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The Art Of The Motorcycle

By Sarah Deem

- Inventing The Motorcycle
- Time, Space and Speed
- The Machine Age
- New World Orders
- Postwar Mobility
- Popular/Counter Culture
- Getting Away From It All
- The Eighties

From the inside, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, looks more like a giant spiral parking ramp than a museum–which makes it a fitting venue for an exhibit on the history of motorcycle design and the motorcycle's role as a cultural icon. "The Art of the Motorcycle," running at the Guggenheim until Sept. 20, showcases noteworthy bikes built from 1885 to 1998, from all over the world. Curators divided the bulk of the exhibit into eight historical periods, and also included a collection of pre-production models. In all, 114 bikes are on display.
     How did motorcycles earn their spots in the exhibition? According to the curators, it was a combination of "extraordinary design and innovative technologies."
     Displays of motorcycle advertising and publicity shots, along with lists of famous people, events and music, help to convey what the bikes stood for when they were produced. It's a comprehensive, well-designed display that could make even the most ordinary bike look great, although there are no ordinary bikes in this show.
     As you enter the Guggenheim's main hall, you're immediately confronted by a stunning dark red 1998 MV Agusta F4, on loan from the collection of King Juan Carlos of Spain. The Augusta, with a top speed of 171 mph, is generally considered the most technologically advanced motorcycle of today. It stands opposite the first motorized bicycle, a Michaux-Perreaux Steam Velocipede from 1868, reported to have reached a top speed of 19 mph. The juxtaposition of the hi-tech MV Agusta F4 with the Velocipede, with its iron frame and iron-and-wood-rimmed wheels, sets the tone for the rest of the exhibit. The platforms in the main hall, and the inside of the Guggenheim's spiral walkway were covered with stainless steel for this exhibit. The reflective metal creates a kaleidoscopic effect and visually creates an endless sea of bikes. Since most of you won't be able to get to New York City to view the exhibit, we've created this virtual tour for you here on the PMZone.


Inventing The Motorcycle
     The curators' eight historical periods seem arbitrarily drawn, though this does nothing to take away from the bikes. The first period, "Inventing the Motorcycle," covers the early days of the motorcycle, from 1868 to 1900, and features six motorcycles–really bicycles or tricycles with engines strapped to them. The oddest looking bike is the replica 1885 Daimler Einspur from Germany. It looks more like a wooden horse than a motorcycle. The wooden frame, smaller outrigger wheels used for balance, saddle and a top speed of 7 mph, make it difficult to imagine tooling around town on this bike. The Orient is an American bike from 1900 that began as a bike frame with a 20-cu.-in. engine fitted onto it. The other three models in this period are the Millet (1924cc) from 1893, which has cylinders placed radially on the rear wheel, the De Dion Bouton from 1899 (a 240cc tricycle) and the Thomas from 1900. The De Dion Bouton and the Orient are both gas-powered tricycles, while the Geneva, Michaux-Perreaux and the Thomas are steam-powered.


Time, Space and Speed
     The second period, titled "Time, Space and Speed," runs from 1894 to 1919. It includes a 1489cc Hildebrand & Wolfm½ller from 1894 that was the world's first series production motorcycle. Still bicyclelike, its top speed was 28 mph. Most of the other bikes in this section have more elongated bodies, such as the Curtiss V8 (265 cu. in.) from 1907. The Curtiss set an unofficial land-speed record of 136.36 mph. One of only two Indian Single motorcycles produced is on display. There's also a 1911 Harley-Davidson Model 7D, the first Harley with a revised 45° V-twin. This model has a leather belt, rather than a chain. A red 1915 Indian 8-valve board track racer with a 61 cu. in. engine is included. This Indian had a 2-cylinder engine with four small valves per cylinder.


The Machine Age
     The third period, "The Machine Age," covers 1922 to 1929 and includes some of the most unusual motorcycle designs. The title is meant to reflect post-World War I society's fascination with the pared-down, orderly efficiency associated with machines, also seen in the paintings and architecture of the time. One of the most striking bikes in the exhibit is a glistening, dark red 1922 Megola Sport from Germany, with a 640cc, 5-cylinder radial engine fitted to the front wheel. The engine, inspired by radial aircraft engines, has no clutch or gearbox. The Megola's deep fenders and skirts, and enclosed engine give the bike a very Art Deco look, and was probably an inspiration for the 1948 Indian Chief also on display.
     One of six BMWs in the show is a 1923 BMW R32. It was the first of the modern BMW motorcycles, with a 494cc, transverse twin engine and the company's hallmark shaft drive.
     One of the most unusual bikes in the exhibit is a yellow-and-red, 1925 Czechoslovakian B?hmerland. The B?hmerland's optional wooden, bullet-shaped sidecar meant that it could theoretically seat up to six passengers.


