Car Vs. Bike

Car or bike: Who among us hasn’t asked the question? After all, don’t we like practically anything that goes zoom? As long as glistening chrome, shapely metal, a snarling exhaust and a purposeful stance are involved, the resulting machine will likely be irresistible to most of us.

But should it matter if that machine has four wheels, or only two?

Let’s face it, a lot of the same things that draw us to classic and modern sports cars attract us to motorcycles. In garages across the country—including those of several Classic Motorsports staff members—you’ll find cars sharing space with two-wheeled companions. Many a Sunday morning is spent coming to a firm decision on which of the two will provide the most satisfying afternoon drive.

So which is it? Does a car or a motorcycle provide a more complete motoring experience? Obviously we’re a car magazine, but that doesn’t mean we can’t ask the question. It also doesn’t prevent us from doing a little hard research to find the answer.

Triumph vs. Triumph

As luck (and story prep) would have it, we had the perfect setup for this epic battle. In our fleet is a 1969 Triumph TR6 that has undergone a rolling restoration over the past couple of years. Nearly every system in the TR has been replaced or refurbished to create a sophisticated, sporty, reliable classic that can be driven daily. On the other side of the fight card is a thoroughly modern take on a rather timeless classic from the same company. In 1959, Triumph introduced the Bonneville, which was one of the most powerful cycles available to the public at the time. Progress eventually moved the original Bonneville down the performance ladder, but when it was discontinued in 1983, it was still considered one of the company’s great triumphs—if you’ll pardon the pun.

In 2001, Triumph Motorcycles Ltd.—a direct descendant of the original company—brought the Bonneville name back on a thoroughly modern bike that still managed to accurately capture the look and feel of the original. In fact, when the designers and engineers began work on the new version in 1997, they started with a fully restored 1969 Bonneville as a development “jumping-off point.” The modern Bonneville is less an homage than a continuation.

Our contest would be simple: We’d sample both machines and see what we thought. To kick off the festivities, we jumped into the deep end with a 500-plus-mile trek from The Mitty at Road Atlanta back to our Holly Hill, Florida, home base. Our route would use mostly state highways, but we’d throw in some back roads and interstates in the interest of science. If we didn’t learn anything on this trip, we’d need to just turn in our journalist cards.

Two Wheels or Four? Most of us know the simple pleasures of a classic British sports car, even if it’s just because we’ve spent a few brilliant miles behind the wheel of a friend’s car or fondly remember sitting in Mom and Dad’s MG and making racing noises. Classic sports cars are simple machines that produce complex emotional responses—not necessarily because of their sophistication or refinement, but sometimes because of their lack of it. When the top is down and the exhaust is humming, “faults” turn into “character” and strengths are magnified to the point of religion.

For motorcycles, take everything we just said and double it.

Dozens of little factors contribute to the strong appeal of motorcycles. For one, image is certainly a powerful weapon. In the 1950s, motorcycles were the accessory of choice for the rebel—with or without a cause. Bikes were such a strong force that their mere existence created a subculture almost overnight, and by the end of the 1950s biker gangs were one of the main focuses of attention for U.S. law enforcement.

Of course, not all motorcycle enthusiasts are outlaws, but so prevailing is the “bad boy biker” image that it can be hard to tell the difference between a meth dealer and an orthodontist when they’re attending Bike Week. That rebellious aesthetic emanates directly from the two-wheeled contraption snugged between their knees. There was no real question that both vehicles in our test would be high on the cool-meter. It was time for a little compare-and-contrast road trip. We saddled up at Road Atlanta and headed south. ATGATT

That’s right, “All The Gear All The Time.” Why mention this commonly used acronym? Well, we’d be remiss in presenting a motorcycle-themed feature story without addressing some of the safety issues that accompany motorcycling.

We’ll just say it flat out: Bikes are more dangerous than cars. It’s the 800-pound gorilla in any conversation about the subject.

