On the Ford GT

The mid-1960s were a high-water-mark in performance automotive design and styling. Many of the design icons of that era are still breathlessly coveted by gearheads and connoisseurs. It was a time of high art in machinery. Consider this brief honor roll:

 

1961: The Jaguar XKE. Long, low, and very modern. Sort of the beginning of the look of a modern sports-car, at a time when many contemporaries still had flaring fenders right out of the 1930s.

1962: The AC Cobra. A bulging little monster. Tough and sleek.

1962-1964: The Ferrari 250 GTO. The car that marked the maturation of Ferrari as a world sport leader at the height of its power.

1964: The Corvette Stingray. Just super cool. A design that still turns boys’ heads fifty years later.

1964-1968: The Ferrari 275 in all its variants. Perhaps the most gracefully shaped pieces of metal of all time. They are “Italian” in the sense that an Amati violin or Ferragamo loafer is Italian.

1965: The Ford Mustang and the Pontiac GTO. The beginning of the American Muscle Car. Cold War hubris in steel.

1965: The Aston-Martin DB6. British grit and elegance that just gets classier year by year.

 

In this Valhalla of velocity, the Ford GT40 beat them all. Literally. In 1966, GT40s beat Ferrari to take first, second, and third place at LeMans. A GT40 won again in 1967. And again in ’68. And ’69. It was the first and perhaps the only true American supercar.

frdconcepts 02detroit1, 2, 3…

 

The GT40 wasn’t just a race winner. It was beautiful and unique. It just didn’t look like anything else. The design had this broad, distinct American accent. It wasn’t lithe like a Ferrari; it was more of a bruiser. It had a brutal elegance, like a Chicago pugilist. It had a manner that would make the Lords drop the monocles out of their regal eyes. It was more Humphrey Bogart than Charles Boyer. It had the tough, confident, no-bullshit brush-strokes of an Ashcan School painter.

 

Bottom line: if there’s one American car to get romantic about, it’s probably the GT40.

 

In the past two decades, we’ve seen design revivals of pretty much every American (and some European) car model that’s come and gone. It’s some combination of nostalgia, Post-Modernism, and a lack of a new design language. Some of these have been great (Dodge Challenger), some not so much (Ford Thunderbird). The GT40 didn’t seem like a prime candidate for revival, since it wasn’t a mass production car, and it’s not as widely known outside of motor enthusiasts. It’s not the thing you see on posters in diners. It’s also not something you’re going to see an original at a Saturday cruise-in.

 

fordgt northamericaBut they did it: in 2005 – perhaps at the height of the retro wave – Ford released the GT, a very literal design revival of the venerated GT40. Some argued this design was too literal, hewing too closely to the 1966 car, but the 2005 GT was inarguably still beautiful and tough.

fordgt northamerica frdasia tokyo03 03tokyoIt was just a more refined, slightly more modern version. Unlike some of the other reanimated models, the GT kept all the essential sex appeal of the original. It was above all covetable.

 

At the North American International Automobile Show this week, Ford debuted the next generation: the 2016 GT. It was unquestionably the star of the show, and for good reason: it is spectacular.

2016 gt2017_Ford_GT_front by Latvian98

It is more of a design departure than the previous iteration. The most distinctive GT40ism is the broad, low front end and identifiable headlight and windshield shape. The rest of the machine, though, goes in more of a superhero direction. It feels more adolescent, like perhaps it should fold into a fighting robot. This makes that classic front end look out of place, like grafting a great Roman aquiline nose onto a dysmorphic runway model. This car will be amazing, but the styling has gone a little too much tequila and not enough fine whisky.

2017_Ford_GT_rear2017_Ford_GT_Rear by Latvian98

The original GT40 and the 2005 GT were brawny, but they didn’t rip their shirts off. They had a very grown-up virility. Fine things take time to learn to appreciate, but they are worth it. That is why we should be careful about letting teen aesthetics be the arbiter of taste. The best designs provide deep, lasting pleasure, not just eye-pop.

 

I don’t mean to pick nits off of what is definitely an amazing American automobile. It is lovely to see a car with a blue oval on it that will go toe-to-toe with any machine in the world. I am afraid, though, that all our attention will be on the funky, flashy bits, rather than its enduring dynastic elegance.

