Throttle Jockey: Standard appeal

The new Ducati Scrambler may seem like just a new lightweight  city bike, but it's actually an evolution of the "standard" do-everything motorcycle that used to be common.

For what seemed like a million years (OK, maybe about 60 years), motorcycles came in a limited number of forms. Basically, there were “regular” motorcycles, and there were special-purpose bikes for the military, or later on, for riding on dirt.

Back then, once you learned to ride a motorcycle, pretty much any motorcycle, you could expect a similar experience on pretty much any other motorcycle, excepting some small detail changes, such as where a lever was located. It was tank, seat, frame, engine and wheels – and not much else.  This basic form factor matured in the 1970s as the Japanese bike makers flooded markets with all manner of standard-style bikes, with names like CB750, KZ1000, GS750 and XJ650. These nearly interchangeable bikes, all based on the classic standard road riding configuration, became known as Universal Japanese Motorcycles, or UJMs.

But in the early 1980s, the homogenous motorcycle sphere shattered into several specialized segments as sport bikes, cruisers and road-going dirt bikes all began to change and occupy their respective niches – or splintered into even more specialized categories, such as sport-tourer, power cruiser, or the off-road capable dual-sport touring machines.

Suddenly, it was tough to find a plain ol’ motersickle, as some used to call them.  After a few years (and as the used market began to dry up), the call went out from riders for a return of the “standard” motorcycle: a regular, low-cost bike that could be used for running errands or, with the addition of some inexpensive accessories, could cross the country, just like the old bikes did.

The response from bike makers was often tepid, misguided or silence. Honda, to their credit, did bring back the iconic CB750, but in about as plain-jane a form as could be created. Regardless, they sold a zillion units of the “90s Nighthawk” (many to women riders), and, it must be said, it was a true standard; simple, reliable, capable, affordable. But eventually, they pulled the plug on it as sales dried up.

Despite the apparent sudden disappearance of standard style bikes from most line-ups, some did persevere. After their reboot in the 1990s, Triumph brought back the Bonneville, an air-cooled P-twin that was once the company’s performance icon. Now overshadowed by the high-tech Daytona triples and other liquid-cooled high-performance machines, the popular Bonnie rolls on today as a capable, stylish standard that also makes for a decent canvas for customizers.

Another standard-style bike that never really went away is the Harley-Davidson Sportster. Like the Triumph Bonneville, the Sportster was at one time the go-fast model for the company, but eventually became positioned as a beginner or women’s bike. But don’t be fooled. A 1200 Sportster is a plenty potent and manly motorcycle for pretty much any kind of road riding, and Harley makes numerous versions for whatever your riding fantasies my entail. But at its core, the Sportster is a sit-up-straight standard motorbike with a minimum of frills and a lot of value.

Ducati actually charged into the gap in 1993 with their series of Monster bikes, which despite the name, were essentially mid-powered standards that looked nothing like the standards of old. Their timing was right: Monsters became some of Ducati’s best-selling and most versatile bikes and remain popular today due to their comfort, sharp handling and relative low cost. Now, they’ve upped their game with the Scrambler, another standard-style bike with some throwback style, a lot of modern tech and a splash of off-road capability. It’s got fun written all over it, and the price, at about 8 grand, is just right.

Honda essentially perfected the “standard” motorcycle in 1969 with their CB750, and that same bike soldiered on in various forms, sizes and trim levels until 1983. As mentioned previously, Honda brought back the CB750 in the ‘90s, but it wasn’t until the return of the CB1100 in 2012 that Honda took their iconic “standard” to the next level. Simple, air-cooled and eminently reliable, the “new” CB1100 standard was roundly praised for bringing some sanity back to motorcycling – along with some great classic style.

Will Honda sell a zillion of them just like they did with the CB750 in the 1970s? Not likely. While riders may say they want a do-everything bike, in truth, we tend to buy the specialized machines more closely aligned to our favorite riding style, whether it’s high-speed antics on a sport bike, nation crossing on a burly dual-sport, or loafing down the interstate on a gilded touring rig. We like what we like.

But in our mental garages, there’s always space for that one simple bike that we can just hop on for a quick ride, a bike that moves us in comfort and confidence, even it it’s not the fastest, most stylish or most sophisticated thing on the road.

That’s the appeal of the Standard Motorcycle.