Feb 17, 2008

History is Everything

The marketing golden rule is "perception is everything." Perception is a shallow concept, compared to history. Marketing guys are partial to shallow concepts, so if you can forgive them for all of their other faults you should have no trouble letting them live over this one. From an in-duh-vidual motorcyclist's experience, my personal history and my limited study of the broader perspective has colored my perception of our sport and the vehicles we chose to ride. I think that's a true statement for almost all of us who've been on two wheels for any length of time.

As a beginning rider, I was chased from the Kansas highways by hostile and incompetent cagers. I ended up spending so much time struggling to keep my bike vertical in the ditches that I decided to become an off-road biker. (Like I had a real choice?) That first motorcycle was a 1962 Aermacchi/Harley-Davidson 250 Sprint that actually belonged to my brother but, since he was younger and smaller than me, was mostly mine. He, more or less, passively observed as I turned his bike into a oval track scrambler and, in a few months, a hunk of junk. (See the included photo for an example of an ideal application for the Harley Sprint. Source unknown.) The only positive thing you could say about the 250 Sprint was that it had a macho (low and loud) exhaust note. It was a total wimp of a motorcycle and, like other four stroke hippos, was quickly chased from the dirt by the European and Japanese two-stroke invasion.

After a pause in riding, while I conditioned myself to tolerate the rattle of two stroke machines, I bought my first real off-road bike. A long period of motocross and cross country racing, enduros, and observed trials followed. An integral aspect of my history includes loving the smell of burnt bean oil on a cool summer morning. (I'm not kidding. I can practically drown in good memories from just a whiff of the stuff.)

In the early 80's, I moved back to the street, after a series of racing injuries turned me into more of an obstacle on the track than a racer. But my heart was still bent to places where street bikes are rarely seen. I still expect a road bike to be a tolerable performer on dirt roads. My worst and least logical prejudice is based on specially outdated experience. 1960's and 70's dirt bikers and Harley riders weren't exactly on friendly terms. That tense relationship and a general disdain for American "quality control" earned through 25 years as a technician and engineer, still colors my perception of folks who chose to ride motorcycles that look and perform pretty much like they did thirty or fifty years ago.

I expect that, today, there are a lot more Harley riders wearing ties and driving Accuras during the work week than there are hustling coke and participating in town-trashing. (The stats on today's Harley owners' incomes are pretty impressive.) Still, I remember being chased from some of America's great motorcycling events by smelly, wanna-act-like-a-vicious-frat-brat gangs. The sound of a badly tuned two-cylinder tractor motor raises my hackles.

There's also a function-follows-form aspect of cruiser bikes that doesn't work for me. Even the cosmetic aspects (color and graphics) of dirt bikes have a function (identification on the track). When it comes to all of the other characteristics of a dirt bike, if it didn't have a purpose it wouldn't be there. Racing, in general, puts function so far before form that it's almost amazing that racers bother with paint, at all.

Street bikes are considerably less restricted by functionality (read: no connection between function and form unless absolutely necessary) From my perspective, cruisers appear to be more intended to be seen than ridden. Cruisers may even be seen by their owners as being more art than bike. Similar to how Frank Lloyd Wright's construction projects are viewed more as creative works of art than reliable protection from the elements.

I've been married to an artist for 30+ years. My wife's disdain for proper material use and structural integrity has, and will, always confuse the crap out of me. I, honestly, can't figure out why you'd build something that wasn't done "right" (from an engineering point of view). The way I see it, you always have the option of designing something that will hold up to expected use and exposure to the elements. Why would you chose to ignore that stuff?

Of course, my wife and her arty friends see my point of view as "limiting" and they apply the derogative label of "artisan" to anyone who believes that artistic value and quality of construction are compatible concepts. While it's possible for me to imagine that they could be right, it's not something I am willing to spend any time thinking about. It doesn't fit within my historical experience or my perspective.

In the same light, I can't see why anyone would chose chrome over a much more durable anodized finish, leather over a tougher and more IR and weather resistant synthetic material, an airbrushed enamel paint job over epoxy powder coating, or tube mild steel over a reinforced cast aluminum frame. It's a form of blindness that I'm, apparently, permanently afflicted with.

The opposite disability is pretty easy to spot when an owner of a "rice burner" parks on Taylors Falls' main street. All of the cruiser folks act like a sacred burial ground has been turned into a toxic waste dump. It's pretty funny to watch, if it's not your bike the boys in black leather are threatening to trash. I can't claim to understand the history behind this perspective. It's not mine to share or understand. Since 1966, I've been on the other side of the fence (If you'll give me credit for owning that ancient Aermacchi. Otherwise, I've always burned Italian, Spanish, German, or Japanese rice.)

All of that is a lot of history. All mine. Ride for 35 years and 250,000+ miles (not counting the off-road, odometer-less miles) and you'll collect a bunch of history, too. With history comes perspective and prejudice. I wish it weren't true, but it seems to be.

April 2000

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