Motorcycle Style And The Danger Of Imprinting

If it’s beautiful once, is it beautiful forever?

Can you dig it? Knobby-tired, chain-final-drive Pan America is powered by Harley-Davidson’s new 1,250cc Revolution Max. The same 60-degree V-twin in 975cc displacement powers the Bronx streetfighter.
Can you dig it? Knobby-tired, chain-final-drive Pan America is powered by Harley-Davidson’s new 1,250cc Revolution Max. The same 60-degree V-twin in 975cc displacement powers the Bronx streetfighter.Harley-Davidson

When baby ducks peck and scratch their way out of their eggs, the usual first thing they see is the mother duck. Imprinting is the word used to describe the fact that duck chicks are thereby programmed to follow their mother wherever she goes; if they see something else, they follow it instead! Imprinting is a good survival strategy. Those who don’t follow the mother lose her protection and knowledge of where to find food.

Humans can show a similar devotion to shapes and styles. When vintage-racing kingpin Robert Iannucci was a lonely Peace Corps volunteer on a Caribbean island many years ago, his only connection with home was a motorcycle magazine with an image on its back cover of a Matchless G50 CSR. Iannucci’s Team Obsolete has subsequently owned—and usually raced—most of the remaining G50s in the world.

As a college student, I would make pilgrimage to a kiosk—it has just closed, sadly—offering publications from all over the world and on every subject to buy the British motorcycle magazines. They brought news of the Japanese revolution in two-wheel Grand Prix roadracing. Those bikes, seating their riders far back, crouching over long “bread-loaf” gas tanks, were to me the glorious future. They looked right.

They are no longer right. Modern GP bikes need forward mass concentration so their acceleration is not lost in instant wheelies. This dictates short, hump-topped fuel tanks with extensions under the seat and riders forward, a completely different look.

And megaphones! The song of the 1967 Honda six accelerating away. Proper racebikes have megaphones and make those grand, ear-hammering tones and overtones. Not today. Engines of now are grunty, rather than musical, and their exhaust systems look like afterthoughts, nothing like a chorus of heavenly trumpets.

In time, I was exposed to what I must call fundamentalist Harley-Davidson enthusiasts; one of them worked at our dealership from 1970 onward. They had drunk deep of a past aesthetic, grumbling, “Damn Motor Company hasn’t built a decent bike since 1940.” For them, the abandonment of the true OHV, the “Knucklehead,” for the upstart Panhead and Shovelhead, was apostasy. Same for the replacement of the time-honored Harley springer fork, much admired in British speed circles of the 1920s–’30s for its stability, by the postwar innovation of telescopics.

Winning look: In 2007, the Motorcycle Design Association said, “The Ducati 916 was a tough act to follow.” While the 999 “bravely broke away from being just a face-lift…the 1098 promises to give Ducatisti the best of both worlds.”
Winning look: In 2007, the Motorcycle Design Association said, “The Ducati 916 was a tough act to follow.” While the 999 “bravely broke away from being just a face-lift…the 1098 promises to give Ducatisti the best of both worlds.”Ducati

All of these styles exerted power over onlookers. Styles come into being for good physical reasons, but they lodge in our minds’ eyes by association with powerful circumstances: great deeds of heroes, a golden age, the focus of admiration from our fathers and grandfathers. This is a process of abstraction in which our minds transform products of reason and necessity into something that just plain looks good to us.

During World War II, German aero researchers discovered in wind tunnel and flight test the value of the swept wing in reducing the power required to fly in the transonic range. Never mind that the Bell X-1 in which Chuck Yeager exceeded the speed of sound had straight wings. What stood out in the minds of humanity as a whole was the dart-like look of swept wings, which to this day symbolize “fast” to us.

My Knucklehead acquaintance built himself an extended springer front end in 1971. It was, to him, right in a way that nothing else could be.

Some of us are stuck with our imprinting—motorcycles built after those which have the most meaning to us are more or less irrelevant—we have received our message, “This is a motorcycle,” and are unable to accept updates. An older man who for a time frequented my favorite diner in the 1990s still wore his hair in the style made popular by Elvis Presley in the 1950s. And my Knucklehead acquaintance built himself an extended springer front end in 1971. It was, to him, right in a way that nothing else could be.

For the rest of us, influenced by style but not quite ruled by it, the styles we have seen become words in a mental vocabulary of shape. When we see something new, we have that feeling of partial recognition—“Don’t I know this person?”—a feeling of something not quite grasped. We may not be able or inclined to put words to what we feel, but we definitely feel something.

Successful designs make us feel something that we value, just as an unusual face can suggest to us undiscovered and beckoning worlds.