 

 

Advertisements

2015 Harley Line-Up: Can’t Even

I’m not asking for miracles. I don’t expect to be amazed with every new model year. I don’t expect manufacturers to abandon their bread and butter. I just want something worth getting out of bed for – something even a little exciting. Something that doesn’t obtusely confirm the worst stereotypes about American bikes, American bikers, and, well, just Americans in general.

 

While Indian is chewing up highways and raking in drooling, slobbering, elegiac reviews, H-D’s 2015 line-up is a depressingly regressive parade of ponderous pachyderms. The biggest (in every sense) addition is the Freewheeler Trike, whose very name is so blandly optimistic it competes with the Bounder RV and that other three-wheeled transport, the Rascal, for unctuous pandering. I am genuinely curious to know how one trike wasn’t enough in their lineup. This model appears to be a little (can we say) ‘sportier’ than the Tri Glide Ultra, and it has a less staggering price – it actually costs less than a BMW 2-series! Also, to be fair, the Freewheeler actually looks like it was designed as a trike, as opposed to an unholy hybrid. Those fenders are really nicely styled… what is happening to me?! Look away!

 15-hd-freewheeler-1-zoom

Can’t unsee.

 

What’s sad here is the overt attempt to lean on the geriatric end of the demographic, to squeeze a few more riding years out of granddad even if he can’t swing his leg over a bike any more. Is this really safe? How long can we do this before we have to come out with a Weekend at Bernie’s CVO Ultra Special? Actually, maybe that’s not too far off…

 

The problem with granddad’s trike is that the kids won’t covet it. There is nothing better in this world than a motorcycle that is handed down from one generation to the next, but I think this hand-me-down would be greeted with less, “Gee, thanks!” and more, “Um, thanks.”

 

Apart from this particular piece of morbid machinery, the Road Glide is back for 2015, which means apparently it was gone. It is very important to remember that the Road Glide is totally different from the Street Glide, which is also totally different from the Electra Glide. The Road King, of course, is the other one. (If you’re ever unsure of which one is the Road King, it’s the one that actually looks rather bad-ass.)

 

In addition, there are several “Ultras,” “Lows,” “Specials,” and a couple of “Limiteds.” This is where those terrible American stereotypes I mentioned come into play. It’s not just excess, it’s pointless excess. It’s paying more money for something that’s just heavier. It’s like portion size is all that matters. “Why do we always come here, honey? The food is awful!” “But just LOOK at the portion sizes!” Every time I see one of these overboiled bikes, I just want to strip all that crap off, because the truth is there is a beautiful machine under all that pudding. They could use a serious Jillian Michaels treatment, and none of this “you’re-beautiful-just-the-way-you-are” bullshit. Call in Michelle Obama! No more french fries for these bikes.

 15-hd-cvo-limited-1-zoom

Urp.

 

Special or limited editions typically feature a special paint job. In fact, this, along with some chrome bling, is often the main special feature. Unfortunately, the paint job is invariably some 90s-looking tribal or stylized flame schtick that is at once gaudy and aesthetically timid. If you’re going to do something tacky, do something awesome tacky – 60s psychedelics, or crazy 70s airbrushing. Even the mega-metal-flake “Hard Candy” paint, which is unquestionably very tacky, has some serious awesome. Either be classy or go crazy. Don’t just be a frat boy tattoo.

hardcandy4-002-500x446

Awesomely tacky.  Tackily awesome.

 

Maybe after the trim, water-cooled Street 500/750 last year and the uber-sexy Livewire teaser earlier this year, our expectations were pegged too high, but what cruel bathos to go from that to the Freewheeler Shuttlebus! We demand a lot from a brand that we care about as much as Harley – and don’t kid yourself, every biker cares about Harley, love it or hate it. We fixate on the sparks of innovation, obsessed with the hope that soon there will be a fire again. We hope that changing market demographics, a leaner economy, a global marketplace, and of course the rivalry with Indian will force H-D to move forward, so this line-up feels like a move backward. Maybe this is just the flat spot in the torque curve, though. Maybe this is the twilight of the old gods.

