Motorcycles are beautiful. There is nothing like being in the wind traveling down a country road, or cruising with friends up the coast. For many people there is nothing like living the motorcycle lifestyle. The idea of the motorcycle as art is not a new idea or concept, and for as long as motorcyclists have been people engaged in customizing them to suit their riding style, the end result has always been considered beautiful to the custom motorcycle owner, and isn’t that in itself art?
It doesn’t matter what make or model of motorcycle you prefer; for every stock or “plain Jane” model of any particular motorcycle, there is at least one slick fully customized version powering down the highway somewhere in the world.
In the early 1920’s Harley Davidson and Indian motorcycles were primarily marketed by factory racing and stunt teams that traveled the country performing for audiences wherever they could. It was these early factory teams that excited new potential motorcycle buyers by offering to show them how they could customize their motorcycle’s for optimum speed and style.
One such motorcyclists was Ray Weishaar, also known as the “Kansas Cyclone”. Weishaar was one of the early Harley Davidson factory riders who earned a reputation as a fearless and unstoppable motorcyclists by winning the races at the at Kansas State Fair two years in a row, with his last win made while riding with broken handlebars.
The crowds loved Weishaar because he was not only a dominant force while racing, but he was friendly with the Harley Davidson Factory Team fans and was quick to offer them tips on squeezing more speed out the Harley motorcycles they brought after seeing him and the other Harley Davidson Factory Team riders perform.
As time marched on, the motorcycle and its value grew on the world. Some saw it as a work tool, such as the Military, and law enforcement, and for others it was a lifestyle; a statement of freedom. It was within that lifestyle group that the concept of motorcycles as art began to grow. That segment of riders who always envisioned their “perfect” motorcycle as a 100% original work of art that included custom parts and paint.
In the 1950’s Harley riders mainly made engine and electrical systems modifications, to squeeze more power out of their engines, while increasing the overall stability of their engines. By the late 1950’s custom motorcycle builders Arlen Ness and Ben Hardy introduced a truly new custom motorcycle style to the world known as the “Chopper”. The techniques used to create molded sheet metal, shaped fenders and gas tanks were individually developed by each artisan and these techniques were further perfected over time and passed down from the artisan to his/her protégé.
In 1966 Ben Hardy took the stock HD frames from a few 49-52 HydroGlide’s along with some custom parts and built the “Captain America” and “Billy” choppers used in the movie Easy Rider. Both motorcycles were painted by Cliff Vaughs, but it was Peter Fonda who insisted that the gas tank of Captain America be painted to resemble Captain America’s shield.
The paint job applied to Captain America’s gas tank was considered a bold statement among movie critics and others. Ben Hardy and Cliff Vaughn’s “Captain America” & “Billy” set the motorcycle industry a blaze with their fresh approach at building the new look of the Harley motorcycle, the Chopper!
In June 1971 Lou Kimzey left Big Bike magazine because he wanted to start something that was both fresh and true to the motorcycle lifestyle. Soon after, motorcycle lovers worldwide were introduced to Easyriders magazine.
This new monthly publication was a down and dirty glimpse into the motorcycle lifestyle and featured plenty of full color spreads of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, replete with attractive models posing on a variety custom mind blowing machines. It didn’t take long for Easyriders to gain widespread popularity among bikers and motorcycle lovers worldwide.
Riding high on the success of Easyriders, the editorial staff sought a skilled illustrator to round out its art department in an effort to push the magazine to the next level. Their choice would ultimately change the way the world looked at the motorcycle and those who lived the lifestyle…Enter Dave Mann.
“Custom bike building has come a long way and it keeps getting better and better.”
Motorcycle Lawyer Russ Brown.
Dave Mann was best known as a bombastic and surreal illustrator in the motorcycle lifestyle community. Dave, unknowingly became an iconic leader in both representing the biker lifestyle and promoting the motorcycle as a true art form with thousands of unique drawings, illustrations and lithographs he created for Easyriders magazine.
The core of Dave Mann’s illustrations celebrated the ethos of the biker lifestyle, not because he thought they would sell or be well received by the readers of Easyriders, but rather because he lived the lifestyle he documented in his art. Each piece he created was an extension of his belief in both the culture and lifestyle he lived in the wind!
It is difficult to define the true meaning of art as a singular expression when thinking of the motorcycle as art, but when this art form is also associated with the signature sound of its rumbling engine, the individual shape, contours, and physical lines of its parts it can hardly be called anything other than art as seen from millions of different perspectives.
As technology progressed the motorcycle enjoyed the benefits of every new advance that could be applied to it, both mechanically as well as esthetically. Each new milestone the motorcycle achieved as a two wheeled mode of transportation, helped to broaden the boundaries of expression as an art form. Owning a customized Harley-Davidson motorcycle has become more popular, and with this popularity many highly skilled custom builders have emerged gaining exposure on television and in the press. Indian Larry, Jessie James, Mike Toupin, Orange County Choppers to name of a few.
Each of these elite custom motorcycle builders created new and fresh designs that were visually stunning works of art that could still be ridden. Some of these artists focus were new approaches in mechanics, while others made their designs explode through the application of stunning paint and graphics.
Because art knows no bounds, the motorcycle found its way into many different artistic genres, as a center point of expression.
Other artists such as Easyriders photographer Michael Lichter have captured the artistic essence of the motorcycle on film, portraying the motorcycle as more than a two wheeled mode of transportation, but rather as a mechanical exploration of art.
Taking art to the fullest, artist Butch Charlan has used figurative art in sculpture form to express his view of the motorcycle. A bronze woman with a helmet is set as the body of the motorcycle with front and rear wheels resting on her hands and legs. While some would call this an abstract version of the motorcycle, others would call it minimalism. Either way you look at it is still a stunning representation of the motorcycle in art form.
The Motorcycle as art has far greater meaning than the sum of its total parts, to every single person the motorcycle is looked upon differently. It is the beauty of speed, the art of mechanical mastering, a steel canvas with wheels, an artful mode of transportation, and the list goes on…
Any way you slice it, the motorcycle is truly beautiful and the proof is in the multiple ways it has been expressed as art. Long live the motorcycle in all forms!