Thursday, August 6, 2015


Zombie Cycles – They’re For Real
(This article originally appeared as a column in Cycle World magazine)
Can the lovely Kate Moss help revive the Matchless brand?  Does it matter?
Shakespeare asked, ‘What’s in a name?’ but in business, an established brand with emotional resonance is pure gold.  It takes time to build a good reputation, so instead, would-be manufacturers have gone name-shopping in the graveyard. They’re busting up the crypts of old motorcycle companies, ones we buried decades ago with cries of lamentation and tales of better days.  The new grave robbers are suit-wearing copyright lawyers with shovels in hand, but they don’t want bones – they’re negotiating fees to legally chisel business names from the family crypt. Once in hand, they’re pasted onto a brand new machine, which bears no family resemblance for the simple reason they aren’t family at all. They’re zombies and clones.
What's wrong with this picture?  The new prototype Matchless
Dead motorcycle brands sleep under our soil – thousands of them since the late 1890s, from every corner of the world.  90% are gone and forgotten, but a few potent names –Indian, Vincent, Cyclone  – have seen miserable, limping attempts at resurrection. Cyclone was the most technically advanced American motorcycle of the early 20th Century, an OHC V-twin 70 years before the V-Rod. After Cyclone died in 1916, a series of new owners gave it CPR (Cash Promoting Resuscitation), but it never made it off the slab.  I’m sure we’ll see another ‘Cyclone’ soon… zombies aren’t easy to kill. It’s the same with other powerpacked names like Crocker and Vincent, but the corpse of Indian has been fluffed, powdered, and electrified more than any other.  But who knows – Polaris might make it live.
The Polaris Indian Chief - 900lbs of bling
It’s important to distinguish Zombies from Clones. A Clone is a reproduction of a specific model, long after the factory closed. The practice began in the 1980s, when demand for new Norton Manx and Matchless G50 parts reached the point of whole-motorcycle production. Most racing clones are distinctively marked, and present no real issue to collectors or historians. It sucks when they’re passed off as genuine by wishful thinkers (Velveteen Rabbit syndrome), or by outright forgers. Most commonly cloned are American Board Track racers like Harley-Davidson and Indian ‘8-Valves’, and nowadays these glittering replicas race over auction podiums, in greater numbers than ever appeared on racetracks.  So anyone who wants a brakeless, suspensionless, and historyless 8-Valve can own one. Huzzah. Don’t assume clone equals cheap, though; repro Guzzi V8s, early 4-cylinder Italian GP racers, and Brough Superior SS100s will set you back six figures.  They’re replicated by passionate enthusiasts, who long for the past…although their devotion reminds me of Joyce McKinney, the ‘Mormon in chains rapist’ who cloned her dog in Korea. But they’ve revived some really cool bikes with a rabid post-mortem demand, like Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. albums.  These (nec)romantic flame-bearers just want to keep the old names alive, sometimes by cloning, and more recently by zombification.
The best of the lot - the new Brough Superior SS100
A Zombie is a dead motorcycle brand that's been revived by an unrelated business, with a tombstone rubbing glued on the gas tank. Zombies carry no DNA from the original brand, and typically feature a hypothetical update of the original machine's lines, inspired by ghostly whispers. Sometimes it works - witness BMW's spirit-capture of the Austin Mini.  Most zombies can’t survive long in the real world, because mass-producing motorcycles takes massive financial backing and a serious dose of R&D. The majority remain boutique or bespoke machines – the undead in fancy finery – or prototypes that elicit genuine horror. Lately, zombies have starred in transparently cynical attempts to cash in on a fine old name, by hiding terrifically ugly bikes under junkie-chic supermodels. The goal is selling gear, not gears: apparel is the real business. Even so, name-robbing can’t harm old reputations, and the zombies and clones roaming our streets are just another facet of the bizarro world of contemporary motorcycling.  Ask any teenager; the Undead can be fun and sexy, even if they're Frankenbikes.
The Horex prototype, which seems to have died on the operating table...
Revived motorcycle brands:

Brough Superior, Matchless, Ariel, Indian, Horex, Norton, Bultaco, Crocker, Ossa, Hesketh, Benelli, Paton, etc…

(copyright 2015 Paul d'Orléans)

