Art and engineering are inseparable
AAn important difference between motorcycles and cars is that while cars enclose their mechanism, motorcycles reveal theirs, presenting a wealth of eye-attracting visual elements. Parts and assemblies that come into being for purely functional reasons—öhlins forks whose tubes are golden with hard titanium carbide, wheelie bars from the dragstrip, or the light-and-dark duo of titanium’s blond gleam and the textured black of carbon fiber—sprout as seeds in the visual imaginations of those who build motorcycle art.
Freed from the slavery of function, these elements could travel in any direction, undergoing any kind of transformation, but in general, custom builders stay close to real-world models. I’m thinking of more than one owner of Suzuki’s RG500 Gamma street two-stroke, who work to transform it into a shrine of craftsmanship and extreme materials. Titanium’s high strength but low stiffness generally makes poor axles, but the romance of this metal drives some motorcycle artists to make every possible part from it. It has become an extreme pursued for itself.
Another popular far point is to recast iconic bikes of the past into strange hybrids of then and now— a process that puts me in mind of building a Formula 1-inspired car around an iron flathead-six Checker cab engine from the ’50s. I think of the ultimate-seeking builders of Honda 400 Fours who have replaced its internals and cycle parts with what those parts have become in the 40 years since its production. Honda four! Those two words became inspiration as Honda won 1960s GP championships with ultra-high-revving four-strokes. Four cylinders! A nasty surviving example is pulled free of accumulated rubbish in a garage, and the transformation begins. Only the engine castings and original frame will survive! The mind’s reverence will now be expressed in the solid forms of billet crank, Carrillo rods, close-ratio gearbox, and exotic but not forgotten Keihin CR carburetors. Someone is making four individual pipes and megaphones. No? Then I must learn to make them from scratch. The image of Benelli’s sensuously S-curved megs comes swimming into my mind. Hours with bodywork tools in hand, long nights, weeks, and probably startings-over might be necessary to bring a reality curving into convergence with what we imagine.
Spoilsports crow that there is no 400cc racing class, but this fanatical work has no such external purpose. It is driven by one person’s fascination with a permanent icon. Never apologize for your emotions—they are what you are. Someone, somewhere, makes a braced swingarm. A fork with real dampers inside. A $2,500 reproduction of Italy’s elegant four-shoe 200mm drum brake. Is someone making a dry clutch
conversion? Which bread-loaf gas tank has proportions that mesh most perfectly with what we alone can see? Quickly, easily, we’ve spent $40,000. We’ve taken a once-common consumer bike to the far edge.
A problem with machine art is that for those of us who work with function, many creations are clearly dysfunctional. Common examples are swingarms with negative droop and brakes that look classically “drum” but have a disc brake hidden inside (along with the heat it generates). Shall we cut loose from reality? Artists paint on canvas without knowing its abrasion resistance or other physical properties. The painted image is the work, not the surface that supports it.
Yet the design of functional motorcycles retains a controlling interest. Some things are just not done. In the beginning, no one knew where a motorcycle’s engine should be located, so around 1899, the Werner brothers in Paris and Laurin & Klement in then-czechoslovakia (among others) performed the necessary experiments: engine above the front wheel, engine behind the rear wheel, engine beside or atop the rear wheel. Result: Engines worked best where they are today— between the wheels—and in general, even the most abstract modern motorcycle art leaves them there.
Likewise, to my knowledge so far, no one has given tires or forks or fuel tanks cooling fins, even though fins are among the best
Never apologize for your emotions —they are what you are.
loved of motorcycle textures. What is this? A surrender to confining functionalism? Derivative thinking?
Nope. This is easily explained. The motorcycle remains the inspiring icon, so the artist cuts loose from it at his or her peril. I could use the techniques of the two-stroke exhaust pipe builder to make a contorted, segmented abstraction (could be titled “Steel Guts”). A machinist tooled for titanium (negativerake cutters) could create Death Star-like friezes rich in shape but free of purpose. Can today’s wellattended motorcycle-art gatherings accept the abstract? Can the skills of what are now styled “makers” fly free on their own? Pure craftsmanship, innocent of purpose?
Folk-music lovers of the 1960s attended concerts by elderly blues musicians in well-worn bib overalls. It wasn’t long before entrepreneurs found a market for jeans and chambray shirts that appeared to have been worn by the True Folk. In fact, they had been run through a small cement mixer filled with stones and bleach. Rip off the pockets and ladder the knees (belt-grinder or wire wheel?), and the product is ready for market. Never mind that no buyer authentically drags an “11-foot cotton sack.” The image becomes a thing in itself. Distressed jeans live on, decades after the coffeehouses and concerts that propelled the product have gone.
The motorcycle gives us good things—long legs and extraordinary sensations. Its shape becomes symbolic of those good things. Here are elements for a machine aesthetic, but we need more. Something fussy is less appealing than something simple. Graceful shapes—river stones and drifted snow—please us. Is a sense of beauty adaptive? Or is it just brains entertaining themselves? I have no idea. The result is a three-way partnership among function, the form taken by that function’s engineered expression, and the choices (call them art or call them intuition) made by the builder.
Saying an object “looks like it was made by engineers” is not really praise, and neither is saying, “That thing looks like it was made by artists.” Neither stands without the other, for in the best creations, the engineering and its artistic expression become one.