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.



This societal push for everyone to live out their dreams (or forever live in despair because they failed to do so) is a recent development that doesn't seem to have much precedent. Our highly networked, highly public culture places a high value on success, the trappings of wealth, and some vague pursuit of happiness; our constant monitoring of each other’s progress inspires greed, jealousy, and the sort of beating-the-Jones-into-submission dick-waving that would make our ancestors cringe. And that’s what makes it seem all the more ridiculous. Did our great-great grandparents aspire to pursue their dreams? Did they tell their children that someday they could be anything they wanted to be (but today they needed to pick rocks out of the soil)? Did bean farmers in Iowa sit on their porches and gaze wistfully into the sunset, wishing they could abandon their earthly responsibilities to pursue their “passion”?

Probably not. They farmed dirt like they had for generations, and pursued the only life they knew. Those who aimed higher would either make their fortune with luck and hard work, or get browbeaten back into submission for being so vain as to aim above their lot in life.   

This pursuit of irrational desire has bred a multitude of curious trends. We live in a material culture that places high value on things, with some objects having more monetary and philosophical value than others based on their construction, performance, and the ideas that inspired them. We have gone beyond the realm of mere functionality; now we judge objects by their moral and conceptual backgrounds. High value is placed on that which is somehow “honest” and born of true workmanship (whatever that is), be it coffee, clothes or motorcycles. We've come to romanticize the notion of honest labour, of some selfless pursuit of perfection in materialism, of widgets crafted by scarred hands and inspired by hard-won experience. And in lieu of actually living this honest life, you can buy it: the products, the image, and the ideals are all up for grabs if you have the money and the poor sense to fall for the hype.

Vintage Harley Davidson Collection Wheels Through Time Museum
Pictured: Why Harley can get away with it.
I'll digress a bit and attempt to return to the core of this discussion, and what matters to me and my readers: how do these notions of authenticity impact on our modern motorcycle industry?

Motorcycling as a whole has seen a strange series of ups and downs over its short history, a string of failures and rebirths that have contributed to a curious mythos that is as complex as it is contradictory. In Western society we've witnessed motorcycles transition from cheap transportation to status symbols and recreational items in the course of a few generations. They've flickered in and out of respectability repeatedly over the decades, building an image of grace tempered with a tinge of outlaw culture. We reference our past and play dress up with the trappings of bygone groups, putting on pageants of leather, chrome, and noise that are as much the product of marketing as they are a contrived expression of “individuality”. We conveniently ignore the elements of our history that we dislike and parade around in references to the bits we chose to glorify. Our culture is a constantly evolving pastiche of disparate elements stitched together into some virtually incomprehensible mess that is scarcely decipherable to those outside our world (and quite a few of us inside it).    

In cultural terms we've appropriated elements of the past without understanding them, building monuments to nostalgia and tradition without substance. We have trouble moving forward as a result. Conservatism reigns and we distrust the new. We stick to the formulas and keep building bicycles with engines strapped to them without accepting meaningful progress. At the end of the day image trumps engineering.

It isn't all bad. There is something to be said for machines that channel a genuine spirit. As much as I may disparage the paint shaker-cum-motorcycles rolling out of Milwaukee, I have a begrudging respect for their single-minded pursuit of an ideal (even if that ideal is of their own design). Harley-Davidson is, all marketing aside, the only authentic cruiser. They have an unbroken lineage that has survived depressions, recessions, wars, and image problems, a purity of antiquated design that respects their heritage (aberrations like the V-Rod and Street 500/750 aside). The company can draw a nearly unbroken line from their origins to the present, and their products exhibit the hallmarks of the company’s past in a way that somehow doesn't fall completely into the trap of creaky nostalgia. They aren’t reproductions, they are continuations. If we ignore the brash and contrived commercialism and zero in on the machines themselves, there truly is no substitute for a Harley. To attempt to copy a Harley is to commit the ultimate sin: to build something that is at its core a sham, a shameless knockoff that exhibits all the elements of the original with none of the heritage or spirit intact.

1913 Harley Davidson V-Twin
Genesis.

The Japanese marques are notorious for this. They analyse, copy, and conquer. The product may be superior in rational terms of performance, value and reliability, but it has no cultural value. The result isn’t a motorcycle:  it is an attempt to lure sales away from an established niche, to build a by-the-numbers facsimile. It is not authentic. The Japanese are at their best when they are given the freedom to establish a new category, to build something distinct and advanced that doesn't reference the competition. Modern sport bikes and standards owe their existence to the arms race instigated by the Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, a push that propelled design and performance forward at a remarkable pace. We should celebrate the birth of the superbike and the refinement of the modern motorcycle brought on by the strength of Japanese engineering, not the production of oil-tight copies of British twins and goofy Harley clones that cluttered showrooms for decades.           

Harley Davidson Engine Display Wheels Through Time Museum

There is a paradox in there somewhere, or perhaps a trap that can easily lure in the clueless followers of fashion. We place value on that which is true and pure, but which upholds an outdated standard, and we end up sitting in place and stagnating. Laziness is not authentic. Neither is grimly hanging on to past glories without looking to the future. There is a fine line between honouring your heritage and clinging to old successes. I'm as much as sucker for the idealized, Peter Egan-esque notion of the bygone purity of the old as anyone else.  There is an appeal to the image of sitting in the corner of the garage swigging a dark beer and gazing upon some antiquated machine, a crafted device that is visibly hewn from metal by human hands, as it plinks itself cool following a hard day’s ride. There is a spirit in these old barges that comes through with every ride, a personality that oozes out and puddles on the concrete of the garage floor along with so much straight-weight oil. The trick is to appreciate this old world character without remaining a slave to it. Old machines will always be there; there is no need to recreate them. And keep in mind those old machines were never harking back to some past ideal: they were the products of forward thinking designers, and they were contemporary in their design and performance when they were current. What compels us to build homages to the past, when the subjects of those homages were the result of looking to the future?

