Singing the praises of the unsung, bigging up the underrated and giving top exposure to the underdogs... Visordown's ultimate Cult Motorcycle classics
Question: Which motorcycles do you consider to be the quintessential classics of history?
The Ducati 916? The Honda Super Cub? The Vespa? Perhaps... except, the downside of being immortalised is over time this list of classic motorcycles becomes a touch, how do I put it… ‘obvious’..
So, what about the underrated unsung underdogs of the industry?
The quirky oddballs, the motorcycles that identify as a bit ‘Alt’... or, as we put it, cult motorcycles.
So, while these cult classics may not be the ‘best’ motorcycles ever made, these curios have had their legacies preserved for good reason.
CLICK HERE for #12 to #7 in Part 1
Nothing says ‘cult classic’ more dramatically than a motorcycle with a reputation so notorious as a handful to ride that it became known as ‘the widow maker’.
The two-wheel equivalent of that super extreme chilli sauce you’re going to try despite its health warning, early versions of the Suzuki TL1000S quickly became renowned for being unpredictable and tricky to ride.
At the heart of the issue was the TL1000S’ revolutionary but also, as it turned out, flawed, rotary damper rear suspension that Suzuki had developed as a way of negating the longer wheelbase required to squeeze in its 90-degree V-Twin engine.Related Articles
Together with its ultra sharp geometry, Suzuki had successfully achieved its aim of keeping the TL1000S compact…
However, it also made it too tail-happy on the road. It forced Suzuki to retro-fit a steering damper, but not before the damage had been done to its reputation.
Twenty-five years on, however, many look back on the TL1000S as an antidote to today’s modern, tech-tethered sportbikes… both as a reminder of how raw a high performance motorcycle can be, but also why safety first is always better.
It’s not often you see the words ‘Ducati’ and ‘flop’ in the same sentence, yet it happens very occasions, as demonstrated by the Ducati SportClassic, which represents an embarrassing rarity in the Italian firm’s illustrious timeline.
Previewed in 2003, the SportClassic represented a ‘modern classic’ throwback to the 1970s with designer Pierre Terblanche taking inspiration from Mike Hailwood’s against-the-odds 1978 Isle of Man TT winning Ducati 900 for this 21st century reimagining.
However, while the angular 900 was modern-looking for its day, the SportClassic bore little resemblance with its traditional looks and bulbous proportions.
Designed for lazier pursuits, the SportClassic perhaps didn’t quite fit with Ducati’s DNA but it was attractive, enjoyable to ride and desirable in its own way..
Nevertheless, the SportClassic wasn’t a hot seller so just three years after it was launched, it was quietly dropped.
Nevertheless, as is often the case with ‘misunderstood’ motorcycles (aka. cult motorcycles), the SportClassic has gone on to find a posthumous following, one that hasn’t stopped petitioning Ducati for its return…
While Husqvarna’s recent history is rather blighted by its confused identity - a symptom of its revolving door of owners that has lurched from Cagiva to BMW and now to KTM over the last 15 years - the Swedish firm has nonetheless still pulled some quality, yet underrated, models out of the bag in that time, chiefly the Nuda.
While its tenure under the steer of BMW was brief - just six years between 2007 and 2013 - Husqvarna association with the German giants did give rise to this cheekily-titled, sharply-styled naked based on the decidedly gawky BMW F800.
While today it doesn’t take long to recognise the KTM origins once you look a little closer to Husqvarna’s current range, with BMW the connection was barely noticeable, so much so the more engaging Nuda was arguably superior to the F800.
With an edgy look inspired by its supermoto heritage and evoking the spirit of Steve McQueen on his beloved 400 Cross, the Nuda was such a statement on its own that it was hard to believe it emerged from the frumpy F800.
Even the engine was different, with Husqvarna enlarging the unit to 898cc and upping power to 105bhp.
However, the Nuda was also difficult to categorise, being too wild a supermotard in a conservative naked class, while it was too conventionally naked to be regarded as a gnarly supermotard.
By lacking kudos at one end and a hooligan image at the other, it meant the Husqvarna Nuda was ultimately a slow seller back then. Today though, it’s a cult star.
indeed, when we featured the Nuda among Visordown’s ‘Top 10 Flops That Deserve A Second Chance’ feature late last year, of the ten motorcycles featured it was the Husqvarna that received the biggest endorsement as an unsung gem.
Proof once again that sometimes we just don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone…
With electric power coming to sound the death knell for the internal combustion engine, the changes on the horizon serve as a reminder of how ubiquitous ICE technology has been over the last century… and how it killed alternative approaches, such as the rotary engine.
