Monday, 4 May 2015

Editorial - Evolution

Aprilia Tuono Big Sky

In the course of working on this site I glean over a lot of road tests, previews, reviews, and rider feedback for whatever weird bike I happen to be in the process of profiling. It gives me an opportunity to get period insight into the machines, and the context surrounding their introduction, which plays an important role in telling the story. For me context is just as important as hindsight when talking about some long-dead company or motorcycle; we have a tendency to view the past through our own lens, which isn't fair or a good way to preserve history. The fact that we motorcyclists are some of the most fickle, prissy and critical assholes out there doesn't help when you are trying to do justice to a design. We will sooner remember it as a worthless piece of shit than the forward-looking product of a starry-eyed designer who must have thought he/she was going to change the world. Or vice-versa.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about. I've noticed an even more interesting undercurrent in the numerous articles and comments I constantly sift through, and that's a noticeable change in the quality of motojournalism. When you read reviews from the past four or five decades and compare them to the work being published today, you notice some peculiar trends. You can trace the evolution of motorcycle journalism. And it's not good. I'd like to address it, and in so doing lay out a new model for what I'm doing here on OddBike.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Mondial Piega - Honouring the Favour

Mondial Piega
Image Source

Take a long-dormant name, add a proven heart, clothe it in Italian design, surround it with high hopes, then end the whole project with crushed expectations, insolvency and some ancillary criminal escapades. It is the classic story of the failed motorcycle company, a trope that gets repeated over and over every few years when someone seeks to play on nostalgia and resurrect some long-dead company to sell vapourware to unsuspecting enthusiasts... Except this story is a bit more interesting and a bit more nuanced, and the revival came that much closer to succeeding. This is the story of the Mondial Piega, a machine that was set to conquer the superbike market through an unprecedented partnership that had its roots in a simple gesture of good sportsmanship that occurred over 50 years ago.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Editorial - Eulogy

Ducati 916 Tank

As my upcoming article is taking quite a bit longer than expected to finish and awaiting feedback from a few sources, I'm taking a break this week to present a personal editorial. Enjoy.

It's August, 2006 and I'm dicking around on the computer during a work break. I'm working for minimum wage as an unlicensed mechanic in Montreal at a British bike specialist while I attend McGill, completing a degree in history while getting my hands dirty during the summer months. I've been working on greasy old Brit iron for several months, fixing all manner of Triumphs, Nortons and the odd BSA or Enfield. Everything from show winners to bodged-together relics pass through the shop and while I'm semi-capable of doing the work I'm truly out of my element. I'd consider my skills somewhere around advanced-shade-tree, likely far from what you'd want to have working on your pride and joy but you really could't expect much for 55$ an hour. I muddle my way through it with the guidance of the grizzled owner without making too many egregious mistakes - though there were a few, thankfully none that manifested themselves outside the walls of the shop.

Suzuki SV650 Streetfighter

I'm idly browsing the Auto Trader wistfully looking at bikes for sale. I'm currently riding a '04 SV650 I bought new in the fall of 2004. Being a cash-strapped student I financed it for approximately a trillion years and skipped full coverage insurance because as a then 18 year old rider my insurance company seemed to view my premiums as a way of balancing their books against all those born-again middle-aged HOG riders they were undercharging. It was a fateful decision, because in 2005 I made the bonehead move of lending my SV to a coworker who claimed to be a proficient rider. After he skidded across the road in front of his house, narrowly dodged a passing car, and then flung the bike into a five-foot ditch not 100 yards from his front door I had learned, the hard way, he was completely full of shit. With no collision coverage and the bike effectively written off (severed forks, split rim, busted radiator, crushed exhaust headers, twisted bars, etc…) I made a deal with Fucknuts to fix the bike myself using GSXR takeoff parts, which is de rigueur for anyone who wishes to address the main shortcomings of the SV (i.e. garbage suspension and mediocre brakes) while still saving money compared to buying OEM replacement parts. I diligently showed up at his workplace every payday and escorted him to the nearest ATM until his debt was paid, and I ended up with a neat streetfighter once all was done.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Editorial - Industry Observations 2015

Kawasaki H2R Super Charged

It's the new year, and a time to take stock of the new series of motorcycles that has been trickling out of the gate over the past few months. It’s also the nadir of our Canadian winter here in Calgary, so of course this is the perfect time to attend a flashy, disappointing motorcycle show to examine this year's newly minted cash grabs and dull rehashes in the hopes of finding a few gems in this post-Economic Apocalypse era.

