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.

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“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.”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.