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Beauty of the Beast

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The first vehicles that could be considered motorcycles were barely identifiable as such, and the first commercially available motorcycles were little more than strengthened versions of the bicycles of the day with small, simple motors fitted to them. For a time, they were simply a way to get around and represented a cheap, practical alternative means of personal transport during the emergence of the automobile. Many decades on, these curious little two-wheeled machines have obviously become so much more than that, having grown in size, speed, cost and arguably most of all, in social significance.  The development and design of motorcycles long ago took on their own bold direction, dictated more by passion than common sense and at times more by form than function, and has resulted in over a century of bike designs that have challenged the limits of human ability and the laws of physics. At the same time, unique cultures and subcultures have developed around motorcycles or the various motorsports that they are used for. Associations or even assumptions, both positive and negative, have become associated with certain motorcycles and the people who ride them, while the bikes themselves have a meaning of their own for people. Even the mention of a certain model name or the faint drone of a particular exhaust note in the distance, for some people, conjures up images of a specific bike.

Beauty of the Beast features innovative and influential designs from throughout the long and fruitful history of the motorcycle and from the surprisingly diverse range of nations that have produced it for the equally diverse groups of people who have ridden it. Each of the bikes was selected for its innovative technical or aesthetic design and the group of machines spans over a century of evolution from the dawn of the Motor Age to the computerized technical sophistication of today. The specimens featured come from all over Europe, Japan and the especially the United States. Each has some part in the motorcycle’s wide-ranging artistic, engineering and cultural significance. Key innovations in the motorcycle’s design, both mechanical and visual, are examined as are their connections with similar trends in the wider world of motoring. Of course, no discussion of an object as performance and speed-oriented as the motorcycle would be complete without racing. It is often said that “competition improves the breed”, and this is just as true in the world of bike design as it is anywhere else. Several competition bikes are therefore presented as well.

Central to the appeal of the motorcycle as something so much more than two wheels and an engine is that in terms of a working relationship between man and machine, the motorcycle is second only to the airplane in terms of the complete physical freedom and sensation of speed that it offers. Unlike the airplane, however, a motorcycle is an attainable possession for millions of people. A used sport bike costs a small fraction of a car with similar performance and even a large, comfortable touring bike for long weekend rides and road trips barely takes up any room in the garage or driveway. The almost indescribable feeling of riding a motorcycle, the way a rider doesn’t so much turn as he cuts a line in the road around a corner, the way the invisible push of torque pushes him down the road, the constant presence and knowledge of danger, the exposure to the elements and the sensory overload that goes with it, the necessary awareness of surroundings and the skill required to ride combine to provide the rewarding experience that draws so many people to motorcycles. It is living, and it is freedom. Perhaps not all would be so reckless, but Hunter S. Thompson summed up the characteristic recklessness of riding when he remarked that life “should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a Ride!’” It’s the exhilaration of riding that has shaped the design of many bikes, and some of the most successful manufacturers are the ones that have convinced people through clever advertising or even just through tradition that their product is what provides the experience best. Because of these factors that are always present in riding, motorcycles have always attracted certain kinds of people with at least some sense of adventure, and the motorcycle has become a potent cultural symbol, especially in America. It has represented and continues to represent many things, but what the motorcycle is perhaps more than anything is the ultimate physical expression of personal freedom.

The exhibit runs though May 2016.