In 2008, 26,689 people were killed while driving or riding in a car that was involved in a collision; that same year, 5290 motorcyclists were killed in accidents. Keep in mind that about 144 million cars are registered in the U.S. versus just 7 million motorcycles. This equates to about one death per 1300 motorcycles, compared to one death per 5400 cars. If you look at even more data, you’ll find that, per mile traveled, you’re about 37 times more likely to die in a motorcycle crash than a car crash.

Sobering, eh? Sadly, the same things that make motorcycles so glorious—the freedom of being completely exposed to the elements; the light, responsive machinery; the unholy power-to-weight ratio—are what make them so much more hazardous than cars. Parse and spin all you want, and blat off ridiculous sayings like “loud pipes save lives” and “helmet laws suck,” but there’s no getting around it: Cars are safer.

Which brings us to the gear part of the equation. When you hop in a car—whether you’re running to the 7-Eleven or across the country—you don’t put a lot of thought into your personal safety. The car takes care of that part of the equation for you. Even many of the older sports cars we love—like the TR6 in this test—have relatively advanced safety measures like three-point seat belts and safety glass.

Cars also surround you with a protective layer of metal, plastic, glass and rubber that will hold up in a crash far better than your own flesh. The choice of gear when behind the wheel of a car is usually not that complex: a sweater on a cool day or a hat on a sunny one.

But not on a bike. While most of the safety systems in a car are passive—devices and technologies designed to help you survive an incident—passive safety on a bike is basically nonexistent. Active safety features like good maneuverability and ridiculously short stopping distances help you avoid trouble, but if you still manage to find it you pretty much have the clothes on your back, the love of Jesus, and your pretty green eyes to save you.

And that’s why the clothes on your back need to protect a bit more than your modesty. “All The Gear All The Time” means that each and every time you throw your leg over a motorcycle, you need to be wearing every piece of protective gear in your arsenal.

For most riders this means good boots that cover the ankle, pants of a heavy fabric with some built-in armor or abrasion protection, a jacket with armor and inserts designed to disperse the force of impacts and abrasions, proper gloves, and a full-faced helmet with a face shield—anything less and you’re making a compromise somewhere. Ride without a helmet, and you’re just an idiot. Now, this is America and all, and we support your right to be an idiot, but you’re still an idiot.

If all of that stuff sounds cumbersome, you’re right. It’s a lot to deal with, and taking the proper safety precautions on a bike means an extra layer of complexity. This was one of the first things we noticed on our road trip.

When we first left Road Atlanta, we were stopping frequently for pictures to take advantage of northern Georgia’s afternoon light. While this was no big deal for the person in the car—just pull over, unbuckle and hop out, then reverse the process when it was time to move out again—whoever had the bike had a bit more of a battle.

There was a helmet and gloves to remove, then the added discomfort of standing around in nearly 100-degree sun while wearing full gear. (Of course, the getup was far more comfortable when the bike was in motion and a 60 mph breeze was blowing.)

When we stopped for more than a quick photo snap, removing the jacket, overpants and other gear—then reversing the process when we got underway again—was a time- and energy-consuming process.

On the Road

Another big difference between cars and motorcycles is cargo capacity. Our TR6 doesn’t have a huge trunk by any stretch of the definition, but it was cavernous in comparison to the storage on the Bonneville—which was basically limited to what we could carry on our person. Obviously touring luggage could pick up some of the capacity slack, but even a large bike would be hard pressed to carry the load that a small car could handle. Now, we’re not really bringing this up because we’re making a value judgment; we’re simply stating fact. If you’re going to travel by motorcycle, learn to travel light.

As for the dynamic experiences these two machines provided, we were stunned not by how different they were, but how similar. With the top down, the TR6 provided a very bike-like panoramic view of the world. Our view of the horizon was 360 degrees with only the windshield to interrupt it, and all five senses were involved in the experience.

On the Bonneville, the same factors held true, but in an even more intense fashion. While we experienced the elements in the topless TR6, we were downright exposed to them on the Bonneville.

Our bodies took in the full force of the wind, sun, rain, bugs, rocks and cigarette butts that crossed our path, and our senses went into overdrive to process all of the information and still get the bike safely down the road. Even for a cautious driver, operating a car under most conditions is not an activity that commands the entirety of your awareness.

