What is “Neo-Retro”?

The first sentence of every description of the Yamaha XSR 900 must include the phrase “neo-retro,” and this one is no exception. It seems to be a somehow apt descriptor, but I don’t think any of us really know exactly what we mean when we say, write, or read it. Is it really a word? It is two prefixes (prefices?) linked together without a root. It is certainly an oxymoron, although “neo-paleo” would be a more perfect diametric pairing. Personally, I would be very excited to see a neo-paleo bike. Something made of meat.

 

I suppose we must conceded that “neo-retro” is a word, inasmuch as people are using it and somehow investing it with some meaning. Neologisms like this often take some time to find their proper semantic place, and this one seems to be at that crisis point where it either hones itself to something useful or just become another useless filler word. Time to drill into that word and extract the real meaning so that we all stop throwing it around so promiscuously.

 

First, let’s make some important exlusions to be clear what “neo-retro” is not. Some would say that “neo-retro” means a technically and mechanically modern machine that wears styling taken from the past, like the new Bonnevilles or Moto-Guzzis. But no, that is simply “retro.” “Neo-retro” must reinterpret. It is Post-Modernist, not Classicist.

 

It is also not the uninterrupted making of the same thing for decades. No-one refers to Harleys as “neo-retro” or even “retro.” They are simply Harleys. Indian Chiefs might be “retro,” because there is a discontinuity between the current machine and the precedent. You have to leave home in order to enjoy homesickness. You can’t be nostalgic for something that’s just always been there and never left. Oddly, people often refer to Royal Enfield as “retro,” which is wrong due to this Continuity Exemption. I think people call Royal Enfields “retro” because they themselves have re-discovered (or just discovered) them, and therefore what’s old is new to them, whereas in fact what’s old is simply old. (The Contintal GT would be an exception to the Exemption, and thus could rightly be called “retro.”)

 

Got it?

 

OK, let’s look at the latest exemplar of “neo-retro”: the Yamaha XSR 900:

2016-01-10 xsr900_1

 

What about this design is retro? What clues tie this bike to, say, the 1970s? Apart from the round headlamp and the optional bumblebee livery, not a damned thing. We could go through the bike piece by piece by piece and not find anything that ties this bike to the past. Look at it: the tank? The frame? The engine? Even the fenders? Anything? OK, maybe the tank badge. The name, certainly, is a reference to the venerated XS 650, a prince among UJMs, but that’s it.

2016-01-10 xsr900_2

 

Every single thing about this design is modern. It doesn’t even look like what someone in the 1970s would imagine a futuristic bike would look like – they would probably assume a bike of the future would be some kind of Craig Vetter Streamliner deal.

 

2016-01-10 xsr900_3

Perhaps the only truly retro thing about this image is the clothing of the rider.

 

Let’s take another example: the BMW R Nine T:

2016-01-10 R9T

 

Of course this bike has the “classic” BMW Boxer engine, but that is not retro – that’s merely a staple powerplant that is still in BMW’s regular lineup. (Would you call the R1200RT “retro”?) Again, there is a round headlamp, but surely that can’t be it? Everything on this bike is thoroughly up to date, both technically and aesthetically. The trellis frame, the brakes, wheels, seat, components, suspension, lines, curves, forms – it’s all neo, and where’s the retro?

 

Contrast this with the new new Bonnevilles, which carefully and knowingly extract details and proportions from old bikes to create their new composition. There are little Easter eggs for connoisseurs. They are modern, but they make aesthetic allusions with the precision of a McKim, Mead, and White, and no-one would question that the genre of these bikes is “retro.”

 

Yet we are compelled to describe the XSR 900 and the R nine T (and let’s throw in the Honda CB1100) as “neo-retro.” We almost can’t help ourselves. Why?

 

The truth is, when we look for historiated styling cues, we are looking at the wrong thing. What’s retro about these bikes is not the design details or specific allusions to past models. In fact, it’s not styling at all: it’s design at a deeper level.

