Saturday, August 09, 2014

ART AND THE MOTORCYCLE

This essay was originally published as my monthly column in Classic Bike Guide magazine.  If you don't already subscribe, I'd recommend it as an excellent overview of the vintage and contemporary 'old bike' scene.
The atrium of the Guggenheim Museum in NYC, the first stop of the incredibly successful 'Art of the Motorcycle' exhibit in 1998, which changed the old bike scene incalculably

Art and the Motorcycle

"I graduated from college in 1984, when old motorcycles were junk, and started my career in earnest, as a hoarder of relics, an old bike swapper, and a sometime dealer.  In the 1980s and 90s, if you didn’t agree that obsolete motorcycles should be discarded, you were an eccentric.  If you owned a corral of ‘rusty old bikes’, you were on par with the scrap-man, and the theme from ‘Sanford and Son’ hung about you like perfume.  No matter the depth of your passion, seriousness of your interest, or evidence of your connoisseurship in the astute historic purchases you’d made, when you informed a civilian that you collected vintage motorcycles in the 1980s, their response was invariably ‘why’?
My scruffy all-Norton garage in 1985...a place of horror for the uninitiated, and unbridled joy for enthusiasts
We of a certain age endured the special scrutiny awarded vintage bike collectors, which is not to diminish the raised eyebrows cast at every motorcyclist in a first-world country. Why citizens feel an obligation to warn us that motorcycles are dangerous and we’ll surely be killed like their second cousin Virgil, beggars the rational mind.  As if we were new to the game, and hadn’t learned PDQ what the rules were, and the consequences of mistaking our chosen playing field for a friendly game.  We know the risks, and deal with them according to our personality; some of us wear crossing-guard vests over the latest protective gear and ride BMWs with anti-lock brakes, while some of us wear socially abrasive vests, asphalt-eater denim, and have no front brake.  Regardless, we are all stained by the same sin, an addiction to the erotic cocktail of speed, unfettered mobility, and danger unique to motorcycling.
Exhibition designer Frank Gehry clad the Guggenheim's atrium in reflective sheeting 
The Art of the Motorcycle exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum back in 1998 changed the course of history for old bike lovers, in ways we’re still sorting out.  It was a brave and controversial move by Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim’s bike-riding director, to mount the show at all.  He had been in talks with BMW for many months, who were looking for a suitable exhibition to bankroll.  It seemed a natural fit that a motorcycle manufacturer should sponsor the most important bike show in history, but not everyone agreed.  Regardless that it was the Museum’s second most-visited exhibit ever, plenty of critics found reason to deride the show, calling it a crass pandering to BMWs corporate money, and a surrender of curatorial integrity to the twin evils of cash and popular culture. 
The late Robert Hughes, art critic, author, and TV art interpreter, with his Honda CB750 ca.1971
Of course, ‘we’ had our allies…including any art critic who’d actually ridden a motorcycle.  The late Robert Hughes, author of the seminal modern art books and PBS show ‘Shock of the New’, wrote on the back page of Time magazine (Aug 18, 1998) that it was high time bikes were in museums.  His only lament was the absence of choppers (barring a ‘Captain America’ replica), which he considered  especially worthy of big museum show as unheralded examples of Folk Art, in the subcategory Outsider Art.  To that, we all nodded our heads; a biker might be as mainstream as Malcolm Forbes, but we all identify with outsider status, because motorcycles are the great leveler.  On a bike, the distracted Volvo mom and the half-asleep pickup trucker care not for your bank account, social position, or fame; all are equal before their lethal grille.
I was privileged to attend a private after-hours viewing of the Guggenheim show as a member of the Brough Superior Club; there were 6 of us hosted by curator Ultan Guilfoyle, with whom I've since become friends (and he's a judge this year with the Motorcycle Film Festival!).  All of us present knew that Brough prices would soon explode...
Among bike collectors, the response to the Art of theMotorcycle was a mix of ‘it’s about time’ and ‘oh boy, here we go’.  That motorcycles should be equated with the art objects typically found in museums was a conclusion reached at the start of any vintage enthusiast’s journey.  That second reaction – uh oh – was the awareness that our private world, the subterranean network of moto-obsessives, would shortly be blown wide open.  We couldn’t have predicted ‘Pickers’ and reality-ish motorbike TV, but we knew the gig was up; it was only a matter of time before the money-juice saturating museum treasures would slime our hobby for good, and we’d all become professionals and auction watchers, or hide our heads in old oil drums while greedy ‘value-hunters’ banged on our garage doors.
Regardless that Broughs have become expensive; they're still motorcycles, and are best when ridden.  Here Susan McLaughlin and I ride a 1933 Brough Superior 11-50 through the Pyrenees last June at Wheels+Waves, courtesy of Mark Upham, owner of the Brough Superior name.
And so it has proved. For better or worse, we have all become grease-stained connoisseurs, struggling to keep our mobile investment portfolios on the road at the very best, or hidden out of sight at worst.  Nowadays stories of fraud and wobbly ethics circulate like cancer tales at an old-folks home; personal ‘loans’ taken out of rich club coffers, ultra-shady deathbed ‘gifts’ of Series A Vincent twins, significant provenance machined from lumps of new metal. Humans are consistent; similar tales are stacked like rocks as the very foundation of the Bible. But sometimes, I just want to ride my old bike, and fast enough to keep the invisible price tag behind me, flapping in the breeze."