Norton Classic Rotary
A Norton that isn't a creaky throwback.

I would argue that the British lost the plot after the collapse of their motorcycle industry. Norton was able to shamble along and renew itself with a series of remarkable rotary powered machines for a brief but interesting period, but all the other storied marques were obliterated following the arrival of the Japanese conquerors (despite a few admirable attempts to modernize right before the end). While Harley was able to cash in on its legacy early on, and sustain itself through the Eastern onslaught and AMF bungling, the British had their industry crushed and buried before a revival could take place. John Bloor’s resurrection of Triumph has been an undeniable success, but it has earned that success through the bastardization of the company’s legacy. The 1990s were an interesting period where the company moved forward with a series of unique and charming triples and fours. Then they shat out the Bonneville repop in 2001. History had come full circle: the Japanese had beaten the competition by building soulless copies of British machines, and now the British had copied the Japanese by building a soulless homage to their own past. Union jack decals distracted buyers from the “Made in Thailand” and “Made in India” stamps on all the cheap components. The “new” Bonnie was (is) as British as tom kha gai. Reliable, plodding, boring performance and wobbly roadholding was a far cry from the fine handling and snarling engines that propelled Brit iron into the hearts of riders in the 1950s and 60s. Despite this the facsimile was good enough at 20 paces to lure image conscious buyers into the fold by pandering to their nostalgia without offering any real substance. It may well have been a Kawasaki W650 - a bike that arguably recreated the spirit of the original better than the new Bonnie ever did. The Bonneville became the prototypical nouveau classique motorcycle, a runaway success that spawned a series of equally uninspired rehashes from other marques (see also: Moto Guzzi V7, Honda CB1100, or any other machine that excuses lazy design and mediocre performance by appealing to our limitless capacity for nostalgia).

Dime City Cycles Cafe-whatever
Dime City "who cares what it is".

The resulting me-too hopping on the nostalgia bandwagon has done irreparable harm to modern motorcycle design. Where we once looked starry-eyed into the future aboard our sleek pastel-coloured rockets, we now look wistfully upon a past that never was while straddling wheezy appeals to the sentiments of baby boomers and their self-entitled hipster brethren. In the process you end up with weird compromises, like the new BMW R NineT abandoning the clever Telelever front fork in favour of a non-adjustable conventional fork to make “customization” easier. No, it wasn't to save costs and glean some extra margin, it was to give 1% of buyers the opportunity to swap in some better suspension components (that they will never come close to making use of). Accommodating the whims of fickle buyers forces a step backwards.

Which allows me to segway neatly to my next target:

Our current industry has managed to combine the wistful longings of senile buyers, the muddled self-images of materialistic self-entitled brats, and the myth of honest labour into a cocktail that has given birth to the second coming of the café racer. Every wrench-spinning hack and their grandma has taken to the shed to build a cobbled together monstrosity as the custom scene has exploded into an orgy of candy-flaked, header-wrapped, Firestone-tired homages to… who knows what, we were too busy selling T-shirts and moustache wax to decide.

Honda CB Cafe Racer
Honda CB Cafe Racer number 4,695,345.

We have appropriated elements of the past and given them the glossy sheen of branding and rampant materialism, thereby abandoning any hope of contributing something meaningful to our culture. We will never exhibit that effortless cool of our heroes because we are trying too hard, and trying hard to make a buck in the process. Anyone who dares summon the spirit of McQueen (or Brando, or Marvin, or Eastwood, or Newman, or any other grizzled American male celebrity) in their marketing should be avoided at all costs. Beware the Steve McQueen/David Hasselhoff Conundrum. 

Fake Carbon Fibre
Fake carbon fibre is the most inauthentic thing you could possibly slap on your motorcycle.

That’s not to say that numbskulls slapping together deathtraps in their backyards is a bad thing. As long as young men and women have had hacksaws and cheap Mastercraft tools at their disposal, they’ve been butchering two- and four-wheeled devices to their perverted liking. Hot rod culture is alive and well - despite the arrival of the Prius and the Honda NC700 - and the naïve tinkering of our youth should be celebrated and encouraged, no matter how ugly it gets.

It should not, however, becoming commercialized to the point of ridiculousness. That is the difference between the authentic custom and the contrived machinations of businesses masquerading as honest builders. If they are churning out overpriced machines while selling made-in-China bolt on parts and apparel with explicit references to Steve McQueen, they are not worthy of our praise. Save your accolades for the person with blackened, calloused hands who lives in poverty, funnelling all their meagre funds into their projects. You likely won't hear about those people in the media, because they generally neglect to hire publicists or submit their work to Bike Exif.              

Yet Another Honda CB Cafe Racer
Yet another Honda CB cafe-whatever.

