It’s time to stop with the matte black.
Matte black was once the hardest, baddest, nihilistest finish you could put on a bike. It wasn’t even a finish, really. It was the antifinish. It was riding around in primer, and a bike in primer is basically naked, walking around not giving one swingin’ god-damn what anybody thinks.
Matte black said, fuck chrome. Fuck your fancy, expensive custom flame paint job or your “factory custom” glitter-pony candy wrapper. All’s I want to do is ride. I refuse to even reflect light.
It’s the color of a deep bruise. An old tattoo. A stealth bomber. Joan Jett. Rot. The color that chooses not to. I doesn’t even bother to sneer.
Harley brought matte black into the mainstream in 2007 with the Nightster, which brought some much-needed and long-absent cool back the the H-D brand. The Nightster was pretty effin tough-looking for a mass-production bike, and it embraced the Sportster’s true potential as lean, gnarly, high-torque-to-weight strike fighter, instead of forcing it to be a smaller version of the fat, chrome-heavy cruisers.
The Nightster was a hit, and Harley developed a whole line of “Dark Customs” (which sounds like a cheesy soft-core goth porn series), which included some fine, handsome machines (like the Street Bob) and some obvious jokes that somehow made it into production (like the Cross Bones). The Harley motto, translated from the Latin, reads roughly, “We had this one great idea; now we’re going to beat it to death until you can’t stand it,” and they certainly lived up to those lofty words. They put matte (sorry – “denim”) finishes on any surface that would take paint. (Somehow I can’t get my head around the point of matte orange.)
Of course, every other manufacturer with a cruiser in their line-up had to mimic the alpha ape. Matte black is everywhere, often on bikes speciously branded as “bobbers.” Hilariously, these bikes are sometimes “special editions” with special price tags. The idea of paying a premium for matte black has its own special absurdity: turning the antisocial into a social status symbol. Paying extra for that pissed-off loaner look. How much would they charge for some rust and a few dents? Of course, this is nothing new: designer jeans with holes in the knees have been around for thirty years. People probably pay like fifty bucks for those! I don’t know what designer jeans cost, but Soul Custom will sell you a brand-new ratty old t-shirt for $25.
But I digress.
Now Indian has unveiled the Chief Dark Horse, the sadly predictable matte black version of the Chief. (Let’s ignore the urge to point out that the name “Chief Dark Horse” is getting uncomfortably close to “Kemosabe” territory.)
The Indian Chief is no hard-core garage custom. It is gorgeous American luxury. It looks like Marilyn lying on her side. It has hips. It has the style and grace we once associated with American automobiles like Packard, Cadillac, and, dare I say, Duesenberg.
To paint the Indian Chief matte black is to throw a drink in its face. It just looks dour and full of self-pity. You see, what makes the Chief work as a design are its three-dimensional complex curves. You cannot appreciate this design by looking at a profile photo. When you walk around it, you appreciate the whole shape, and it makes you want to touch it. It is highly sculptural. The matte black paint ruins all that. It flattens your whole perception of the bike. The paint job conflicts with and undermines the overall design. That’s why the Dark Horse looks so anonymous. It looks like any of a hundred nameless cruisers and loses that distinctive Indian character.
On the plus side, though, the Dark Horse is a full $2,000 cheaper than the Chief Classic. That’s a big discount, and it’s plenty of money to get whatever paint job you wanted.
With this paint option, Indian is opting for what is trending at this moment – or, more accurately, what was trending two or three years ago – over good design. Industrial and product design always has a tension between what is best and what is popular, and it’s hard to blame them for doing something so simple that might really sell, but it’s also hard to look at a matte black Indian Chief.