Art and en­gi­neer­ing are in­sep­a­ra­ble

Cycle World - - Contents - By KEVIN CAMERON

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.

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