I’m not sure where to start with this; other than to say the third installment of my “exhausting” treatise on pipe design will keep for a month, so that I can get something nearer and dearer to my heart off my chest, if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphors.
Well, to begin, I believe it is important that one recognize the difference between originality in thought and implementation and mere sophistication in the execution of conventional pragmatism. The former is how things come to be, whether those things take the form of cotton gin, printing press or pneumatic tire. The latter is embodied by the concept of refinement to make the gin, press, tire or whatever work better. Both of these are necessary to progress and desirable in our lives, but I submit that the one who creates a new type of mousetrap is inherently higher up the human hierarchy than the many who simply make any old traps cheaper, better, faster and, in ever increasing numbers, with no regard to the notion—let alone the proof—that there might indeed be a proverbial better mousetrap. And who can say why a mouse needs trapping in the first place? For all we really know, one person might want to get rid of vermin, while another needs to feed his snake. Ascribing motive is tricky business, yet motive is exactly what creates needs, wants, even demands and ultimately markets for those gins, presses, tires and traps in our society. When you think about it, they are complex concepts, to be sure, although most of us, given the chance to compare, can readily sort superiority from mediocrity. But, put another, possibly simpler way, to one who is hungry, a new type of juicy, nourishing apple has more allure than lesser apples simply polished to appeal to apple admirers in general.
Famous Famished Folks
OK—time to stop comparing apples and move on to oranges… er… well… vehicles, actually. No… sorry… I think I really mean the men who have created outstanding, important vehicles—some of legend, some obscure—but all sharing those qualities of originality in thought and implementation. I haven’t time or space to cover all those who deserve mention, but even in this short list are primogenitors—many of whom were not appreciated at the time, known in their time, lost in the mists of time, but nonetheless are responsible for many of the qualities we take for granted in our vehicles at this time.
To illustrate things a little better on the motorcycle side of this coin, we should briefly flip to the car side first, then roughly categorize these great designers. (Do these “designer” names mean anything to you, even in conjunction with the designs? If not, feel free to Google your heart out to get up to speed. I suspect it will be well worth your time.)
Fredrick Lanchester—who, were it not for the fact he did not understand the capricious nature of those pneumatic tires we spoke of, would be remembered today as one of the most brilliant and distinguished designers of all time.
Ettore Bugatti—his automobiles are pure art; his only scientific knowledge resulted from intuition and the experience he gained over the years of making some of the most sensuous, successful and sublime cars of all types ever built.
Harry Armenius Miller—neither a practical nor theoretical engineer, yet with almost clairvoyant, perhaps even occult abilities to build fabulous cars—race cars. If the Miller from the ’20s doesn’t ring any bells, perhaps the Offenhauser Indy cars—still winning 30 years later using the same basic design—will. Even if few know it today, Miller’s engineering style has lasted longer than anyone else’s.
Alec Issigonis—whose masterpiece, the original Mini, has had the most pronounced influence on modern cars. Shoichiro Honda, to name but one example, and his esteemed engineering company jumped from motorcycles to cars on the basis of Issigonis’ thinking. To this day, the only exceptions to front-wheel drive, space-effective autos (based on the Mini concept) coming from Honda are, ironically, its sports cars.
Ferdinand Porsche—more a conductor with a baton than a painter with a brush, he is still an artist in the sense that he made more configurations of automobiles work well (that perhaps shouldn’t have) than anyone else. From SSK Mercedes to VW bugs to the first mid-engine racecars in the ’30s, he tackled every kind of engine and their placement with aplomb.
Marc Birkigt—Hispano-Suiza cars were justly famous (and better than Rolls-Royce) because of fabulous quality and incredible engines. The man did airplane engines (good enough to win the first world war and be copied by practically everyone), too.
Walter Owen Bentley—five wins at Le Mans in the ’20s in what were essentially, by modern standards, truck-sized four-passenger road cars, should tell you plenty about what a former railroad engineer could do with engines. Nothing fancy, just damn fine and unbreakable—even today!
Fred Deusenberg—racing cars to rival Miller’s and a luxury car with a race car engine and twice the power of its closest rival in the day—“it’s a doozie” indeed!
Vittorio Jano—Alfa Romeo, when that name meant the same thing as Ferrari does today. Whether sixes or eights, most of those engines were “straights” and one of them, designed in the ’30s, was making more power per inch than any engine does today—in the ’50s!
Gioacchino Columbo—Ferrari V-12… the best ones… ever! ‘Nough said?
Henry Royce—nothing brilliant except the execution to extraordinary standards of “the best car in the world,” the Silver Ghost, over a century ago. (Rolls had nothing to do with that.)
Henry Ford—vanadium steel, mass production and the right car at the right time—“T” time!
Henry Leland—Cadillac and Lincoln—interchangeable parts, fine tolerances, precision and “Boss” Kettering.
Karl Benz—for thinking up the father of both the car and motorcycle with his three-wheeler—in 1885.
Gottlieb Daimler—for dreaming up the first pure motorcycle—also in 1885! As well as founding the auto company that, once merged with Benz in 1926, led to the Mercedes of today.