That’s the unfortunate and largely untenable ideal we have built, that of the passionate builder plying their trade free of corruption by monetary concerns. The myth of honest labour has merged with the image of the starving artist. The truth is that the most notable visionaries usually toil in obscurity, and always will. Their potential will always be limited by their lack of funds, and their impact will be blunted by their lack of exposure. Noble though their plight might be in an idealistic sense, they can rarely achieve greatness or improve our culture if they are working in anonymity with limited means. A select few rise to the top and get the breaks that allow them to soar, but most will suffer Ramen noodles and cheap beer while they skin their knuckles on their latest creation. It is a romantic image, but not a pleasant one to live through. 

Ace Hipster Poseur Cafe Corner
"Ace Corner"

I once liked the whole aesthetic and do-it-yourself mentality that surrounded the rebirth of the café racer (and its American cousin, the chopper, which is equally the victim of a series of deaths and renewals that have tarnished the spirit of the original concept). I became disillusioned when I visited the “Ace Café Corner” at the Barber Vintage Festival in October 2013. II paid extra to gain entry (which should have been my first sign of trouble) into what promised to be a cornucopia of expressive custom machines and a gen-u-ine recreation of the fabled Ace Café. What I got was a bunch of similarly-butchered Honda CBs with gaudy paint jobs and a concession tent that was identical to the dozen other food trucks that dotted the grounds, except this one served overpriced beer in addition to the cardboard pucks they passed off as burgers. Various businesses plied their cheap wares in this “private” area, with everything from Chinese rearsets to coffee mugs on offer to the crowds of bearded, be-flannelled millennials. It was pathetic and disheartening. Bar a few original machines and an entirely out-of-place display of original Brough-Superiors, the whole scene left me cold and feeling cheated out of my admission fee. I had felt the cafe-racer culture had jumped the shark sometime prior, but seeing this pathetic display made me realize I truly disliked where our once vibrant custom scene was heading.

There is also the problem of missing the point of those old café racers and stripped-down bobbers. They were products of purpose. Their aesthetics were a result of the desire for more performance, less weight, and extreme simplification. Their builders were not deliberately trying to channel any particular "look": that came naturally from the pursuit of performance. The modern café racer is merely a pretender, an attempt to replicate the appearance of this purity without the substance. Yes, I'm deliberately drawing a parallel to those soulless Harley copies. That being said there is a place for deliberately hack-n-slash "engineering". These machines should not be presented in overwrought, high-minded terms cooked up by arts degree arrogance, attempting to channel some nonexistent spirit of rebellion (by doing the same thing everyone else is doing). Instead they should be fun, self-deprecating romps like the Dirtbag Challenge.

Bimota V-Due
Magnificent, spectacularly flawed authenticity.

In my mind, true authenticity is born of a purity of purpose and design. The most notable machines are those that execute an idea with minimal compromise. They are pursuits of a focussed goal, of a certain truth. They are unapologetic. In terms of mass-produced machines, the Italians have made their mark building beautiful and uncompromised tributes to mechanical art - and that’s why I continue to ride and lust after Italian machines against all good sense. If I could only ride Bimotas for the rest of my life, I’d die a happy man. If I wanted something boring, comfortable, and easy to ride in traffic, I'd buy a scooter - or literally anything other than a focussed machine that makes no excuses for its performance. If someone hops onto one of these lithe, visceral monuments to man’s hubris and proceeds to nasally complains about how hard the seat is, or the lack of fuel capacity, or how the gearing is tall for stop and go traffic, they need to be immediately barred from ever riding anything more exciting than a Burgman.

The most egregious offenders to our sense of authenticity, wobbly café hoppers aside, are those that are borne of compromise and design by committee. Elements are dumbed down to suit cost-cutting, the bullying of environmental agencies, and the fickle demands of mouth-breathing consumers who are too busy looking for places to bolt a cupholder to notice how perfectly shaped the subframe support is. More recently the concerns of liability issues in the North American market has driven many manufacturers to abandon anything remotely novel for fear of some dolt tipping over in a parking lot and then suing the company because they didn’t explicitly inform him via A. orange warning labels, B. audible alarms, and C. flashing lights that he shouldn't ride with the sidestand deployed.

This exposes a core problem with our industry – we rely too much on the opinions of ill-informed potential buyers who are happy to disparage anything new and unusual. We are constantly forced to look backwards, to accommodate the whims of customers who refuse to accept anything unfamiliar. The classic retort of “I wouldn't buy that” echoes loudly whenever something unusual is presented to the public, despite any attempts to demonstrate that those whiners were never the intended buyer (or that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to buy it even if they wanted to). People tend to forget that the world doesn't revolve around their whims. They also fail to realize that their opinions limit progress, and that simply disliking something doesn't lessen its value or its impact on the world.

Taylormade Brough Superior Moto2
Authenticity in innovation and engineering...

The most notable projects, outside of mass production, are those built by the geniuses, tinkerers and cranks who dare to reject the norms and traditions of our otherwise conservative industry. These are the machines that often shock and inspire but are rarely well known outside of a few circles of discussion. James Parker might be one of the best known designers of weird and wonderful alternatives given his infamous association with Yamaha and the GTS1000, and JT Nesbitt continues to buck convention in the most beautifully subversive manner from his workshop in New Orleans, but for every well-known odd bike designer there are a dozen unknown visionaries toiling away beneath the public’s radar; people like Tony FoaleIan Drysdale, and Julian Farnam to name a few. They produce the best kinds of motorcycles: bikes that draw the ire of the short-sighted individuals weaned on boring appliances. If a machine is radical enough to inflame and enrage the conservative tendencies of all the yokels who gaze upon it, then you know you are doing something right.

