Reader’s Stories: The Art of the Motorcycle

Words: Nestor Gula, Peter Delean

INTRO – Editor ‘arris

I’m still waiting for my all expenses paid trip to see “The Art of the Motorcycle” exhibition, currently to be found in Las Vegas.



However, since it’s already been to New York, Chicago and Bilbao I think my invite may not be forth coming.

If you too find that your invitation has been unexplainably lost in the mail somehow, then we have two different views of the current exhibit, courtesy of fellow (and well budgeted) Canucks, Nestor Gula and Peter Delean.

When motorcycles become high art
By Nestor Gula

Photo by David Heald © Guggenheim Museum

There are many things that draw us to motorcycles: their speed, power and the aura of the bikes we ride. There’s the jocular camaraderie we share with other bikers, regardless of what they may be riding. But above all, it is the look of the motorcycle that draws us to them. Sure, this attracts a bunch of posers, but anything this good and fun is bound to have that effect.

We all remember the first motorcycle we fell in love with. When I first saw the Ducati Mike Hailwood TT replica (and I gazed at it often, for I lived not too far from McBrides Cycle in downtown Toronto), I had no idea who Mike Hailwood was – I just knew that I was in love with that bike. The lure of the Ducati was soon replaced by my fascination with the simple lines of British twins, something that has stayed with me to this day.

It’s finally being acknowledged that what we ride is more than bits of metal, plastic and rubber stuck together. It is a work of emotive art. “The Art of the Motorcycle” made its debut back in the summer of 1998 when it opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. It brought about 130 motorcycles under one roof, from one of the first to some of the latest and everything in between. It also drew a record number of visitors.

Dennis Hopper peers from the poster at the Venetian Hotel Casino.
Photo: Nestor Gula

The exhibition celebrates the motorcycle as a cultural symbol. In a way, motorcycles mirror the cultural transformations that have taken place in the last 100 years. Motorcycles embody speed, technology and rebellion – themes of the 20th century. The show traces the evolution of the motorcycle without passing judgement, as it deals with all types of bikes equally and fairly.

Unlike the Guggenheim museums in New York and Bilbao, the one in Vegas lacks an astounding exterior. In typical Vegas style, it’s an integral part of The Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino, located on the strip where the old Sands Casino once stood.

The complex is huge and impressive and is designed to look like a slice of Venice. It houses 3,036 large rooms, 120,000 square feet of casino space, 500,000 square feet of convention space, an equally large shopping mall, and even a Venetian canal to boot!

Entering the elegant Venetian, you must first pass through a hoard of humanity, shovelling their life savings into the bellies of the gurgling slot machines that stand row upon countless row.

That’s the great grand daddy of your current ride – The Velocipede.
Photo by David Heald © Guggenheim Museum

Plunging into the show, you are greeted by many old bikes. One of the first motorcycles ever made, the French Michaux-Perreaux Steam Velocipede (somewhere between 1868 and 1871), is present and accounted for. The US Copeland Steam from 1884 that looks like one of those “Pennywhistle” bicycles – a huge front wheel with a tiny rear one – is perhaps one of the strangest bikes in the show. Over 20 pre-1920 motorcycles are on display.

The reconstruction of all of them is fabulous. The workmanship is impeccable. They look brand new. Hell, they look better than brand new. The restoration work on them is so slick that they look like they have never seen pavement.

Looking at only the design of a Pierce Four, (an inline four with shaft drive and a chain for the pedals), would belie the fact that it dated back to 1910. I could not find a scratch on that US made bike. The Belgian bike that it was modelled after, the 1908 FN Four, is present as well and is just as immaculate. This gets me wondering how much of these bikes contain only original parts. Even the 1911 Harley-Davidson Model 7D shows absolutely no sign of wear, although I’m sure that the leather bits are new, at least.

Looks more like a scene out of a Peter Greenaway film than a motorcycle exhibit.
Photo by David Heald © Guggenheim Museum

The value of these early motorcycles gets security guards to quickly appear when they feel you’re too close to the displayed bike – I determined that I should not bring my face or fingers closer than one meter (three feet) away from any motorcycle. Pulling your camera out gets you a stern, “there are no pictures allowed in the museum!”

Moving on, we get to the ‘20s and ‘30s, where the majority of the bikes start to take on a more familiar form. It is where I see the first motorcycle, a BMW R32 from 1923, with definite signs of usage (plenty of nicks and scratches in the aluminum engine casing). This makes me smile, as I was already thinking what a shame it was that most of these bikes were museum pieces and not being ridden.

Later, I walked past historical bikes: Triumph, Indian, Zündapp Sunbeam, Aermacchi, Vincent, NSU, BSA, Honda, Bultaco, Suzuki, and the list goes on. You could always argue that they should have included ‘this’ or ‘that’ bike, but I don’t believe that there was one that didn’t belong in the show. All eras were covered. All types of bikes, cruisers, standards, sport, touring, dirt, dual sport were represented.

The bikes are in a gorgeous setting and are well laid out, so you can walk around them and get a good look at most of the bikes from just about any angle you wish – provided you heed the one meter rule!

