Updated summer 2019
Each year China pumps out millions of sub-250s and scooters for users who need no-frills runabouts or workhorses. So now does India, and it’s an open secret that many long-established motorcycle marques have been manufacturing in China for years, even if some high-end bikes get assembled closer to home. Chinese origin isn’t considered a great selling point, but it’s easy to turn a blind eye with a familiar logo on the tank.
It’s much less easy to persuade western consumers to buy a native Chinese brand, even if that machine may well have been cast in the same foundry as the marques we know and trust. To get round this some importers invent ‘Anglo’ sounding brands like Mutt, WK or Mash. Instead Chnese manufactueres have invested in the rights to old European marques like SWM, Fantic, Benelli (Keeway or Qianjiang) or Francis Barnett which older bikers will recognise and accept even if it’s all just a badge over a Chinese build with some European design input.
Researching this, I’ve come across several tales of early adopters getting burned by crumby assembly, irregular running or poor materials. To that you can add the suspicion when the engine shows some obscure Chinese marque but the tank shows something else.
I suspect some western consumers are also put off by China’s ruthless manufacturing ethos that doesn’t see merry bands of workers attending communal keep-fit sessions in the company car park each morning, let alone provide the sort of workers’ rights or environmental concerns we take for granted in the West. This is mainly why the established bike marques play down any Chinese connection, even if what holds most of us back from buying all-Chinese is unknown reputation and crippling depreciation, rather than a prickly social conscience.
... Some of the more famous examples [of joining forces with more famous foreign manufacturers incude…] Loncin (BMW), Zongshen (Piaggio and Norton), Qinqi (Suzuki and Peugeot), Jianshe (Yamaha), Lifan (MV Agusta), Qianjiang (owners of Benelli), Jialing (Honda), and CFMoto (KTM). David McMullan
As far back as the early 1980s Honda established partnerships with the Chinese Jialing factory and within a decade Yamaha and Suzuki made similar arrangements. By 2011 China overtook Japan as the world’s largest bike manufacture, with many factories based in Chongqing (left).
Around 2006 Chongqing was renowned as the white-hot epicentre of China’s urban industrial gold rush, but according to this recent article that gold rush waned. The recession, adverse currency rates and the strength of other markets like India (where English is more commony spoken) have seen China’s motorcycle production slow or even reverse.
Back in 2006 there was over 100 motorcycle companies operating production lines in Chongqing alone, a good proportion of them ‘one line’ export factories that provided super-cheap models for the African and domestic markets. Unlike India in which the Hero Group and Bajaj share a huge proportion of the market the Chinese market was shared by a multitude of smaller companies. The number of Chongqing motorcycle factories still operating is now less than 40 relevant companies and is likely to reduce even further over the coming years. David McMullan
Take this all back half a century and you can imagine our bike-riding forebears grappling with the same ‘Made in Hong Kong’ suspicion as Japanese bikes began to make their mark. Even when I started biking in the late 1970s you planted your boots in either the ‘Brit Shit’ or the ‘Jap Crap’ camp.
Broadly speaking, the Chinese have adopted the same strategy as Japan: start by banging out cheap small-displacement utilitarian machines, then move in on the smaller volume, bigger-engined bikes with a higher mark up, while getting into racing to speed up the R&D. Just like the Japanese in the 60s, the Chinese are on the march as they attempt to tune in to what affluent western buyers might consider, now that the load-carrying-runabout markets are saturated.
Established in the late 90s, Shineray (as in ‘Shine-Ray not ‘Shiner-ay’ if the company motto above is any guide) are one of the smaller Chinese marques said to specialise in trail and off-road machines. In 2014 they notably bought the Italian SWM name, last heard of in the 1970s. Around the same time Shineray also acquired an old factory with a batch of Husky models off KTM. That SWM Superdual on the left uses the old 600-cc Husky TE630 derived engine, but in the flesh was not so inspiring. Shineray/SWM have since diversified into SUVs.
Judging by what I saw at a Classic Bike show, the even older Francis Barnett marque (right) has had a similar makeover. Buy the rights to a heritage brand then design a suitably old-school look around your Chinese- or Indian-made machine. For an anonymous Chinese factory which nevertheless annually pumps out more bikes than are sold in the UK each year, it’s a quick way of getting wary western consumers to buy your product, whether they know it or not.
In a similar vein established French motorcycle importer SIMA created the Mash Motorcycles brand. They’ve taken a proven Shineray XY400 (left) and refined it. It’s an appealing Brit-based retro look that some twenty years ago became popular in fad-prone Japan, if not in Britain itself. That early 90s GB250TT on the right was one of many similar machines made for the Japanese market and which are now cropping up as pricey and exotic UK imports.
The breifly sold 250 Retrostar from Sinnis (left) bore a very close resemblance to the Mash 400 retros, but as far as I can tell, Sinnis (a UK brand name behind Qingqi) and Shineray aren’t the same company, and now in the UK Sinnis only sell 125s in various styles. The fact is you can spend a long time trying to untangle these Chinese whispers. But with Chinese bikes origin is important. Is it a Jap clone, licensed or otherwise, a copy, or a cheaply made fake.