 

The “retro” in these bikes is an attitude of simplicity. Unadorned, bullshit-free. Unassuming, but direct and tough. It’s a recognition that many of the products (not just bikes) that we use every day have become encrusted with features, complications, and upgrades that stand between us and the pure enjoyment of the object. It is the opposite of the plastic engine cover under the hood of your Audi. It’s the same ethos as the naked bikes taken in a slightly different direction.

 

Our nostalgia for older bikes is closely tied to how much fun we had on them. It seemed that the bikes had character. That character was rooted in the direct experience with the machine, unintermediated by other amenities. Now we are being offered bikes that present that kind of character without the flip side of those simpler bikes – unreliability. We are seeing technology in the service of a better experience, rather than tech for its own sake.

 

It’s also a reminder that a motorcycle does not have to be either a sportbike or a cruiser. It can just be a bike. And you don’t have to choose between being a pirate or a squid. You can just be a biker.

 

There was no better time, when things were simpler, people were more honest, and beer was free. In that sense, nostalgia is naïve. But there were great ideas and moments of delight in our collective youth that are worth remembering. If “neo-retro” brings us fun, honest bikes that look good and ride great, we are all for it.

2016: A Sneak Peek

 

2016-01-03 BANNER

(not a motorcycle)

 

2016 promises to be the best moto year yet.  We don’t have full details yet, but here is a sneak peek at what 2016 will offer:

 

2016 will be 12lbs. lighter than 2015 and have 15% more torque – that’s more grunt and go than any year this decade.  To manage that power, this year will also have improved brakes and upgraded suspension.  Combined with better ground clearance and a higher-revving mill, 2016 looks to be a hell of a ride.

 

For optimal handling, 2016 will have three centers of gravity: one low, one high, and one “floating” CG that will be continuously controlled by the onboard computer.  The rider can select between four modes for the floating center of gravity: “Cruising,” “Bopping,” “Hooning,” and “Flay.”  It will also feature the first on-the-fly adjustable wheelbase, which will let you convert from a cruiser to a sport-naked with just the touch of seven buttons.

 

The riding position has been redesigned by Swedish furniture craftsmen, and the “rider’s triangle” has been upgraded to a “rider’s pentagon” with the addition of knee and elbow pegs.  The passenger handlebars are also a bold new touch.

 

2016’s ride-by-helmet interface will provide direct input from the rider’s brain to the onboard computer.  You just have to remember to think in Russian.  Rider’s thoughts will become property of the manufacturer under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and may not be reproduced by the rider.

 

This year will be available in seven all-new special edition paint schemes, including three with flames.  Actual flames.  Be careful.  There will also be a Dead Celebrity special edition, but it has not yet been announced which dead celebrity it will be.  We are hoping for Harpo Marx.

 

For styling, 2016 has definitely gone the naked neo-retro-chopper/bobber-scrambler-tracker-hillclimb-wall-of-death route.  The styling says, “heritage,” but also says, “what the hell am I doing?”

 

Optional features include a chrome seat and calfskin gas tank, fully opaque windscreen, carbon-fiber tires, and right-side kickstand.  The ultimate add-on for 2016 will be the dual side cars, which are mounted on both sides of the machine for that P-38 look.  Little decorative propellers for the noses of the sidecars are also available.

 

Will 2016 be the ultimate ride?  With so much innovation, there will certainly be some bugs to work out, but we think this years looks like it will be a real blast and we can’t wait to get it on the street.

The New New Bonnevilles: A Closer Look

592C9BF9BC5047DDA8B3BCB9C228C762 The Bonneville is finally going to earn its keep. For more than a decade, it has gotten by as the backbone of the Triumph brand solely on looks and romance. Those are powerful motivators for sentimental folk like bikers, but let’s be honest, the name “Bonneville” implies speed (preposterous Pontiacs aside), and it’s a little silly to have a “214” special edition of a bike than can barely break half that speed downhill.