The commercialization of racing, and the resulting push of the cost of entry into the stratosphere, has contributed to this relegation of true innovation to the realm of the backyard tinkerer. No works team is willing to bet the farm on some quote-unquote “unproven” technology, and sanctioning bodies would be waiting in the wings to ban any progress if a development proves advantageous. A few small teams bravely try to do something different but are limited by their modest means and their lack of support. The era of the privateer racer/mechanic building and racing his/her own machine (and remaining competitive) is long gone. Racing is so expensive, so complicated, and so heavily regulated that the individual scarcely has any hope of contributing any meaningful technological progress to the sport.

Taylormade Brough Superior
...But not in their choice of name.

That’s not mentioning that entire subsets of the industry have grown to accommodate the status quo. A good example that most people would overlook is tires. Builders who have attempted to race with alternative front suspension designs have discovered that they are severely limited by tire performance. By separating the braking, suspension and steering forces acting upon the tire (which are typically muddled together by the action of telescopic forks) you reduce stress and friction on the carcass, which results in less grip because the tire can never maintain a sufficient temperature to perform properly. Tires are designed with telescopic forks in mind, and there is nothing out there that will exploit the potential of a forkless front end. This leads to builders fielding exasperated ideas like internally heating the tires, or directing exhaust heat towards the tread, or trying damn near anything that will allow a forkless suspension to perform properly in racing. Accommodating the compromises inherent in motorcycle design leads to a vicious circle that sustains those compromises.

They say racing improves the breed, so long as the breed is backed by billions of dollars and doesn't deviate too far from the formula laid out in the rulebook.

Several designers I've spoken to lament that the problem of rampant conservatism doesn't seem to have the same hold on the automotive industry as it does in the motorcycling world. In the realm of automobile design progress seems more rapid and radical ideas are often celebrated, rather than viewed with all-damning scepticism. Engineering solutions to problems are more natural – few in the automotive industry would accept the compromises inherent in a telescopic fork when a better system could easily be designed. There could be many factors at play that lead to this gulf. Some think that the hidden nature of much of the engineering in cars allows more experimentation – nobody will complain about how a suspension arm doesn't look right when it is shrouded in bodywork. It might be also due to the financial aspects: a top tier car is aimed at an elite few who expect perfection, while even the most expensive motorcycles are still within the grasp of the upper middle class who seem to be far more fickle in their desires (and always willing to make unfair comparisons to cheaper, mass-produced machines).

Time to digress again. I've meandered away from the original point of this editorial. Where does this all play into authenticity and passion? Does it really fucking matter? The problem with our industry as a whole is that we have become too preoccupied with defining what is and isn't worthy of our attention. In the meantime we've lost sight of the innovation that’s been brewing right beneath our noses. No, not those hipster dipshits wearing bubble visors and concocting new and creative ways to cut up their subframes. They are a mere distraction, a trend/fad that has been latched upon by the media and profiteers looking to cash in on what should otherwise be a pursuit of progress tempered with passion. You won't find meaning in half-baked tributes to Steve McQueen, or glossy photoshoots of models failing to look rugged in the saddle of some rolling throwback to a past that never existed.  True authenticity, in my mind, is the quest for purity in design and unchecked innovation in the face of daunting conservatism. The people who should be conquering this industry are working in isolation and anonymity. It’s a damned shame that you've likely heard about Wrenchmonkees or Classified Moto but you don’t know who Tony Foale is.

Of course I'm being harsh. I should probably avoid wholesale categorizations and unchecked disdain, but in general the priorities of our current motorcycle industry have left me frustrated. The man/woman in a shed building a bike has tremendous value to our culture, no matter how contrived their inspiration might be. They deserve praise, and don't deserve to be caught in the tides of fickle fads or transparent marketing. If they keep hacking and chopping, they might someday find the inspiration that will carry them toward building a meaningful contribution to our sport. Or they might keep cobbling together noisy deathtraps ad nauseum. Who cares? It doesn't make a difference. My hyperbolic opinions shouldn't stand in the way of your innovation/butchering, just as the vocalizations of a slack-jawed consumer base shouldn’t stand in the way of progress in our industry.

Yamaha Virago Cafe Racer
No, thank you.

33 comments:

  1. great fucken article, just great. love it!!

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  2. I kind of read this, but I felt it had all been written 5 years ago.

    This "scene" has already kind of come and gone.

    Ride what you will, but RIDE!

    Don't worry about what is "trendy" or in fashion.

    I've been doing it for 50 years, and I'm happy as a clam.

    What's you're REAL problem? Feel you're missing out on making some $$$$$$?

    Don't look at motorcycling that way. I never have. Guess what? I now make money on every bike that passes through my hands.

    I did not plan it that way. I just enjoyed every moment on two wheels.

    It will come.

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    1. I am late to the party, as this scene jumped the shark some time ago - but it continues to creep into the our culture more and more despite this.

      I'm not sure how to respond to the "missing out on making some $$$$$$" bit. You clearly have no idea who I am or what my philosophy is. Money is the furthest thing from my mind, increasingly so as I continue through life and continue telling stories on this site. You seem to have mistaken my disdain for the ridiculous commercialization of custom culture for jealousy, but I'm not sure why.