Friday, August 08, 2014

'BUILT FOR SPEED' REVIEWED IN 'CYRIL HUZE POST'

Michael Lichter, English custom motorcycle legend John Reed, and Paul d'Orleans at the press reception for 'Built for Speed'
The world's most popular custom motorcycle website - the Cyril Huze Post - was kind enough to review my 'Built for Speed' exhibit at the Buffalo Chip in Sturgis, which ends tomorrow.  I'll write my own notes on the show here soon, but 5 days of travel plus the effort of physically mounting a show with 32 motorcycles and 100 pieces of art has left me temporarily drained and 'away from my desk'.  Enjoy Cyril's reportage:
Clem Johnson's Vincent dragster the 'Barn Job', loaned by John Stein.  A miracle of race design, developed over 40 years.
Sturgis 'Motorcycle As Art' by Michael Lichter and Paul d'Orleans.  Race Inspired Motorcycles 'Built for Speed'


The 14th Annual Michael Lichter’s “Motorcycle As Art” exhibition officially opened on Sunday August 3rd under the theme “Built For Speed”. The who’s who of the motorcycle industry gathered at the Buffalo Chip exhibition hall to admire the  beautiful and rare display of more than 35 race-inspired custom motorcycles curated by internationally famous photographer Michael Lichter and vintage motorcycles expert Paul d’Orleans. Members of the press had the opportunity to get a preview of this exhibition and to learn about the builders and how they found inspiration in one of the many branches of racing: Speedway, Flat Track, Drag Racing, Board Track,  Grand Prix, Land Speed Record, etc. Each machine is displayed with its description and racing style origin, from “Cut-downs” of the 1920s, “Bob-jobs” of the 1930s, “Café Racers” of the 1950s, ‘Drag-bike’ Choppers of the 1960s, and ‘Street Trackers’ of the 1970s. 
The flathead Harley custom from Kevin 'Teach' Baas, who works with the local High School shop class to build bikes!
As always, entry to the Buffalo Chip's 7000' purpose-built Michael Lichter art gallery is FREE and this year, hours have been extended, now opening at 10:30am into the evening concert hours (10:30pm).  The show is open until Friday night August 9.  To find the gallery, head to the Buffalo Chip and turn east on Alkali Road; go to the East entrance.  The gallery is next to the EAST entrance and does not require a ticket to enter.
Paul Cox's 'Sword of Damocles' - a work of functional art, built by a master craftsman
Michael Lichter wants to give a special thanks to the 'Motorcycle as Art' industry sponsors; Ace Cafe Orlando, Avon Tires, Baker Drivetrain, Burly Brand, Carhartt, Crusher Exhaust, Hot Leathers, Icon Motorsports, J&P, Kuryakynb, Motor Bike Expo Italy, Mustang Seats, Progressive Suspension, Ridewright Wheels, Tucker Rocky/Biker's Choice, S&S Cycle.
Indian's 'Spirit of Munro' streamliner, built by Jeb Scolman from a prototype 111 engine, and his own ingenuity.  The level of fit and finish on this all-metal machine is peerless
The 32 motorcycles in 'Built for Speed' include customs by long established and emerging builders, side by side with factory-loaned machines.  Builders sending bikes include Alan Stulberg (Revival Cycles), Arlen Ness, Bill Dodge (Bling Cycles), Bill Rodencal (Fat Dog Racing), Brandon Holstein (Brawny Built), Can 'Bacon' Carr (DC Choppers), Dan Rognsvoog/Skip Schultze, Jason Paul Michaels (Dime City Cycles), John Reed (Uncle Bunt), Kenji Nagai (Ken's Factory, Japan), Kevin 'Teach' Baas (Baas Metal Craft), Kirk Taylor (Custom Design Studios), Matt Olsen (Carl's Cycle), Michael O'Shea (Medaza Cycles, Ireland), Nate Jacobs (Harlot Cycles), Pat Patterson (Led Sled Customs), Paul Cox (Paul Cox Industries), Paul Wideman (Bare Knuckle Choppers), Roland Sands (RSD), Skeeter Todd, Tator Gilmore, Warren Lane, and Zach Ness (Arlen Ness, Inc). 
Artist Conrad Leach sent 3 pieces to the show, including his iconic 'Lucky 13', one of 100 photographs and prints on the walls.
Factory-built machines include a custom 'Street' 750 from the Harley-Davidson design dep't, Indian's 'Spirit of Munro' streamliner built by Jeb Scolman, and a Land Speed Racer from Confederate Motorcycles, alongside Icon 1000s' 'Iron Lung' road racer, a replica of George Smith's 'Tramp' from S&S, Deus Ex Machina's 'Dakdaak' Honda CRF 450x, and Clem Johnson's original Vincent 'Barn Job' from John Stein.