Bonneville and its variants have been beloved because we look good and feel good on them. They have been fun, accessible, affordable, and nostalgic without being corny or phony. (Nostalgia is safe when used as prescribed, but overuse can lead to misguided nonsense like endorsements by Zombie Steve McQueen.) The Bonneville line-up has always had a winning smile that it’s hard to say no to. Triumph have taken that strategy as far as it could go, and now they have come out with guns drawn. We’re in a whole different class now. She just walked out on the dance floor, and all we can say is, “My, how you’ve grown!”

I’m going to say what we were all thinking: thank god they didn’t fuck it up. Making major changes to something so simple and beloved is very dicey. This could have gone wrong in so many ways. But have you ever heard so much gushing over a bike nobody has even ridden yet? It’s even buzzing in non-moto circles. Did you, like me, get texts from your non-biker friends & relations asking about this?

Naturally, all the coverage is reciting the numbers & specs on these bikes, and those numbers are critical to what this line-up is about, but you can see them in any of the links above. (Although we still don’t have two key numbers: peak horsepower and MSRP.) The numbers are what will make this bike a serious competitor for the BMW RnineT, Ducati Scrambler and some Monsters, H-D Sportster 1200, Yamaha XJR 1300, and many other seriously-sporty-but-not-superbike retro-nakeds (1200cc seems to be a direct shot at H-D and Ducati. Can you imagine swiping at both of those in one punch?) We wouldn’t be adding much to the conversation repeat the specs yet again here, so instead, per our wont, we will take a close critical look at some aesthetic details and how they relate to the whole.

Let us begin by confessing: This is a gorgeous piece of machinery:

2E74F3A854CF473D9AEFD5E5D2B3D2EFWhen it’s good, British motor design is outstanding.

This is a design that is unified around speed, yes, but also elegance. The composition hangs together off the top frame line, which is tilted forward in a kinetic gesture. The proportions are compact and the curves taut. It is mature but virile. Many bikes have great design ideas in them, but it is rare that they all support a single parti so well together. The XJR1300 seems to have parts of seven different cool bikes in it. The Harley Fat Boy, on the other hand, love it or hate it, is most emphatically and unapologetically what it is.

One smart move Triumph made is making the Thruxton the king of the line-up instead of the T120. The Thruxton was always the sportier-but-its-still-not-really-sporty step-sister. It was basically the Bonnie with lower handlebars, and it looked faster than it was. Owners were practically obliged to find ways to get more zaft out of it, and of course it was also limited by its suspension. No more! It is out of the shadow of its dowdy sisters.

An important visual signal of this distinction is that the Thruxton has a different tank. The squarer, flatter more-70s, less-50s tank is distinctive, and its lower, longer proportion just make the whole machine that much leaner and meaner. They didn’t take it too far, though: those 70s tanks were square enough to lose all character. Here Triumph’s stylists used that precedent as an inspiration, not a template, and that is always the correct way to treat your historical antecedents.

Let us continue the aesthetic tour of this bike’s intimates at the tires. (Sorry – tyres.) It has sticky, sporty Pirellis, but not just any Pirellis. Did you notice that these are Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tyres? These were developed for the venerated and all-too-short-lived Ducati SportClassics, which were an epitome of the best that neo-retro styling can be. The new Bonnies have been compared to the SportClassics, and this choice of tyre could not be a more direct and specific allusion. It’s like finding the helmet of the last guy who died climbing this mountain and wearing it while you announce your own summit attempt. Subtle, but ballsy, Triumph.

BDD30458BE8442DBA406A9C34A294ABB

I would like now to contemplate the taillight, because that is indeed the kind of guy I am. The taillight on the Bonneville had always been this ugly, vexing blot on an otherwise handsome design. Like if David Niven wore a tacky plastic boutonniere on the lapel of his tuxedo. The alien-head orb taillight was an inexplicable hangover from the Legend/Thunderbird/Adventurer bikes of the 90s. No-one knows why they carried over this one design element onto an otherwise entirely new machine. It was the first thing most Bonneville owners changed, usually to a Lucas-copy. The new bikes have finally done the right thing: an updated interpretation (not copy!) of the Lucas aesthetic. Nice curve to the top, angled sides. A smart reference if you get the joke, but still sharp if you don’t. Is the LED ring light another allusion to the BSA-style bullet taillight? I choose to believe it is.