New World Orders
     In the period titled "New World Orders," which covers 1930 to 1944, the motorcycles begin to take on the look of sturdier, modern designs. One of the many rare motorcycles exhibited is a steel-blue MGC N3BR from 1932-one of only 2 examples built. A dark maroon 1938 Triumph Speed Twin with a 498cc engine is included because it was the first parallel twin engine. It had a top speed of more than 90 mph. A 1940 Indian Sport Scout, with Betty Grable-lookalike bomber nose art on its tank and an 8-ball gear shift handle, serves as an example of a bob job, and the beginning of the chopper and the customized motorcycle. It was called a bob job because owners shortened the rear fenders, removed the front fenders and made other modifications to make their bikes faster.
     Two artifacts of World War II are the German Z½ndapp KS600, built in 1941, and the gray 1944 Harley-Davidson U.S. Military Model U. The Harley sports a leather rifle scabbard, complete with .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun.


Freedom and Poswar Mobility
     The "Freedom and Postwar Mobility" section, covering 1946 to 1958, features a gorgeous maroon 1206cc Indian Chief from 1948, with deeply valanced fenders and fender skirts, and a pristine, signature Indian Chief head on the front fender. If any bike in the exhibit personifies a motorcycle as a piece of rolling sculpture, this is it. There's also an example of the legendary Vincent Black Shadow from Great Britain. It is a Series C from 1954 with a 998cc engine integrated into the chassis and a top speed of 125 mph. It has four brakes, dual front and rear, which was rare in its time. Compared to other bikes in the exhibit, this Vincent had seen some miles: over 11,000. A classic Harley-Davidson Sportster XL from 1957 completes this section.


Popular Culture/Counter Culture
     In the period from 1960 to 1969, dubbed "PopularCulture/Counter Culture," the motorcycle served both as a utilitarian family bike ("You meet the nicest people on a Honda") and as a symbol of rebellion (Peter Fonda in "Easy Rider"). The show includes a replica of the 1969 Harley-Davidson Easy Rider Chopper ridden by Fonda in the film.
     Also on display are some excellent British singles from the period–a BSA Gold Star Clubmans and a Matchless G80CS, as well as the classic British big twin, a Triumph T120 Bonneville from 1967. Representing off-road motorcycles are a pair of Spanish Bultacos–a 1966 Metralla 62 and a 1965 Sherpa T.
     This is also the beginning of the Honda era, with the 1962 introduction of the Honda CR110 for racing and the easy-to-ride Honda C100 Super Cub–the bike that gave motorcycles a practical, clean-cut image.


Getting Away From It All
     Motorcycles exhibited from 1969 to 1978 highlight racing technology. Dubbed as "Getting Away From It All," this era includes the last British bikes in the exhibit–a BSA Rocket 3 and a Norton Commando 750 Fastback–both from 1969. Most of the bikes in this section are Japanese, including the Kawasaki Mach III, a Honda GL1000 Gold Wing, and a classic 1970 Honda CB750 Four, arguably the first superbike. There is also a beautiful Ducati 750SS from Italy, its top speed of 135 mph makes it the fastest bike in this period. There is also an Italian-looking Harley-Davidson XLCR 1000cc.


The Eighties
     The period from 1982 to 1989, titled "The Eighties," is dominated by sport bikes. A brilliant red 1984 Kawasaki GPZ900R Ninja is a stunning example. With a top speed of 150 mph, this bike can run a quarter mile in 10.9 seconds. In the same group is a gleaming white Benelli Sei.
     "Retro/Revolutionary," the section covering 1993 to 1998, is housed in a darkly lit room off the main exhibit spiral. The dramatic lighting and wavelike, stainless steel-covered platform dramatize the highly stylized designs. This room is dominated by Italian bikes, including an orange-and-gray Aprilia Moto 6.5, designed by Philippe Starck, which sports a wraparound radiator. Nearby sits an Italjet Formula 50 LC–its 49cc engine, top speed of 50 mph and designer-moped styling in sharp contrast to the sleek, 149-mph, metallic-blue Morbidelli V8.
     You don't have to be a die-hard motorcycle fan to enjoy this exhibit. It offers not only a trip through history, but also modern art, and a rare opportunity to look at dozens of motorcycles that most of us would otherwise never get to see or even hear of. Seeing 114 motorcycles on display in an art museum is striking, but this collection would floor you if it were on display in a parking lot–especially when you realize that some of these models (such as the 1933 Dollar V4) are the last surviving examples of their kind.
     "The Art of the Motorcycle" exhibit is sponsored by BMW, Banana Republic, Lufthansa and Sprint. It runs through Sept. 20, 1998, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. In conjunction with the exhibit, the Guggenheim is presenting a film and video series called "The Motorcycle On Screen." A variety of guest speakers are scheduled throughout the term of the exhibition.



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