Automatic or manual motorcycle?
Updated: Jan 17
Motorbikes: A way of life!
From the moment motorcycles appeared on the road their allure and romance have remained undiminished. There is something innately exciting about motorcycles that draws us to them and for some, like me, the first time in the saddle of a motorbike can turn out to be a life changing experience.
So you've decided to learn to ride a motorcycle. Brilliant! Whilst motorbikes exude glamour and romance they are also lumbered with negativity. The moment you tell friends and loved ones that you are off to learn to ride a motorcycle you will be beset by a raft of reasons why you shouldn't do it. Everyone, whether they've had direct experience of bikes or not seems to have a good reason for you to say off two wheels. More often than not it's because becoming involved with a motorbike would appear to be the point you gleefully grasp the cold damning hands of the Grim Reaper.
But you have risen above the negativity. Brilliant! You are on the way to figuring out just why so many are captivated by bikes and why we have formed deep, spiritual, and a life long fascination with these addictive and seductive machines.
If you're reading this it's because you have found our website and that means that whilst you are determined to ride a bike you have sensibly chosen to get some training first. This may seem common sense to you but common sense isn't that common any more.
As you may be aware the entry to the world of motorcycling in the UK is CBT, Compulsory Basic Training. We have published a blog post all about it to help you get started, explain how it works and to dispel some myths about the course.
Automatic or manual motorcycle?
One of the first choices you will have to make is to whether to train on an automatic or a manual motorbike so we have written this post to explain the pros/cons of each type of bike so you are better able to decide which is for you.
This is a motorcycle where the gearbox changes gear automatically without requiring any direct input from the rider. The most common type of automatic motorbikes are scooters and you will see thousands of these bikes whizzing around cities the world over.
The common characteristic that defines the scooter is a step through frame with a platform for the rider's feet and some type of leg shield offering a degree of protection from the elements and dirt from the road. The engine and transmission are held in a compartment under the rider's seat.
From the moment motorbikes first appeared the step through version has also co-existed alongside. This is as a result of bicycle design in the late 1800s. A standard bicycle frame was not suitable for women, who in those days wore voluminous skirts, so a step through bicycle frame was developed. Once motorbikes began to be mass produced in the 1890s the same principle was utilised in creating the first step through motorbikes. Because of this for a long time scooters in some countries were associated with women and gave rise to the belief in some that they are not “real motorcycles”. Sadly some of these antiquated and/or chauvinistic ideas still linger to a certain extent even though they are utter nonsense.
After WWII, with Europe and large parts of the world in tatters and economies shattered, nations needed a means by which their populations could travel and reach their places of work effectively.
For most the price made a car unattainable and motorbikes filled that gap with scooters becoming increasingly popular because of how easy they were to ride, how cheap they were to produce, how economical they were to fill with fuel and maintain and how much more practical they were with onboard storage, the fact they are easy to park and store and so much more nimble and agile in traffic.
Hollywood began to glamourise scooters and with films such as Roman Holiday starring icons such as Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck the appeal of the scooter changed from something convenient to also something desirable. Later, the mod sub-culture cemented the scooter into British life and the Vespa or Lambretta became as popular ere as in Italy or other parts of Europe. These two brands in particular have become synonymous with that period.
Initially scooters had a degree of manual or semi-automatic gearbox but once a fully automatic gearbox became commonplace the scooter became even more popular as the most efficient form of transport for the city, bar none. There is no other way of getting around a city as efficiently as on a scooter. They are as nippy, agile and nimble as ever, more so with modern technology. They are just as practical as they have ever been and economy has remained one of the key features of a scooter.
With fuel prices they way they are at the moment, a 125cc scooter with a 5 litre tank will cost around £7 to fill and will return more than 100mpg. A couple of weeks ago I had the misfortune of having to take the tube from Greenwich to Baker Street and I was horrified and angered to find it cost £6.30! Look around London, there is a very good reason why so many people are on scooters.
Today automatic motorcycles are not just scooters. More and more manufacturers are building large capacity machines with automatic gearboxes which will allow the automatic bike rider the freedom to travel further and faster than ever before. In the past these bikes were fitted with small engines but in the 1970s the Italian manufacturer Moto Guzzi changed all that. They produced the 1000cc i-Convert with an automatic gearbox combining the efficiency and ease of an automatic bike with the power and performance of a big bike. The motorcycling world was dismayed. The press hated it, because it wasn't a “real motorcycle”. How interesting then that nearly fifty years later the mainstream manufacturers, especially Honda are jumping on a bandwaggon that began in an Italian factory.
Controls on scooters tend to follow a standard pattern with your rear brake operated by a lever on your left hand, the front brake and throttle are operated by your right hand.
For the absolute beginner the automatic motorcycle is by far the easiest way to begin motorcycling. There is no clutch or gearbox to master making the learning process and the route to being on the road much more simple and straight forward.
A scooter is not a moped.
Today everyone seems to refer to an automatic bike as a moped, or "ped" for short. You need to know that they are not the same thing. Whilst a scooter these days tends to be for the most part automatic a moped may not be.
A moped is a category of motorcycle. It stands for motorised pedal cycle. These are not so common in the UK nowadays but are still to seen in other parts of Europe like Spain, Italy, France, Greece etc. It's something that looks a bit like a bicycle but has a small engine up to 50cc. They are equipped with pedals in case one runs out of fuel and some are even started by spinning the pedals.
