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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