This article was originally published in the October 1999 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.
When analyzing any creative endeavor, historians, theorists, and even just casual observers often comment on what thoughts or moods or emotions the piece in question was designed to evoke. Studies of musicians, sculptors, painters and writers go into great detail about the artistic influences apparent in a person’s work. Sometimes, as consumers of such information, we’re surprised to learn from an interview with the artist that what really inspired him or her was something quite different from the pundits’ speculation. For example, if I had been asked, I would’ve surmised that the Magna gracing these pages had been constructed with the intention of creating a balance in color, shape and texture, to produce a piece of art that, while embracing beauty, didn’t sacrifice utility—its very bike-ness—in the pursuit of pure aesthetics.
Instead of making such presumptions about Rhonda Hoffman’s custom Magna (see her Magna project here), I arranged to meet her in a café not too far from her Richmond, Virginia shop to discuss this bike. When questioned about the root of this project, Hoffman simply said, “The bike is a shrine to the Guggenheim.” Apparently, Hoffman and David Evans (a close friend and the owner of this Magna) were so taken with The Art of the Motorcycle show at the Guggenheim Museum, they extended their stay in New York so they could spend a second day in the company of some of the most beautiful machines ever conceived.
Museums often have a strange effect on artists. Maybe being surrounded by artifacts crafted by like-minded folks stir up the juices, or perhaps its the reverence with which the creative process is regarded in the museum setting. I’ve seen people drawn repeatedly, as if beyond their own control, to sculptures or paintings—returning again and again to recapture or explore the feeling the piece elicited. Some take the scientific approach, analyzing the minutia of the techniques contributing to the whole. Others stand agape, overcome by what has captured their spirit, oblivious to the goings-on around them. If you pause to look at the people attending an exhibition, a few of them will be actively practicing their art through sketches or—if you look closely—through storing up the creative energy and emotion for use later in their chosen medium, be it paint, light, metal or words.
On her second visit to the Guggenheim, Hoffman was there to learn, spending almost as much time watching Evans as she did enjoying the machinery. She knew she’d soon be customizing Evans’s Magna, so she stepped back from merely being a motorcyclist enjoying the collection of motorcycles. Instead she studied what bikes set Evans off, what designs and colors excited him and what left him cold. According to Hoffman, the concept became clear while they walked up the curved ramps of the museum. Once she latched on to the idea, “the rest was just details,” she smiles.
Long before the trip to New York, Evans had selected a Magna as the basis for the custom because it fit him. Hoffman liked his choice since it is clearly a modern machine, one that she thought would blend in an interesting way with retro-styling. However, she didn’t want to build another modernized period reproduction. She decided to explore metals, colors and techniques that weren’t currently being used—while never asking the Magna to look like anything other than a thoroughly modern motorcycle.
Hoffman’s use of copper plating (usually an interim step in the chroming process, but one she chose after being inspired by the many vintage bikes with copper fuel lines shown at the Guggenheim) as the final finish on many parts of the bike provides a prime example of her utilization of a nonstandard finish. She recalls, “My chromer thought I was crazy.” Apparently, he struggled to accept her desire to have incomplete (in his mind) plating returned to her and kept reminding her the parts would need to be polished or they’d tarnish. “Eventually, I had to tell him to get any thoughts of chrome out of his head,” she laughs. “By the time the job was done he would just ask, ‘Which is it this time—copper or nickel’ as I dropped off each box of parts.”
The plater wasn’t the only one whose envelope was pushed to the limit. Initially, Evans didn’t want to strip the bike down to the frame. After some negotiation, Hoffman convinced him the project wouldn’t work if he didn’t let her go all the way. As a result, the swingarm, the frame and the front end were nickel-plated, linking the bulk of the chassis in both visual style and function.
One of the metal finishes Hoffman used on the Magna isn’t really metal at all. Drawing on the sand-cast look of the engine case used on the 1997 Morbidelli V-8, she crafted a faux-metal finish out of a gold base coat that was “eggshelled” with clear paint. The eggshell effect is neither flat nor glossy but straddles the reflective line around satin. The muted gold gives a cast-like appearance. The parts that Hoffman wanted to blend in and almost disappear—such as the instrument housings, frame covers and radiator cover—wear this finish.
Mounted on the dolled-up frame, a pair of Jesse James fenders replaced the stock bodywork. Initially, the rear fender was more than twice as long as what is shown here, but Hoffman was interested in the curve of the fender and how it related to the rear wheel, not the length. She considers this to be a twist on the bobbed rear fenders brought into popularity in the ’40s and ’50s. The front fender went through a similar size reduction.
The shape of the rear fender eliminated lots of taillight choices. When Evans told her he had a pair of spare brake lights for his Porsche 356 Speedster, she decided to try to mount both of them side by side on the fender. Unfortunately, the two lights never looked quite right together, and she ended up mounting only a single unit. In retrospect, the solo round brake light looks like an interpretation of the lights used on the bob-jobs that inspired Hoffman. Another idea that didn’t get implemented (yet), due to the deadline for completing the bike, was building a larger-capacity dual tank of the same bobber era.
Seeing Evans’s reaction to the 1915 Ivar Johnson guided Hoffman’s color choice for the Magna. In the end, she opted for a color that was deeper into the green end of the spectrum, because she thought it would complement the copper and tan leather parts. To further mix and relate all the muted tones of the bike, Hoffman painted the engine’s block and cases the same antique-green. The dark paint for the scallop on the tank side is navy blue. It was chosen because it goes well with the nickel plating. The gold lion’s head was suggested by the daughter of Evans’s girlfriend with universal agreement from all those involved.
"My chromer thought I was crazy." Apparently, he struggled to accept her desire to have incomplete (in his mind) plating returned to her...
With the multiple metal finishes and the antique-green paint, having a black seat would ruin the carefully developed tonal harmony of the colors. Not that Hoffman would have ever considered a black seat once she saw Evans’s reaction to the tan seat on the 1933 Dollar. However, she admits she took the concept of a saddle “a little literally.” To bridge the generation gap between the modern frame under the seat and the vintage-styled rear fender, she decided to skirt the seat and make a true saddle out of it. She even covered it with tan saddle leather, which should hold its color and wear well. However, the thickness of the leather caused some difficulties in stitching the parts together.
With the tan seat eliminating the traditional black seat, Hoffman decided to keep the Magna from being sullied by any black parts. All the wires and control cables were wrapped in tan leather. Hoses were upgraded to stainless steel versions. Even the radiator hoses were replaced with Two Brothers Racing parts. A smattering of other bolt-ons flesh out this Magna. The turn signals and air-cleaner covers are both from Planet Cruiser, Hoffman’s other customizing business. Michelin tires keep the pretty wheels off the pavement.
Our plates had been cleared from the table, coffee cups filled and emptied multiple times, and we’d long since stopped looking at the transparencies of Hoffman’s creation. When I asked what she would remember most about this project, she said how she and Evans would disagree on an idea and negotiate to a conclusion. Sometimes his point-of-view was employed, other times it was hers, but this collaboration took root during a shared experience with The Art of the Motorcycle.