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


This was published in The Automobile two years ago, after they requested my thoughts on the Pebble Beach Concours.  I was fairly disgusted by the event, and wrote an 'I don't care if they print it' article, but the editor (Jonathan Rishton) wrote that it was 'possibly the most honest thing they'll ever publish', which is pretty high praise.  I think.  Decide for yourself!

c.2013 Paul d'Orléans

Cars and money, money and cars.  And of course, money.  Welcome to Pebble Beach, a grand celebration of the important things in life; status, wealth, tiered access, covetousness, and the need for a good hat.  The Devil is at play on that green seaside lawn, tempting car enthusiasts worldwide towards the very worst reasons to enjoy old automobiles, and having quite a successful run at it.  Just as Capital currently reigns unchallenged over our globe, so Pebble is the acknowledged King of Concours d’Elegance. Pebble Beach Sunday has become, in a world of exciting youth culture battling threats of economic, environmental, and military calamity, a strange 1% Otherworld, a money-cushioned respite from reality, for a mere $225 admission ($275 at the gate).  D’Elegance it is not, unless your definition includes constant elbow-bashing and the impossibility of getting a clear photograph of a car you like…at least Pebble’s photo-bombers are well dressed, and if you’re crafty, will include a revealingly dressed trophy wife.  Huzzah.

I find it hard to find joy in this event; the cars are magnificent, the best examples of over-the-top design in the world without question, but surely I am not a voice in the wilderness in finding it crass, materialistic, horribly boring and an overcrowded clusterfuck.  Let me rephrase that: Pebble Beach is no joy to attend, although one is pampered as an entrant.  The price of admission to that club varies by your ambition and your pocketbook; a savvy choice of an obscure but important vehicle might not be expensive at all – you may already own one – but positioning yourself for an ‘invitation’ is another matter, and will require connections to the right people.  Or at least, in the four-wheel categories… a back door has opened in the last 5 years for collectors of important motorcycles, which are only as expensive as good cars were 25 years ago; ie, generally under $100k.  That will change of course, but for now, if you’re really hankering to stand beside a vehicle all day, waiting for judges to pore over your machine, then waiting some more to find if you’ve placed, then a motorcycle is the way to go.

This year would have been the perfect opportunity, actually, as the motorcycle theme was ‘French’.  If you’re not from that country, I challenge you to name more than four French motorcycle manufacturers.  Don’t feel bad, neither could the Pebble organizers, who failed to round up prime examples of French engineering prowess - the exotic overhead-cams, the racers, the multi-valves, the incredible range of ‘firsts’ from the early years, when France dominated vehicular achievement on land and in the air.  No significant history was in evidence. The earliest two-wheeler on the lawn was the only good reason to visit Class X; the 1929 Majestic was a unique example, having an American four-cylinder Cleveland engine completely enclosed in Deco-sausage bodywork, with car-like hub center steering; a two-wheeled Facel Vega.  The Majestic was produced 63 years into the lineage of French motorcycling (a genre they invented, after all, in 1867), which leaves a whole lot of unexplained history in a tiny field of only 9 motorcycles.  It was simply embarrassing.  I say let’s just forget this pathetic attempt at ‘inclusion’; motorcycles ARE the new black, but nobody’s wearing black at Pebble.  Or perhaps, let’s ask Karl Lagerfeld to curate the next motorcycle exhibit, and cut the pretense to relevance, or History, or whatever.

The automotive display included a stretch of competition-minded Porsche 911s to celebrate that squidgy little darling’s 50th birthday, and I must say we’ve grown old well together. It’s lovely seeing full-scale the Corgi Porsches I vroomed as a lad, although if one took a 20 minute drive from the golf club lawn, one could see, hear, and smell some of the very same cars being hammered around Laguna Seca raceway in the Monterey Historics, where megamillion Ferraris are spun into barriers and semi-genteel Aston Martins bash each other’s noses.  The damage inflicted on these glorious beasts is costly, like every one of the 40,000 spectators lighting a joint with a $10 bill. Still, I’d rather watch the beasts howling and writhing and stressing themselves, than parked on a lawn. 