Thruxton_R_Detail_Rear_Light_CROP

There are many other design moments to enjoy, such as the reference to the ignition points cover on the starboard engine casing, the very tidy branding graphics on the entire line-up, the tight bar-end mirrors, and of course all the quality components (e.g. brakes, forks, shocks) that signal to any connoisseur what class of bike this is. They have also placed a small brand logo in the middle of the headlamp, which everyone seems to be doing all of a sudden. Not sure what’s driving that.

A6CA8B8D6308498FBF0BEFB956F114D5

It is also commendable that Triumph are keeping and supporting (and will be shamelessly capitalizing on) one of the Bonneville class’ best features: its customizability. We will be flooded with gadgets, and surely aftermarket manufacturers will be quick to add their own.

C3BB5136001A439AB17D1DEBE1E4504BMonza, baby.

This is of course no all-out street fighter. It’s not a best, fastest, most-torque, most-horsepower anything. What it is is a very sharp, sophisticated-looking, covetable motorbike with a big enough performance envelope for any but the highest-end riders to get everything they want out of it. It is, simply, what we all always thought these bikes should be.

D51763261E8D424CAC398FC9BDC9F629

Dissecting the Can-Am Spyder F3

The Power Cruiser segment is small, but it has a distinct visual language: tough, guts-out, feet-and-fists-forward riding position, a limited color palette, macho. Think Diavel, V-Rod, VMAX, the current Honda Valkyrie. Whether you think power cruisers are hideous, overstuffed pierogis or killer, no-frou awesome-balls in an increasingly pussified world, they are a strong identity statement that is powerfully expressed through unmistakable styling.

Can-Am/BRP is now knocking on the door of the P-Cruiser club asking to be let in. Their entry card is the 2015 F3, which cops all the best, or worst, or certainly most obvious styling cues from the other P-Cruisers out there. Before we deconstruct the styling, however, we should mention that the name F3 is really baffling. Why they would pick the same name as the petite, uberexotic, dead sexy, stiletto-heeled MV Agusta F3 cannot be explained. It can’t possibly be an intentional allusion; the only possible reason is a lack of due diligence coupled with general ignorance.

_g207970Pictured: Not a trike.

The overall impression of the Spyder F3 is that it is massive – or, rather, massy – not just big, but dense and heavy. Like space-time-warping dense. All the P-Cruisers have a real visual weight, but it usually comes with a compactness and a sense of engineered tightness: the density comes from cramming a Mack-truck engine into a motorcycle frame, and gives an impression of caged power. Not so much with the F3. Rather than potential energy, it conveys an odd scale and proportion. Compare the knee cut-outs in this photo with the scale of an actual human’s knee:

maxresdefault

P-Cruisers are required to look a little mean, of course, and the F3 takes that quite literally with its squinting, belligerent headlights and downward-sloping front end. The prowling, predatory look dominates the forward half of the machine.

There are some more literal ‘borrowings’ from more established P-Cruiser bikes. The daddy of all P-Cruisers, the Genghis Khan of this race, is the Yamaha (sorry, “Star”) VMAX. This bike, which has been around since 1985, set the standard for the category and still has a loyal cult following. It has always been as ugly and as endearing as an English bulldog, and it styling has changed little in 30 years. The most distinctive visual elements are the big air scoops right up on the bike’s shoulders. These are a very brash, hot-roddish design move, which make the VMAX instantly recognizeable. The F3 has copied this move (again, quite literally) with big shoulder scoops that turn the VMAX’s tough, “Don’t give a damn” gesture into “Ooh, me too! Me too!”