The Art of the Motorcycle
Peter Delean

The exhibit entrance.
Photo by David Heald © Guggenheim Museum

If the words “art” and “motorcycle” seem to be diametrically opposed, then the same could also be said for “culture” and “Las Vegas”. Or so it seemed, until a well-known modern art museum brought these seemingly discordant terms together, and melded them into a show that explores the development and social impact of the motorcycle.

This is a show whose ambitious task is to present a view of the motorcycle in a “broad historical and social context”. But think about it. What better venue could possibly exist for such an exhibit? Las Vegas, a city who’s less-than-pure reputation is matched equally by the somewhat mythical checkered past of the motorcycle. A city in the midst of reinventing itself by becoming a more family-oriented cultural centre, and a machine, that began as the obsession of enthusiasts (read rider/mechanic/racer), inviting more diverse public acceptance by, of all things, becoming more “dependable”.

The show features over 130 motorised two-wheeled vehicles grouped chronologically, and displayed on mirrored and stainless steel stages. Chain metal curtains, solid metal panels, and slick lighting, designed by the famed Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry, complete the sets, and add to an overall effect. The mirrored platforms serve more than an aesthetic function: they allow a clear view under the bikes.

Even more chrome than a HOG meeting.
Photo by David Heald ©Guggenheim Museum

At the entrance, two bikes stand guard: an 1896 Geneva steam-powered bicycle, alongside the state-of-the-art MV Agusta F4, a perfect example of modern Italian styling. In fact, this pairing is the two-wheeled equivalent of a Ferrari alongside a powered wagon. The technological evolution is striking, and if there was any question about the artistic merit of motorcycle design, that mix of form and function crammed between two wheels, that sets a machine apart from the competition, it was immediately laid to rest by the sinuous curves of the Agusta.

The original collection of memorabilia and many of the motorcycles are unique to the Vegas show. So too are the solid brushed-metal wall dividers which list people, places, movies, radio and TV shows, famous events, and inventions, helping to frame the bikes in a time period, thereby creating social and technological context for each era.

The movies and videos where motorcycles figure prominently play on a large screen overhead, and are visible as you walk through the exhibit. These include television commercials, music videos, and clips from movies such as Easy Rider, The Wild One, and The Great Escape to name a few.

Photo by David Heald © Guggenheim Museum

The amazing collection of motorcycles in the exhibit is made up of selections from private collectors all over the world. From a replica of the bike Peter Fonda rode in Easy Rider, to the Italian city smart Vespa scooter, selection criteria were based on the significance of their design details, the degree of technological innovation relative to their time, and by the measure of their impact on society.

Three of the many bikes that stood out were the 1922 Megola Sport from Germany, the 1994 Britten V1000 race bike from New Zealand, and the 1870 steam powered Velocipede by Michaux-Perreaux from France.

The Megola has clean bodywork that was years ahead of its time, but what is most surprising, is the five cylinder star-shaped engine that fit neatly between the spokes of its front wheel, a minor technical marvel in the early 1920’s.

The Britten is still a space age no-frame design, where everything literally hangs off the engine. Mass centralisation at its finest! The steam-powered bicycle from France is notable because it was perhaps man’s earliest attempt to motorise personal modes of transportation. At the time, the bicycle was about thirty years old; cars and planes were still quite a long way off.

The view from above.
Photo by David Heald © Guggenheim Museum

En route to reaching the level of popularity motorcycling enjoys today, two things had to happen in the evolutionary process. The motorcycle had to break away from the bicycle, in order to develop frames and suspensions that would support the added weight and forces of an ever more powerful engine, and it had to become a more reliable mode of transportation, by overcoming a number of engineering hurdles. Specifically, effective engine lubrication had to be developed, in addition to improved Carburetion, eliminating the dangerous open flame of hot-tube ignition.

By 1920, the major changes were in place, allowing engineers to continuously fine-tune all aspects of the motorcycle ever since. The show walks us through fascinating decades, presenting the crucial evidence that pushed this process along.

But “The Art of the Motorcycle” has loftier goals than blinding us with chrome. It’s about the development of a wild idea to travel more quickly with less effort. It’s about the imaginative use of materials. It’s about creativity, in designing and fitting small sources of power to frames attached to two wheels. It’s about wind-cheating designs. It’s about going faster more safely. It’s about the coming of age of a machine that started out as a motorised velocipede and took on a life of its own, where today, even the exhaust note is a design feature. We leave with a renewed sense of confidence in man’s technical ingenuity, and his spirit of innovation.

The Guggenheim allows us to capture, if only for a few moments, the seductive appeal of these intensely personal powerful machines, which have come to stand for more than exercises in engineering, namely freedom, rebellion, and escape, and like Las Vegas, tread a fine line between exhilaration and danger.

If you happen to be in Vegas or its vicinity, check out the “Art of the Motorcycle” exhibit, it’s well worth the fifteen Yankee bucks they charge. Not able or willing to pop down to Vegas, check out most of the bikes at the show, at a really well done website at

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