My college art professor, whose name now escapes me, once said “art is whatever moves your soul.” Taken on its face, this statement allows us to appreciate many mediums as art, be they music, dance, pottery or metal sculpture or machine. Can you tell where I am headed with this? All that is necessary is that when you see it, you feel it deep within. It can solicit passion, desire, deep thought or even just make you smile. In its basic sense, art is about appreciating someone else’s talent or developing your own. As with all art, when acquiring it, one needs to be mindful of the budget and be wary of its hidden costs. When buying a work of art that also happens to be a motorcycle, one must look for its hidden costs. “Hidden costs? It’s just a motorcycle, right?” The same rule applies.
Those who know me know I am certainly no art snob. No priceless masterpieces adorn the halls of my home. The garage is a different story. Inside the house it is more often crayons, play glue, dried flowers and popsicle sticks all concocted with the childhood imaginations of my four and nine year olds. To live a life lucky enough to hang your own kid’s finger paintings on the fridge is artful bliss. A few Harleys in the garage just adds to the bliss.
Motorcycles as an art form are a personal and subjective topic. Vintage, modern, Italian, American: an infinite number of tastes are out there to be appreciated. I cannot state that I am a die hard fan of the full fairing Ducatis or the sleek Aprilias that lay claim to be the ‘sexiest of motorcycles.’ Moto Guzzies are just plain ugly. The Big Three from Japan, yeah, they are fast, but cookie cutter. Nothing to look at. For me, I think it is a bit more function over form. I like things mechanical. Things that can move like a bike can be downright artistic to me. I like the clunking, chugging, shifting, clanking, beautiful movement. Even bike sounds are artistic to me. The snort of a big twin evokes wanderlust to ride. An opposed twin BMW is my iron butt choice, but not an exhaust note that moves anyone’s soul. Perhaps this appreciation of uncluttered mechanics comes from my father. He was a “man’s man,” who said of things mechanical: ‘the weakest link WILL break, fix it right the first time and NEVER buy cheap tools’! When it comes to pan head ownership, truer words were never spoken.
It is perhaps for this reason that Harley Davidson has been the purest art in the motorcycle genre for me. I’ve owned more reliable bikes, faster bikes, and cheaper bikes. However, I’ve not stuck my head into the garage before heading to bed as often just to LOOK at those others. I’ve not turned and stared after walking 10 or 15 yards away in a parking lot, just to enjoy its appearance. I’ve not taken as many pictures of the others to file away in my scrapbook that maybe someday someone (a long time from now) will lay out on a table at my wake for my friends to flip through and reminisce of a dead biker and a lifetime of artful bikes. My friend, Steve Shores said it best: “No other bike looks better leaning over on a kickstand than a Harley.”
All things considered it is not the fine running ‘Twin Cam’ nor the ground breaking ‘Evo’ that moves my soul, though I’ve owned and enjoyed both motors on a variety of bikes. I’ve always considered the pan head the most recognizable Harley Davidson engine ever made, for obvious reasons. Produced between 1948 and 1965, it replaced the knuckle head and sold originally for less than a thousand clams. Mine, an FL sport solo with a foot shift and hand clutch (an oddity in 1952 and the first year it became standard) sold for exactly $970.00. Despite seeming an object of ancient history, it was produced until I was a year old! Its engine choices were either 61 or 74 cubic inches, which were very large bore for the time. You could choose from six standard colors, and the company sold a whopping 5,554 pan heads in various configurations that year. My pan is a 1952 model restored by Jimmy O’Brien of Slim’s Customs in Atlanta, in the classic 1950’s ‘bobber’ style. The finished product moved my soul sufficiently to spend the dough on a professional photo shoot, once Jimmy breathed life back into her. The shots of the bike produced some great images that to me are truly art.
Excepting the occasion when my pant leg gets sucked into the velocity stack shutting me down mid shift, or the time while cruising down 400 when I accidentally touched the exposed rear plug cap fumbling with the petcock and almost welded my privates to the seat, it is a stellar bike. It garners thumbs up everywhere I go and means instant respect in every parking lot. This is especially true upon start up, where a few carefully orchestrated and dramatic kicks are required to fire the ‘kick only’ motor, just like back in the day. Any missteps in starting sequence and it’s time to sit and wait 20 minutes while all dries out. When I’m riding my “Work of Art,” I don’t plan on winning any races, or for that matter always being on time for Yvonne’s wild rice and baked lemon chicken. Well, sometimes art does have a hidden cost.
Well, signing off for now. Ride strong, ride safe and in the end, make sure you ride home.