It’s the Union, Jack!

triumph-twins-union-jack-key-holder-bonnie-thruxton-scrambler-thunderbird-storm-4058-p[1]The Union Jack is the sacred icon of certain sects of bikers.  Café Racers, Rockers, Hooligans, and Brit Iron Rebels.  Different denominations, they are all floggers of speed and crankcase crazies.  They have owned the symbol of empire and made it a banner of rock, punk, and junk, and they wear it on jackets, hang it in their garages, and tattoo it on their bodies.

The Union Jack is a great piece of design: beautiful, balanced, and bold.  Its powerful graphics make it equally strong as a flag of the realm and a Sex Pistols album cover.  It can be both a protest and the thing that it protests.  Bikers and rockers have done more to spread the Union Jack around the world than the Royal Navy ever did.

Soon our beloved icon may be in peril, as the Atlantic reports.  You see, every other Thursday or so, Scotland holds a referendum on whether to secede from the UK, and the white diagonal cross and blue field in the flag represent St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland.  So if the Scots do succeed to secede, the Jack will represent a Union that doesn’t exist.  Read the Atlantic article for a concise background on this.

Since hating the British is second only to eating sheep entrails in the hierarchy of manliness in the Highland home of my ancestors, many people think this referendum may pass, and discussion of revising the flag is generating a lot of interest.  Since Wales is not currently represented on the flag, some people see this as an opportunity to incorporate either the Welsh red dragon flag or the yellow-on-black cross of St. David into the design.  The problem is that most of these well-intentioned attempts at inclusiveness result in just terrible design.

As bikers, we have invested enough into the Union Jack that we need to weigh in here.


This design looks like a sickly, jaundiced version of its former healthy self.  This flag looks slightly caustic, like it could be the international warning sign for some particular kind of hazardous substance.  If you see this on the back of a tanker truck, do not shoot it with a bazooka.


Another uses the white-over-green background of the Welsh flag.  This one looks a little less corrosive than the previous one but looks tepid and anemic compared to the current UJ.  It is half-full, like we are waiting for the rest of the image to load, and vaguely looks like it might be the flag of an obscure former British colony island in the South Pacific.


Of all the bad designs, this one is the worst, which I call “Going into hyperspace with H. R. Pufnstuf.”  This clanking visual collision could hardly inspire loyalty or rebellion, but merely noisy annoyance.  How can a design with so much white area have absolutely no negative space?  This says neither “United” nor “Kingdom.”  It says “Agitated.”  To get a sense of what a terrible flag design this really is, imagine it actually waving in the wind.


There is one design, however, that is truly worthy of both Queen Elizabth and Queen.  Simply replacing the blue field of St. Andrew with the black background of Wales’ St. David, a relatively subtle change, creates the bad-assingest flag since Oliver Hazard Perry hoisted “Don’t Give Up the Ship.”  The Black Jack (Hey!  What a great name for it!) is both regal and punk.  It takes the Union Jack up to 11.  It might even bring back Rock and Roll from the dead.  It is perfect.

Updating a great design is tricky, tricky work, especially one so widely beloved by such diverse people and with so much historical freight.  When the right idea comes along, it looks obvious and inevitable in retrospect, but good design is anything but inevitable.  Great design ideas are in fact few and far between.  Just look around you.  See what I mean?

Personally, I hope Scotland stays in the UK for many reasons, but if they pull out, this must be the design of the new flag of the United Kingdom of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

All you Rockers and Racers, let’s pull for the Black Jack.

The Little Blue BMW

The Progressive International Motorcycle Show is making its way across the country. While most of the show is predicable and repetitive from year to year, many of us enjoy perusing the J&P Cycles Ultimate Builder Competition. We should always be skeptical of anything that call itself “Ultimate,” but it is gratifying to see the results of various builders’ dedication of time, talent, and materials to their machines.

This year, the bike to see is the little blue BMW by Jesse Bassett of the Gas Box. This perfect sapphire is radically different from anything else in the competition: radical in its elegance, proportion, and simplicity.


Simplicity is not simple. In a minimalist design, everything must be correct. The design intent must be expressed with only a few notes, as the designer does not have ornament to rely on. While most build-off bikes tend toward over-the-top baroque ornamentation, it is a daring move to pare a bike down almost to the Platonic essence of bike-ness.

Every joint is exposed; every weld, seam, or bend is out there and must be labored over to become pure geometry. This is putting it all on the line – fabricating without a net.


Not only the workmanship, but the design fundamentals are also ruthlessly laid bare. The overall proportions, shape, and lines of the composition absolutely must be right, and they are. The bike is compact but open, like a talented bantam-weight boxer, tough and low. Sinewy. None of the pimpish trappings of a professional wrestler. This has to be planned from the beginning – there is no going back and covering up the fundamental form of the bike. That means the builder needs both the ability to envision the unbuilt and the talent to turn vision into steel.



Although it is a minimalist design, for the careful observer this bike is full of little delights. For example, the little clamps for the spark plug wires running along the intake pipes, which help to visually keep the engine clean. Also, the neat attachment of the driveshaft cover to the rear fender, which only works because this is a hardtail, is a tidy move. The footpegs that are identical to the handgrips create a nice symmetry.



The bike is also a feast of finishes. Various platings and polishings provide subtle variations in sheen, warmth, and brightness of different bare metal components. No exposed material is overlooked. The blue paint – devoid of any pinstriping or embellishment of any kind – is both the perfect color selection and flawlessly applied.



It is always a treat to see all the custom builds, which are such personal statements and represents large investments in time and treasure. It is a special moment to see those bikes that really raise the level of artistry in the builder’s craft. This bike is one of those.

Why the Next Confederate Bike Matters


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.


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.