Perhaps more shameless are the exposed frame elements painted red, a gesture lifted straight from Ducati. Ducati can do this because their frames are works of art (I would seriously pay to see an exhibit of just Ducati frames). However, there is nothing interesting to see in the F3 frame, and painting it red just highlights the visual poverty of the chassis. The whole tail end, in fact, looks traced straight from the Diavel design book, which again just makes the F3 suffer by the comparison.

HM1_stripped

The front end is a slightly less sporty version of a 1950s-era Ford 8N tractor, perhaps also influenced by dreams of a Toyota Tundra.

 ford 8nAre you my mother?

2015-can-am-spyder-f3-s-front-end

In short, this styling effort is misguided. Any attempt to clothe something in the trappings of what it is not is dicey. It takes a deft hand and maybe a sense of irony to pull it off, neither of which are in evidence in the F3. (Or maybe it’s deeply ironic, and we just don’t get it.)

There is a great, fun, well-engineered machine under all those truck body parts, but trying to be something you’re not comes off a little ridiculous. This goes to the fundamental conceptual flaw of these machines: trying to insist that they are motorcycles. They are, and should be, something else.

Check out this Spyder ad. At around the 10-second mark, there is this approving not from a “real” biker (at a roadhouse, no less) upon seeing the weekenders roll up in their Spyders. Instead of just playing the Can-Am for the fun luxury excursion toy that it is, it becomes a joke to think that it is somehow equivalent to a bored-out panhead chopper.

The worst outcome of the incorrect assumption that this machine is a motorcycle is in putting a motorcycle-style saddle on the Spyders. There is no damned reason to straddle a machine that doesn’t lean, except to pretend it’s a motorcycle. You sit astride a bike precisely so that you can lean with it. The centrifugal force of a turn and the force of gravity resolve into a resultant force vector that pushes straight down through your butt into the seat and to the wheels. It’s perfect. The forces all work together harmoniously, creating that awesome feeling of oneness with the machine. You move your body, the machine moves, it all works.

If the machine doesn’t lean and you’re straddling it, the centrifugal force tries to push you off. Instead of working with you, you have to compensate and fight the forces of nature (this is true to a much lesser degree in ATVs because the speeds are less and there is a lot more going on dynamically off-road). In a hard turn, you have to leverage off the handlebars, which you are trying to use to steer the machine at the same time. It’s unnatural, and it’s not what the machine wants. It’s a triumph of wishful thinking over best design.

 

What you really want is something like are something like Formula 1 seats set as low as possible. What we really crave is a kicking three-wheeler really designed – aesthetically as well as technically – around the intrinsic experience such a machine could offer. If only somebody would come up with something like that…

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.

 

 

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?

 

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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.

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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).

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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.

“A Sparrow and a Bare Branch”

Forget about the 60s and 70s. The golden age of the custom motorcycle is right now. There are more people pouring more time, talent, and treasure into phenomenal custom bikes today than ever before. There’s certainly enough to keep BikeEXIF and Pipeburn easily supplied with daily doses of hellyeah. New styles are being invented faster than we can name them, and classic styles are being kitbashed into what Chuck Darwin would call “endless forms most fucking awesome.”

There is the meticulous craftsmanship of Falcon, The GasBox, or Mule Motorcycles. The raw, rough, ready beauty of Blitz, Cafe Racer Dreams, or Hammarhead. The hip rolling swag of Deus or Wrenchmonkees. No-shit ass-kicking like Dime City Cycles and Choppahead. You know I could go on and on. And on. You surely have your own favorites. And on.

Shinya Kimura, however, is in a different category. I don’t just mean he’s totally the best, man. I mean this is the first person who takes the craft of custom bike building into the realm of serious fine art. The art world doesn’t know it yet, and Shinya might not put it that way himself, but I would make the case that his bikes are metaphysical statements about the relationship of man, nature, work, materials, and speed. I recently asked him several questions about his process, and I think his answers helped me understand his work a little better. I would like to share some of these insights and draw parallels to some other Japanese and Japanese-American artists who are considered the finest in their respective fields. I hope this will create a new perspective around his work.

