Interview: Richard Backus

Richard Backus of Motorcycle Classics magazine
Richard Backus is the editor of Motorcycle Classics (est. 2005), the bimonthly US magazine for lovers of older bikes. You can also read his thoughts in the Black Side Down blog and when he’s not writing, he’s riding his beloved Laverda RGS.

What was the first motorcycle you bought with your own money? A 1971 Kawasaki 125 scrambler. It belonged to an older guy who kept it strapped to the front of his motor home. I was 18 and it was five years old. If I remember, it only had something like 300 miles on it because he never rode it. The paint looked like crap from the beating it had taken doing duty as his motor home’s de facto paint protector, but it ran perfectly. I loved that bike; it was small, light, easy to control and really taught me a lot about pushing the limits. The penalty for failure’s a lot lower when the bike’s underpowered!

What do you think is the most beautiful production motorcycle ever built? That’s a bit of a moving target because it depends on my mood. Two bikes come to mind right now; the Norton Manx [first below] because it’s the definitive bad-ass Brit single and won more races than you can believe, continuing deep into the 1960s long after it went out of production in 1962, and quite frankly my 1983 Laverda RGS [second below] because of its lusty three-cylinder engine and its incredible suit of clothes. It looks brilliant and goes pretty brilliantly, too. I love it.

Sven O. Gunnarson's Norton Manx, pictured in 2005
Laverda RGS
What motorcycle do you despise? Boss Hoss. I mean, really, those aren’t motorcycles, at least not the way I think of them. Why anyone would want to ride a 1,110-pound-plus leviathan is beyond me. It’s the antithesis of what I think motorcycling is all about.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? Aside from getting to spend time with my family and hanging out in my shop drinking a nice stout or India Pale Ale while fiddling with an old motorcycle, I love riding my mountain bike with my 14-year-old son Charlie on the trails not far from where I live. I’m outside, it’s quiet, but it’s physically invigorating. I love it.

Electric motorcycles: Yes or No? Yes, absolutely. I’m not really drawn to them personally because I’m too stuck in the previous century and the world of internal combustion, but they deliver a kind of performance normal people can really use. For getting from A to B in an urban setting they make perfect sense. For touring, not so much if only because of range issues. But no electric bike will ever have the soul of a Ducati or a Harley, it’s just not possible.

What is your favorite journey? Trite as it sounds, the one I haven’t taken. I love heading out on new roads to new destinations. Discovery is a great thing, and that’s one of the great draws of the road, especially on a motorcycle because the discovery is always so multi-faceted. When you’re cocooned in a car you only get a certain dimension, but when you expose yourself more as on a bike, it’s a different proposition.

Which everyday modern bikes do you think will become future classics? The equivalent of the Honda CB750 or Moto Guzzi V7 Sport, if you like? That’s a tough one, because it’s hard to interpret future perspectives of contemporary elements. That said, I think the Ducati Paso [below], assuming it’s not already a classic, will definitely be one. It’s not really an “everyman’s” bike, but … I also think the current crop of retro classics will be viewed favorably. Royal Enfields will continue to be classic, and I think Triumph Thruxtons, the new Guzzi V7 Classics and Café, and even Urals will inspire a certain type of longing. Harley’s XR1200 might get noticed, too.

Ducati Paso
Who are your real-life motorcycling heroes? I’m not particularly well connected in the biz, and I don’t have a personal history in racing, so it’s a little different for me, perhaps. Although I’ve met luminaries like John Surtees and Alain de Cadenet, the people who really inspire me are the ones who are happy with the minor roles they fill in an industry that’s otherwise bigger than life. I’m thinking about guys like Tim Wolf who runs Motorcare, the local indie repair shop in my hometown of Lawrence, Kansas. Tim’s deeply into vintage motocross and he’s a real supporter of the sport. He’s been connected to the biz for almost 40 years, and people like him help keep the sport healthy and other people interested.

Are you optimistic for the future of motorcycling? Absolutely. Things will change, of course, but I don’t think the motorcycling sport or industry is going anywhere. What affect electric power will have remains to be seen, and how our seeming love of increasingly stringent regulations will impact the sport is an open question, but I think we’ll be here for generations to come.

What is your current state of mind? Cold. Winter’s setting in fast here in the Midwest. I really, really wanted to ride in this morning, but 17 degrees is just too damn cold!

  • KIK

    , not everyday can be bike features, oh well, see you tomorrow

  • Cool interview. The Norton Manx is a pretty good pick for that, but I totally understand about a mood, some days a BMW /2 makes me happier, some days it’s a Bonnie…

    Behind Bars – Motorcycles and Life

  • PatrickVA

    Terrific answer to the “hero” question. There is something to be said for the “everyman” enthusiast. These guys don’t make money off bikes (most lose money), but they are the base that support the racing, and the manufacturers, and the many vendors who produce aftermarket parts and pieces for keeping the old bikes on the road. Maybe not heroic, but essential to the future of motorcycling.

  • mingh

    a guy who loves a Laverda RGS can’t be wrong!
    Striking how ducati is named in nearly all interviews.

  • Sean Daw

    If you haven’t had a look at Richard’s magazine you really need to pick one up and have a read. It’s an awesome production. I stumbled on it last year here in Chicago and it made me want to find more. I was so capitivated by it’s fresh, passionate tone, and beautiful production quality I just went ahead and ordered up a subscription.
    I take Cycleworld also, but that mag has become kind of weird in a very corporate-political way. So Cycleworld is how I keep up on the latest, but to keep up on the greatest I take Motorocycle Classics!

  • hashish skateboard

    Let’s all concentrate hard now and try to remember the name of the most hopeless and widely despised Ducati of the modern era…

    Come on everybody, we can do this if we all think…Courage, friends!

    That’s right, its the Paso

    ps. could have been worse, he could have said the Morini Dart

  • RobL

    “…the most hopeless and widely despised Ducati” is like being the least attractive model in the Victoria’s Secret catalog.

    Park either one at my place any time.

  • hashish skateboard

    Hey Rob L, I have your Ducati Indiana all ready for you.

    Where would you like me to stick it?

  • RobL

    Oh, er, um… yeah, I guess that does look like a prepubescent VMax with a soft-on. Ducati gets one “get out of jail free” card on that one, but they better not do it again. ;-)

  • Cronicted

    While the Paso might be an up and comer for a classic, the crap fuelling from the Weber carb and teeny 16 inch wheels makes the Paso a dog in my books.
    I cast my vote for the 907IE.

  • Walt Schonauer

    I was never a fan of the Paso ; I rode one once ( a new one ) back in the day . I guess that I didn’t give it much of a chance as I was not a fan of a bife that hid the entire engine . But I do remember that it was fast steering and under powered . I did have an FJ 1100 at the time and I don’t think that I judged it fairly . I do have a Laverda RGS 1000 that I bought from the orignal owner a few years back . Like you Richard , I do love Laverda’s ! I have many bikes these days and they all have different personalities . No two are the same