Thursday, May 26, 2011

David Mann: Chopper Artist

"In the wind on Friday night", by David Mann

“Mann’s paintings set ‘outlaw’ Harley chopper motorcycles against surreal backgrounds, and distorted skylines, colourful images that celebrated the chopper motorcycle and the freedom of the open road.  Many of his images captured the ‘Easyrider’ ethos – speed, the open road, long flowing hair – freedom.”-David Stuart Haslett, in Riding at the Margins

Lowbrow chopper artist David Mann was born in 1940 in Kansas City, Missouri.  Hot rod cars were his first love, and he got his initial artistic experience while still in high school, when he worked pinstriping cars for a Kansas City custom shop.  After high school, Mann and his buddy Al Burnett drove a ’47 Chevy Coupe to Santa Monica, California.  He saw his first choppers there, at Bay Area Muffler, a custom car shop, and was drawn to the freedom and individuality expressed by the radical bikes.  Back in Kansas City a few years later, Mann began painting choppers, and built his own bike based on a 1948 Harley-Davidson panhead.

Mann with his panhead chopper, c.1965

He won an award for his bike at the 1963 Kansas City Custom Car Show, and in 1965 joined the El Forasteros (The Outsiders) motorcycle club in Kansas City.  Through a friend from the club, his paintings came to the attention of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, a California car builder and hot rod artist, and a central figure of the “Kustom Kulture” movement, which included hot rods, lowriders, drag racers, and chopped motorcycles. In 1971, David Mann began illustrating for Roth's then-new motorcycle lifestyle and culture magazine “Easy Riders”, where his work continued to appear until shortly before his death in 2004.
"Beach Bums", by David Mann

His art is firmly rooted in the “Lowbrow” style, and is focused on the southern California culture surrounding the chopper motorcycles he loved.  He captured the freedom and camaraderie of the biker culture, and the “Kustom Kulture” world of chopped Harley-Davidsons, motorcycle clubs, hot rods, long hair, sunglasses, leather, denim, cowboy boots, pretty girls, sun, sand, highways, rock-n-roll, and city lights.

"Saturday Night and Sunday Morning", by David Mann

 David Mann portrayed the clash between the motorcycle counterculture and the straight-laced, upper class “squares”, and saw the biker as a worthy successor to the cowboy of the Old West: a half-wild breed living on the edge of respectable society, but free, and somehow fascinating.

"Ghostrider", by David Mann

The worldview of the people he depicts is summed up in the graffiti scrawled on the wall of a motorcycle clubhouse in one of his paintings: “Know ye that this is the kingdom of kicks-beer and bikes and drugs and chicks”.  Mann’s paintings are classic motorcycle art, and played an important role in shaping our idea of motorcycle culture, especially the distinctively American “outlaw biker” and custom chopper worlds. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A rose by any other name: the Enfield Indians

An Indian advertisement from 1955, the first year of the Enfield Indians.
The full range of Enfield-Indian motorcycles as produced in the late 1950s.

The Indian Motorcycle Company was founded in 1901 in Springfield, Massachusetts, by George Hendee and Carl Oscar Hedstrom.  The company is best known for its iconic Scout (introduced in 1920), Chief (introduced in 1922) models-big cruisers with v-twin engines, and some of the most distinctive styling in motorcycle history.  They were renowned for their reliability, performance and handling.  An Indian won the Isle of Man TT in 1911, and Erwin “Cannonball” Baker set a cross-country speed record on one in 1914, among other early racing victories. Burt Munro clocked the fastest time ever officially recorded on an Indian by making 190.07mph on a modified 1920 Scout at Bonneville in 1967, and some Wall of Death riders still use Scouts today.  The left handgrip throttle (as opposed to the right handgrip setup promoted by Harley-Davidson and other manufacturers, which eventually won out) was advertised as ideal for military and police use, since it left the right hand free to fire a handgun, leading to a number of contracts from police forces (the Indian was the first motorcycle adopted by the NYPD in 1907, to chase down runaway horses), and the US Army during the first and second world wars.  In spite of their popularity, the original Indian motorcycle company stopped production in 1953, after struggling to reenter the civilian market following the Second World War.  The name would later be revived and applied to a new generation of big American v-twin motorcycles, but for over forty years (1953-1999) it was kept alive by rebadging foreign machines for sale as Indians. 