Ducati Scrambler

For some sadistic reason all the major Canadian motorcycle exhibitions are held in the middle of our bitter winter, when we are at least three months away from turning a wheel in anger. It's a chance to admire shiny new contrivances of the two wheeled variety to briefly distract ourselves from the misery of our cold, cycle-free season. Really it seems idiotic. Despite optimistic displays loaded with the latest (and leftover) gear and temporary finance offices throughout the show floor, this isn't the time of year when you are going to be buying bikes. Even taking delivery of them is a chore, shuttling them home on a trailer or pickup just so you can wistfully gaze at them in your garage for 4 months, then take your first wobbly, familiarizing ride on sand and salt caked roads the moment the snow recedes... Test rides are virtually out of the question at Canadian dealerships any time of the year, outside of heavily regulated demo days where you’ll have to sign up well in advance to ride the latest base model at 5 under the speed limit for 30 minutes.

KTM Booth

Calgary seems to get the short end of the stick when it comes to the show circuit. I've attended the Montreal and Toronto shows in the past, and they are usually well stocked and exceptionally well attended (i.e. crowded as all fuck). This in spite of the significant anti-biker sentiments and associated legislation (not to mention obscene insurance/registration fees) in Quebec and Ontario. Alberta is one of the most free and accommodating provinces in the Confederation and exhibits precious little meddling with its motorcycling population. From my perspective in the industry, motorcycle sales here are fantastic given the population size, with a perpetually booming oil economy feeding an amazing level of disposable income in the general population – rig pigs like their toys. Not only that, but we are less than an hour away from the Rockies and a lot of beautiful motorcycling routes, and not that far away from British Colombia where you can find some of the best roads in North America. Unlike out East, sales of shitty cruisers don’t dominate the market and colour the entire industry with a faux-badass chrome and leather sheen. Here capital-A Adventure bikes are king, along with pure off road machines and a good smattering of tourers, standards and sport bikes. Metric cruisers are sales floor deadweight. People out here appreciate bikes that are versatile and can go around corners, though there are plenty of dorky hipster gangs with unrideable choppers and cafĂ©-poseurs to keep things balanced.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Millepercento Moto Guzzis - Filling the Void

Millepercento Alba Moto Guzzi
Image Source

Moto Guzzi has lost its way.

The boys at Mandello del Lario represent the oldest continuously operating brand in Europe in spite of operating in a near-constant state of flux due to catastrophic insolvency and unstable sales. Over the years the products emblazoned with the eagle crest have attempted to fill nearly every conceivable niche - sometimes successfully, more often not. Despite their attempts to crack into various categories with sometimes ill-advised oddball machines, Guzzis of old channelled a certain spirit that made them appealing to a certain type of rider who lusted for something peculiar. They were sporting machines, but not sportbikes. They were a bit rough and charmingly unpretentious, but refined enough to be pleasant. They were unique, but somehow familiar, and backed up by decades of heritage – passionate machines with antiquated guts. Moto Guzzi excelled at building the prototypical gentleman’s sports machine, exemplified by iconic models like the Le Mans, the V11, and the Daytona. They were not the fastest, or the most agile, or the most useable – but they were some of the most charming.

Millepercento Alba Moto Guzzi
Image Source

But it was not to last. With their finances in shambles and profits needed to keep the lights on, a new strategy would be needed. It was a boring solution, with practicality and rationality taking precedence over passion. When the Piaggio Group took over Moto Guzzi in 2004, the company gradually phased out the true heirs to the company’s heritage in favour of dull, safe products that would appeal to the masses. Thus we ended up with wallflower machines like an asthmatic retro throwback, a chrome-addled American-esque cruiser, and a Teutonic-aping capital-A “Adventure Tourer”. Guzzi weathered their near-demise to fight another day, but at the cost of all that made them interesting.