Operating a motorcycle, however, is a fully invested activity. In many ways it’s more like driving a race car than a regular car. Besides the additional gear you’re wearing, your brain is putting all of the sensory inputs right at the head of your perception queue.

For many riders, this increases the appeal even further. Sure, every road imperfection, every wind gust, every oil spot and every texting driver moves to the head of the line for your attention. Of course, so does every sunset, every wave along the empty stretch of coastal highway, and every twisty switchback where you lean the bike over just a bit more than you did in the last corner.

Speaking of leaning the bike over, let’s go a bit more in depth about just what it was like to drive these vehicles. We won’t bore you too much with the details on the TR6: It’s a comprehensive restoration that has made a few appearances in this magazine and in British Motoring, the official publication of Moss Motors. However, we will say that while it may be approaching its 40th birthday, this car isn’t showing too many signs of age. The 2.5-liter engine reminded us why we love inline sixes, namely for their broad, climbing torque curve and those wonderful sounds they make when you wind them up just a little.

The TR6 had no problem pulling neatly off of idle, even in fourth gear. The four speed’s shift pattern wasn’t laser precise, but once we learned the exact locations of the individual gears, moving between them was refreshingly smooth—with just enough resistance to remind us that we were operating a mechanical device. The chassis and body are very narrow by modern standards, but despite the lack of elbow room, the interior is spacious and ergonomically proper for most drivers.

Our TR6 also has a folding top, which transforms the open convertible into a rather smart coupe when we preferred not to have wind in our hair. The Bonneville has no such luxury. This became evident when we made a late-night pause on our journey. The driver of the TR6 decided that the moist night air was something best separated from the driving experience, so the top was popped up during a quick stop. The motorcyclist had to press on through the damp atmosphere.

While some large tourers may have heat vents or airflow through the fairings, a pure standard like the Bonneville focuses more on the visceral part of the journey rather than the luxurious part. As such, our only options for dealing with the elements were vents in our clothing and a good washing machine once we got home.

While we’re on the subject of weather, we should mention that there is no wet quite like motorcyle-in-the-rain wet. Falling into a pool does not get you as wet as riding a bike in a storm—it’s just you, your gear and the rain, which at 60 mph is more like a barrage of tiny wet bullets. From a motorcycle in a downpour, a TR6 cloth top looks like a bank vault.

Despite its lack of weatherproofing, the Bonneville is a thoroughly modern window directly to the past. Though the styling cues, stance and details may seem like they were pulled directly from the original Bonnevilles of the ’50s and ’60s, the engineering is thoroughly 21st century.

That doesn’t mean Triumph isn’t proud of the heritage, though. They went so far as to disguise the fuel injection as a set of carburetors—fake float bowls and all. We haven’t met anyone it didn’t fool. Of course, the injected Bonneville starts reliably when cold, hot or anywhere in between, so we’re completely okay with the deception.

Weighing in at just under 500 pounds and with a 58.6-inch wheelbase and 865cc of engine displacement, the Bonneville is squarely in the middleweight division of motorcycles. While it gives away 100 pounds or more to most modern sportbikes, the handling on the 17-inch front and rear wheels is as sporty as it needs to be for this class of bike.

Probably the best word to describe it is “user friendly,” even though that’s two words. It has a steep enough rake (27 degrees) to create some urgency when carving up a back road, but not so much that it becomes nervous when touring.

On our trip, touring—especially on the back roads—is where the Bonneville excelled. On the freeway, the five-speed gearbox felt like it could use another ratio to truly off onto a surface road, however—where we always seemed to be using some of the torque of the parallel twin to negotiate a gentle curve or a slight rise—the Bonneville really shined.

All of the bike’s controls fell easily to hand. The bars were a bit of a reach for our shorter-armed testers, but not so much that they were uncomfortable.

The low 29-inch seat height means that the Bonneville is accessible for riders of nearly any size. Even our shortest riders felt comfortable when at a stop or maneuvering into and out of a parking spot. And just like the fuel injection, the thoroughly modern front and rear disc brakes were a welcome touch of the present wrapped in retro spoked wheels.