An excellent Pebble development is the ever-expanding ‘preservation’ classes (L-1 and L-2, pre- and postwar), which means somebody at Pebble has heard the clarion call of the Oily Rag.  Hallelujah.  My favorite rust-bucket was an original-paint Voisin, complete with dents, which was dutifully polished all day long, one assumes to help remove more areas of paint for the ‘perfect patina’.  The interior, I was assured, was in the original leather, and not the eye-watering Paul Poiret Art Deco mescaline nightmare found in every single restored Voisin; they’ve really come out of the woodwork since winning ‘everything’ in the past 2 years.  I was slightly vexed by an Aston Martin DB5 in supposedly original paint, its anthracite grey exterior looking fairly immaculate barring rubbed-thru patches where clearly ‘over-loved’ by the polishing rag…or was this new paint, artfully distressed?  The thought disturbed me, the more so when I overheard a Preservation class entrant describing the purchase of a junked car’s faded leather interior, which he placed in his own car, as it looked better.  Creatively ‘original’, but certainly not ‘preserved’, unless we count an aggregation of vintage parts as ‘original’ in toto…at which point, there’ll be no need to lock up the guns, my mind will have already been blown.

It’s a not-joke that only black cars win Best in Show at Pebble Beach, and this year was no exception; the 1934 Packard 1108 Twelve Dietrich Convertible Victoria was the first American car to win the grand prize since 2007.  It was big and grand and utterly unique, partly because America was starving at the time, out of work with a 40% unemployment rate.  Brother, can you spare a coachbuilt Packard? Today, if the owner falls on hard times, he can always follow the path of last year’s winner, who sold his 2012 Best in Show ’28 Mercedes-Benz 680S Torpedo Roadster for a cool $8.25M on the weekend.  That was nothing, of course, compared to the 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4S NART Spider, which sold for a chart-busting $27.5M…shades of pre-Crash giddiness.  It’s almost 2014: do you know where your investments are?”

The Centenary of Aston Martin did not pass unnoticed, and a lovely stretch of racers and roadsters were nearly camouflaged by the British racing green lawn, although the insect-yellow flash of a ’57 DBR2 kept bumblers alert.  Its livery was matched by a new Aston CC100 Speedster prototype, shown in the ‘Concept Car Corral’ on the Lodge lawn, and looking a lot like BMW’s ‘328 nouveaux’ concept débuted in 2011, but sexier.  Bugatti brought a special-edition Veyron for display at an invite-only party, and a pair of gilded guests had a bidding brawl on the spot, resulting in the $2.7M car which wasn’t for sale leaving the premises for nearly $3.5M. Wallets thrown at 10 paces; may the best oligarch win. The piss-taking side events like the Monterey Concours d’LeMons are looking like a better bet every year…

Thursday, March 19, 2015


This essay was originally published in Classic Bike Guide, in their October 2014 edition.
Roland Sands of RSD Design, his BMW R90S homage custom, and Ola Stenegard of BMW Motorrad, at Wheels and Waves in 2013
Paul d’Orleans 2014

They are mammoth, slow-moving beasts, loathe to explore new territory, inertially content with the status quo, but occasionally prodded to action by financial droughts. Endomorphic motorcycle-industry leviathans prefer in all cases to carry on as before, until it’s obvious they must change direction or fail. Corporate culture is rarely supportive of radical innovation, unless the individuals at their helm understand that embracing new circumstances is not adaptation; it means continued vitality. And today we see the big motorcycle factories waking up to trends among younger riders, and stepping in to stamp their name on the proceedings.

With David Borras of El Solitario, whose 'Impostor' customized BMW R9T I wrote about in Cycle World

Harley-Davidson, that most hidebound of traditionalists, has -contrary to its reputation - been quietly stalking the creative/hip youth market for decades, having sorted long ago that its motorcycles are merely a platform for individual creativity. The depth of this understanding far exceeds their competitors, and H-D profits greatly by selling customers a range of components to ‘individualize’ their machines. Thus their corporate culture is geared to respond to trends, and saunter into new situations with corporate-logo sponsorship, like the delivery of free motorcycles to the ‘right’ small shops as an externalized ‘trend R and D. Whatever you may feel about ‘potato potato’ and lumbering V-twins (and they’ve never been my bag), the bar-and-shield deserves respect for their savvy in this increasingly profitable area. Even if their Board makes stupid financial moves, like losing hundreds of Millions on credit-blind bike loans, or buying/selling MV Agusta for no apparent reason.
It turns out I've been into Customs for decades, including this red-hot Norton Atlas cafe racer, which I purchased in 1987...

