Motorcycle types quickly explained for the uninitiated

Just as the route to a full UK licence is about as clear as mud, so too is the categorisation of motorcycles for new riders. Here’s a quick orientation for beginners:

Moped. Simply the legal definition of a machine with less than a 50cc cylinder capacity and a maximum speed limited to 28mph. A scooter can therefore also be classed as a moped – nice and confusing, especially for BBC journalists who consistently report all scooter-based crime as ‘Moped Crime.’ But why the 28mph speed limit? Because common sense legislation suggests 28mph is safe. At 29 mph a 16-year old rider may simply explode.

Honda Vision 50 - also, confusingly, a scooter and a moped. Added value.
Honda Vision 50 – a Scooter and a Moped in one. Added value.

Scooter. For riders of a certain age, Scooter can only ever refer to a comic small wheeled machine like a Vespa. But Scooter has now morphed into an umbrella term covering everything from the teenager’s twist n’ go to the venerable Honda Cub. If you really must nail it down, the Scooter’s overriding premise is ‘convenience in everything’ – from shopping to armed street robbery.

Honda SH125i
Honda SH125i – Jewels from heist fit neatly in top box

Commuter. Dull but worthy tool designed with practicality in mind, having nothing to mark it out other than a special type of inbuilt unattractiveness that’s hard to put your finger on. A typical Commuter measures 500cc, giving a balance of adequate if unwilling performance, parsimonious thirst and the creation of a slight but persistent feeling of inadequacy tinged with regret in its work-bound rider.

Kawasaki's ER5. It stands for 'Extreme Reluctance five times a week'.
Kawasaki’s ER5. It means ‘Extreme Reluctance, multiplied by 5’.

Roadster. An unprepossessing, unfaired, softly-tuned, comfortable road bike designed for average use. Not cutting edge but quite capable nonetheless. What’s the difference between a roadster and a commuter you ask? The term Roadster implies some form of enjoyment awaits the rider. The term Commuter does not.

Honda's CBF600 Hornet. Added fun factor
Honda’s CBF600 Hornet. Does everything a plain jane commuter does, only you want to ride it at the weekend too.

Naked Bike: Any bike without a wind-cheating fairing. Some say it’s largely the same as Roadster – essentially correct, but it’s a useful term for when two closely related bikes exist, one with and one without a fairing. Strip the plastic from a Honda Blackbird for example, re tune its engine, toss out a balance shaft and add some ugly air scoops fashioned by an especially untalented child and what you’re left with is the ‘Naked’ Honda X11. This class is mostly about the manufacturer leaving off stuff they tell you is absolutely essential in other categories, then charging you for the result.

Honda's X11 is based on their fully faired Super Blackbird
For those who felt the Blackbird wasn’t exciting enough, now with arm-wrenching wind blast.

Street Bike: A bike you use on the street, duh. Not clear why they couldn’t just leave the much more generic Road Bike category alone. (This is likely the reason I don’t work in marketing.)

Maxi Scooter. The Maxi-Scooter is a kind of rage-filled steroid-enhanced fluffy bunny rabbit that retains the fully automatic twist n’ go transmission of its regular sized counterparts only with a much, much bigger engine. Styling can be be Gordon Gekko business-tycoon a la Suzuki Burgman, or you can go the full dad-you’re-embarrassing-me route with Yamaha’s sporty T Max.

Maxi-Scooters are mostly greeted by an inner howl of contempt when encountered by regular motorcyclists, but learn this lesson once: never blip your throttle at a waiting Maxi Scooter. Getting humiliated at the traffic light Grand Prix by a guy riding a Burgman with one hand while he simultaneously eats a BLT with the other is pretty hard for most motorcyclists to take.

Suzuki Burgmann 650 Executive. Never be late for the office again.
Suzuki Burgmann 650 Executive. See you at the water cooler. Loser.

Classic: What exactly is the definition of a Classic Bike? If anyone can repeat this in a room full of enthusiasts and stay for more than say ten minutes without wanting to stick themselves with a fork, I salute you.

Some argue it should remain a term for bikes which are (and I use this term advisedly) ‘old’. Others are more flexible and allow the artistic bastardisation Modern Classic. In actual fact, outside the confines of an insurance policy stipulation a Classic exists largely in the eye of the beholder. You might describe a 2017 Royal Enfield Bullet as a Classic because it looks retro. You might equally call a 1990 Honda VFR750 one for its engineering finesse, include an Eighties Suzuki Katana for its period look or even find space for the BSA Bantam because your postman rode one and he was a nice chap. In the end, accept it’s a movable feast and slowly back out of the room.