The overall impression of the Bonneville, then, was much like that of the TR6. There was a general feeling of confidence and competence in the manners of both vehicles. Like the TR6’s inline six, the 66-horsepower parallel twin also pulled smoothly from idle to redline—although the cycle’s redline was in the 8000 rpm range. With balance shafts, the vibration wasn’t at all intrusive, and our hands and butts were fine after our marathon ride home.

Both vehicles provided a link to the past—a perfectly clear window we could gaze out of to see and even experience what it used to be like. However, neither trapped us in that world. They simply let us enjoy the cool parts and forget about the rest.

So Which One Wins?

Yeah, there’s that whole “choosing one” thing. Look, you probably knew from the outset that there wasn’t going to be a “winner” as such. Bikes and cars are like apples and oranges, and both of those fruits are quite delicious and good for you. That’s the conclusion we seem to be coming to here: It all comes down to enjoying the journey.

Drive a classic sports car over a stretch of road and you’ll have a whole set of memories to savor. You’ll fondly recall the way the sun reflected off of the hood and how the wind came over the top of the windshield. You’ll remember that little crackle in the exhaust every time you shifted and the way the steering got just a little bit heavier when you pushed it into a turn.

Travel the same stretch in a competent, friendly motorcycle and you’ll have a different but no less affecting set of memories to ponder: the wind hitting your chest as you pushed the bike just a little past the posted speed limit; the immediacy of the road, as though your central nervous system were wired directly into the bike; and that fantastic, historic brap from the parallel twin’s peashooter exhaust. The winner? Whoever’s driving either. We highly recommend making room in the garage for six wheels’ worth of fun.

1969 Triumph TR6

Layout: Front engine, rear-wheel drive

Engine: 2498cc OHV inline-6

Horsepower: 104 @ 4500 rpm

Torque: 143 lb.-ft. @ 3000 rpm

Transmission: 4-speed manual

Suspension: Independent w/coil springs front; independent w/coil springs rear

Wheels: 5.5x15-in. front and rear

Brakes: 10.9-in. disc front; 9.0-in. drum rear

Zero to 60: 10.7 sec.

Curb weight: 2390 lbs.

2010 Triumph Bonneville SE

Layout: Mid engine, rear-wheel chain drive

Engine: 865cc air-cooled, DOHC, parallel-twin, 360-degree firing interval

Horsepower: 66 @ 7500 rpm

Torque: 50 lb.-ft. @ 5800 rpm

Transmission: 5-speed sequential manual

Suspension: Kayaba 41mm forks front; Kayaba chromed spring twin shocks

Wheels: w/adjustable preload rear

Brakes: 17x3.0-in. front; 17x3.5-in. rear Single 310mm disc, Nissin 2 piston floating caliper front; Single 255mm disc, Nissin 2 piston floating caliper rear

Zero to 60: 4.5 sec. (est.)

Curb weight: 495 lbs.

But What About an Old Bike?

Wouldn’t it have been more fair to test an old bike against an old Triumph sports car? Probably so, and we happen to have a 1964 Triumph Bonneville in our fleet. Truth is, none of us were willing to ride that bike the 500 miles covered in this comparison.

The Triumph Bonneville was introduced in 1959 and simply turned the motorcycling world upside down. At slightly less than 400 pounds and producing 46 horsepower, it was a light, powerful bike—and top speed was more than 100 mph.

Americans had nothing like it at the time, and the Japanese bike industry was still in its infancy. The Bonneville and its lesser siblings sold like hot cakes to an American market eager for motorcycles.

Comparing the new Bonneville and the classic ’60s Bonneville is not that hard. After all, Triumph purposely gave their new bike the styling cues of the old one. It inherited much of the old bike’s feel and character, too. The 1964 Bonneville isn’t as fast as the new one, but it isn’t much slower, either. Do the math and you’ll see that the old bike’s power-to-weight ratio is closer to that of a 289 Cobra, not a Triumph TR6. The original Bonneville can sprint to 60 mph in 5 or 6 seconds. These early Bonnevilles were highly praised for their handling, however, and they can keep pace with a modern bike once decent tires have been fitted.