For years I disdained the ‘custom’ scene, until it struck me; all my years of playing with café racers meant I was into customs. My ’66 Velocette Thruxton might be a factory café bike, but the Manx-tank Norton twins I built in the 1980s were, uh, customized motorcycles. Oh dear. Exploring my hypocrisy meant opening my eyes to the work of some very talented individuals, and sorting out the enormous modified-bike scene not by bias, but by examination. In my defense, the most popular/visible hand-built machines of that era were fat-tire TV-show choppers, which still bring shudders of horror. That trend died in 2009, when credit-card purchases of tacky $70k choppers screeched to a halt.

My personal vision of Hell..
Two years ago I wrote the following on my blog,, regarding the ‘Wheels and Waves’ event in France: "Here's a message to motorcycle manufacturers whose sales are falling through the floor.  You didn't come to the party, because you weren't interested or didn't think you were invited, but the answer to your question [why are sales dead?] was there, and it doesn't look like you pictured... but then, the future never does. Those scruffy kids with the weirdly painted, cheaply modified bikes?  They're you, thirty or fifty years ago. You just forgot what you looked like back then, what was important to you, who your friends were, what you liked to do.  You forgot that you were broke, and two wheels were cheap, and fun, and sexy.  And that a motorcycle, ridden regularly, are a pretty good Bullshit Detector."

Kawasaki x Spirit of the Seventies...
The next year, of course, BMW stepped in as a sponsor at Wheels and Waves, and began offering bikes to selected customizers to play with, and even sub-contracted Roland Sands to build a prototype/show bike in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the legendary R90S. At the same time, Yamaha shipped 6 of their new ‘Star Bolt’ (huh?) V-twins to various shops for a custom-publicity blitz, and Harley-Davidson stepped in as a sponsor of the Born Free show in LA. Triumph is working with the Ace Café in the US and Britain, and branding cool events at the Barber Festival with Dime City Cycles. And just today, I learned that my own little island of moto-groovy, the Motorcycle Film Festival, has acquired Honda, of all people, as a principal sponsor. This is good news, as it means growth for an excellent idea. What could go wrong?

The latest evidence of alt.Custom influence; the Ducati Scrambler
All of which shows intelligence on the part of the big boys, but what does it mean when corporations cozy up to the little guys? Trend-observers note certain patterns; hyper-cool creatives invent a style, which is adopted by young hipsters, and is soon exploited by businesses who dilute the concept for popular appeal, which sends both the creatives and hipsters fleeing. Thus we’re left with Viragos and the FX Low Riders where once we had hand-built, psychedelic choppers…or in another instance, cheesy ‘punk’ chain-stores at the mall catering to 12 year old girls. Do we thank the industry for transforming the chopper into the Kawasaki 440LTD with sissy bars, or curse them for killing something outrageous and groovy? It’s sad the delicate flowering of creativity is eventually corrupted and dies, but that reflects life pretty accurately. Enjoy your trend to the hilt, kids; you’ll have good memories when the party is over.

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Sunday, January 29, 2012


Jeff Decker is as famous for being a strong character as much as for his art, which is a shame, as he’s a truly gifted sculptor. Watching Decker shape clay is a quick dictionary lesson in ‘talent’; little blobs of nothing magically cohere under his fingers, and suddenly a shirt is rippling in the wind, cheeks pressed against a skull, a Cyclone cam drive -right down to the nuts- is released from its prison of moistened dirt. From humble clay and wax, later cast in bronze, come a the heady tang of exhaust, sweaty determination, the roar of engines and crowds, an evocation of lost eras of men wrapped over primitive machines, racing for their lives, sometimes losing them. As Frederick Remington did for the cowboys, so Jeff Decker does for motorcyclists.

His prodigious gift for sculpting men and motorcycles earned him an exclusive deal with Harley-Davidson to ‘represent’ HD in bronze, and a monumental flailing hillclimber greets visitors to the HD Museum in Milwaukee. His sculptures of Rollie Free’s 150mph Vincent stretchout and battling board track racers romanticize a lost era of dangerous masculine competition, a man-credo Jeff embodies with his gruff, opinionated persona and patch-wearing membership in the Sinners cycle club.