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  3. Thank you for writing this article, it was a refreshing read and a nice counterpoint to the tiresome and incestuous circle-jerking clusterfuck that has come to dominate the motorcycle industry and 'culture'.

    Actually, I'd like to hear your thoughts on the upcoming Honda Vultus. Personally I think it's hipsterism in the opposite direction: reaching into the future for design cues which are then unceremoniously slapped onto present-day running gear and cycle parts. I almost cringe every time I see the Vultus' futuristic cladding matched with skinny telescopic forks. It's almost like bike styling has developed far quicker than the underlying machinery, resulting in today's profusion of angular and sharp designs wearing the same old tired front forks and cheap handlebars. An example IMO is the Kawasaki Z800 in its more recent guises.

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    1. All I think of when I see the Vultus is "have we collectively forgotten the DN-01?"

      You've stumbled upon one of the key problems of motorcycle design: styling vs design. There is a distinct gulf between the two - the "best" motorcycles reconcile the two elements in a harmonious package that avoids wholesale compromise. A true motorcycle designer works from the nuts and bolts up, from the chassis to the bodywork. Tamburini was one of the few who could do this, JT is another. A stylist tosses clothes onto an existing design, or whatever the engineers have cooked up. Most machines are, by virtue of the nature of production, the product of the latter rather than the former.

      It's another reason why I am increasingly falling in love with Bimotas; they manage to exhibit good design and beautiful style with minimal compromises, always using the best components possible. Sure they've had a few dogs over the years, but as far as a relatively conventional "production" motorcycle goes it doesn't get much better (see also: Vyrus).

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    2. Yep, definitely agree on the point about styling/design. It's probably the reason my eyes keep getting drawn to those old endurance racers that were built from the frame up, bikes where function ruled and form was an afterthought. And despite that, they have a cohesive 'look' that works. They're a bit of an acquired taste, though. Not many could be called elegant e.g. the Mead & Tomkinson Nessie but I like them for their uncompromising devotion to function.

      Then there's the classic Britten V1000 too. I'm not sure how functional the blue upper half was, but when the rest of the bike's components are all multitasking, it would be an interesting point if he had designed it with function in mind and still ended up with something that looked so good.

      Then again, that's a different tangent from Bimota, whom I'll admit I found a bit too mainstream at first until I started looking at the details.

      I had hoped that the trend towards naked/standard bikes would have allowed manufacturers to design from the nuts and bolts up, by virtue of the fact that they wouldn't have much beyond the basic components of a bike to work with in the first place. Unfortunately they just shrink the seat unit with every passing year and tack on more angular plastic over radiator shrouds and frame spars and pass up countless other opportunities for a more minimal design that complements the cycle parts. I'd save the styling mania for cars, they've got a lot more surface area to play with.

      I'm really surprised the Vyrus doesn't get mentioned more. It's got that combination of mean, lean looks, carbon fibre in the right places and well-executed technological innovation that I imagine would cause no small amount of lust and excitement if a four-wheeled version had appeared in the car world. Motorcyclists, on the other hand, yeah, what a weird bunch.

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  4. As always, your articles are worth reading, and always a matter worth discussing... Which means, of course, I appreciate your honest "rant" but I'm not fully convinced.

    You know, I find true what you say about the humble, simple and spine-acking work of our ancestor, and the ode to the first days of the motorcycling adventure.
    But, before the eyes of our beloved ancestors, how do you think the hole "glorious Brit industry" of the 60-70's (or the Italian one, as well) would appear?
    What they would've thought of this strange machine who could reach 100mph, only seconds before exploding in a cloud of smoke and burnt oil (assuming it has started in the first place)?
    I think they probably would've laughed at those fragile, "recreational only", in few words useless, toy we call motorcycle.
    They weren't absolutely against innovation o engineering tricks, but they had to be functional, practical, useful (just as the Imme R100 you just wrote about some months ago).
    In a certain sense, I think of the "Japan invasion" like some sort of Biblical punishment from an engineer god to his degenerate child who forgot that a machine is intended to really work first, than go faster and better to make us dream: an advanced machine can be marvelous, but if it's not working 1 times out of 3 cannot be called a true advancement for humanity, but only an half-failed experiment sold to the ones who can fall for it just because it's different. Which is quite the same psychological cause of the rebirth of the cafè racer scene, to me.

    That's why, Jason, I think speaking about "authenticity" it's a really dangerous thing to do. Those compromise-driven, self-esteem damaging bike you call an insult to the industry are, in a certain way, the most authentic bikes that are still circulating (well, apart from the fact you need sophisticated instruments, proprietary software and god knows what to just change the oil without causing a war between you and the bike's scheduled maintenance warnings) because, as you say, original bikes were meant to be a solid, cheap for of transportation, an help for people who had not time to loose behind some sophisticated toy.

    Then again, I'm the first who loves those pricey and somehow out-of-my-reach "toys" you sometimes take care to look for and study for us readers... It's something as interesting as a new scientific discovery, for me, it's just another demonstration of how powerful an human brain can be, how can we understands the way the universe works and manipulate it to create something really "new".
    But, you know... Sometimes I can't help thinking that's not exactly what this whole motorcycling thing should be all about, but only a part of it.
    Certainly nobler than the cafè racer craze of the last 15-20 years, because at least in something really NEW and potentially innovative, and important, because nowadays we need to dream, as you say, but not the whole meaning of the industry itself.