Mopeds may be automatic, manual or semi automatic and have their own licence category, AM. In the UK minimum age for riding these is 16 years. In other parts of Europe they can be ridden at 14.
Today the moped licence category can encompass a true motorised pedal cycle, a scooter or even a standard motorcycle with a manual gearbox. The common factor is that will have an engine not exceeding 50cc.
These are what over the years people have considered to be a “real motorcycle”. The vehicle is fitted with a gearbox that the rider must engage manually (hence the term) with the use of a clutch. The appeal and romance of motorcycling with most of its glamour is derived from these. T E Lawrence, Marlon Brando, Peter Fonda, Steve McQueen trying to make his escape...all manual motorcycles.
Manual bikes have been in production for as long as motorcycles existed and today they are essentially the same as they were since the 1890s. If a modern motorcycle were parked next to a veteran from the early days of motorcycling the similarities would be evident. Even though technology and design has altered the look over the intervening years, the principle remains the same.
There are two main types, those fitted with what is known as a “wet” clutch and those with a “dry” clutch. Most bikes today, and especially those designed and built in Japan or even influenced by Japanese motorcycle design tend to be fitted with a wet clutch. Essentially, the clutch sits in a bath of oil. A dry clutch does not and is more akin to that in a car. The most famous exponents of dry clutch motorcycles these days are Moto Guzzi
and Ducati although over the years both those manufacturers have also built wet clutch motorcycles.
What difference does it make? A lot. A wet clutch offers the rider the convenience of “slipping” the clutch. Essentially riding the bike on the friction point allowing the rider to control the power of the bike through the clutch as the heat generated from this friction is dissipated by the oil. Slipping the clutch with a dry clutch will result in a burnt clutch and an expensive repair bill. Techniques for riding a bike with a dry clutch are different and from past experience most instructors will teach their trainees to slip the clutch because generally training bikes are fitted with those as most training schools use Japanese bikes. If that trainee however then bought a motorbike with a dry clutch and used those same skills they would be causing their bike serious damage. Luckily, unlike the majority of instructors ours have direct experience of both.
The majority of motorcycles have a standard arrangement these days of the clutch operated by a lever on your left hand and the gearbox operated by your left foot. The gear lever moves in two positions, up or down. Pushing it up with the toe moves up a gear and pushing it down with the sole down a gear. A typical arrangement on a learner bike is for a five speed box. Neutral is positioned between 1st and 2nd gears meaning you will need to push down into 1st and then lift up into the higher gears. We will teach you this throughout your training. Your right hand operates the throttle and front brake and your right foot operates the rear brake.
Some say that a manual motorcycle offers the rider a much more involved riding experience and a greater degree of control over the vehicle. Whilst this may be true to some extent it doesn't make one better than the other. The riding experience is a subjective thing. For someone intending to use the bike through a busy city like London to get to work and back easy controls may be the best form of “riding experience”. For someone scratching around the country lanes or around a track at higher speeds then the added control of a manual motorcycle may be more suitable.
A motorcycle with a manual gearbox is the more complex and difficult to learn on. It takes more time to master the technique of riding a motorcycle with a clutch and gears with the additional co-ordination required to have hands and feet operating different controls at different times than it does an automatic one. At the same time, if the rider drives a manual car, whilst they know how to use a clutch and a gearbox the hands and feet are used for different things. Add to that the need to re-program the brain to realise that we are able to slip the clutch on our bikes, something that is alien to most car drivers in their vehicles.
So which is the best for me?
Ask yourself this. What is the ultimate aim of you starting motorcycle training? Is the priority to get on the road as quickly and easily as possible and to stand the highest chance of succeeding on your CBT day? If that's the case we would always recommend an automatic bike. If later you wish to ride a manual bike we offer a specific course to teach you how to use the manual controls but by that point you already have your CBT.
If on the other hand you definitely wish to ride a manual bike and that is what you envisage buying then choose the geared bike. If you are an absolute beginner it may take a little longer to master those controls. It may take a bit more training before you get your CBT but it means that you then don't have to learn to ride an automatic bike separately. It is not outside the possibility of an absolute beginner to learn those skills to a sufficient standard to successfully complete your CBT, but it may take a little longer.
If you are an absolute beginner and you definitely wish to ride a manual bike, or you still haven't made up your mind why not take an individual hour lesson prior to CBT? You will then have the benefit of knowing if a manual bike is the right route for you to take at that time and it will give our instructor time to assess how much training you would need to pass CBT. We can even have an auto and a manual bike available for you during the lesson so you can try both and make an informed decision as to which suits you best.
We recommend this approach for an absolute beginner. We want to give you the best chance of success and the best possible value for money with your training. If you need help or advice don't hesitate to get in touch we'll be more than happy to talk. You can email us on email@example.com or call us: 0208 331 1103 or 07594 799340.
To book lessons or view our courses visit our website: BOOK ONLINE | ACBT London
To book your CBT click here:
Want to try a bike first? Click here.
Next week: Why you should ride a motorcycle. Read post.
Gift cards: Give the gift of motorcycling with one of our e-Gift cards. See our website for details.
©️ 2022 ACBT London Rider Training. No part of this article may be reproduced without permission.
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