Maurice Olley—first at Rolls-Royce, then GM, the man’s contributions to ride and handling, mostly via his independent front suspension, were the quantum leap that finally separated cars from ox carts.
Jim Hall—who most certainly understood the capricious nature of tires, as well as ground effects and air-flow—aptly demonstrated in his incredible Chapparal race cars.
Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman—one of my personal heroes and perhaps the only genius in the auto industry that didn’t mess with engines at all. To him, they were simply a means to an end—his incredible chassis. The complete and consummate chassis innovator, he addressed mass placement, roll centers, centers of gravity, aerodynamics, weight (sprung, un-sprung and overall), suspensions and more, the better to carry various power plants, rapidly, over the years in his brilliant, if often flawed, Lotus cars.
“The briefer I am—the more obscure I become”—Nietzsche
Now—can you name the equivalents to these automotive Einsteins in the motorcycle world? T’ain’t easy! Yet, there are a small number of them that come to mind if we try. For instance, there’s Oscar Hedstrom who did the first Indian “motocycle” back in 1901. A first-rate bit of engineering! Dr. Fabio Taglioni and his famed desmodromic Ducatis certainly qualify—for engine design. Shoichiro Irimajiri is no slouch in that regard either as he did Honda’s invincible racebikes in the early ’60s as well as the cult street “six” known as the CBX. Percy Goodman and Harold Willis of the Veloce Company (Velocette motorcycles are British, in spite of this) is rightly renowned for reliable, race-winning OHC engines, and the first foot-shifters, as well as rear suspension! There’s Rex McCandless who came up with the first “modern” motorcycle frame, known then as now as the “featherbed,” and still a marvel of rigidity and stability, unless maybe if you stuff a couple hundred 21st-century horsepower into it.
All the same, not enough of these innovators have received anything like the just desserts the “star” car designers have. As much as they deserve recognition, most labored in relative obscurity. Almost all of the noted genus “genius” (excepting Irimajiri and one other by the name of Buell) are no longer with us, either! That being the case, where do we look (beyond faceless committees and the cold, soulless processes of computers) to see real, inspired, breakthroughs in motorcycle design in the future? Advances that don’t ever emerge from focus groups, or surveys and questionnaires, or God forbid… marketing studies! Well, the very epiphanies that over the century-long history of motorcycle design have always come from people still come from people—gifted people! That’s the point and that’s where we should look.
For almost two decades now, one of the people I have looked to for true inspiration and advances in motorcycle design has been easy to spot—he’s Erik Buell. I have not found him lacking. (His name is on every gas tank of his proof-of-concept machines, and that’s why he’s one of the damn few, high-profile motorcycle designers alive.) There are undoubtedly lesser luminaries out there, but Mr. Buell’s star shines a magnitude brighter because his specialty, his contribution, is unique, and dare I say woefully unappreciated by the H-D crowd. You see, Erik, like my hero in the car world, Mr. Chapman, is a chassis guy! And, lord knows, though we’ve come a long way, there’s still a ways to go to perfect the single-track vehicle in that arena.
It should go without saying that nothing comes from nothing and there are legions of able disciples behind every great designer, but the nucleus, the germ, the basic concept almost always falls to the designer alone. How do they—how does Erik—do it?
He is tremendously industrious, possessed of an exceptionally strong sense of the rightness of design, sought with passionate logic, scorning the shabby compromises of others and wholly committed to the deadly serious pursuit of his own goals. Buell is not really a genius, except in his capacity for taking pains; not an artist although there is a mathematical beauty in many of his structures; nor is he a tyrant yet he drives others as hard as he drives himself and therefore all too human—as it should be. History has proven him to be one of the most intelligent, purposeful and creative designers of high-performance motorcycles, one whose work has been both respected and emulated more than almost any other.
Most of all, he is a worrier, a man whose creative processes—be they the design of a machine or a component—are marked by an obsessive, almost malignant two-part objectivity. The first, being a logical assessment of the true nature of the problem, as to arrive at a proper (not most convenient or expedient) best resolution to it. The second part, not so much applied engineering as inspired miserliness; every scrap of superfluous weight, every element that is irrelevant or ostracized, every pound that can be replaced by an ounce, every single component that can do more than a single task, is honed and pruned into a cohesive whole that is inevitably better than that which came before. The package that results may not appeal to those conditioned to judge a motorcycle by the comfort of the seat, the shine of the chrome, the thickness of paint or any other conventional and convenient standards. But to the perceptive rider whose sensual and cerebral appreciations of motorcycling offer more relevant criteria, a Buell establishes a benchmark for steering, braking and handling—in its own unique way—by which those of all other current machines might be judged. In short, total performance out of proportion to its meager material endowments.
Erik may have lost his company but not his abilities, nor his admirers. Whether you consider a Buell motorcycle a 250-sized sport bike with torque, an enviable if enigmatic use of a hot Sportster engine, or something you don’t know what to make of at all—in fact—it is we who have lost out for the lack of them and their inspired design.
P.S. As if to prove the point (you cannot keep a good man down) news has just been released that Erik has started a racing company—and fast—as always! This writer wishes him a winner!