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    1. There's a place for everything in this industry, even half-assed knockoffs of old designs (after all, just like those execrable Harley clones, they do sell and they do generate tidy profits for anyone who sells their soul to make them). The problem arises when the success of those lazy designs threatens progress in the industry by encouraging everyone to look backwards and appeal to our conservative tendencies rather than pushing forward.

      In another 20 years I think we will look back on these machines that appeal to nostalgia like we do those comically terrible Japanese "Customs" that were so pervasive in the 1980s.

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  5. Regarding car culture verses motorcycle culture, (or more precisely) car enthusiasts verses motorcycle enthusiasts, there is a disparity in prioritization and maturity.
    Maturity:
    In the auto world, car guys regard their world as a better place with people like Christian Koenigsegg and Horatio Pagani in it. Million dollar supercar? Well why not? After inspecting a few, I can tell you that they are worth every penny, and unlike the trite egalitarianism and phony blue collar ethos of the biker, I don't get upset if I can't afford one. I don't need to own a Rembrandt to recognize that it adds value to culture.
    Prioritization:
    One of my favorite experiments to conduct is this: go to Ebay Motors and in the choice fields select "any" for make and model, sort by "price- highest first". Try this for the motorcycle section, then try it for the automotive (cars and trucks) section..... A shocking shift in priorities for the car guys who appreciate engineering and objective realities. For the motorcycle guys it is almost entirely subjective, and worse still, shows a shocking poverty of both the wallet and intellect. Try it- and I challenge you not to be embarrassed. -- JT

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  6. I find it somewhat ironic that you erroneously credit H-D with authenticity, yet they are still here due to nothing more than having survived (mostly due to unAmerican anti-freemarket activity) while in the background of one picture is a tank from the true originator of the modern cruiser genre. Excelsior, whose product took the form we know today as Harley's own, for years while the Motor Company still built outdated designs.

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    1. I wouldn't disagree. But Harley survived, for good or ill, and the others are long dead. History moves on.

      I don't believe Harley is "better" than anything else, just that in the modern marketplace it is the prototype and the most genuine example of what it aims to be. All others are merely copies without the history to back them up. Keep in mind that "authentic" doesn't mean good.

      There is a thread in American motorcycle design that was lost around the time of the Great Depression. What JT references in his work as the "American Superbike": highly developed, highly refined fours that have no equivalent in the postwar period. They were either dropped in favour of cheaper and simpler twins, or disappeared along with their makers when the market could no longer support them. We can't (and shouldn't) resurrect those old marques, but we can use them as impetus to once again build a proper American motorcycle.

      http://rideapart.com/2012/09/the-american-superbike-past-present-and-future/

      http://www.motorcycle-usa.com/792/14483/Motorcycle-Article/JT-Nesbitt-Rises--Glory-be-American-Superbikes.aspx

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  7. An interesting read/rant. I began riding in 1952 on a Triumph Thunderbird vertical twin, soon after America discovered an alternate to HD when the pound was devalued. It was my "do everything" motorcycle. I even stripped it and put on knobbies for trail riding. And polished the intake ports and combustion chamber so it would do 115mph. // I also had HDs, including a flat-head 45 that I completely dismantled, all the way down to the male and female big ends of the connecting rods (which give the classic HD sound with that common crank pin). What a challenge getting all those loose rollers back in, using a string to contain them. // Fast forward to 2012 -- when I had to rent a beautiful HD while vacationing in New England. As I tooled along the beautiful mountain roads of New Hampshire, I wished I was on my KLR650 (yes) that once again was my easy-to-handle do-anything bike. It's a "classic" to me, the two-wheeled equivalent of the Jeep, used all over the world for 20 years in all venues. They are starting to dress it up now (barf) but it is still a triumph of function over form. // Great article -- enjoyed it!!

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    1. You know, if I was going to buy a new bike with the intention of taking it around the world the KLR would probably be near the top of my list. It's cheap (new or used), simple, rugged, and does what it is supposed to do without any frivolity. It's a nice antithesis to the bloated "Adventure" bikes that are cluttering up showrooms and Starbucks parking lots.

      The KLX400/DRZ400 are also worthy options if you want something lighter and easier to throw around off road. The KLR is a bit big for small folks like me...

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    2. Yes, there are many "bloated" adv bikes on the market that one would be foolish to trust on a world tour, but certainly the choice you're making in the KLR would be highly compromising. I regard the KLR as an impassionate and boring ride, emblematic of the very quality of inauthenticity that you've so eloquently lambasted the Japanese for producing. It's a cheaply-made, ugly, poor handling, overweight, underpowered, under-engineered, plastic clad dinosaur in comparison to the world's most proven, beautifully engineered, capable and classic adventure bike, the BMW GS. It's only true asset is it's sticker price, really. Even still, I'd buy a GS of any year or mileage to meet the cost limitations appeased by any KLR. To flaunt it's reliability is a joke - I've never seen one that wasn't broken in a way that didn't illustrate it's inherent weeknesses - of which there are quite a few. At least cite the old BMW 650 Dakar if a cheap, reliable and simple adv bike is what you're after. At least you can have some fun with one of those.

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    3. That brings up an interesting discussion. In my mind an off road machine should be simple and rugged. Cheap is an asset, because you will break it eventually - it is somehow more appropriate, especially when you see how most off-road bikes get beaten into oblivion within a few years of new. Anything more complicated seem superfluous and doomed to failure in the wild.