Decker’s moto-streak runs deep, and his passionate knowledge of the subject extends to a profound collection of biker club colors, paintings, and actual motorcycles, which he’s been collecting since they were cheap. He grew up surrounded by mechanical torch-bearers like his father, a collector of flathead hotrods and parts, a man with a good eye in the early SoCal hotrod scene, and whose buddies nowadays bring awe to young wannabes. Decker is the real deal, and isn’t afraid of anyone’s opinion, customizing revered brands like Crocker and Vincent to express his own lines. As expected for a talented artist, the results are harmonious while respecting the past, and lend the old warhorses a renewed super-cool.
 This article originally appeared in MCN's 'Retro' supplement to their Sept.2011 issue.
copyright 2011 Paul d'Orléans/The Vintagent


Adjectives and metaphors; more than any other bike builder today, people struggle with words to describe Shiny Kimura’s handiwork. Is this retro future? Sci-fi film props? Blade runner Manga? Ultimately, our need to explain means we’re looking hard at his bikes, which speaks volumes; a motorcycle emerging from Chabott Engineering in LA is an object of universal curiosity.

Shinya is a hand-work man, mostly avoiding his English Wheel when forming sheet aluminum and steel; like Vulcan, he prefers a hammer, and like Rodin, his process is discovery. I don’t know what the bike will look like; I don’t imagine the finished design when I begin. I would get bored if I knew what I was going to make.” His hammer-marks, along with wrinkles, pores, and wavy folds, are Shinya’s poetry, a song in metal, the visible memory of a man bent in labor, caressing an unfriendly material into organic and insect-like shapes; imperfect, but glowing.

A motorcycle customizer from his first days on wheels (starting with a humble Suzuki OR50), Shinya’s reputation in his native Japan drew attention from investors, and he founded Zero Engineering, modifying around 300 Harleys in what is now a trademark ‘Japanese Custom’ style. Growing uncomfortable with business demands of production and expansion, he left Zero and moved to a remote spot in Orange County, where he and partner Ayu can work in peace, creating machines one at a time for lucky customers (Brad Pitt has been spotted riding a Shinyized ‘round case’ Ducati).

Kimura considers himself less a customizer than a “coachbuilder”, respecting the motorcycles on which he applies his art, in the tradition of the finest automotive body houses like Pininfarina or Fleetwood. The grand tradition of personalized bodywork appeals to Shinya; “The client is very important to me. I can’t make bikes without them.” He interviews customers about their taste in music, art, clothing – but takes no input on design, preferring his metal shapes to grow organically for each machine. “Every time I’m surprised.” And so are we! 
 This article originally appeared in MCN's 'Retro' supplement in the Sept. 2011 issue.
copyright 2011 Paul d'Orléans/The Vintagent


Growing up in the shadow of custom culture greatness might be a burden, but Cole Foster shows no resentment of famous father Pat, whose showcars and drag-racing career made him a hero of Hot Rod magazine. While Cole idolized his dad, when he started customizing his own cars and bikes, he had to teach himself how to manipulate sheetmetal, weld, and build engines, as he spent limited time in Dad’s shop, and laments nowadays that he’s not as good as he’d like to be at any of these skills, but is confident his ‘eye’ is his best tool. Armed with this, in only a decade Foster has created a legend of his own, building the cleanest customs anywhere.

Dad provided an excellent standard, and it didn’t take long after Cole started messing about with his first ’56 Chevy coupe for his breeding to shine. By 2001, his ’56 Chevy F100 pickup won the Chip Foose award for excellence at the Grand National Roadster Show. That same year, he turned his attention to a big V-twin motorcycle for Custom Chrome, and the ‘Blue Bike’ raised the bar for a simple and elegant custom, on which every line seems perfectly placed. A speedway racer with thyroid issues, the bike is solidly Trad, but the skill of execution and blade-tight lines prove that the best of the old school is still a very appealing package.

Ten years later, ‘Blue’ still looks fresh and inspires a legion of copycats.Press frenzy over the Blue Bike launched Foster’s two-wheel business, part of his Salinas Boyz Customs, and subsequent machines have all been consistently clean, interesting, and perfect. Especially his ‘Moon Rocket’ of 2007, a drag bike with an alloy café racer fairing, a mix just odd enough to be spectacular, a peace-maker for two very different camps, and a clear statement that Cole Foster has earned his own place in the Custom pantheon.