“I swear I’ve never tried hard to make it look like art,” he says. The final product seems to be a natural, even inevitable, outgrowth of his process, rather than explicit attempts at art. He believes “every motorcycle has intrinsic artistic quality,” and his role is to find and extract that quality and redesign it with the particular rider in mind.

The words “flow” and “balance” came up a lot in his discussion, as in when he talks about trying to “digest and bring forth the new design from my brain and soul trying to make the absolute flow as a whole.” (Much of his writing seems very poetic (perhaps unintentionally) and bears re-reading or even reading aloud.) This makes me think of the mental state of flow, that perfect, focused, relaxed alertness of an intense experience. The bike, the composition as a whole, is a physical statement of that feeling. It is unity.

The “balance” is an overall composition, a relation between parts and the whole, and the intersection of the engineering and aesthetic sides of design. He mentions that he admires Hiroshige and Hokusai, the great 18th-19th century masters of Japanese printmaking, for their use of space and “ideal balances and flow in their work.” Both used asymmetrical positive and negative space to create harmony on the page. They used abstractions of natural scenes in ways that look quite modern and were revolutionary at the time. The balance of part to whole is equally important: “…I’m trying to make every single part in harmony as a whole, and not just one part jumps out at me when I step back and look at my motorcycle. To me, detail is for the whole and it should not be the eye-catcher.” He says, “There are no romantic delusions or maudlin sentiment in engineering work,” but this must balance the creative side, where he has “some big toy boxes in [his] head.”

I and others have observed that his work seems to have an aesthetic of “wabi-sabi,” the Japanese aesthetic tradition that embraces imperfection and transience. I asked him about this. He observes that a motorcycle is intrinsically imperfect – or at least incomplete – without a rider. “It is more like knives or fire, more primitive as a tool.” He speaks of a motorcycle’s “vulnerability,” and that this is “fundamental to the fascination of the motorcycle.” This is a sort of “imperfection;” another are the marks left by building. Here is how he describes the touch of the maker:

When making a tank by hammering out a sheet of aluminum, how evenly smooth you make the surface has a major effect on the impression of the completed work. Many people may get the impression of imperfection by seeing hammering marks or grinding marks among the motorcycles I make but it’s my touch, neither more nor less. However, that’s no excuse for deficiency of skills. “Touch” and “lacking skills” are totally different.

He is not trying to make wabi-sabi, saying essentially that if you’re trying to do that, it’s not that anymore, anyway. I guess it is like that which is true cannot be spoken, and that which can be spoken is not the truth. Maybe I’m stretching it there, but he concludes this section by stating, “I do have an intention to choose, let’s say, a picture of ‘a sparrow and a bare branch solitary painted in a corner of a big white canvas’ over a picture of ‘many dolphins filling up the canvas’. Oh, but this is nothing to do with wabi-sabi, though…” Doesn’t it? I honestly don’t know.

I do know that he works in a very direct, honest way, drawing the design from the nature of the materials, the rider/customer, the engine, and probably from his study of entomology in college. Though he may not be mimicking natural shapes specifically, it is the essential quality of Nature (which includes engineering) that lends the balance and flow. It is the unification of metal, man, and movement.

I’d like to consider a few artists who I feel have a similar ethos, and pin Kimura’s name on the wall with them.

Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) is justly regarded as one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th century. He worked in different materials and I guess what you’d call different styles, but he was a classical Modernist. Look at the “touch” of the artist in his work “Becoming.” You see the hammer marks, but also the polished, finished form starting to come through. You can feel the softness of the marble, and you sense that he would handle, say, granite or wood differently. Michelangelo talked of his sculptures “emerging” from the stone, and this sculpture is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s later work, which is rough, brutal, seemingly half-finished. The shape that is emerging in “Becoming” is not a Madonna, but a simple, Modern shape, but even the “unfinished” portion is beautifully and carefully formed. Nothing is random here. It seems it is what the marble inevitably had to be. There is a balance between the organic stone exterior and clean, straight lines embedded within.