On the Indian Scout

Indian_Scout_Model_G-20[1](Not the new Scout)

Since the moment the Chief was unveiled, many of us have been quietly waiting for the Scout.  What would a modern interpretation of Indian’s classic smaller, sportier bike look like?  First of all, how “modern” would it be, given the Old-Testament styling of the Chief?  How will it fit into the market?  How will it ride?  I think mostly we were thinking, “Please don’t fuck it up.”

After delivering a heavy right hook with the Chief, the Scout is a quick uppercut from the left that should loosen a few teeth in the cruiser world.  It shows not just force but agility.  One-two.  Float like a butterfly, and all that.

Well, like they say on Marketplace, let’s do the numbers:

 topimage[1]

The Numbers

The Scout is priced to compete with the 1200 Sportster, and comparisons are unavoidable, since that’s probaby the champ it’s looking to unseat.  The 1200 Sportster is arguable H-D’s best bike – certainly it’s their funnest – but you can’t just get a Sporty now, it has to be a “Custom” or a “Seventy-Two” or a “Happy Ending,” or whatever they’re slapping on it now, and it’s still (unfairly) looked on as a stepping-stone to something fatter.

The Scout’s liquid-cooled 69 cu. in. (=1130 cc.) engine just nudges out the Sporto on torque with 72.2 ft-lbs., but the more interesting number here is 100, as in horsepower, which is the magic threshold today for a legit sportbike.  That is a very different powerband profile; it can spool as well as grunt.  (Ain’t it great what a little modern engineering can do?)  It also happens to weigh 24 lbs. less than the current H-D 1200c.  Ooh.

Another very appealing number here is 6.  Six gears makes go faster better.  The increase ability to fine-tune how you’re putting power into that rear tire at what speed makes a huge difference in your control and whee-factor.

Finally, the Scout can lean 31 degrees both sides – 5 degrees more than the Sportster.  Did that sound like a lot?  Because it actually is.  This is an important expansion of the performance envelope.

All these things together mean the Scout might just be that elusive paradox – a real Sport-Cruiser.  A cruiser for people who love to ride – I mean ride.  I know you knee-down serious sport jockeys will scoff, but there is a surprising amount of performance potential in this mid-size cruiser.

The Sportster is the almost untouchable epitome of cool and classic, making every other mid-size cruiser an also-ran, until now.  Of course, our choice of bike has as much or more to do with syle and how you feel when you see it in your driveway as with any objective criteria.  Bikes live or die by style as much as by substance.  I take that back.  In design, style is substance.  Beauty is bone-deep.  How does the Scout stack up on the catwalk?

 

photos-3[1]

The Style

The Scout eschews those velvety, Marylinesque curves of the Chief – the curves that remind us that American sheet metal can be fine art, like an Auburn boattail speedster.  Instead, the Scout gives us compact, angular shoulders.  The intent, no doubt, is to make the bike feel muscular, beefy, and powerful, to make us associate it with the Power Cruiser category.  Unfortunately, the effect is a little cardboardy, like we’re looking at an early mock-up instead of a polished finished product.  Maybe it’s trying a little too hard to look rough.  It’s kind of like the stuffed sweatshirts of Hans und Franz, or – even worse – the clunky add-ons on the V-Rod “Muscle” (They actually named it “Muscle,” in case you didn’t get it.  Was there an “Engorged and Tingling” option with that bike?  Last SNL reference, I promise.)

While I think the creased tins miss the mark a bit, there is a lot to praise in the Scout’s styling.  The overall low, compact proportions actually do more to give it a feeling of power and potential energy than the sheet metal does. 

One of the nicest elements is the arched profile of the tank, which is the most overtly historical reference in this otherwise very contemporary cruiser.  That shape is more pronounced here than in the older bikes, with the bottom of the tank picking up the curve in a way that adds a spring to the whole composition of the machine.  This gives an otherwise serious-looking bike a lift of élan – the little bit of joy that every bike should have.  This curve also creates a vital visual arc that connects the headlight and triple-tree area to the rear frame and suspension, unifying the whole composition and drawing your eye across the bike in a slightly perverted way.  This tank shape ties everything together; it is the defining design move that makes the bike.  Whoever sketched in that shape knew exactly what they were about.

It should also be mentioned that the saddle is beautiful, particularly with the red paint.

