What is a cruiser?


What is a cruiser?

When I asked around for suggestions that might make the first issue of our new magazine as interesting as possible, I wasn’t prepared for the most common — and most vehemently expressed — request: explain what a cruiser is.

Clearly, these people were not going to be fobbed off with “everybody knows what a cruiser is”. They wanted details; just the facts, ma’am. So I started thinking, and looking. The online dictionary was an obvious first stop. I found six definitions straight away:
  “1. a person or thing that cruises.
    2. one of a class of warships of medium tonnage, designed for high speed and long cruising radius.
    3. a squad car.
    4. a vessel, esp. a power-driven one, intended for cruising. cabin cruiser.
    5. a timber cruiser, a person who estimates the value of the timber in a tract of forest.
    6. Slang. a prostitute who walks the street soliciting customers.”

The word originated, it seems, in 1670–80 and comes from the Dutch: “kruiser, equiv. to kruis(en) to cruise + -er -er”, whatever that means. This is more than a little confusing and the dictionary didn’t tell me which meaning it started out with in English, either, but that didn’t really matter. These were not precisely the kinds of definitions I was after.

The Motorcycle Glossary Dictionary went overboard in the other direction and gave a definition that perhaps assumes a little too much: “Cruiser: The modern version of the chopper with small gas tank, large rear tire, feet-forward seating and stylish appearance…”

Some of that helps, but it is a little subjective, don’t you think? The modern version of a chopper? Really? I would have thought that cruisers pre-dated choppers. Wikipedia was considerably better:

“Cruiser is the term for motorcycles that mimic the design style of American machines from the 1930s to the early 1960s, including those made by Harley-Davidson, Indian, Excelsior and Henderson [remember those last two names, they will occur again below — Ed]. The market for models evocative of the early cruisers has grown to embrace 60 per cent of the US market, such that all major motorcycle manufacturers — from Honda and Suzuki to Moto Guzzi and BMW — have currently or have had important models evocative of the American cruiser.

“The riding position on a cruiser places the feet forward and the hands up, with the spine erect or leaning back slightly, which many find to be more comfortable for long-distance riding. The “Western Saddle” riding position of American-style cruisers and choppers resembles the saddle and riding position used by cowboys in the American West, and the preference may have evolved from this precursor [citation needed]. This position allows greater long-distance comfort, albeit with some compromise of control.

“Chopper-style motorcycles are considered cruisers.

“Many cruising motorcycles have limited performance and turning ability due to a low-slung design. Riders who enjoy cornering at higher speeds may need to customize to enhance lean angle or start with a performance or sport cruiser.

Cruisers are often custom projects that result in a bike modified to suit the owner’s ideals and as such are a source of pride and accomplishment. Cruisers are sometimes called custom even in the absence of aftermarket modifications.”

Before we go any further, that last sentence needs to be corrected. The word “custom” has a very specific meaning in this connection. A “custom” cruiser is a California-style design, usually fairly lean and most easily recognised by the big (usually 21-inch), narrow front wheel. Its opposite is a “classic” cruiser, which has a blockier look with a smaller, fat front tyre.

I don’t know where the term “classic” came from, but “custom” is obvious enough from its use, originating in California, for modified vehicles of any kind.
And, of course, Moto Guzzi deserves a little more credit than just being named as one of the companies that offers a cruiser-style bike. Guzzi Californias were there pretty early on.

Actually, that Wikipedia definition might be the most useful one around but it’s still a crock. Anyone who thinks that the typical feet-forward cruiser riding position is anything like the way you’d ride a horse has never seen a John Wayne movie or ridden a horse, I suppose. I haven’t had the pleasure myself, except bareback as a kid.

And are choppers really cruisers? I’m told that this magazine will consider them to be such, but I’d argue that they belong in a classification of their own and that including them just muddies the waters. Ah well, can’t win ’em all.

While it’s true that cruisers generally scrape earlier than sports bikes, how do you “customize” your sled to improve the lean angle? Take to it with an angle grinder? Put longer shock absorbers on it? Fit bigger tyres? Huh? “What, what, what?” as Joe Flynn used to say.

