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Riding through American History on Two Wheels PDF Print E-mail
Art - Reviews
Thursday, 21 September 2000 18:00
“You think your customers are loyal, but do they tattoo your name on their body?” – Harley-Davidson ad “If I have to explain, you won’t understand.” – Harley-Davidson T-Shirt “Ride to Live – Live to Ride. ”
– Harley-Davidson air-cleaner cover

“You meet the nicest people on a Honda.”
– 1960s advertising tag line

Which of these things is not like the other? The motorcycle subculture is as uniquely American as jazz and blues, and every generation reinvents the ruggedly individualistic motorcycle icon in its own image.

In the 1930s, it was the motorcycle hobo who lived on the road. In the 1940s, gangs of hell’s angels began to prowl the roads after veterans returned from World War II. Easy Rider captured the search for a purpose in the 1960s. The 1970s brought us Hell’s Angels as a specific motorcycle gang that arguably shouldn’t have been hired as the security detail for a Rolling Stones concert. And after road bikes began to give way to Japanese dirt bikes and motorcross cycles in the 1980s, Harley-Davidson came back to its roots when the company’s American management bought itself back from the Japanese owners who just didn’t get it.

Motorcycles and motorcycling are something that a person gets or doesn’t get. If you get it, you’re welcomed into a subculture represented by folks from all walks of life, and you’ll like the Cycular exhibit at Quad City Arts.

There are some original artworks, including a collage from Tim VanHyfte of a mature motorcycle cherub, complete with a motorcycle wheel as a halo, and several wood sculptures of motorcycles. But the stars of the show are the 15 motorcycles themselves.

I would have been disappointed if there wasn’t at least one Harley with a major oil leak, and I wasn’t disappointed. The three-wheel 1956 Harley-Davidson Servi-Car, a rehabbed police bike with a pan-head engine, had an aluminum paint-roller pan under it to collect the oil that was just passin’ through. A motorcycle coming complete with a set of wrenches to tighten everything up every few hundred miles was just part of the whole macho motorcycle thing.

Things have improved, however. New Harleys are made in state-of-the-art factories without mechanical problems; in fact, the Harley I ride now is smoother than the BMW motorcycle that I rode in college.

When you walk into the Quad City Arts gallery, you can feel the personalities of each of the bikes on display. The Royal Enfield has a sleek 1950s sharkskin look about it. The bike is like a martini: smooth and elegant, but deadly fast. English bikes are like English sports cars – expensive and high-maintenance.

The yellow Indian Chief, the classic American motorcycle, sports the art-deco hood ornament on the bulbous front fender. From the suicide shift lever mounted on the side of the tank to the chrome on every engine part that would take it, Indians set the tone for what a road bike should be. The bike has the flowing organic lines of Art Nuevo but the geometric symmetry required by a piece of machinery, so the hood ornament is right in character. (Incidentally, it was called a suicide shift because you had to lift your hand off the handlebar to put the bike in gear; when the engine engaged the next gear, it would torque the bike to the left and pull you along. With only one hand on the bars, it was difficult to keep the bike under control.)

The 1959 Vespa on display is a classic in a completely different genre; it recalls the mod mod world of the early 1960s, just as the British Invasion was making its assault on the American rock scene. Vespa riders were the antithesis of leather-clad bikers, giving Honda the idea to portray motorcycle riders as nice people. The image started to gain traction, but it had the staying power of James Bond hosting Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.

Mark Carpenter’s custom-built “Fat Daddy” represents the refinement of the custom chopper, which got its name from guys who used chop saws and welding tools to fabricate fantastic bikes out of salvaged parts. Carpenter’s “Fat Daddy” is a sleek, chrome-filled machine and an excellent example of the heights this craft has achieved. Machines like this one are truly sculptural as well as functional; just because a piece of machinery works doesn’t mean that it isn’t art. (Perhaps it makes it even more of a work of art; witness how we appreciate architecture for both form and function.)

This exhibit offers a lesson in American history with the silent testimony of 15 beautiful motorcycles. And while the story they tell is strong, if these 15 bikes could talk, I’d love to hear the lecture.
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