When it comes to braking and comfort, however, the old bike falls flat—very flat. The 1964 Bonneville features an all-drum brake system that’s just dreadful. If the bike didn’t have a high-compression engine, riders would never get one to slow down. (And if the chance to sample an old Bonneville ever comes up, don’t forget that the shifter and brake levers are reversed from those found on modern bikes, the new Triumph included.)

The old bike is also quite exhausting to ride. The unrefined ergonomics, flat seat and constant vibration simply wear you down. The new bike looks, feels and to some degree sounds like the old one, and its safety, comfort and braking performance make us eager to trade our old Bonneville for the modern version.

The Triumph Bonneville (above left) helped stand the motorcycle world on its ear, as it combined extra helpings of performance and style. While the looks are still legendary, the performance hasn’t aged so well. By today’s standards, the original Bonneville features lackluster handling and braking. The reintroduced Bonneville, however, cures those deficiencies.

The Price of Cool

We understand that most people aren’t trying to decide whether their sole method of transportation should be a car or a bike. In most cases, it’s a question of which toy to add to the fleet—and how much to spend on it. We’re certainly not against plopping down cash on something fun—we quite support it, as a matter of fact—but we also like to have some idea of how deep a pool we’re jumping into.

Buying In

First comes the cost of the vehicle. For our Triumph TR6, that’s a tricky part of the equation since the cost is going to be directly related to the condition and needs of the particular car. We’ve seen basket cases and parts cars going for a few hundred dollars, while fully restored, concours-quality examples can fetch $25,000. If you’re simply looking for a quality driver, try a California or Arizona car with minimal rust and low original miles. Budget about $8000 to $9000—that seems to be the average for a nice example.

Coincidentally, the MSRP on our two-tone 2010 Bonneville SE is $8599. Maybe we weren’t too far off in comparing these particular machines.

What will change is the long-term value. The bike will depreciate, probably hitting half its MSRP within four to five years. The TR6—assuming you don’t do anything horrible to it—may actually increase in value. Andy Reid, our auction editor, believes that the TR6 is due for a bit of a rebound in the market, a perk for current and near-future owners.

On the Road

Maintenance costs are another big variable with the TR6, as they’re mainly tied to age-related failures. Parts, however, are mostly reasonably priced and readily available from specialty houses.

Our reader services guy, Gary Hunter, owns several TR6s of various conditions and regularly puts thousands of miles on them each year. His regular “travel spares” kit consists of a fuel pump rebuild kit (about $30), a couple U-joints (the TR6 has six of them at $15 to $20 each), the ignition points and condenser (Gary runs PerTronix ignitions but keeps the old parts as a backup) and some assorted hoses. The takeaway message is that a well-maintained TR6 is a pretty reliable car that’s relatively benign on the wallet. Your costs will mostly reflect basic periodic maintenance.

The real killer is age. Rust and miles will eventually begin to take their toll, and the bills will start to pile up once you’re replacing rockers and floors or rebuilding engines and transmissions.

For the bike, you have the benefit of newness on your side. Our local Triumph dealer reports no real issues with modern Bonnevilles, save for the odd cam cover leak on the 2004-’05 models. Fortunately, it’s an easily rectified problem.

Maintenance on a new bike will be largely decided by mileage. Your first two checks will be mostly nut-and-bolt affairs along with some greasing and oil changing. Our local dealer requires 2 hours of labor at $85 per hour for these routine checks plus the cost of parts.

Tires are another expense, and the bike will probably go through them faster than the car. A Bonneville will need new tires after roughly 10,000-15,000 miles, and they go for about $120 each. The TR6’s tires may well age out before they wear out, so budget for new rubber every five or six years—no matter how many miles have been covered. Expect to pay a little more than $600 to put new sneakers on a TR6.