Compact, light, high-revving, there are multiple attributes within rotary technology that make them superior to an ICE on a motorcycle, perhaps even enough to offset the compromises of oil consumption and iffy durability.
After Suzuki tried and failed in the 1970s, rotary remained dormant for more than a decade until Norton was convinced by Brian Crighton to choose a different route for RCW588 race bike, which eventually developed into the roadgoing F1.
With its big wraparound bodywork, squared-off lines and menacing black livery with subtly popped by iconic JPS gold decals, the rotary Norton F1 is as dark, mysterious and deliciously desirable today as it was in 1991.
Existing during a golden age of sportbikes where a game of one-upmanship between the Japanese giants was moving the game on rapidly, the F1 stood up those comparisons just as comfortably as it stood apart as a curio, an exclusive one at that.
Alas, the F1 wouldn’t be the motorcycle to popularise rotary tech, with its brief resurrection beginning and ending with Norton in the early-90s.
However, by existing as one of the most uniquely engineered motorcycles ever made, the legend of both the Norton F1 and rotary tech will forever endure in cult folklore
At a time when e-scooters are all the rage as convenient, practical and easy-to-use modes of transportation, we think Honda is missing a trick by not reviving the brilliant little Honda Motocompo.
Even the origins of this quirky, adorable fold-up scooter qualifies the Motocompo for this rundown. Developed in the spirit of ‘things you didn’t know you needed in your life’ the Motocompo was pitched as an accessory option on the subcompact Honda City car.
With the City being designed specifically around its dimensions, the Motocompo - dubbed ‘trabai’ or ‘trunk bike’ - essentially a mirroring two-wheel equivalent of the City’s small, light and easy urban credentials.
When paired with the City, the Motocompo seemed a rather superfluous machine, one that took up all the boot space in your car, thus perhaps didn’t quite serve the purpose Honda intended.
However, when you separate the two and view the Motocompo on its own, its cult appeal couldn’t be more evident.
So while it looked like a sewing machine on wheels when folded, once unfurled the Motocompo charmed as a dinky, low slung scooter that was never anything less than a giddy hoot to ride… so long as you didn’t go too far.
Together with its fire engine red finish, retro typeface and unique packaging, the Motocompo’s legacy lives on today as one of the weirdest and most wonderful two-wheelers ever made.
Maybe it is because Cagiva is no longer an active motorcycle brand
Or because the Italians - until recently, anyway - had had enough of playing in the dirt.
Or because the era of snap, crackle and pop pocket-size two-strokes is no more.
Whatever it is, all we know is it’s difficult to look back at the Cagiva Elefant and Cagiva Mito without pining for these unassuming icons of their era.
We’ll swerve attempts to synopsise Cagiva’s complex history of owning and being owned by multiple brands over time, but for sure the Elefant ‘traille’ off-roader and Mito mini sportsbike were its finest moments as two models that epitomise what it means to be a cult motorcycle. So much so, we’ve given them equal footing atop this rundown.
A desert-road dual-sport motorcycle equipped with a Ducati V-Twin engine in most of the many guises it was available, the Cagiva Elefant was a curious creation with a cute name.
However, it had charm in droves, the slab-side, utilitarian rally-raid inspired looks appearing rugged, yet unintentionally fashionable too, while the injection of Ducati DNA gave it plenty of character on the road too.
The Elefant was also capable off it, as represented by its status-affirming victories in the Paris-Dakar Rally with the Lucky Strike-liveried Elefant 900, a machine that has matured into such an icon today, it’s as much of a head-turner as anything exotic…
Which is fitting since Cagiva’s other opus - the Mito - was the piccola mini-me version of the Ducati 916, arguably the most exotic motorcycle of all time.
While one might consider imitating one of the world’s most beautiful motorcycles before then shrinking it down to pint-size to be sacrilege, in reality the Cagiva Mito was the perfect tribute as a stylishly affordable, easy to ride, eager to please urban runaround.
Indeed, as far as facsimiles go, the Mito is well-judged, right down to the GP-spec handling and two-stroke zip that could give you just as many goosebumps darting through the city streets as a Ducati gives you on the open road.
Alas, with the two-stroke era halted by tightening emissions regulations, the end of the Mito in 2012 also meant the end of Cagiva… at least for now.
After all, that’s the thing about ‘cult’ figures… they can never die. In fact, many - one day - return…
CLICK HERE for #12 to #7 in Part 1