Kudos also for not trying to make the motor look like an air-cooled engine.  The radiator is an integrated part of the design, instead of trying to fig-leaf it.  (I should say that H-D also did a great job of this on the V-Rod.  The Honda Fury is probably the worst example of trying to pretend an engine is air-cooled.  Actually, the Fury is the worst example of a lot of things.)  The motor itself looks like it means business, with no fake cooling fins, which would be, to paraphrase Philip Johnson, like putting fake propellers on a jet airplane.

The real challenge in styling a cruiser is to make something that isn’t either: A: anonymous among the zombie-like throngs of nearly identical cruisers lurching along our highways, or B: an outlandish Rune-like contraption evincing all the design elegance of a steampunk dildo.  In both the Chief and the Scout, Indian has managed to avoid both these pitfalls and put out distinctive design statements.  We can argue about whether we “like” them, but they had an incredibly difficult design challenge, and they nailed it. 

It makes me eager to see what’s next.  I’m really anxious to see an Indian that’s not a cruiser.  There are hints that something may be coming, but maybe I’m hearing what I want to hear.  If they can do a full line-up as well as they have crafted these cruisers, we can look forward to a very exciting new American motor company.

photos-5[1]

The Livewire: The Harley We Didn’t Realize We Were Waiting For

Innovation has not exactly been the core of H-D’s brand. Before the Street 750/500, their only really new bike in living memory was the V-Rod, which has always been a weird cousin in the brand family. For decades, while some marques traded on novelty and new models, Harley built their brand on nostalgia – er, I mean “heritage.”

 

Lately (belatedly?), though, they have realized that unless they want to start competing with Invacare, they need to broaden their brand. This is tough, because that heritage is a huge reason why a lot of people love Harley. Abandoning their past would be brand suicide. Even the XR1200, a timid departure and a fantastic bike, just didn’t work for them (we could argue about whether they gave it adequate marketing support).

Harley-Live-Wire-001

So Harley’s decision to unveil the Livewire Project electric bike – leapfrogging Honda, BMW, and all the other majors you might expect – is laudable, bold, strong, and kickin’ awesome. This really changes what we can expect from The Motor Company. Suddenly they are in a position to push engineering advances on other brands. We’ve been waiting for the moment that would take full-size performance electric bikes from the fringe to the mainstream, and this might be it. Any remaining electric bike skeptics can shut their collective pie-holes – at least for the moment.

 

There are other electrics already on the market struggling to get a foothold: Brammo, Zero, and the mind-blowing Mission. Other than a bar-and-shield badge, what makes the Livewire different? The two most important differentiators for the Livewire that the other electric bikes lack actually have nothing to do with the bike itself: distribution and production capacity.

 

Harley has a massive international dealer network. They’re practically in the lobby of every Applebee’s. As soon as this bike is ready to hit the street, there will be one in a showroom close to you. It will be easy to test-ride, and that, pals, is the only way to sell a bike. Prediction: there WILL be a waiting list for this bike. Add to this their ability to throw serious production capacity at any new endeavor (albeit maybe in India), and they will be able to feed that need.

 

Of course, the ride itself is critical. Harley has always preached the gospel of torque, and the additional of a big electric shows they weren’t just TV evangelists but true believers. Riding an electric bike can turn any route into the Road to Damascus. Halleluiah.

 

The genius of the Livewire really is the styling, though. How do you balance Harley’s tough, old-school image with forward-looking tech and modernity? The V-Rod kind of failed to answer that demand, and I believe that is the main reason it hasn’t been more successful. The Livewire nails it. How do you build a design around an engine that, well, isn’t much to look at? The first correct decision they made was to not make this a cruiser. This is a – a what? a naked? sport? streetfighter? bobtail X-wing?

 

The trellis frame takes the place of the engine as the compositional anchor, tying the whole together and paring well with the swingarm. The bike is stout but small and agile-looking. It is built like a swimmer, with huge lats and its head way down. Practically the only nod to “heritage” is the chrome belly, which is more of a wink than a nod, giving the bike a – dare I say – touch of class and keeping it from being too emo.

