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As the founder and lead designer at a very small motorcycle manufacturer that often gets called “retro”, I’ve been pondering what that term means for quite some time. I believe there is more to be said on this, but here are some thoughts on the term and why our motorcycles look the way they do and are made the way they are.     – R.W.

While our sales and marketing team are happy to let people call our bikes whatever they wish (I can’t complain either if they enjoy them), for some reason I’ve always been uncomfortable with the term “retro”. I have a special appreciation of vintage vehicles, especially from the early 20th century and love studying their history and the way they seem to have a life of their own. As a child, I sketched designs for cars and motorcycles based on the lines of the vintage automobiles, airplanes, boats, and motorcycles that fascinated me in books and at vintage events. Yet this appreciation wasn’t simply because they were old.

The Halcyon 450 in Black with Gold and red pinstriping.

I believe there is more to the story than that simple nostalgia or a superior interplay between form and function can explain this fascination with “old” designs. What made me appreciate these vehicles was that they represented something beyond practicality. Even in their own era, these masterpieces of craftsmanship and ingenuity were engaged in an endeavor with a uniquely human appeal: the desire for auto-locomotion, the innate human urge to move ourselves when and where we want to go.

Practicality and boredom go hand in hand. Remarkable vehicles with the ability to excite our imagination cannot by their nature be boring (or wholly practical), and typically require significant involvement and skill to operate. They offer, not simply the ability to move us from one place to another, but the thrilling sensation of doing so according to our whims and under our own command. Life is overspecified and determinate enough as it is. It is only natural to find value in some level of exposure and a certain requirement of skill, just as it is to yearn for unexpected discovery and the thrill of mastering a challenge.  

Think of a Bentley 4-1/2, a Bugatti Type 35, a Brough Superior SS100 Pendine, a Vincent Black Shadow, or even the more mass produced vehicles that somehow maintained a unique and enriching character in the face of efficiency like my first car, the ever-so-much fun air-cooled VW Beetle. Like a wooden boat, these are objects that require attention and engagement, rewarding us with their sounds, smells, vibrations, and interaction, almost as though they have a life of their own. In fact, to ignore any of these mechanical communications can spell disaster.


The Bentley 4-1/2 that took 3rd at the 1929 24 Hours of Le Mans.

It is not then merely the aesthetics of these iconic machines that sets them apart as objects of  inspiration and imitation. These are mechanical contraptions capable of transforming their rider or driver into a “pilot”. By pilot, I mean the opposite of a passenger in a train or airplane, hustled along in a queue, a slave to a larger, bureaucratic hierarchy. A pilot must have a level of knowledge, skill, and daring, not only to operate the machine, but to encounter the world on their own terms and schedule. To be a pilot in this sense is to take full responsibility for one’s actions and to revel in an experience of freedom from the constraints of practicality and conformity that is rarely available today. 

It has been argued that the modern “retro” movement is the result, not of an existing or nascent style, but of the category-creating vision of designers and brands such as Triumph with their reincarnated Bonneville model of 2001. In this vision, it was a spontaneous idea on the part of designers or an organic, cyclical return to a previous era that fostered the “retro” fashion. 

Yet I think the stronger argument is that the “retro” design trend has been an attempt to answer a desire for something different, something that found the modern riding/driving experience to be lacking. During the period leading up to the new Bonneville, new VW Beetle, new Mini, and the regrettable PT Cruiser, HHR, Camero, etc. the motorcycle (and car) market had by gradual degrees reached a point of stagnation.

The 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser

A common theme among the moto-journalists I have been privileged to meet and work with is that by the 1990’s, the motorcycle market had reached a point of saturation when it came to speed, power, comfort, and efficiency. The performance differences between one model year and the next and one marque and its competitor had been reduced to infinitesimal differences like 2mph or some other metric that even these experienced journalists were unable to feel. Maybe Eddie Lawson could appreciate it, but even for the expert critic or the average consumer they were writing for, the only difference was a less and less obvious “perceived value“ in having certain technical features or performance figures that couldn’t even be felt by the rider. 

Or on the practical end, vehicles had become so quiet, safe, and devoid of character, that they had entirely lost the thrill that older, more visceral machines had in spades. The problem is that the automotive and powersports industry has forgotten why people ride or drive in the first place. The business model, design, manufacturing process, marketing, and driving experience of the modern vehicle has come to place all its focus on maximization of efficiency to the extent that the primary concern with the experience of driving is to make it as unremarkable as possible.

The minimalist leading-link front end of the Janus Halcyon 250.

What is the difference between a self-driving car and a train in terms of our experience? Convenience and nothing more. In both instances we are merely passengers whose primary expectations are of comfort and punctuality. The sounds, smells, vibrations, and interactions of a real vintage machine would be entirely unacceptable flaws in the modern automotive industrial expectation. This is why dressing up a modern car in “retro” bodywork fails to answer its own challenge. It is a trend and nothing more.

What we were trying to do at Janus Motorcycles is to create vehicles that are more than “retro”. We seek to build vehicles that, while amply capable of the tasks of modern transportation and the entirely reasonable expectations of reliability and comfort, deliver what “retro” models never can: the transformational experience of piloting a machine, of the direct connection of the mind, throttle, clutch, shifter, and handlebars. Our lightweight, approachable machines seek to distill this experience of the “pilot” to the everyday opportunity of the modern rider by honing in on the visceral, immediate sensation of riding.

Your’s truly with a very special Brough Superior SS100 in Jay Leno’s garage.

We are not interested in recreating a bygone era whose reality is probably nothing like our rosy-tinted vision of today. What we are trying to do is create a machine that offers the experience, companionship, and genuine thrill that the greatest automobiles and motorcycles of the past one hundred years have been able to deliver. To do so, we have to start by throwing the mass-manufactured, efficient, practical attitude of the modern automotive industry out the window. We seek to craft remarkable machines from scratch, from the very concept and ride experience though to the design and aesthetics, and then all the way to the manufacturing process. 

All of the parts we make, which is everything but specialty proprietary parts like engine, shocks, and lighting are made within about 25 miles of our shop, in many cases by Amish craftsmen using WWII-era equipment running off the power grid. We make our own chassis components and fenders; paint all our own pinstriping, the list goes on. All this goes into making a bike that seeks, not to feed our nostalgia for a bygone era, but to defy the modern preoccupation with specifications, efficiency, and practicality that has dominated the market for decades.

Sir Alec Issigonis standing next to the first Mini and a new 1965 Morris Mini Minor Deluxe.

Our goal is to take advantage of our lightweight, agile brand to do what modern OEMs simply cannot afford (or imagine): to build transformative vehicles that hone in on the impractical reason we choose to ride a motorcycle in the first place.

Yes, if you want to get from point A to point B as efficiently and comfortably as possible, buy a Tesla, or if you want a modern car with “retro” looks and modern bland efficiency, buy a new Mini. Remember, however, that the inventor of the original Mini Cooper, the great designer Sir Alec Issigonis, refused to allow radios in his cars as he believed that they detracted from the driving experience. But who rides a motorcycle, at least here in the States, for purely practical reasons, really? We argue that the answer is no one.