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Bienville Legacy Motorcycle Commission - Interview

Bienville Legacy Motorcycle
Image courtesy ADMCi
James McBride from asked me to interview JT Nesbitt about the now nearly completed Bienville Legacy motorcycle. This is the result. 

“So tell me what you think, man.”

JT is wearing a shit-eating grin and holding a tallboy of Coors. He’s beaming because today is the first time his incredible creation has been rolled out of his New Orleans workshop into the public eye. I’m standing outside the Motus factory in downtown Birmingham, Alabama on a warm fall evening in October 2013. I'm barely able to process what I'm seeing, let alone formulate any meaningful opinion about it.

I recall my immediate reaction as being “What the fuck does it matter what I think?”

The thought comes in a moment of pure intensity for me. It followed a long, difficult day spent running around in muggy Southern heat while attending the Barber Vintage Festival. I've dragged myself here to meet the man who I've been following and conversing with for several months, an enigmatic and controversial motorcycle designer who has been keen to share his ideas with me. Today is the day his baby gets unveiled to the public. This marks the first time I've met JT Nesbitt in person, and it’s the first time I've seen his handiwork outside of a computer screen. And I'm completely awestruck.

Bienville Legacy Motorcycle Front Suspension Detail
Image courtesy ADMCi

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Confederate Wraith Part II - American Iconoclast

Confederate Wraith B120

Part II of the Confederate Wraith story. Click here for Part I.

It is late 2005 and Confederate Motors is in shambles. Fresh from the epic high of securing a high-profile investor in the Middle East, the company’s president Matt Chambers and lead designer JT Nesbitt returned to their New Orleans base of operations to discover that their factory has been destroyed by the winds and flooding brought on by Hurricane Katrina. With their facilities in ruins and their insurance company bankrupted by the claims in the aftermath of the storm, it looks like the infamous purveyor of brutal, radical and rebellious motorcycles is no more. Katrina has seemingly crushed the hopes of bringing Nesbitt’s iconoclastic Wraith design to production.

Confederate Wraith B120 Motocycle

The situation appeared dire and the circumstances were debilitating, particularly for a tiny boutique manufacturer that had constantly fought with debt, flirted with bankruptcy, and struggled to meet the demand for their two-wheeled anti-establishment icons. A few frames and components were salvaged from the ruined factory, as were most of the computer files and company books, but the operation was a long way away from building bikes - particularly when New Orleans was still wracked with instability, crime and resource shortages in the wake of flooding. In spite of the literal collapse of their New Orleans factory, Confederate’s anonymous investor/saviour had maintained his end of the agreement and would provide the capital needed to renew the company. The question remained: with the factory gone and New Orleans in shambles, where would Confederate build its bikes?

Monday, 6 October 2014

Confederate Wraith Part I - American Iconoclast

Confederate B91 Wraith Black Bike
Photo Courtesy Brian Case

Part I of the Confederate Wraith story. Click here for Part II

There are rare instances in the realm of motorcycle design when there emerges an icon. These are machines so radical that they serve as a clean break from the standards of the past, thereby setting a new template and pushing the high-water mark up the wall a few extra feet. To truly be an icon, they must influence subsequent processes and inspire a new thread in motorcycle design; one-off machines that immediately fade into obscurity won’t do. They can be new standards of beauty, or of performance, or of chassis design, or templates for hitherto untried categories (or some combination of all four). These motorcycles are often the product of years of research and countless design hours, produced by multi-billion dollar corporations that can afford to take a risk once and a rare while. They are not often produced by a tiny boutique manufacturer that has built less than a thousand machines, conceptualized by men who were not classically trained “designers” with decades of experience under their belts.