Artists on the walls include Conrad Leach, Darren McKeag, David Uhl, Eric Hermann, Harpoon, Jeff Nobles, Marc Lacourciere, Michael Lichter, Richie Pan, Scott Jacobs, Scott Takes, Susan McLaughlin and Paul d'Orleans, Tom Fritz, Trish Horstman, and an all new '21 Helmets' display of race-inspired Bell Helmets from SeeSee Motor-Coffee in Portland.
'2nd Place' by Richie Pan, part of a sacreligious triptych honoring the memory of 'Big Daddy' Ed Roth
The SeeSee Motor-Coffee '21 Helmets' exhibit, which included historic Bell racing helmets, and artists like Maxwell Paternoster
The reception crowd was double the number from last year, with an estimated 2300 people passing through the halls that evening.  Michael Lichter's 'Motorcycle as Art' shows have been held for 14 years, and attention continues to grow.
The 'Ducafe' from Ireland's Medaza Cycles - sent from abroad for the show!
The curators; Michael Lichter and Paul d'Orleans




Tuesday, July 15, 2014

'CAFE RACERS' REVIEWED IN ULTIMATE MOTORCYCLING


The website Ultimate Motorcycling has a review of my 'Café Racers' book (my text, Michael Lichter's photos), based on our 2013 Sturgis 'Ton Up!' exhibit. The show featured 35 café racers, of which 12 were vintage, and the rest contemporary; several machines were built for the show, as Michael Lichter's 'Motorcycle as Art' exhibit has been running for 14 years now, and contemporary custom-bike builders are literally banging on his door to be included. This is understandable; there is no other motorcycle exhibit with 250,000 potential motorcyclist/viewers within a 20-mile radius.  Sturgis is a Thing unto itself, which needs an essay from me, but I was just too busy with the exhibit last year... 
From the book: Ray Drea, head of styling at Harley-Davidson, built this remarkable 'XRCR' for 'Ton Up!', from an XR1000 engine and lots of carbon fiber - wheels, bodywork - plus upside-down forks and killer styling.  It was my favorite bike in the show...but sadly, H-D can't build it, as they no longer make the XR engine...
I'm joining Michael Lichter to co-curate an exhibit again this August, 'Built for Speed' at the Buffalo Chip, featuring race bikes from various disciplines (drag, road, dirt, salt), plus custom bikes inspired by these genres. It'll be another great show...and I'll be there test-riding my Cannonball Brough Superior for the first time, as Revival Cycles, my team #38 partner, is exhibiting their cool Ducati 'Pyro' in the show.  If any readers are interested in an 'Alt.Sturgis' ride through the Black Hills on Saturday Aug. 2nd, let me know...it'll be vintage only, "no baggers, no do-rags, no tits".  I might relent on that last point, but you know what I mean.
One that didn't make it into the book; Mark Mederski's '69 Honda CB750 café racer, modified by him in 1970. Mark wrote the forward to the book.

Reincarnation is real — at least for motorcycles that start out as conventional, factory-built models but then are reborn to an entirely new life as cafe racers.

Unlike choppers, bobbers and some other types of customs, cafe racers are modified not just to achieve a certain aesthetic; they are sculpted in a form-follows-function high performance motif.
Noted moto-journalist, Paul D’Orleans in collaboration with photographer Michael Lichter take what is perhaps the most in-depth and sumptuously illustrated look at this decades-old motorcycle genre in their book, Cafe Racers Speed, Style and Ton-up Culture.
Ben Part (of Sideburn Magazine) contributed some 1980s/90s photographs of London's 'other' café racer club, the Mean Fuckers, and an essay by Dave Lancaster about the club is really good!
If you read about motorcycles very often, you probably couldn’t help but read D’Orleans work as a commentator for Classic Bike Guide, feature contributor to Cycle World and Motor Cycle News magazines, and publisher of the website TheVintagent

D’Orleans does an amazing thing in Cafe Racers – he provides a history of motorcycling’s earliest days and how cafe racers evolved, became widely popular in the 1960s and beyond that is almost clinical in its completeness, yet he keeps it from being as dry as a helmet owner’s manual.
For example, in describing how two of the earliest motorcycle developers might have decided whose bike was best, he lays it out thus:

“Had Sylvester Roper and Henri-Guillaume Perreaux met with their respective steam-powered creations, you can be damn sure they would have raced! How do I know? Contemporary accounts of both men record their extensive testing of their surprisingly similar beasts on the dusty, horseshit roads of 1867, the year both men invented the motorcycle.” Such pithy prose can’t help but keep you reading and grinning as you go.
Quite a few 'wet plate' photographs are included, which Susan McLaughlin and I shot in the past 2 years as part of our 'MotoTintype' project.
Add to that 200 stunning, large format, full-color studio shots of some of the best examples of cafe racers you’ll ever see, 75 period and historic black and white images slathered all over 224 10” x 12.25” heavy stock pages and you have a book that is as much presentation quality art as it is a technical masterpiece.

Along the way, D’Orleans portrays what makes a bike a cafe racer. The clip-on handlebars, rear-set footpegs, bump seat, abbreviated or absent front fender, custom paint, all arranged in a way the puts the rider in an aggressive, chest on tank riding attitude are the generally recognized qualities, but at the end of the day, it is what the owner makes it. No two are exactly alike, as Lichter’s images demonstrate.

Divided into only three chapters, Cafe Racers covers the range from the racing bikes that started it all like the BSA Gold Star Clubman and Norton Manx to owner-conceived originals to factory-built limited editions like the Ducati 750 Super Sport, MV 750 Sport and custom bike-builder masterpieces like the Honda 450 Brass Café from Dime City Cycles, the over-the-top BSA-based Berzerker from Speed Shop Design, Kafe Storm from Brian Klock of Klock Werks and the hyper-glossy H-D XR1000-based NessCafe from Arlen Ness, and much, much more.
The discussion of café racer history includes 100 years of 'racers on the road', from the 1914 Norton 'Brooklands Road Special' to contemporary customs.  Here's a page about the 1970s/80s...
Even if you haven’t been particularly drawn to the cafe racer scene up to now, if you appreciate Spartan, essential motorcycles that are an art form unto themselves, you will find Cafe Racers Speed, Style and Ton-up Culture a fascinating read and a great addition to your library.
Book Data:

  • Title: Café Racers Speed, Style and Ton-up Culture
  • Author: Paul D’Orleans with photographer Michael Lichter
  • Published: 2014
  • Publisher: Motorbooks, an imprint of Quayside Publishing Group, 400 First Avenue North, Suite 400, Minneapolis, MN 55401 USA.
  • ISBN-13: 978-0760345825
  • MSRP: U.S. $50.00 U.K. £35.00 Canada: $55

Saturday, July 12, 2014

DAIMLER TO BUY A STAKE IN MV AGUSTA?


The rumors are unconfirmed, but it appears MV Augusta will have a German partner soon, as Daimler is in talks to buy a minority stake of that venerable Italian company.  As you'll recall, MV was owned by Harley-Davidson for two years, did nothing with the brand, then handed it back on a silver platter to the Castiglioni family two years later...strangely, the same family who took Aermacchi from H-D's hands, decades prior.  When Harley dumped MV in 2010, they paid all that company's debt as part of the deal, reportedly losing many Millions in the process.  MV Agusta has been on shaky ground since, but has an excellent engine, chassis, and styling, and does well in World Superbike racing.  The financial strength of Daimler could be a real godsend to the small Italian company.  So, what's up with German auto companies buying Italian motorcycle brands?
The awesome DKW 'singing saw' three-cylinder two-stroke of 1953; part of Audi's DNA
When Audi bought Ducati in 2012, the world scratched it's head - a German car company adding a struggling, small production Italian sportbike to its highly successful line of cars?  It took a deeper look into Audi's DNA to find a connection - the highly successful DKW racers of the 1930s through 1950s, screaming two-strokes on which Ewald Kluge won the Isle of Man Lightweight TT in 1938, with an 11-minute lead over the next bike, an Excelsior. Between 1925 and 1956, when DKW, NSU, BMW, Gilera, and Moto Guzzi disbanded their factory GP teams, DKW won more German championships (38) than any of its rivals.  In the 1930s, of course, DKW was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, and part of the Auto Union (an alliance of Wanderer, Horch, DKW, and Audi), which had a deep interest in motorsport.  Auto Union became simply Audi after Volkswagen acquired the name in 1964.  DKW continued to support racing, in motocross, into the 1970s, with successful ISDT entries and motocross championship contenders, all lightweight two-strokes.
The Daimler Reitwagen; not the first motorcycle, but the first gasoline-powered two-wheelerish thing
So much for Audi.  But Daimler?  It's only motorcycle connection, if you can call it that, was a mobile test-bed for the 1885 'Otto' engine (the first four-stroke gasoline-powered engine) called the Reitwagen.  The Reitwagen had two big wheels, and two smaller ones for balance, and was clearly never intended to be a moto-cycle, ie, a powered vehicle using the unique physics of the two-wheeler.  The Reitwagen was a drais (an early, wooden-framed, pedal-less bicycle) altered to accommodate a platform holding the motor, on which the engine (designed by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach) sat, supported by two smaller wheels.  It was ridden 8 miles on Nov 10, 1885, before the saddle caught fire, and Daimler turned his attention to improving his engine, for installation in carriages, airships, and boats.
The 1885 patent drawing of the Daimer/Maybach engine
So, why take a stake in MV Agusta?  Apparently it's the Mercedes sports-tuning branch AMG which will attach to MV, and with its considerable engine and chassis tuning experience, we may see an interesting cross-pollination of technology between the two companies.  The motivation might be pure jealousy, with BMW's long-standing motorcycle connection, and Audi's return to the fold via Ducati.  Mercedes-Benz has no history with motorcycles, but who can resist the cool of owning a very fast bike?