Tell us, O Wikipedia, and we will make a heap of money by passing the advice on to all those riders who love their cruisers but flinch at the sound of metal being removed by an abrasive road surface in a corner.

However, one thing they’ve definitely got right is: “Cruisers are often custom projects that result in a bike modified to suit the owner’s ideals and as such are a source of pride and accomplishment.” How true that is.

I was just beginning to relax, secure in the knowledge that we were getting somewhere with this definition stuff, when I turned up something very worrying indeed. I presume you’ve heard the name Schwinn? Primarily a bicycle company, it was started in the US in 1895 by Ignatz Schwinn and a partner. It actually bought out both the Excelsior and Henderson motorcycle companies some years later, but that’s not why it’s significant here.

Schwinn, it seems, was the first to use the term “cruiser” for a two-wheeled conveyance, or at least the first that’s been remembered. The company makes a range of what it calls “heritage-inspired cruisers” to this day. And, just like motorcycle cruisers, Schwinn’s bikes were and are long, low and close to the ground. Can it really be that the bikes we stylish and admirable motorcycle cruiser people ride descended from a bunch of bicycles? It seems it might be so.

We were clearly being dragged in strange directions by all this internet research. I turned to my other, more enjoyable, form of research. No, not books — although I spent some time there, as well — but friends. I have found that the offer of a few bottles of even moderately drinkable Shiraz will bring quite a few “experts” out of the woodwork. So it was in this case and we eventually worked out what I consider quite a reasonable guide to cruisers (motorcycle):

1. The benchmark for cruisers is the Captain America bike from Easy Rider. If you have not seen this movie or at least had a poster of the bike on your wall for more than a fortnight, your credentials as a cruiser aficionado are fragile.
2. The essence of a cruiser is not how it performs but how it looks. It should be long, low and smooth with a long wheelbase and an uncluttered appearance. Lashings of chrome are desirable but optional.
3. A cruiser should be designed to be a cruiser. Another bike may be long and low or have a low seat or a feet-forward riding position, but these things are not as vital as the intention. Cruiserdom is a broad church (see BMW cruisers below), but admission is not accidental.
4. Ideally, a cruiser should have a vee-twin engine. Other engines are OK, but there needs to be a damn good reason if they’re to be accepted.
5. The rear tyre should be fat, while the front can be fat (for a classic cruiser) or big and narrow (for a custom cruiser).
6. The riding position should be upright, with more or less straight arms and feet forward. The rider’s seat should be as low as possible, while the pillion’s (if fitted) may be higher.
7. Because a cruiser should be low, ground and cornering clearances are not especially relevant.
8. Cruisers can do the work of several categories of motorcycle — they can be tourers, commuters and so on — but they always stay cruisers.
9. Finally, a cruiser’s design should at least nod in the direction of the great American bikes of the ’30s and ’40s, which started the style unless, once again, there’s a damn good reason. The BMW cruisers might not have been successful but they were still cruisers even though they owed little or nothing to the American originals. Suzuki’s M-class cruisers are in the same category*.
10. Choppers are cruisers that have been “chopped”; that is, they have had some of their weight and bodywork removed and have been customized.
11. Grpsnx droggle bnitzwax, drappie… Oops. Too much Shiraz, now. Time to go home, everybody.

So there we have it. That’s what a cruiser is. It’s long, it’s low, its bottom is fat, it scrapes fairly easily in corners, looks like an American bike from 70 years ago and its rider sits up straight. Proudly.

It’s interesting to note that we don’t necessarily agree with the Americans. In the US, Yamaha has branded its new VMax a Star not as a Yamaha; Stars are cruisers. In Australia, the bike is a Yamaha — and I think Cruiser+Trike would agree with Australian Yamaha that it is not a cruiser.

Correspondence will be cheerfully entered into and other rules will be considered for inclusion with the same enthusiasm as removal of any of the above. It’s a work in progress, obviously.

*Likewise, the Honda DN-01 might have an automatic transmission and look like a Cylon on holidays, but it is a cruiser.