Motorcycle Art Books - Art

Tech Matters

When it comes to art I'm somewhat of a philistine, a fact that has always been a great disappointment to my wife, a woman endowed with great artistic sensibilities.

It's not that I don't enjoy fine art...I do! The "Poker Playing Dogs" series by C.M Coolidge is absolutely terrific, and someday I hope to own the whole collection. I've always been somewhat perplexed as to why my wife doesn't share my enthusiasm for them.

On that note, I just finished reading a great book called "The Fine Art of the Motorcycle Engine," by Daniel Peirce. Initially I wasn't sure what to expect, I'd heard of the book, but had no details on it. Because I'm bent that way I just figured it'd be some photos of noteworthy motorcycle engines, most likely with a brief technical description as to what made them worthy of being noted. As usually happens when the word art is involved I misread the situation, though not so profoundly as when I went to see my first "art" movie.

The Fine Art of the Motorcycle Engine is an exquisitely photographed presentation of 64 motorcycle engines, the majority of which are, in fact, notable, though some for all the wrong reasons, and an accompanying text that's essentially a series of anecdotes describing what Peirce went through to create the book. If this were a review I'd tell you that it's terrific book, and well worth buying, especially, if like me, you're always in the mood for some gearhead style eye candy.

Of course books can only take you so far, something that's particularly true I suppose of everything from pornography to cook books, (and especially so of motorcycle magazines), but that's an observation anyone that's ever opened a shop manual (or a Playboy) understands all too well.

The problem I have is that every time I read something like the Fine Art of The Motorcycle Engine, or any other "Art of" type books, I tend to look past the art, and head straight for the warts. Here's what I mean. One of Peirce's images is of a Bultaco Astro 360 engine. Now for those of you that aren't familiar with it, the Astro 360 was a purpose-built flat-tracker sold by Bultaco in one incarnation or another from 1972 to 1979. I rode one of them for five years, and won quite a few races with it, however my overriding thought whenever I see one of them is always something along the lines of, "yeah it was fast and pretty; pretty unreliable". Where Mr. Pierce sees beauty, and there's no doubt that it's a pretty motor, I see broken cranks, seized pistons and Visa bills that made my artistic, ever lovin', wife pull her hair out. By no means is that an isolated incident either. Where Pierce sees beauty in a BMW R69 engine, I see a full sludge trap and bad rod bearings. The Mach III Kawasaki? How about terrifying wobbles and a throwaway motor. An art critic I'm not, but a cynical old fart that's seen the inside of one too many grenaded motors, well, I guess ya got me.

In keeping with those same sentiments I'm also a "form follows function" type of guy so I always have big problems when someone sloughs off a particular motorcycle's deficiencies by calling it "rolling artwork" or some other such nonsense. In my opinion, a bike that accelerates, handles and stops as it should is "rolling artwork." If it looks good doing it, so much the better, but a motorcycles mission statement should be to work properly, if it doesn't, than I don't care how much lipstick up you put that particular pig, it's still a pig.

In most cases the bikes in that last category are generally one off customs, and don't think I mean to tar them all with the same brush. There are quite a few guys out there that can manage to build a good looking custom that works quite nicely as a real motorcycle, if you want to call them artists you'll get no argument from me.

Motorcycle engineers-that is the guys that develop the power trains and chassis, rarely get the artistic credit they deserve, especially when compared to the stylists. Lots of guys can pencil whip good looking sheet metal, but how many can design a power train that'll go 100,000 or more trouble free miles, while making enough power to part the hair on your chest.

As Sigmund Freud so famously said "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," and the same can certainly be said for motorcycles. In the end a motorcycle is simply a mechanical device, and as such built to a purpose. As for me, hell, I think the poker playing dogs rate right up there with the great masters, how on earth could you take anything I have to say about art seriously?