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Tuesday, July 01, 2014

INSTAFAMOUS, INSTABROKE

My monthly Classic Bike Guide page, with an illustration by Martin Squires
I've been writing a monthly column for Classic Bike Guide for over a year now, and I tend to focus my essays on motorcycle culture, when not simply poking fun.  A few columns have hit a nerve, but none more so than my meditation on the Custom bike-building scene, and the struggles I've observed with my friends, trying to make a business of their craft, or art, or vision. The BikeExif post on the demise of Spain's Radical Ducati inspired my thoughts last March, when I wrote 'Instafamous/Instabroke', as did a conversation with David Borras, also of Spain, who's El Solitario is recognized globally, yet he and his crew daily confront the realities of running a business to support David's radical design sensibility.  Chris Hunter of BikeExif asked to reproduce the essay, which I think is a first for his website; no motorcycle images! Not all my readers frequent BikeExif, but might enjoy the read.  Thanks to Classic Bike Guide for ok'ing the BikeExif post, and this one too:
The hilarious illustration of 'self-papparizing blogo-grammers' from BikeExif 
"I’ve been mucking around with old motorcycles since the 1980s, and like many, financed my bike habit via the sport of Arbitrage. That is, turning a profit on a bike after giving it some love.
It wasn’t an income; the only people living off the motorcycle game were (impoverished) moto-journalists and employees of legitimate dealerships. I knew lots of fellows, and a few ladies, who spent all their time repairing and modifying bikes, and none aspired to be anything but a garagiste. At the time, Von Dutch lived in a trailer, Ed Roth had long-ago lost his Revell contract, and only bands sold t-shirts.

It never occurred to us that someday we’d be aglow with some sort of notoriety. But ‘some sort’ is now within the purview of every human on the planet, via the joys of InstaFame. A downloadable phone trick has the power to make us globally recognizable in weeks. Via the savvy curation of images, we trigger a mutual oxytocin drip in our fans and ourselves, liking and being liked, tapping away like starving lab monkeys, who’ve chosen the button for ‘attention’ over the one for ‘food’.

It’s fame, man, to the hungry end, and maybe even bigger when you’re dead; is that the ghost of TuPac or Indian Larry I hear laughing over posthumous sales? Don’t think I’m judging; I owe the mysterious gods of the Internet a debt of gratitude for my own lifestyle; let’s just hope I don’t owe them my soul.

The shimmering dust of glamour has always coated parts of the motorcycle scene, and right now it’s falling on handsome, bearded guys wearing heritage work clothing and riding ’69-clone choppers or knobby-tyred customs, or girls doing seat-top acrobatics aboard same.

The original meaning of ‘glamour’ was the art of enchantment, a spell-caster’s ability to create an illusion around a person, place, or thing. And while the packs of self-paparazzing blogo-grammers crowding custom bike events are indeed beautiful and achingly cool, I fear our glamour is a spell cast in the mirror.

A mix of hopes and pleasures motivate today’s custom motorcycle builders; the joy of creativity mingled with glow of Web attention, and now there’s an established recipe for making a ‘cool’ bike, tested via the comments section on a hundred moto-blogs.

It’s easy to mistake the whoosh of online chatter for a wind to fill your sails, and a virtual wind is exactly that, while selling garage-altered metal to strangers has always been difficult. Savvy shops sell logo’d up clothing and calendars and keyfobs, scattering brand stickers in an Autumn of moto-foliage… but even such sales will only pay the bills, not the salary of a desperately-needed employee – or your own.

There are two ways to profit in business; large sales volumes with small profit margins, or high-end retail, and the successful moto-businesses sell the tanks and levers and rearsets the Wannabes need for an InstaFamous custom.

