Since this page was originally written in 2015, it might be better to say: The Chinese Travel Bikes are Here. Each year China pumps out millions of sub-250s and scooters for users who need no-frills runabouts or workhorses. So 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 may get assembled closer to home. Chinese origin isn’t considered a great selling point, but it’s easy to turn a blind eye as long as you have a familiar European logo on the tank.
On the right: condensing this long article into one page for AMH.
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 around this, some importers invent ‘Anglo’ sounding brands like Mutt, WK, CSC or Mash. On top of this, Chinese manufacturers have found a good dodge by buying the rights to defunct European marques like SWM, Fantic, Benelli or Francis Barnett which older bikers will accept more readily, even if it’s all just a badge over a Chinese motor with some European design input or, as in Fantic’s case, a motor bought in for their running gear.
Researching this, I’ve come across tales of early adopters getting burned by crumby assembly, irregular running or poor materials. To that you can add the suspicion when the engine indicates 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. True or not, this is mainly why 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 manufacturer, 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 commonly spoken) have seen China’s motorcycle production slow or even reverse.
Back in 2006 there [were] 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 markup, 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 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 briefly 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?
At a Classic Bike show I 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 once deliberating over a back-to-basics 400 overlander when it transpired that manufacturers in China might do the job for me, producing adventure-styled bikes 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.
‘WK‘ is the UK brand of the Chinese CFMoto marque – one of the bigger players in the bike game which gets sold 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.
From 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 WK owners are getting on.
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 (above; still available in a variety of styles) is the closest thing they still have in the UK. But as the 400-cc engine is the same as the 400 Adventure (and the WK Trail), I test one: more 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 produced the Italian-designed 440cc retros shown above, all based on a different engine to the XY400 used by Mash/WK. It’s described as a 435cc; 6-speed, SOHC air-cooled wet sump with no kick.
It seems unlikely that SWM will produce an adventure model as that clearly didn’t work for Mash or WK. At this capacity it seems there’s much more demand for retro-styled bikes for younger riders.
Above left, the SWM Silver Vase 440. Conceived at the end of BMWs involvement with Husky, some of its iterations faintly recall the Husky 650-based Baja concept bike (right) that was seen a year or two earlier. But by 2019, when Overland Magazine and MCN tested them, the 440s were being heavily discounted and maybe even discontinued in the UK.
Fantic Motor is another reborn Italian brand whose frantic sports mopeds and cringe-inducing 125cc chopper I recall from the 1970s. Things are looking up: they now have the Caballero range including ‘500s’ in Scrambler (below), Rally and Flat Tracker form (below), plus the latter two as 250s and 125s.
These Fantics appear much higher spec than the air-cooled SWMs, using Zongshen’s water-cooled NC450 motor (right) claiming around 42hp.
Could this be the first truly modern Chinese motor in this capacity? I tried out a Scrambler and it sure felt like it. Trouble is, from £6400 up to £7000, the Caballero 500s cost more than a new Honda CB500X in the UK. But maybe not in a year or two.
The Zongshen RX4 Cyclone sells in the US under the CSC brand. It uses the same NC450 single, but gets restyled as a chunky travel bike alongside their established RX3 250 Cyclone. The 450cc RX4 weighs well over 200kg, but maybe that depends whether you take the full luggage option.
Tank is 20 litres (5.3 USg), the alternator puts out 300w, seat is a friendly 32 inches (813mm) for $5795 delivered, maybe it’s what CCM should have used in their short-lived GP450.
Among other branding around the world, in France Cyclone Moto sells the Zongshen RX3S 380-cc twin of below). Power, weight and styling seem to be the same as the 450 single; price is €5000.