Insurance is another one of your fixed costs, and also one that we found to be shockingly similar for both vehicles. We found plans starting around $30 per month for the bike and $40 per month for the car. (The convertible top on the TR6 hurts it a bit in the insurability department.) These are pretty bare-bones plans with steep deductibles, but plenty of options are available with more coverage and a lower deductible.

A Budget Winner?

Well, there’s no clear budget winner, either. Whether you choose the bike or the car, you’ll probably spend about the same amount to keep either one on the road.

The bike does get better mileage—we observed 40 mpg on our trip from Atlanta to Daytona for the Bonneville and 22 mpg for the TR6—but that’s only a $200 or $300 difference based on 5000 miles per year.

Perhaps the only material difference in cost, barring any unusual incidents, involves gear. Someone buying their first motorcycle will have to gear up, and that can be a costly proposition. Just the basics needed to get on the road—helmet, gloves, boots and jacket—can easily top $500. That figure can increase dramatically when you start getting stuff that’s even remotely stylish or more comfortable.

Here’s the bottom line: You’re not going to justify either choice with your wallet. This is, at its heart, an emotional contest. Why should we confuse things by being practical?

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A Compelling Argument From Our Friends at Motorcycle Classics

Motorcycle Classics is aimed at the enthusiast who prefers an extra dose of nostalgia: wire wheels, chrome accents and that perfect snarl. Wondering if a vintage bike is for you? Richard Backus, the magazine’s editor in chief, makes some good arguments for adding a bike to the stable:

Nothing beats the feeling of the wind in your face as you bend through a corner on your perfectly fettled 1973 Norton 850 Commando, its mighty parallel twin emitting a soulful, oh-so-seductive bellow. And while cars may offer a modicum of protection, an old roadster isn’t much better in a driving rainstorm than an old bike. When it comes to beating the summer sun, an old bike is almost better. As long as you’re moving, the engine heat gets carried far from your legs. That’s not something you can say for a lot of old roadsters, as they tend to make like an oven and bake you when the going gets hot.

While some people may argue that the car offers more safety elements, a lap belt and zero mph bumpers aren’t much protection against a 5300-pound Cadillac Escalade. Me, I’ll take the superior maneuverability and power-to-weight ratio of a motorcycle every time. Throw in the fact that an old bike is generally cheaper to buy, restore and own, and it’s a no-brainer: Give me a bike, every time!

Learn more about Motorcycle Classics—and maybe order a subscription here.

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View comments on the CMS forums
12/10/13 5:22 p.m.

Among our other vehicles my wife drives her beloved 1950 MGTD and rides her 1971 Honda CB350 Four nearly year round in, almost always, sunny Northern California. We restored both and they look like new but are definitly drivers with not a lot of power but a lot of fun. Drive 'em and ride 'em - don't hide 'em.

12/10/13 6:37 p.m.

The obvious answer is to use the bike for quick adrenalin fixes and four wheels for the longer jaunts. This keepw the classic Triumph Bonneville, BSA 750, or Honda 305 Super Hawk (my personal want) tolerable, which longer stints on the saddle don't. Six hours on even the most comfortable motorcycle is really overexposure to the elements.
In 2001 I drove my 76 MGB from Memphis, Tennessee to Saint Joseph, Missouri. It's a distance of 600 miles, taking the short route diagonally across Missouri rather than the Interstates, I-55, I-70 and I-29. It was the week before Sturgis and the route from Memphis to Springfield to Kansas City is the central corridor for those bound to the Black Hills Moto-festival. It cuts through the Ozarks and has some of the nicest curvy four lanes in the entire region. About every ten miles there is another delightful village to slow down for and maybe stop for a meal or shopping. Even doing the 60 mph speed limit is fun, but the traffic generally exceeds that by 10 to 15 miles an hour which is... a beautiful sensation. I came up behind a group of ten or fifteen riders. My wife was driving our other car and leading the way. She passed the entire group, which was doing the speed limit in the right lane. The weather was perfect, 70 degrees and Simpson skies. The late afternoon Sun's golden tones washed the tree lined road way. As I cruised by the woman on the back of the last bike in the parade looked with the greatest longing at my empty passenger seat.

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