Confederate Wraith XP-1 Motorcycle
Image courtesy Brian Case
The Confederate Wraith was one such icon of that emerged from Southern Louisiana like a thundering slap in the face to all that the motorcycle industry held dear. It was an absolute break with tradition, a bold insult to the long-held standards of a conservative industry, and a new way of conceiving of the motorcycle that was unlike anything that had preceded it. It was a product of looking forward while respecting history, a curious mixture of old and new ideas blended into a stunning machine that was as brutal as it was intelligent.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Editorial - Authenticity

Harley Davidson No. 1 Logo

The whole concept of authenticity (and what is or is not authentic) is one of those paradoxical topics that seems simultaneously important and utterly trivial. The term serves an accusation / accolade directed at whatever fad du jour is grabbing the attention of the public, but it also seems to be a product of our recent cultural aspirations. The whole business of following your passions, aspiring to greatness, and generally expecting the best for ourselves no matter how lazy or shiftless we are is a recent development that has enveloped our culture. To lack authenticity is to contrive against some notion of “true” passion – or worse, to debase those passionate pursuits with monetary concerns. To exhibit an idealized form of authenticity is to be in tune with your loves and desires without corrupting them with too much rationality or materialism. Upon reflection it’s all a bit ridiculous, but bear with me, I’m sure I have a point brewing here somewhere.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Hunwick Hallam / Hunwick Harrop - Aussie Innovation

Hunwick Hallam X1R Motorcycle
Photo Courtesy Richard James

There has been a remarkable amount of innovation in motorcycle design that has come from Down Under. Australian and New Zealander designers and tinkerers seem to have a particular penchant for crafting some of the most interesting and forward-thinking machines the world has seen, all in isolation from the existing networks. These clever displays of ingenuity often seem driven by a variety of factors – perhaps it is their distance from existing industries, or their down-home ingenuity brought on by that isolation from the rest of the world, and more than likely it is their strong fondness for all things loud and fast. One company came to the fore in the late 90s with the promise of putting an Australian-made motorcycle on the world stage, with a radical clean-sheet design that made the rest of the industry take notice. The Hunwick Hallam almost single-handedly kickstarted an Australian motorcycle industry that would have dusted the competition the road and the track, but the realities of the market would doom it to obscurity.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Imme R100 - Purity of Design

Riedel Imme R100 Motorcycle
Image Source

There are rare moments of remarkable clarity and forethought in the realm of motorcycle design, when machines are produced with such innovation and beauty that they are scarcely credible as products of their time. These motorcycles can occupy one of two positions in subsequent conception: they can be held aloft as gamechangers, as the designs that pushed the goalpost forward and forced everyone else to catch up, or they can fade into obscurity only to be appreciated by a limited few who recognize how advanced they truly were. Many remarkable designs fall into the latter category, the genius of their creators only recognized long after they pass into anonymity once the rest of the industry has caught up to the future that was laid out well in advance. Appreciation of these machines is only possible in hindsight when we see how their details foreshadowed subsequent trends.

German motorcycle designer Norbert Riedel was one such forgotten innovator, and his Imme R100 proved to be a masterpiece of design that has only began to earn true appreciation in recent decades. Once a cheap and cheerful form of transportation that was designed and built within the restrictions of a postwar economy, the Imme became one of the most fascinating examples of motorcycle design to emerge during the mid-20th century – and would prove to be one of the most beautiful motorcycles of any era. They were a machine out of time, a vehicle that applied nascent principles that were still decades away from the mainstream, and a series of ingenious design elements unified into a coherent whole that has since earned the accolades of some of the world’s motorcycle elite. The Imme was not just a cleverly constructed motorcycle, it was one of the most beautiful pieces of modern industrial design that nobody has ever heard of.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Moto Guzzi V-Twin Off Roaders - Improbable Italian Enduros