Toshiko Takaezu (1922-2011) was a ceramicist known for expressive, abstract vessels, some small, some quite large, some function, some perplexingly not. Consider this vessel called “White Peach.” You can feel the viscosity of the clay and the fluidity of the glaze. Her pieces are contemplative, seemingly weightless. These, too, have been described as “wabi-sabi,” sometimes showing more of the character of a boulder than “fine ceramics.” This is a Modernism that knows ancient history and is disciplined and trained. Her work is intentionally Zen and emulating Nature. You see in the form the stroke of her hand, an instant’s movement informed by a lifetime of study. This, as much as any artwork, is a search for unspeakable honesty.

Last, I would like to mention Masahiko Kimura (born 1940). No relation to Shinya, Masahiko is a world-renowned bonsai master and is crediting with taking the craft of bonsai into a full sculptural art. He transformed what is conceivable in the world of bonsai. Look at the juniper trees in the linked article. These breathtakingly gnarly, twisted shapes were revolutionary. The wild, deeply carved deadwood creates intense three-dimensionality. For an ancient, classical art with highly established rules, this makes an entirely new aesthetic. These are meditations on both the beauty of transience and the tenacity of life – that living thread of green on the massive dead driftwood. They create incredible negative spaces, like a Hiroshige print in 3-D. They are executed with the minutest detail serving a completely wild, but totally unified compositional whole. I can think of no other artwork that so utterly embodies “balance” and “flow.”

I put these examples out there without trying to draw too many explicit parallels between these artists and the motorcycles of Shinya Kimura, but you will immediately see certain obvious connections. It’s not that Noguchi’s stone carving looks just like a Kimura gas tank, but that there is a conversation you can imagine between the two. They are talking about some of the same things. The more you look at the works of these four artists, the more you will see the affinities and differences. Art is a discussion that happens over centuries, and really great art still speaks generations later. As Toshiko Takaezu said, “An artist is a poet in his or her own medium. And when an artist produces a good piece, that work has mystery, and unsaid quality; it is alive.”

 

Should Shinya’s bikes be in a museum? I imagine he would resist that. The sound and the motion are equally important, as he noted when talking about his experience in the Motorcycle Cannonball, and you don’t get that in a museum. The bike would be incomplete without its rider. It would be half-alive. They must be ridden. Still, I say a few examples should be preserved in museums alongside the great artists of our era. This work is on a level of quality that is absolutely worthy of the Museum of Modern Art. Something real is being said in its unsaid way. It will be a worthy inspiration for the the next generation’s artists.

The Thin Chrome Line

 

Customization is central to biker culture. It’s like a moral mandate. Riding a completely stock bike is like walking around with the tags still on your clothes (or, wait, is that a cool thing? Was that in the 90s? Do kids still do that?). Customizing is a way of tithing to our primitive gods. Even if you just change the handlebars or exhaust, you have to do something. Despite all the professional engineering that went into your bike, you just can’t keep your hands off of it, even if, like me, you’re hardly a pro. It’s how you rub your scent on it. It’s like pissing on your fence to keep your neighbors away (I assume you do this, too).

And this has nothing to do with increasing the potential resale value of the bike. You’ll never get back out of it what you put into it, especially if you count your labor, so don’t try to fool yourself with that calculation. No, this is passion, not reason. Customizing provides the owner with a deeper, more involved interaction with the machine, beyond just riding and maintenance. That custom machine is partly your personal creation, a realization of what was in your mind, and everyone else’s opinion be damned. What could be more satisfying? It’s a way to “shout the great ‘I am.’”

So naturally I spend quite a bit of time talking with my students about custom bikes. This is always fun, talking about why people make certain choices versus others, understanding where different styles come from, what the styles say, and bikes that don’t seem to fit any style. I especially enjoy seeing their fresh perspectives on some unusual machinery. By talking with the students, I learned something I never realized before: I learned that for a lot of regular (non-moto-sapiens) people, “custom bikes” really means one thing: chrome.