At the rich end of the spectrum, the market for hundred grand choppers evaporated in 2008, and I know exactly one builder who’s sold an art-gallery motorcycle for big bucks. Every other shop, then, is in competition for a limited audience, even if it seems at times that ‘everyone’ thinks we’re cool and ‘everyone’ wants your bikes…but is that the magic mirror?
The demise of Radical Ducati, as per this example, inspired this essay...
The first signs of iCustom casualties have recently appeared even in the luminous portal of Bike EXIF; shops going belly up, euphemistically ‘starting other projects’, i.e., jobs which pay. It hasn’t exactly been a Gold Rush (that’s happening in the App-creation world itself), and I know young bike builders don’t expect to get rich.

Still, it seems the business of pushing aesthetic boundaries with a motorcycle is best trod with a trust fund springing your step, or proceeding with deep humility and little expectation of worldly increase; the hackneyed rule for artists.

I’ve spoken with genius motorcycle builders whose controversial but gloriously innovative customs have netted them almost zero sales. A ‘like’ isn’t a dollar. But then again, as they slowly go broke or accustomed to reduced circumstances, the refrain is ‘there’s nothing I’d rather be doing’.

The coolest bike boom since the 1970s has kids buzzing like bees at Wheels + Waves, DirtQuake, and Born Free, and featured in popular books like the ‘The Ride’, to which I contributed. Riding bikes while young, beautiful and creative is a heady cocktail, as is the glamour of InstaFame.

But let’s not confuse the rain of electrons, following our every move, for a rain of cash. Because in the end, bikes are just motorcycles, but business is business."

[Want to read this in Spanish?  Click here.]

