportion and attention to detail, rather than extravagant sculptural exploration. So when it turns out the two designs that have most grabbed my attention recently have both been naked bikes, they deserve some recognition.
First up is the Kawasaki Z900RS. This model hardly pushes the design envelope, with forms that hark back to the Z1 900 of the early 1970s, backed up by an appropriately retro colour and graphics scheme. From a business perspective, it all makes perfect sense. The Z1 is arguably Kawasaki’s most iconic model and with the retro scene in full swing, why not tap into their earlier success story? Just how iconic is the Z1? Last year, I put an original sales brochure of the 900 Super 4 on eBay at $20 (Rs 1,300) and, after seven days, the bidding ended at $137.50 (Rs 8,900). By contrast, I’ve had an MV Agusta 750 America brochure listed for over a year at less than $50 (Rs 3,250) with no takers. Zero.
Not that it’s the first time Kawasaki has dipped into its Z1 heritage. The 1990 Kawasaki Zephyr series was a pretty convincing take on the original, complete with dual rear shocks, only with an appropriate increase in the width. Sales were strong, but 10 years later, the retro look gave way to more modern styling in a new generation of bikes like the ZR7 and Z1000. Now the timing is right to revisit the same theme, but while the design language is much the same as the first two iterations, two aspects have brought the optics much more up to date. First, the Zephyr’s twin piggy-back rear shocks have given way to a thoroughly modern monoshock, which is barely visible in profile. This frees up the entire area between the wheel and tail unit, creating a void which adds lightness to the rear, and helps move the visual centre of the bike forwards.
This effect is heightened by the silver air-box cover and the frame tube behind the engine, both of which are located radically forwards of where you’d expect to find them on a classic layout. This is where Kawasaki’s designers have created a masterpiece. The look may be Z1-derived retro, but the balance is right up to date. Merging the two has created an all-rounder with a distinct personality and a purposeful stance, without simply scraping the nostalgia barrel, which so many other manufacturers are guilty of. Triumph and Moto Guzzi should take note, while the new Asian wannabes are still falling over each other to jump on the conventional retro bandwagon. Never mind being on the same page, those chaps haven’t even set off for the library yet. There are leaders and there are followers, and here Kawasaki have shown themselves to be firmly in control. After so many wacky Kawasakis on the sports/ sports touring side in recent years, who could have guessed the company could exhibit such poise and control?
On a more contemporary level, the new Honda CB1000R+ is also a breath of fresh air in the naked bike scene, elevating the just-another-motorcycle tendency to a higher plane. As with the Kawasaki, there’s nothing revolutionary to be found here, but the forms are modern, with an emphasis on metal over plastic for a sturdy, mechanical image.
Some of the detailing is questionable; for example, the lower outrigger/foot-peg holder castings which display neither soul nor engineering precision. The headlight, too, follows recent trends rather than leading them. The LED centre framed by a circular running light has been seen on the Husqvarna 701 Vitpilen and Energica Eva EsseEsse9 and, as I have previously noted, resembles an illuminated shaving mirror too accurately to make a cool styling statement. I first made that connection
Creating an image that appears new, while being free of gimmicks, or generating a strong personality to an all-rounder, are no easy tasks
over the latest MV Agusta Brutale at its 2015 Milan EICMA launch, but in hindsight, the MV was executed with so much more finesse, with tapered running lights broken by a stylized metal surround. The others are just circular shaving mirrors, however you want to define them. Heck, even the 2018 HarleyDavidson Fat Boy does it with more grace than the Honda.
The CB1000R+ follows Honda’s stunning CB4 Interceptor concept, a modern take on the classic café racer. With an integral nose fairing, the CB4 was hardly a naked bike in the traditional sense, but it nevertheless projected a purposeful minimalist image which is partially reflected in the CB1000R+. It exists to a lesser degree in the CB250/300R and CB125R too. There’s a solidity to the tank/engine/ headstock area which is very powerful and dominant, and therein lies the appeal. Creating an image that appears new, while being free of gimmicks, or generating a strong personality to an all-rounder, are no easy tasks. Here, Honda have achieved both in one package.
Bikes like the KTM Duke and Super Duke take on the naked challenge much more dramatically, but Kiska’s extremeedge design is not to everyone’s taste. The plastic scoops that project ahead of the forks, visually linking the central mass with the front wheel, start to push the boundaries of what constitutes a naked bike. Taken even further, the Aprilia Tuono purports to be a naked version of the RSV, and yet all, bar a few inches of side panel, it’s almost fully faired. The frontal bodywork is fragmented and heavily disguised as ducts or air diffusers, but it’s bodywork all the same, and chassis-mounted at that.
Both the Kawasaki and the Honda are naked bikes in the true sense. Neither are going to set off an entirely new direction in motorcycle styling, but they each move the game forwards in their own way, and the world of motorcycling is richer for them.
The lines and colours might be old-school Z1, but the proportions are bang up to date
Hardly radical, the Honda CB1000R+ nevertheless takes naked bike design in a positive direction
Early Zs displayed at the 2016 Milan EICMA gave a hint of what was to come
Modified Vulcans at the 2016 Milan EICMA projected a surprisingly believable Z1 image
Direct predecessor of the Honda CB1000R+ was the Neo Sports Café concept
The Z1 certainly has a following — this original sales brochure sold for $137.50 (Rs 8,900) on eBay last year
Café Racer not naked, but the spiritual links to the latest Honda bikes can be seen in the stunning CB4 Interceptor concept
“Shaving mirror” headlight design seems to be the new trend — only MV Agusta did it first, and
waaay better than all the followers
Some ‘naked’ bikes, like this Aprilia Tuono, have almost as much bodywork as the fully faired versions
The Honda CB1000R+ follows the current trend for “shaving mirror” headlight design