 

Fact is, this isn’t only the baddest looking electric bike I’ve seen, but by far the baddest looking Harley in the line up. It just sneers at any Heritage Softail or Custom Fatglide. Yet still is is beautiful, probably because all these design moves are rather subdued. The branding identity is subtle but unmistakable (even if the grayed-out tilted logo idea seems to be stolen from the 2013 Star Bolt).

 

Harley also has the marketing horsepower to make this happen. Just as they placed the Street in the latest Captain America movie, the Livewire will be in the next Avengers movie: “Avengers Ad Nauseam.” It has already been featured on CBS, who spent an inordinate amount of time focused on the lack of potato-potato sound, which maybe says more about network news’ fixation on the obvious than anything else. They barely mentioned the 53-mile range which, if not fixed, could be the Livewire’s fatal flaw.

 

The Livewire should actually help those other electric bike brands. Any promotion for the Livewire will raise awareness of electric bikes in general, and not every potential buyer will want the Harley. I don’t think Harley is eating their lunch; they’re making the pie bigger. It changes electric bikes from being just the fringe choice for the super-eco-conscious: this makes it a serious competitive choice, as it should be. This is NOT a Prius. Does this say that Harley cares about the environment? No, it says something much more important: that Harley cares about young riders.

 

Just when Indian hit H-D in the solar plexis (i.e. Sturgis), Harley spins and uppercuts the industry. Who thought a fat guy had moves like that? It’s a beautiful thing to see.

Why the Next Confederate Bike Matters

C2-P51-Fighter[1]

Confederate Motorcycles, makers of high-priced, high-performance, hand-made road jewelry, have released a teaser for their next model, the C2 P-51 Fighter, which will be available “circa 2015.”  The bike’s web-page has the tagline, “What are you rebelling against?” an overt allusion to The Wild One, but it is not the Johnny Strablers of this world who will be riding the P-51.  Thirty-one very wealthy, very lucky individuals will have the singular opportunity to purchase this piece of rolling art.

Perhaps you imagine Confederate Motorcycles as a few mad artisans inveighing against normalcy, forging exquisite monstrosities out of unobtainium and phlogiston on Thor’s anvil, wreathed in toxic bayou vapors.  (They actually moved to Birmingham after Hurricane Katrina, but their brand still has a voodoo funk.)  Maybe you think of them as makers of status-bikes for the mythical “1%” (never to be confused with “1%ers”!) to show off at their clubs – not “real” bikes for “real” bikers.

Maybe you just don’t think of them at all.  After all, schmucks like you and I are never going to ride these Bugatti-bikes.  What really does it matter what kind of toys these people buy?  Especially at a time when we’re seeing smaller-displacement, less-expensive bikes hitting the market, and we’re trying to broaden the base of riders, who cares?  I recently made the case that OCC is absolutely irrelevant.  Isn’t the same true for Confederate?  No.

Confederate matters because this is the avant-garde.  It matters for the same reason that it mattered what Picasso was doing in 1910, or what Beethoven was doing in 1810.  This is not design for the mainstream.  It is design as exploration and experimentation.  Terra incognita.

Picasso mattered because other artists were looking at what he was doing.  They didn’t just follow his lead, they took inspiration from his work and expanded in new directions of abstraction.  (Of course, it wasn’t just Picasso, but he’s the most memorable example today.)  Similarly, some would argue that all of 19th-century music is a response to Beethoven.

The P-51 is particularly significant because it is Pierre Terblanche’s first design with Confederate.  If there is a Beethoven of modern motorcycle design, it is Terblanche.  His Ducati MH900e is a MoMA-worthy pinnacle of Postmodernism, and his 749/999 is one of the most elegant sportbike designs ever realized, both of them designs almost without precedent.  Now his exceptional talent has been turned from tailored refinement to guts-out brutalism.  You can be assured that designers in Munich, Bologna, and Tokyo (maybe even in Milwaukee) will be looking hard at the P-51.  That doesn’t mean you will see imitations of it, but that it will expand the visual language.