Moto Guzzi V65 TT
Image Source

Considering our recent inundation of overweight, overly-complicated, quasi-enduro hair shirts produced by every manufacturer and their Chinese knockoffs, you'd be forgiven if you were to think that the overwrought poseur offroader (sorry, “Adventure Tourer”) was a recent innovation. If you thought these “should-be-an-uncompetitive-road-bike-but-it's-a-class-leader-because-we-made-the-suspension-too-tall” machines that clutter up showrooms and spend most of their time outside the nearest Starbucks - or beached on logging road ditches by weekend warriors - were concocted by the marketing gurus of the motorcycling world who sought to add yet another saleable category to our ever-growing gamut of useless niches, you'd only be half right. The improbable off-roader has been around for decades, gradually evolving into the two-wheeled barges we enjoy today, and few of these fauxduros were as unusual as the V-twin mud pluggers that rolled out of the Moto Guzzi works in Mandello del Lario.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Orley Raymond Courtney's Motorcycles - Birth of the Cruiser

1952 Cycle Magazine Enterprise Motorcycle
Image Source

For the purpose of today's article I'm going to make a broad generalization: the cruiser is a relatively recent invention that was concocted in the boardrooms of at least one major manufacturer. There was once a time when Harley Davidsons and Indians were simply styled in the manner of their era and were just as susceptible to being stripped to their bare essentials and ridden in anger as anything coming out of Europe. Their styling was once current, their performance once competitive, their function never intended for weekend warriors escaping office drudgery in leather-clad road pageants. The overwrought modern cruiser and the carefully cultivated image of its riders were but a distant glimmer in the eye of a clever marketing maven.

It could have been different. It should have been different. The cruiser wasn't born in the boardrooms of Harley-Davidson in the 1980s. It was the product of a man with a singular vision, whose work would prove to be under appreciated and his skills as a remarkable designer and craftsman virtually forgotten. These prototypical cruisers weren't created by tacking tassels onto nostalgic throwback machines – they were an optimistic vision of the future welded out of steel tube and beaten out of sheet metal in Orley Raymond Courtney's workshop before being rolled out into an ignorant world in the mid-1930s, and once again in the early 1950s. Courtney's work was bold, innovative, and without peer in the United States, or anywhere else in the world. Above all, it was beautiful. And it is now virtually forgotten, his stunning and forward-thinking designs contributing to a future that never happened.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Editorial - Renewal

-32 in Minnesota

Seeing as how I've recently been dealing with a particularly hardy case of writer's block and a few stalled articles, it is probably an appropriate time to delve into one of my trademark in-depth reflections on my somewhat unexciting existence. Yes, it's time for another rambling editorial here on OddBike, at least until I can clear the fog out of my head and start writing meaningful profiles of weird motorcycles again.

As some of my loyal readers will note (those who slogged through my epic USA Tour Travelogue, anyway) I recently announced my intention to bugger off and pack my ass off to Calgary, where I would start my life anew with a post in the motorcycle industry. I did indeed follow through on my threat, and this major moment of transition is what has kept me tied up and limited in my writing capacity in recent months. On reflection it seems a good opportunity to look back on how things have evolved in my life, and how OddBike has grown in the previous year. It was, as really loyal readers will note, the one year anniversary of this site in November 2013, so it seems appropriate to take this belated opportunity to address the development of this here experiment in quote unquote "motorcycle journalism".

Monday, 10 February 2014

DKW Supercharged Two-Strokes - Force-Fed Deeks

DKW supercharged SS 250 Ladepumpe motorcycle Barber Museum
DKW SS 250 at the Barber Museum

There is a saying that used to be shared in history circles, with a wry smirk, which has since become a minor cliche: “History is written by the winners”. Hackneyed though it may be, there is a great deal of truth in that old platitude. Be it in politics or in motorsports, odds are the story you know is the one that has been informed by the success of those who came out ahead. In the case of DKW and their series of once-dominant supercharged motorcycles, the company's successes have been drowned out by the tides of history. Some of the fastest, most advanced, and technologically interesting two-strokes of the 1930s have nearly been forgotten due to the company's unfortunate national ties – the once-famous Ladepumpe and supercharged “Deeks” became victims of historical circumstances beyond their control.