      The Japanese seem to have cornered the market with these dull but effective tools. KTM threatens with more advanced designs and sexier engineering, but the latest ones are more complicated and they don't support their older machines well at all. On paper I'd prefer a KTM, but in the bush I'd want something I could fix with a hammer and some creative cursing.

      Of course I'm thinking in terms of pure stamina, not excitement. Get to the next destination with as little fuss as possible. That reveals my rational side, the opposite of how I view road bikes (as much excitement as possible, who cares if it still works at the end of the ride).

      I work at a BMW dealer and I wouldn't take any of them on a torturous adventure. Not long ago I got a call from South America where an GS rider had just had his diff explode and needed a replacement, to the tune of several thousand dollars. You do have a point about the F650 though. Of all the machines I deal with they seem to be the least problematic and the simplest to fix.

      Anyway. That's enough armchair adventuring. I don't plan on riding round the world on anything anytime soon.

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    4. I don't always ride into some wild ass, third world adventure, but when I do... I ride my Honda CT 90.
      Stay thirsty my friend!

      Marc Lemieux, SDAMC.net or San Diego Antique Motorcycle Club on FaceBook

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  8. What's your opinion, then, of the Victory and reborn Indian brands, and the direction they've taken their lineups?

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    1. The same opinion I have of the Japanese cruisers.

      They are unoriginal copies without any heritage to back them up, and they point to a lack of creativity in the industry. Why build something new and interesting when you can make another V-twin cruiser that will sell easily and provide you with tidy margins?

      Oh, you could resurrect a long-dead brand you have no claim to so you can capitalize on misplaced nostalgia with corny and outdated styling cues (And tassels. Tassels everywhere).

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  9. Excellent, thoughtfull, and well researched editorial!

    There are a few other examples of authenticity of production motorcycles that come to my mind. While I agree with your sentiments on the BMW R Nine T, I find authenticity in the BMW R series in general with the same kind of unbroken lineage between the present to their origins as Harley cruisers. You mention how the Japanese gave us sport bikes. Another Japanese original is the Goldwing. With the exception of the Rune, I appreciate where Honda has been able to stay true to the original GL while playing around with the F6 series. Expaning the line forward instead of trying to recreate the past. Ducati sport bikes have authenticity in my opinion as well.

    Thanks for writing such a fine piece.

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  10. The whole subject is not worthy. Motorcycles in general are boring. You want to talk about something interesting? Bikes and cars and horses and dogs are hardly worthy of deep conversation and consideration. Solve a world problem and get back to us.

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    1. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, anon.

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    2. If it's such a boring subject, why are you engaging us and why did you read this article? You can save the world from something and still love and care about motorcycles.

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  11. awesome read. you should check out these guys: http://www.altoracing.co.uk/

    I spoke to them a couple of years ago at a show and the class they were racing in (they didn't have many to choose from) had rules around power/weight ratio - they actually had to add ~6kg ballast to the bike to be allowed to compete, that's how light their design is. it started out as a vyrus but has moved on a long way since then. check out the radiator position - one of the reasons for this position is to create a venturi effect with the ground at high lean angles (it's a race bike remember), which pulls air through the rads.

    It terms of their rider, they said that he found it more difficult to ride fast (than a bike with forks) until he learnt that a lot of the feedback comes through your feet instead of your hands.

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  12. Well...you've got the lockstep putzes over at BikeEXIF in a collective wail.

    Way to go! Nice work, and keep speaking your mind. And do it more often, how about?

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  13. I would hardly characterize the BikeExif situation as a collective wail. For the most part the responses seem to be from folks whose asses aren't overly clenched on whether the current state of motor culture presages the impending demise of western civilization.

    I have been following Mssr Cormier's blog for a while and have enjoyed his growth as a historian as well as a writer. My wish is that as he continues to detour into editorials that he applies some perspective that only experience and openmindedness will bring. Lighter touch with a bit less bileousness. The tendency to apply broad stereotypes to bearded flannel clad guys as shallow hipster zombies or a child in a minivan as a spoiled brat only detracts from the larger message.

    Cheers and keep writing Jason.
    Scott Stites
    Austin

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  14. Oh dear, the Exifisters aren't going to invite you to any art gallery parties.

    Had a good laugh when I read (Among many other things): "Why I bet the author has never heard of Antonio Cobas or Walter Kaaden." What a stupid clique! But to anyone with a clear view of the future, Mule, Pd'O, Mid Life Chrisis, et.al., are nowhere to be seen.

    Mediocrity provides lots of material to blog about, but it is so easily forgotten - a blessing for those who cover it rarely and a curse for those who's life depends on it.

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  15. Yeah, you're right- it's more of a Stalinist multi-choral collective shriek. In any case it's a shame Jason didn't get the clicks here that the several outfits that linked to the article did.

    I don't think Jason should soften his blows one iota; if anything he should lean in even more. Screw consensus. There's more than enough room for vitriol in this playground.

    Hah! 'EXIFisters'. You win the Internet today, Anon.

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  16. I'm coming late to the party, but had nevertheless to leave my rant here. I have been reading your blog almost from its inception, and will continue to do so, for I find your focus on history and engineering, mediated through an unvarnished -- dare I say, "authentic" -- atitude, a far cry from the glossy and faux-patina hipstersphere. Your tone befits a critique of this era of continuously eroding dreams and their cynical exploitation by politically correct pastiche brands, Xeroxian cultural movements, and cowardly ultra-conservative corporations.