Not all of our classic designs were nicked from the Germans. Just the good ones
Not all great British designs were nicked from the Germans. But this one was.

Sports Bike: “Sports Bikes are large capacity machines capable of being tamed only by elite, experienced riders”. Mmm. Not quite. Sports Bikes don’t have to be fast per se (you can have a 125cc Sports Bike: engine size is irrelevant) and they definitely don’t have to be ridden by experts – in fact quite often the opposite is true.

A sports bike is more accurately typified by its adoption of race-bred technology in the pursuit of the optimal mix of handling, braking and engine performance at the ultimate expense of the comfort of its rider. In Sports Bike world, going fast comes first.

Despite the comfort disadvantage, Sports Bikes remain the perennial calendar girls of the motorcycle industry. They represent the pinnacle of technological development and every new model released is relentlessly poked and prodded in a way other motorcycles are not. This is partly the reason they’re so good.

Honda’s CBR900 Fireblade: used the rule book as toilet paper, left the seat up on the way out

Sports Tourer: The problem with being calendar girl is there’s always somebody younger waiting to take your place. And so it is with Sports Bikes. Despite the yearly cycle of stronger engine performance, sharper handling and more embarrassing graphics, the older Sports Bike tends to lose its meaning in what remains a hugely a competitive class.

Enter the Sports Tourer category: originally a sort of grazing area for gone-lame sports bikes which manufacturers couldn’t financially write off just because some influential bike magazine decided what they’d tested a year ago and was ‘amazing’ was fit for the glue factory just 12 months later.

Here then, is where all that race-developed technology finally becomes usable for everyday riders. Sports Tourers maintain the guts of the Sports Bike developed engines but re-tuned for more usable mid range power – right where you need it on the road. Fuller fairings are used for better wind protection, the seat to peg distance and bar reach is human and the suspension more road compliant.

The Sports Touring category has long surpassed being the knackers yard for sports bikes and machines are now developed from scratch. What are they like to ride? Like the most exciting armchair you ever sat in is what.

Honda VFR800F. And to think all those years ago its predecessor was first thought of as a sports bike.
Honda VFR800F. If this was years ago you’d stick a number on it, lockwire the sump plug, tape over the headlights and win the production TT on it.

Adventure: A relatively new class that arose from clear technological need (Kidding! I meant fashion).

Adventure Bikes (ADV bikes as North Americans call them) are the Range Rovers of the biking world. By this I mean they’re technically capable of going off road but being so incredibly ungainly and costly to repair, only the few will ever take them there.

Typified by the long running BMW GS class, early adventure bikes like the R80GS were practical no-frills machines designed for easy riding, repair and durability. Alas plodding around the world at 45mph and shitting in bushes didn’t sell BMW many bikes. At least it didn’t until Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman did it – and a newly lucrative class was born.

If you follow the lineage, the appearance of the ADV bike is mostly down to legendary Jupiter’s Travels writer Ted Simon. His bike – a humble 500cc 1970s Police issue Triumph Tiger 100 defined the original term before marketing departments got wind of its potential. In his time it simply meant ‘a bike on which you had an adventure.’

“Hello Timbuktu BMW? Yes, I need a Lambda sensor for an ’09 GS12….Hello?”

Trail: (Also see Dual Sport in the US.) Trail Bikes range from 50cc but tend to top out at around 650cc – the maximum engine size that’s really required for what is essentially a lightweight and practical non-competitive off-road bike. Pre Ewan, Trail Bikes were where it was at for adventuring and were developed and marketed off the back of the influential Paris Dakar desert race. Typified by their durable low-tuned single cylinder engines, long travel suspension and basic Mungo-hit-widda-hammer repair utility, Trail Bikes are the polar opposite of a modern tech-marinated Adventure Bike.

Go to example? Yamaha’s legendary XT600E.

Just add desert.
Just add desert.

Off Road. Does what it says on the tin but there are many subspecies to get confused about from Trials (ultra controllable for low speed technical off road manoeuvres) to Scrambler (rapid, with long travel suspension designed for competitive racing over man-made short-course terrain).