I’d heard of the Mash retros and at a Classic Bike show got the chance to see some close up. Chinese 250s are two a penny, but with a more overlandable capacity of 400cc, could a Mash retro be a contender as a base bike? I’ll admit that part of me is attracted to the idea of regressing towards a retro-styled machine: the appeal – however flawed – of a simple and inexpensive low-key, leg-over overlander that you can adapt to your needs. My 2019 Himalayan fitted that category. A close look before the crowds rolled in revealed a quality of finish that was hard to separate from a similar Japanese bike. A few days later I took one for a test ride.
Many assume the motor is an XR400 clone, but it’s actually derived from the 400cc version of the similar, late-eighties kick-and-electric XBR 500 cafe retro (right), also sold in Japan as the ‘Manxified’ GB500.
I was deliberating over a back-to-basics 400 overlander when it transpired that manufacturers in China might to the job for me, producing adventure-styled bikes mimicking BMW’s F800GS but with full equipment. One such machine is the Zongshen RX3 Cyclone sold under various badges in the UK, the US (5000-mile report) and Russian-speaking lands, but that’s just another 250. What’s wanted is a 400’s added torque so you don’t have the scream the motor when overtaking a lorry up a hill.
Shineray’s Kougar 400R (left) cropped up on the WK Bikes stand at 2014’s NEC show: a light but well-equipped medium capacity single which connected with riders like me..
‘WK‘ is the UK brand of the Chinese CFMoto marque – one of the bigger players in the bike game which is sold simply as ‘CFMoto’ in other western markets. They were unusual in being one of the few Chinese bike makers to produce a ‘big’ 650 road bike which, bodywork aside, looks based on a Kawasaki ER-6/Versys. but that bike no longer features on WK’s website; a 400cc version seems to have replaced it.
Frim 2015 there was an over-priced WK Trail 400 (above left and right) but within a year it was going for under £3000 and is now no longer listed. Comparing specs with the Mash 400 Adventure far below (and still sold in Europe), it does seem to have been the same bike, except the luggage and crash bars were optional. Read how UK owners are getting on.
In 2014 French Moto Mash announced their 400 Adventure (left, quick road test), which was near identical to the also defunct WK Trail 400 above. At 400cc you’d hope either of these bikes could potentially plug the gap between the heavier and pricier twins and an over-extended 250. Right now that category is only really served by the Himalayan.
The conclusion I came to reading short tests of the WK400 in Bike, Overland Magazine and Rust is that they don’t plug that gap. The bigger capacity doesn’t add up to any greater performance over a similarly priced Jap 250 trail bike in terms of top speed, acceleration, fuel consumption and price, while brakes and lights are said to be poor. Royal Enfield’s Himalayan makes similar compromises but actually works very well.
The retro-styled Mash Roadstar (left; still available in a variety of styles) is the closest thing they have in the UK. But as the 400-cc engine is the same as the 400 Adventure (and the WK Trail), I figured a test ride might reveal the potential. More on that here.
Shineray also bought former Italian off-road marque SWM in 2014, a way of slipping into the European market which otherwise wouldn’t look twice at a ‘Shineray’ or even a Mash/WK badged machine.
SWM now sell cool-looking 440cc retros shown above, all based on a different engine to the XY400 used by Mash/WK. It’s described as a 435cc; 12.9:1 compression; 6-speed with a SOHC wet sump, air-cooling and no kick. It seems unlikely that SWM will come out with an 440 adventure model as that clearly didn’t work for Mash or WK. At this capacity there’s much more demand for retro-styled bikes for new riders.
On the left, the retro-styled SWM Silver Vase 440. Conceived at the end of BMWs involvement with Husky, some of its iterantions faintl recall the Husky 650-based Baja (right) concept bike that was seen a year or two earlier. By 2019 the 440s were being heavily discounted in the UK.
Fantic Motor is another reborn Italian brand whose sports mopeds and embarrassing 125cc chopper (right) I recall from the 1970s. Things are looking up; they now have the Caballero 500 in Scrambler, Rally and Flat Tracker with the 450 water-cooled Zongshen motor claiming 43hp.
The Zongshen RX4 Cyclone is sold in the US under the CSC brand. It sits alongside their established RX3 250 Cyclone which was heavy at 195kg, same as my CB500X. The 450cc RX4 is said to be heavier at 210kg, but maybe that depends whether you take the full luggage option. Here’s a road test.
The 6-speed, injected motor puts out a claimed 40hp with a 95mph top speed. Tank is said to be 20 litres (5.3 USg), the alternator puts out 300w, seat is 32 inches (813mm) and price in th US is $5395, £1300 less than a less well equipped DR650S.
Among other branding round the world, in France Cyclone Moto sells the Zongshen RX3S twin cylinder of around 380-400cc (below). Power, weight and styling seem to be the same as the 450 single, price is €5000.