    Take the "new" Bonneville, for instance. You hit it right on the mark. I had just become a "young adult" when it came out. Having recently been introduced to custom motorcyle culture, I was at first mesmerized: I thought it was the dawning of a new golden age for the versatile, shade-tree mechanic friendly and forever stylish classic standard/naked. The Triumph Scrambler seemed to fit the bill, right? Wrong. When I looked at the specs, I was aghast: I didn't mind the paltry power, but the weight of the thing was an eye opener. And the price? The thing was a scam, a fake. A pig. It had as much to do with the old Bonnevilles (or Bonneville itself) and svelte hare scramblers of old as a tub of lard with Audrey Hepburn.

    Even the Guzzi V7 Stone, the most recent pseudo-classic to favorably catch my eye, comes at "a fairly light 179kg" (ha-ha), and is too expensive. Or take the new SR400: the specs and price come out, and guess what? Another fake, another scam. Quasi-light, seriously underpowered and overpriced, kickstart-only. A rip-off if there ever was one. "Revivals" even more underperforming than their original 30-40 year old versions? I guess the joke is on us.

    Paradox, irony and ridicule are omnipresent in the industry. You refer the "adventure" motorcycle craze, and quite right. It's madness: one just has to compare "Long Way Round" to "Mondo Enduro" to see the absurd of it all.

    Just to finish, lets take a look at the other end of the spectrum: modern performance machines. It is as you say, the "classics" were the technological vanguard of their day, and cafe racers the "street vanguard". It's one of the reasons why I considered the streetfighter movement (despite their appaling sense of style) the real successor of cafe racing and such. I say "considered" because, in the wise words of Alec Empire, "counterculture did mutate into a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum at some point".

    But the main point is: take a look at MotoGP. Technologically, it's a farce: a Leviathan of engineering genius and resources poured into arcane paradigms. High-tech low-tech. When you look at those bikes, you see an incredible refinement of pre-historic technological solutions. It's as much a tribute to human genius as to human stupidity. Whenever I reread Tony Foale's "Motorcycle Handling and Chassis Design" and then look at current racing paradigms and regulations, I weep, I'm telling you.

    This isn't only a problem of motorcycle racing: just look at F1, where every "simple", "cheap" and effective innovation is immediately banned (ground effects et al).

    We are stuck in time. The retrospective fads are finally becoming exhausted: what's left? From 60's/70's bikes, the custom trend passed onto 80's sportbikes; should we expect a 90's revival soon? What after, then? As for racing itself, nothing changes fundamentally. We will hit a wall. And we will be forced to look forward, and admit that the future has already been turned into a fossil.

    Anyway, diatribe over. Keep up the good work!

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  17. Thanks to everyone for keeping the discussion going, I'm happy to see my ham-fisted attempt at addressing these issues has inspired some thinking.

    As for the whole Exif debacle I'm really not proud. This isn't what I want OddBike (or myself) to be notorious for. I knew it was going to be a mess the moment Chris proposed it - I wrote this piece for my site, for my readers, and had no intention of it being published elsewhere.

    I wrote this over a few hours and with my usual scattered stream-of-consciousness process that leads to a rather incoherent flow. It asks a few questions and doesn't answer them, and it meanders off on tangent a lot. It's not my best work - I hope it doesn't become my best known.

    The really unfortunate thing is that the Exifites don't understand that I am not taking myself seriously. My hyperbole is a joke in itself even if there is a true opinion buried in there. They saw my work taken out of context and have no idea who I am or the way I write. The worst reactions were from folks who truly think I am some hateful monster. That inspired some hilariously disproportionate and arrogant reactions from the people who felt attacked. It proved a point I didn't even articulate in this piece: everyone takes themselves way too seriously.

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  18. You said what an awful lot of active motorcycle enthusiasts already think. And thanks to negative feedback from knights of the keyboard crusade, you know the feelings of those who don't think. When the post-mortem is written about the current fad in a few (Too many) years, it will point out 3 fatal weaknesses: The generic board seat/pipewrapped/firestoned UJM (Which bored everyone to death), the shopping cart bike (Which killed the credibility of the fadboy sites), and this article (Which pointed out the authenticity of the Emperor's new clothes).

    Patronising advice: Write for content, not for access to other self celebrating hack journalists. Most of them got where they did by relentless self-promotion and kissing ass for exposure.

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  19. Oh dear: I read this on Sept 26, purely by clicking on an old link. Just after I spent $1000 to attend Barber in 2 weeks, including Ace Corner. Last attended in 2012 and told myself that Ace was totally screwy. Just did it again.
    Now, I'm going to be wandering Barber for 3 days wondering why I'm here. Prisoner of nostalgia. Museum's nice though.
    The one thing that really bugs me is why can't I buy something without a ton of plastic, that isn't a throwback.

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  20. Richard James18/11/2014, 17:47

    Had to be said and enjoyable to read to boot!

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  21. Yep I dig and understand what you wrote.
    I just like the older bikes from the 60's to the early 90's. I like some of what I have seen fellow riders do with them even if it is not original it is theirs.
    A few years ago I was with a friend at the Sturgis, South Dakota Classic and we were standing in a lot where an after market (S&S engined) clone manufacture (?) was set up. My friend looked at me and says they are all the same. I replied no they aren't they are painted different. We laughed then I told him you don't get it, you need a bike like this so that you to can be different just like everyone else. One of the salesmen was behind us and that got a chuckle out of him.

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