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Monday, June 30, 2014

BEHIND THE SCENES AT VILLA D'ESTE

Daniel Kessler on his 1933 Universal-JAP 680 - the 'Swiss Brough' - has a go around the grounds of Villa Erba
Concours d'Elegance are marvelously silly things.  Lining up a bunch of expensive cars and bikes seems at times an exercise in pride (of ownership) and envy (of same), with a dressing of greed (the value bump from a win); deadly sins all.  Owners sweat while judges - and who anointed them? - pronounce 'winners' and 'best of show' over a display of obsolete industrial design.  I was one of those judges at the Concorso di Villa d'Este; so why did I readily accept the inviation? It was equally silly for me to fly to Italy from San Francisco for a long weekend, especially as I was scheduled to fly right back to Europe 10 days later, to show my MotoTintype photography at Wheels+Waves in France.  So again, why do it?
23 hours of this in 4 days...
...but the first view of Lago di Como is always breathtaking
The best concorsi are curated as exhibitions, with much thought given to the classes and categories, which vehicle goes next to the other and the story thus told.  In the best case, the public is enlightened by the mix, discovering connections and influences, observing the movement of history, delivering a few 'aha' moments with the inevitable 'ahh's.  They provide an opportunity to see ultra-rare machinery in the metal, and on the grass, albeit in a no-touch environment, which is understandable but frustrating at times.  Then again, if everyone who so desired was allowed to caress Ernst Henne's original-condition 1929 BMW WR750, it would be worn to a nubbin by now; we all missed our chance to be flying-helmeted Heroic World Record Breakers by not being born in 1900, with prodigious natural riding talent, and in Germany. Henne was the one who did the work, so we must be content to watch; it was the same in '29.
A chance to pose on the 1929 Ernst Henne world-record supercharged BMW, with George Cohen supplying the proper 'flat cap' for period correctness (Henne's streamlined aluminum helmet not being available...)
The concorso in question is sited on one of the world's beauty spots (Lake Como), on the grounds of two fantastic old villas, neighboring Este (for the cars) and Erba (for the bikes), and has a generous benefactor (BMW) who takes care of the details, like building the interesting pavilion for the bikes, plus security, and cars/drivers to get people around, and plane tickets for mugs like me. The organization is excellent, as is the curation of the vehicles, invited according to themes; for 2014 the motorcycles fit categories of 'The Great Gatsby', 'The Elegance of Sidecars', 'First Steps from Japan', 'Sixdays in the Sixties', and 'Top in Class', plus a once-in-a-lifetime display of supercharged World Speed Record motorcycles, who battled each other between 1929 and 1937. That is, when BMW took on the world, and vice-versa, with manufacturers as large as BMW and Gilera or as small as Zenith and OEC building technically brilliant machines. It was the last truly romantic era of pan-European motorcycle speed competition, and between the builder/competitors, the speed wasn't abstract; it was personal.  Seeing those 5 bikes together was reason enough to attend the show, and I was happy to do the 'work' which paid for my ticket.
The lineup of 1929-37 World Speed Record machines; Henne's 1937 BMW streamliner ('Henne's Egg') with the 1937 Gilera Rondine streamliner behind.  The BMW provided Henne's retirement ride, and it held the record for 15 years, until broken by competitor NSU.
A four-day trip to Italy leaves no time for jetlag, and I arrived Friday morning for a judge's meeting with my esteemed comrades at Villa Erba, headed up by the immortal Carlo Perelli (and here's hoping - he started working for Motociclismo in 1947!), with English journalist Mick Duckworth, BMW's head of moto-design Edgar Heinrichs, French journalist Francois-Marie Dumas, and Italian TV star Lucca Bizzarri.
Peter Nettesheim demonstrates his 'world's oldest BMW' 1923 R32; an easy starter!
I've judged with Carlo before (this was my 3rd go at the Villa), and knew my other colleagues personally, barring our celebrity judge, who was the only one of us hounded by autograph-seekers.  Our proceedings were overseen by author Stefan Knittel, the mastermind behind the concorso di moto, plus our master of ceremonies Roberto Rasia dal Polo.  After our jury pow-wow, it was cocktail time at Villa d'Este proper, to mingle amongst the beautiful, fabulous, and rich involved with the automobile concorso.  
Edgar Heinrichs, Ola Stenegard, and Stefan Schaller - BMW moto in a nutshell, with their prototype hotrod
It's also BMW's moment to unveil their prototypes for the year; perfectly understandable given they've paid for the venue (and our drinks).  If you've ever hankered for an electric convertible Mini, the little blue cutie which crunched silently up the gravel path was for you. The prototype two-wheeled BMW hotrod which Ola Stenegard and Edgar Heinrich cobbled up in their workshop was equally silent, although it wasn't electric - an aftermarket micro-switch had been left on overnight, and the battery was flat. So much for dramatic flourishes, but the bike looked great, and we got plenty of chance to hear it the next day.
Dinner with friends at Villa d'Este; entrants, judges, and BMW brass...
The motorcycle crowd separated off to a gigantic green chandeliered dining room afterwards, the judges and entrants and BMW's motorcycle design and museum heavyweights.  I had the good fortune to sit beside Stefan Schaller, head of BMW motorrad, who asked my opinion - what did I think BMW should do next?  Ever the diplomat, I replied, in a nutshell, 'Less R&D, more RSD...and where's your electric motorcycle?'  I'm not sure he was pleased, but he got what he asked for...
The 1922 Beardmore-Precision with sleeve-valve Barr+Stroud engine (350cc) and full leaf-springing front and rear - plus that fabulous 'trout' sidecar in original condition.  A technically fascinating motorcycle...
Saturday morning was open to the public at Villa Erba (for the first time - and quite a crowd had queued up), while judges scanned the bikes, a less formal process than at other shows.  It's expected all the bikes run, and they do, so there's no moment of tension for owners as 5 guys in blue blazers (the bikies don't wear them, but the car guys do) stand around and watch you work up a sweat.  The focus of this Concorso is 'eleganza' and 'best of theme' with no points system; less subjective than it sounds, and our discussion in the judge's chamber mid-afternoon was enlightening.  In a first for me, it was suggested one bike was 'too shiny' to be a winner, and that a gorgeous Brough SS100 shouldn't win because it isn't American, in the 'Great Gatsby' class (I've been overruled at a show when the chief judge simply assumed a Brough should win for Brough-ness itself, and so it did).
