Once a visual centerpiece of every bike, why are they now so rarely seen?
n the days before fairings, most machines had round headlights, so it was the profile of a bike’s petrol tank and side panels that set it apart. Think of the classic Yamaha RD350LC, Suzuki GT750 or mighty Kawasaki Z1 and it’s their tank and side panel combos that are seared into memory. Today, though, it’s different. They’re missing not just from sportsbikes like the Panigale 959 but also the latest Speed Triple, Africa Twin and even retro roadsters like Ducati’s Scrambler Sixty2. But why?
Born: in the 1930s
Killed off: by racer-reps of the 1980s
Last seen: on plenty of new retros
Side panels. What are they then?
Small bodywork panels that clipped or pushed or hooked onto the frame beneath the seat of pretty much every bike of the 1970s and ’80s. On face value they were just covers – on the right for the two-stroke oil tank or tool roll, left for battery and fuse box.
Where did they come from? TE Lawrence’s Brough didn’t have them, nor did 1950s Vincents...
You’re right. Most pre-war and post-war bikes had oil tanks under the seat, often with matching toolboxes. Over time, as engines adopted wet sumps, these tanks became redundant – and the space was used instead for batteries and fuse boxes. Black ‘side covers’ were used to cover that clutter.
So what’s special about them?
They became so much more than mere covers. A tradition began where the marque’s badge would be on the tank, and the model designation on the side panel. As motorcycling moved into the glam-rock 1970s and modern Japanese machines took over from old-fashioned British irons, these designations became ever brighter and more striking. You couldn’t fail to love the ‘900 Double Overhead Camshaft’ emblazoned on the original Z1’s side.
Loads. How about the OTT Suzuki GT750 from 1971, all metalflake and shark gills. Or the supremely classy Ducati 750 Super Sport from 1973 or the 1970 Guzzi V7 Sport?
So they became works of art in their own right?
Some are now mounted on the walls of garages, so yes. But they were more than that; they were statements of rank, badges of status, like military epaulettes, almost, or gang insignia… Maybe I’m getting carried away…
Not entirely. There was nothing quite so miserable as returning to your parked bike to discover your side panels had been stolen again. Except the sound of a mounting lug snapping as you tried to push it into a reluctant grommet.
So what happened?
Bikes evolved – mostly with the move to fully-faired race replicas which had their side panels integrated into the rest of the bodywork.
Surely that’s not the only reason?
Designer John Keogh points to a variety of influences: Ducati’s Guigiaro-styled 860GT and 500 Pantah had, in the early ‘80s, begun to incorporate the side panels into the tank and tail piece, the goal being a more integrated design with fewer components. He also says the move to twin beam frames changed the whole profile of motorcycles.
The demise of two-strokes meant there were no oil tanks to cover; toolkits also moved under the tail piece. Bikes, generally, were tidied up and didn’t need side panels.
Could they make a comeback?
They no longer feature on cutting-edge bikes, but they are popping up on more and more retros. With traditional twin loop frames, the triangle beneath the seat still needs to be covered. Look at Triumph’s new Thruxton R or Yamaha’s XJR1300 Racer and you realise the side panel may be a part of our future as well as our past.
Words: Phil West Photos: Bauer archive