I have to admit, I was a little hurt. It’s like if you told someone you were a professional chef, and their only association with that was Gordon Ramsay. (I have this problem sometimes when people learn I’m an architect, and they say, “Like Mike Brady?” I usually respond, “No. More like in the Matrix. Now run along.”) I said something to my students like, “No! There’s so much more to custom bikes! You have so much strange, undersea life yet to see!” and I think I immediately played a Blitz Motorcycle video.

But really, it makes sense from their perspective. Chrome is obvious. There are tons of Khustom Khrome catalogs; hell, for some bikes you can essentially buy every single part but the tires in chrome. Chrome really is a huge part of the custom market, of course. These students may not have had the whole picture, but they were not wrong. After I thought a bit, I was actually surprised by my initial reaction. Why be defensive? Do I have chrome issues?

If I do, I’m not the only one. There is a big chrome/anti-chrome split in biker culture. It is a very divisive material. Lots of bikers gleefully delete everything shiny from their bikes. I think I saw a guy who had spray painted his mirrors flat black. Not the backs or the stems, the mirrors. There is a growing sentiment, I think especially among younger riders, that chrome is gaudy, old-fashioned, heavy, and tacky. Chrome also, to some, is associate with bolt-on custom culture and “show” as opposed to “go.” This is a stereotype, and it’s unfair – all custom bikes are at least partly “show.”

On the other side, chrome is classic. I think it evokes rock-n-roll, real rock-n-roll: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley. It’s Modern, before the days when irony ruled. I think it’s a shame that most cars today have no chrome. My 1986 Chevy Impala had chrome bumpers that were each 12 feet long and weighed 487 pounds. They were magnificent. Everybody wants to be “old school,” and chrome is definitely a way of matriculating into the old school. Sure, chrome can be overdone, but so can “murdering out” your ride.

Personally, I clearly fall on the anti-chrome side. I didn’t realize I even had an opinion about it until this discussion, but I do get a little wave of nausea when I see a bike that could be a hood ornament for Dr. Teeth’s band tour bus. But I’m not orthodox. Yes, my gas tank is matte black, but I have chrome spoke wheels, even though alloy wheels are lighter and stronger. Maybe I just like having a little touch of strange. I certainly don’t want to become self-righteously anti-chrome. That way is a path to hipsterdom, friend, and is best avoided.

Of course, Harley is the brand most closely associated with King Chrome, but they made a clever move with the unchrome Dark Customs line. (Let’s set aside for a moment this paradoxical usage of the term “Custom.”) While this line did create the regrettable Cross Bones, it also includes the 883 Iron, the Forty-Eight, and the Street Bob – clean, cool, great-looking bikes. And if I think they look good, then this style has obviously had some success in reaching out to the antichromites. Notice how the Star Bolt is following suit. Of course, HD’s best bike (and one with very little chrome) was the XR1200, but, alas, that’s another story.

Biker culture is really very diverse, with many subcultures. How and how much you customize your bike makes a statement about your identity and those subcultures. If you’re using chrome on your bike, you’re working with a loaded material. It has to be done right. It’s like a tailor using silk: it can be exquisite and beautiful, but in the wrong hands it’s A Night at the Roxbury.

Remember what I said earlier about “everyone else’s opinion be damned”? I’ve seen a lot of custom bikes and thought, “Man, is that ugly. Good for him!” Who am I to say what your barabric Yawp should sound like? Maybe you like a bike that looks like the Terminator T-1000 in mid-morph. We’re all biker brethren and sistren, right? Yeah, sure. Well, brethren or not, pro or anti, what I always say I like about motorcycle culture is its capacity for nonconformity. You can be tacky, classic, neo, retro, speedy, or pokey. We are already different because we ride, some differenter than others. I know which side of the chrome divide I’m on, but like the B-52s said, “Chrome if you want to.”