This article originally appeared in Motorcycle News' 'Retro' supplement of Sept. 2011
copyright 2011 Paul d'Orléans/The Vintagent

Friday, January 6, 2012


Tang dynasty Chinese alchemists began heating and mixing minerals and metals in order to find, just like their Western counterparts, a method of synthesizing gold; they were looking not for wealth, but a method of extending life, and the secret to immortality, adhered to a belief that gold created from myriad elements had life-giving powers, enough to stop Death in its tracks.  What they found in 850AD, among a lot of very toxic concoctions, was an explosive mix of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter; the discovery shortly destroyed the alchemists’ workshop, burning the discoverer; a Promethean warning.  By 904AD, Song dynasty armies began stuffing reinforced gourds with gunpowder and lead balls, strapping them to long lances, and blasting each other…the gun was invented. 
By 1127, the perfection of the gunpowder recipe (exactly as used today) meant reinforced wooden blast-tubes shattered; soon cast bronze mini-cannons aided warlords in dis-assembling peasants.  The oldest extant ‘hand-cannon’ dates from 1288, the Yuan dynasty, and the ‘secret unto death’ recipe for gunpowder leaked to Europe at the same time, likely by conquering Mongol Khans bent on subduing Europe.  Genghis found it ‘easy to conquer on horseback, but difficult to Rule’, and harder still to keep guns out of European hands.

Those earliest guns are crude, ugly, and plain. No skill was required, none was rewarded, there was no sport at all in the practice, while the gunner’s trademarks - sulfur, smoke, crackling flashes, and misery - tattooed them as the Devil’s companions.  It took refinement of the killing device before it deserved embellishment, and by 1375, the matchlock gun made accurate two-handed shooting possible, and with the joy of noisily launching projectiles at strangers (or cousins), affection for the lethal instrument grew, the love accompanied by increasingly lavish décor by wealthy owners. The firestick became glittering and beautiful, much like Eve’s snake, and as easily mistaken for a giver of good advice.  ‘Et in Arcadia ego’, quoth the rifle in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridien’, mingling lamentation and threat: Satan once lived in paradise, and will gladly embrace you too, via arms.  The magical power of life, sought by the alchemists, is inverted by their dark accident, and, dusting away layers of argument, the use of a gun has always been to kill something, or someone. 
The gun-as-machine was hand-crafted until the 1800s, its fit and finish dependent on the maker’s skill, with the very best craftsmen inevitably arming the rich.  Such gents worked in concert with metal artisans capable of transforming a plain steel tool into a work of fine art; hammer-locks bore dragon heads, gods frolicked on stocks, gilt stars on blackened barrels swore eternal night, and delivered.  The Golden Age of gun décor peaked mid-19th century, before mass-produced Colts with steel-rolled patterning wet the picnic, and the grand tradition of pretty guns became increasingly rare.  

A cadre of craftsmen brought hand-building out of extinction in the 20th century, but decorated weapons passed out of royal hands, to the new Lords, as in drug- and war-, whose vulgar embrace of the gilded gun reveals a potent mix of old ingredients; the promise of death to maintain power over the living, the urge for talismans against a nasty, brutish, and short existence, plus an egoists love for flash and sparkle as blinding cover for the ugliness of their endeavor.  In Mexico, fantastically lurid pistols and automatics, captured and presented by Federales in their usual failed warning, sit gleaming, fascinating, on confiscation tables: pistol butts graced with diamond Cholos or Virgins, Aztec jaguar stocks, old-school floral engraved and no-school gold-plated. These vulgar gems were clutched in life for protection against the very Devil’s instrument they held, and when diamond pavé failed to stop supersonic lead, it was not the Virgin whose hand they held, not even their mother’s, but the gun itself remained, their only comfort as they lay bleeding in a perforated and smoldering Chevy Suburban… the Faustian bargain fulfilled. A pretty gun gives poor advice, but a wise man understands its beauty, and the alchemical mistake which gave it power.

This article appears in Men's File #6 .
Copyright 2012 Paul d'Orléans