Off road bikes must be light so typically feature small capacity engines from 125 – 250cc. While historic British scramblers were largely 4 stroke, Japanese and European scramblers developed lightweight high powered 2 stroke engines throughout the Seventies which until recently ruled the roost. Unsurprisingly, less polluting 4 stroke thumpers are now making a comeback.

Despite the seat, it’s not really designed for sitting on

Cruiser: The classic American look, closely related to the mid-century Harley Davidson and since copied by just about everyone else.

Cruisers can be any size but the bulk of them have enormous capacity V twin engines for reasons related largely to the nice noise they make and the effortless power they produce at lower revs – which is where they should be ridden. Low tuned engines, low seat heights, feet forward riding position, soft suspension, fat tyres and lazy angles make for a stable slow steering and long lasting machine.

While Harleys invoke scorn from many riders of performance bikes (even Hells Angels’ legend Sonny Barger claimed Honda made a better machine) there’s a reason cruiser riders look smug whatever model they own: they’re actually nice to ride.

Honda Shadow. If Sonny Barger likes Honda, mock at your peril.

Custom. Not be confused with Factory Custom (a kind of acceptable contradiction in terms), a Custom is any motorcycle modified – perhaps significantly – from its original factory state either mechanically or visually. Some manufacturers continue to breach this code by calling new bikes Customs, but what can you do. They never answer my emails. Includes Cafe Racer, Chopper, Bobber, Brat and myriad other currently popular terms people needlessly put in Ebay adverts while trying to sell the unsellable.

Out in the world of proper non-factory customisation, there are scenes for everything from the humble Honda Cub to the Yamaha V-Max. It’s an addictive hobby and a good way to learn how to wrench.

Japan's Bosozoku gang scene do Custom a little differently
Japan’s Bosozoku motorcycle gangs do Custom a little differently

Tourer. Large capacity road bike typified by BMW’s RT series with built in luggage, protective fairing and a windscreen that actually works as intended, allowing the rider to keep going all day without having to visit a Proctologist at the end of it.

Touring Bike engines tend to be big, lazy and durable; riders the same. Tourers may look ungainly but they are actually incredibly practical. Downsides? Beard use is almost mandatory to complete the ‘look’, making them a less practical proposition for female riders.

Just add top box
Shaving kit is not offered as an official BMW accessory

Streetfighter. A type of custom bike popular in the UK and a notable subset of Custom

Appeared after a sudden glut of crashed sports bikes began arriving in breakers in the Nineties due to the high cost of fairing panel replacements and marginal skill levels of returning riders.

Despite their write-off status, many damaged bikes remained perfectly functional, with superb engines and running gear unharmed beneath mangled plastic. Armed with the recycling nous of a Green Party activist and a bag of spanners, canny builders created the Streetfighter – motorcycling’s gift to a sustainable planet.

A Streetfighter builder’s bread and butter work is to remove damaged fairing parts, swap clip-on bars for a wider flat set and graft on a new headlight to replace the fairing-mounted original. The result is a beserk looking street screamer that’ll make you grin ‘til your breakfast comes out. Manufacturers got wind of this and created – surprise – the Naked class. People in sheds 1, Manufacturers 0.

Happy builder Sideshow Bob's Streetfighter
Grinning builder Sideshow Bob’s Streetfighter – a classic of the breed

And finally…

UJM – If you happen to pick up any classic motorcycle magazine and run across these letters without explanation, what the writer is referring to is the Universal Japanese Motorcycle.

This slightly derogatory term refers to a design of motorcycle which became popular in the Seventies from Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki which closely followed the British Bike Industry smashing mould of Honda’s own CB750.

The UJM is therefore a mid to large capacity road bike with an across-the-frame, air cooled, overhead cam in-line four cylinder engine that’s so good it can raze an entire domestic motorcycle industry to the ground. (The last bit is important to the definition by the way.)

Suzuki GS1000E. The UJM defined.
Suzuki GS1000E. “It wasn’t me”


  1. very good – At 29 mph a 16-year old rider may simply explode.haha

    i get the impression that the current, and now quite long lasting, vogue for aggressively styled naked street bikes was something that became fashionable in the mediterranean areas, particularly the south of france and italy. it then spread to europe but it does make sense in freezing damp uk conditions and i look forward to the time when we get decent fairings back. i like to see the engine but at the same time don’t especially relish being blown off the back.

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