The Art Of The Motorcycle
By Sarah Deem
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
museumwhich 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
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
motorcyclesreally 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
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
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.
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
perioda 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 Bultacosa 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 Cubthe 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 exhibita BSA Rocket 3 and a Norton Commando 750 Fastbackboth
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 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 LCits 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 lotespecially
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