5 Oct 2012

The beauty of old motorcycles and some examples

When we talk about age, and indeed about beauty, relativity must be our companion. What is considered to be "old", "very old" or whatever is often related to the age of the person talking. As for beauty, well, we know just how subjective that one is.
If we enter the field of mechanics, and particulary that form that evolves around the internal combustion engine, then our time frame narrows down to less than 150 years. The frst motorcycle with a petrol-fuelled engine is credited to the German engineer Gottfried Daimler (of future Daimler-Benz fame), associated with Maybach. Here is a picture of the beast, which dates from 1885:

1885 Daimler-Maybach

Moving on in time, and given the growing application of electronics, not to mention the fickle finger of fashion and its often heavy hand in design, many motorcycles from the 1980's may now seem to be "old" to a younger rider. But, for the purpose of this article, I want to talk about bikes from, or which clearly refer to, the period between WWI and WW2.
The beauty of old Harleys, modified, reinvented, or whatever
I have occasionally made disparaging remarks on this blog about Harley Davidsons, despite the fact that I did, a number of years ago, own a couple of Harleys myself, one of which dated from 1943. My problem with this brand is that I feel is has gotten fatter and fatter over the years (very literally for most of its machines, and see for yourself below!). With the result that their machines usually appear soft and unfocused these days. I am not convinced either by its way of playing on a kind of phony nostalgia without really reinventing itself. Just noise is not enough to make a good motorcycle, even if it may be enough to get non-bikers buy the things for a while.
A bike, or a car on 2 wheels? Harley Electra-Glide in full dress

There was, not so long ago, a very good attempt made to produce a modern Harley that would actually turn corners, brake and accelerate. This was the Buell episode, to which I will perhaps return in a future article. The people at Harley were so smart that they put an end to it last year!
When one looks into the many modified versions of these machines that practically invented the rapidly expanding category of “specials” with the advent of choppers back in the 1960’s, many of these seem so repetitive, and often garish as well, that they do not turn me on either.

But there are exceptions to any form of generalization, and I would like to show you a couple of them. The Harley in the pictures above and below was built by a German called Bernhard Elflein and who went on a mechanics course to be able to realize his dream bike. I found him thanks to the almost daily specialist site Bike Exif, which is based in New Zealand (bravo to the All Blacks for their convincing win in the southern hemisphere championship). I also note that my colleague, Von Sontag, posted images of this machine on his excellent blog (in French), Le Dépassionné.  Elflein was clearly inspired by the Harley racers of various descriptions from the 1920’s and 1930’s. This was perhaps the golden age for this brand. And, believe it or not, he used as a base for this bike an Electra-Glide (ie something that started out looking like the ugly fat thing in the previous picture).
Elflein has, for me, managed to capture something quintessential about motorcyles in this machine, which I will not hesitate to call a work of art. The bike is both sleek, functional-looking and somewhat brutal it its brazen bareness. Naked power, some degree of engineering complexity, and a bit of fantasy all seem to exude from each of its pores. Take a look at some detail pictures...
View of the tank, taken from a pre-war NSU, and the cockpit, clearly hand-made
Seat and oil tank detail
primary chain-guard: do NOT wear laced shoes while riding this bike!
Elflein has started a workshop, called Herzbube Motrocycles, where he does things to US bikes. I took a look at it and must say that I didn't like most of the machines I saw: ape-bar Harleys (who can ride those things further than the end of the high street anyway?). But one bike really caught my eye, a pre-war Indian that is so pure and pared down that it really captures the "board-track" spirit with a perfectionist touch, not to mention lovely and subtle use of colour. The bike doesn't look quite finished, but she is so beautiful that I couldn't resist.

Here are the links to the sites I have mentioned in this article
And, naturally, Bernhard Elflein's own site


  1. You have a great topic here. :] Old motorcycles never get out of mode. Unlike other things, age raises their value. And it’s always nice to see one once in a while, if only for some retrospect. Every detail of one bike speaks volumes about the era when it was first released. The 60’s, which was all about Mods and scooters, and the 70’s with the multi-cylinder bikes, are just some of it.

  2. Yes indeed Claudio, and I will certainly be retrurning to this topic in the near future, in various forms