And just like the boundary-breaking composers, painters, sculptors, and designers of the past, avant-garde motorcycles need a few wealthy patrons to make it happen.  Michelangelo needed Pope Julius II, even if they didn’t always get along.  We Americans, especially bikers, have a deep native anti-elitism.  We bristle at the merest whiff of snobbery.  This is a great thing about our culture.  We don’t tolerate phonies and do not equate class with cool.  We should encourage this egalitarianism in our children and ourselves.  At the same time, we should acknowledge that design innovation is risky and costly.  It requires some people of means to make big, irrational purchasing decisions.  It doesn’t matter if they’re doing it for status, self-gratification, or just a thrill.  What matters is that they are making new ideas possible.

Avant-garde design will not appeal to everyone.  When Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring debuted in 1913 in Paris, it caused a riot.  Bucky Fuller’s 1933 Dymaxion Car is still a little out-there for most people’s taste.  Terblanche referred to Confederate’s designs as “outlandish industrial sculpture.”  They are paragons of xenomorphic excess.  You would never hang them over your sofa.  It is obsessive, manic design for design’s sake.

These bikes are indeed about rebellion, but not the greasy angst of a 50s teen.  The rebel here is not the angry young man – he is riding an old CB750.  The rebel in this case is not the client at all.  It is the designers and makers themselves, who create something from the flesh of metal and carbon fiber, then allow the patrons to come to them.  In every sense, these are the opposite of the built-for-advertisers OCC choppers.

Let us not be too keen to dismiss these oddities as “mere” sculpture or playthings for an elite few.  If we care about design, we should delight in this design experimentation, even design rebellion.  I hold with Jefferson that “A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing.”

The Street 500 & 750: One Line Changes Everything

Harley-Davidson’s new Street 500 & 750 are a departure for The Motor Company in more ways than one.  They are an attempt to capture a new market that is younger, less wealthy, and more diverse, and a recognition that the largesse of Boomer fantasy-life is not an inexhaustible trough.

The Street is the most visible and most important part of HD’s “Project Rushmore,” which is not, despite the name, a staging of the play “Heaven and Hell” by Max Fischer with motorcycles, which would be awesome.  Project Rushmore is a tricky maneuver, because it is an attempt to redefine the brand without undefining it.  By far the most important feature of the Street is its price, which is wonderfully competitive for an American bike.  If this machine is fun to ride, this may be what makes their elusive Rushmore goal attainable.

Everyone is talking about the marketing, specs, and strategy of this bike, but right now I want to focus on design and how the Street departs from the expected Harley aesthetics.  Three things in particular:

1: The 60-degree, water-cooled engine.  The V-Rod has a 60-degree, water-cooled engine, but we all know that’s not really a Harley, right?  We all knew water-cooled engines were coming, but we were still in a little denial.  Well, here it is, and it kind of looks like all the other non-HD cruiser engines.  The 60-degree angle allows the machine to be a little lower, but it dilutes the distinct heartbeat rhythm.

2: The subdued styling.  Most recent Harley styling adventures have been more extreme, hypertrophied versions of normal HDs.  Consider the 72, the 48, V-Rod Muscle, or the ill-fated caricature Cross Bones.  These go way out on the limb, but the Street stays closer to the trunk.  The Street’s styling doesn’t scream and is very lightly branded, presumably an intentional move to make the bike more appealing to a broader market, who don’t necessarily equate riding with the spreads from 70s issues of EasyRider.

3: The Line.  This is the most significant move.  The typical Harley design has a compositional axis that is low in the back, high in the front.  This is exemplified most clearly in the Softail, as shown in Fig. 1.

              Softail

Fig. 1

This gives the bike its relaxed stance.  It is an angle of repose.  From the rear axle, through the upper part of the swing arm, under the seat, and up over the dashboard, this ties the elements of the bike together.  It’s something the imitator cruisers lack, and it is distinctively Harley.

Now consider the Street.

 Street 750

Fig. 2

The primary line of composition here runs from high in the back to low in the front.  The line runs from the rear seat framing, across the top of the side panel, through the exhaust header, and points to the front axle.  This is a line that impels forward motion.  It is not relaxed.  This is the line of a sport bike, and it makes it visually more active, light, and nimble.

Of course, this is no sport bike, but this compositional shift changes the whole attitude and balances the more cruiserly elements for a well-rounded whole, something that could be called a “standard.”  This will go up against the Bonneville, the Honda 500s, and others to help fill out a real new standard class, and that’s a good thing for riders.