The fabulous 1929 Opel Motoclub with sidecar owned by Matthias Hühn
Sorting through the 'Elegance of Sidecar' class was the most difficult, as they were all brilliant, and a passionate discussion arose regarding the 'fish', a Beardmore-Precision with sleeve-vale Barr+Stroud engine with a trout for a chair!  It was my opinion the sidecar outshone the condition of the bike, which was very badly faux-patinated, but then again, the bike itself was the most technically interesting machine of our judged classes (the watercooled, supercharged, DOHC, four-cylinder Gilera record-breaker wasn't judged...and besides, one already made 'Best in Show').
Another shot of Daniel Kessler with his 1933 Universal-JAP 680 with groovy sports sidecar
Our judge's panel had collectively around 250 years' intensive/professional experience with motorcycles - let that sink in for a moment - and the round-table talk while sorting out winners is the real reason I come here; it's the most stimulating discussion of the year, men (yes, gents only this time) with a lifetime of passionate motorcycle study, discussing bike history, culture, and preservation in a closed room with no interruptions. It's brief (2 hrs max), heady, and I wish it happened more often, because it charges my batteries to be in such a room.  As our professional obligations divert attention through the year - deadlines and events and travel - big shows like Villa d'Este and the late-lamented Legends of the Motorcycle Concours are a magnet for real devotees of motorcycling, and such a private seminar is rare indeed.  We don't need much time as the 'groundwork' is long ago done - just dig into the big questions at hand - and while we don't agree on everything, we all smiled simply to be present in such company.
The fantastic supercharged 1930 Zenith-JAP world record holder, from the 'scandal at Cork'...
Post-judging left time for a free Riva water taxi to Villa d'Este, a breathtaking ride, to check out the car show going full swing. The gravel terraces easily accommodate 52 cars, with a stunning view of the lake to rest the eyes between dazzling show vehicles. There's no crowding, as there's no public entry; it's entrants and professionals only on Saturday for the car show, but on Sunday all the cars are driven to and around the expansive parklands at Villa Erba for the public's pleasure.  While we motorcyclists have a charming purpose-built pavilion in a park, the 'car people' parade slowly through the Villa's outdoor café, amidst hatted ladies and summer-suited gents, potted geraniums, roses, bougainvilleas, mahogany Rivas burbling over the lake; the environment is absurdly lovely, and why the Pebble Beach crowd (and I use the term advisedly) has set its sights on Italy as the better place to go.  Because it is, if you're pockets-deep into the car thing.
The Concorso at Villa d'Este; no bad angles, no bad viewpoints...
Sunday morning the top 3 bikes of each category were lined up on the red carpeted bandstand at Villa Erba, and we judges had a chance at the microphone to explain our thoughts to an audience. The 'silly' part is that, of course, all the bikes entered in the Concorso were worthy of red-carpet treatment, but we had a job to do, and the winners were spectacular.  Our 'Best in Show' was a surprise this year, because it wasn't on the carpet as a category winner - the glorious red-tyred Opel/Neander outfit was ridden up the gravel path at the last minute, a dramatic flourish, which also (truth be told) gave us an extra slot in the winner's circle for the too-good sidecar class.
Dressing the part; the original concept of the Concours d'Elegance was a mix of fashion and vehicles, and Matthias Hühn and his Opel Motoclub hit all the right notes
The remainder of the day was spent milling around the cars which now occupied the grounds of Villa Erba, and, my job done, catching up with far-flung friends. Two 'side exhibits' at the Villa included a Maserati anniversary cluster, and a platform with customized BMW motorcycles (customs at Villa d'Este!), reflecting BMW's foray the past two years into collaborations with various small workshops.  Last year the Roland Sands 'Concept 90' débuted here, and this year a dozen bikes were on show, including 'Sonic Seb's Lucky Cat Garage dustbin sprinter (seen in action at Wheels+Waves) and El Solitario's 'Impostor', which I dubbed 'the world's most hated motorcycle' for an upcoming article in Cycle World, and is more popularly known as the 'flying shopping cart'. BMW was brave to display it (in the far-back corner), although they haven't braved it in their press announcements. Then again, you never know what you'll get back when you hand a bike to Spanish anarcho-artisan David Borras.
Test riding 'the world's most hated motorcycle' and chatting with builder David Borras of El Solitario
That night the car concours announced its winners at a black-tie dinner, with a substantial fireworks display at the end, reflected in the lake's waters.  Bikers aren't invited, so I had a no-tie dinner in Cernobbio with friends, and enjoyed the spectacle from nearby, while soaking in a last bit of Como's magic.
The Riva water-taxi service between the two Villas
I think it's safe to say Villa d'Este has the best programs of any concours - hardback, with separate books for cars and bikes.
The Flash Gordon bodywork of the 1937 Gilera supercharged record-breaker, which did 170.27mph that year on the Brescia-Bergamo autostrada
Pinch me.
Most amusing car was this fabulously lowbrow green '72 Fiat Aster 132 Zagato coupe, complete with a box of 8-track tapes on the passenger floor.
Terribly crowded around the Maserati brigade...well, not.  This is as crammed as it gets at Villa d'Este, except for the bars, which take a fight to get at; a thirsty crowd...
The poster showing last year's winners, including the Soviet IMZ M-35K, a controversial Best in Show
Riva parking only at the floating pool/dock of Villa d'Este
Lovely '34 Rolls-Royce Phantom II with Gurney-Nutting boattail; used here as a party centerpiece on Friday night
A bit of downtime/boat time with BMW's Ola Stenegard, David Borras of El Solitario, and yours truly
The trophy girls were dressed by a Milanese fashion school, and their hats were auctioned off for charity
Terrific original-paint 1913 Wanderer of Ulrich Schmid, with an equally fantastic Motosacoche sports twin behind (and Edgar Heinrichs wondering how to judge them!)
The 'Great Gatsby' lineup, all American twins and fours, plus the odd Brough...
Peter Abelman aboard his '59 Yamaha YDS1, yes, at Villa d'Este, smoking where the patrons can't....
Best at the Lake, or just best of the best, the original-paint 1929 BMW WR750 in all its sensual glory

[Note: due to a hard drive failure, my 'real' camera's photos were unavailable, so I've used iPhone pix here, mixed with BMW's press photos]