The initial crop of rebadged bikes was introduced in1955.  These were Royal Enfields, and included the Woodsman (a 500cc single-cylinder scrambler/trials model), the Trailblazer (a 700cc twin cylinder standard), the Tomahawk (500cc twin super sport), and the Fire Arrow (250cc single). Mechanically they were identical to the motorcycles being sold under the Royal Enfield marque, with cosmetic changes and accessories to help them fill the moccasins recently left empty by Indian Motorcycles.  Advertising literature describes the Trailblazer as “the big red machine”, and promises “real western-type handlebars” on all but the Fire Arrow.  The Trailblazer and Fire Arrow even carried the distinctive Indian head light on the front mudguard.   Later model years included more western-style names, capitalizing on the distinctively American mythology of the cowboy and the Old West: Apache, Westerner, Lance, Hound’s Arrow, and even Chief.  Indian styling cues reached an all-time high with the Chief, sold (under the Matchless-Indian marque) as late as 1961.  This was a big machine, based on the same 700cc Enfield twin as the Trailblazer, but with big mudguards (complete with Indian head light on the front), sidebags, “western-style” bars, and sometimes even a windscreen-except for the engine, not so very different in appearance from the bona fide Chief. 

The Indian brand appeared on everything from Velocettes to mopeds and even Asian-made minibikes until the late 1990s, when the first real revival took place, with production runs from 1999-2003, prior to the opening of the most recent Indian Motorcycle Company (moved from Springfield, MA to King’s Mountain, NC) in 2004.  The brand has now been bought by Polaris, makers of the Victory motorcycle, and while no new designs have appeared, it is probably safe to assume they will closely resemble the iconic v-twin Chief.  Though the Indian marque is now back on American v-twin heavyweight cruisers where it might be said to “belong”, the rebadged machines make up a fascinating chapter in the history of the Indian motorcycle.  The Enfield-Indians are especially interesting-mechanically they’re British bikes, with unmistakably American styling cues from the Indian heritage.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Mystique of the Vincent Black Lightning

The Vincent HRD Motors Series C Rapide "Black Lightning"

Rollie Free on a Black Lightning at Bonneville, 1948

In the vintage motorcycle world, few machines command as much respect as the Vincent Black Lightning.  This bike realized the dream of RFC pilot Howard Raymond Davies, founder of HRD, who is said to have decided to build the world’s fastest motorcycles while held in a German prisoner camp in 1917.  After the war, he founded HRD Motors Ltd., which was bought by Phil Vincent in 1928.  HRD Motors built motorcycles using outsourced engines, mainly by J.A. Prestwich Industries (JAP), but after a disappointing performance by all three Vincent HRD entries in the 1934 Isle of Man TT, the company began building its own engines.  These included the 500cc single used in the Meteor and Comet models, and the 998cc v-twin used in the Rapide models, with minor changes between series.  This engine became the stuff of legend, and is the heart of Vincent hybrids such as the Vindian, Vincati, and Norvin, when placed in frames by other makers.  Introduced in 1948, the Vincent HRD Black Lightning was the racing version of the 1948 Series C Rapide, called the Black Shadow.  It was powered by the same 998cc, 50 degree v-twin engine, developing approximately 54 bhp at 5,700rpm, and was lightened from 458lbs to 380lbs by the use of magnesium components wherever possible, and removal of any parts not absolutely necessary to make it go, and go fast.  A solo racing seat was all you got, and when Rollie Free clocked 184.83mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats in nothing but swimming trunks, sneakers, and a leather cap he removed even that, and stretched out over the rear mudguard, forehead on the tank.  Vincent Motors never achieved great commercial success (the last Vincent came off the production line a mere seven years after the introduction of the Black Shadow, in December of 1955), but their machines, and especially the Series C Rapides, quickly acquired an almost mythological aura about them.  Especially among Brit iron aficionados, they are the Holy Grail of motorcycling, and while there have been several attempts to revive the Vincent marque, nothing will ever replace the mystique of an original Black Lightning. 

The Vincent Black Lightning holds the distinction of being (to my knowledge) the only motorcycle to have a song dedicated to it:"1952 Vincent Black Lightning", by the great English guitarist and singer Richard Thompson (first recorded on his Rumor and Sigh, 1991).

Thursday, May 5, 2011

McQueen on Motorcycles

In 1966, Steve McQueen reviewed several desert racing motorcycles for Popular Science Magazine.  The “King of Cool” has good things to say about all the machines he tested, but advocates building your own bike as he did, using the best components of several different manufacturers assembled around a Rickman-Metisse frame.  He suggests ordering the frame from Rickman-Metisse, and finding the rest of the parts in junkyards to cut costs in classic garage builder style. McQueen was one of the highest paid actors in the world when the article was written, but he shows a very real, practical interest in every aspect of motorcycling (he worked in the Ekins brothers’ motorcycle shop in the San Fernando Valley to learn about wrenching and racing, and built his hybrid Triumph there), and even gives safety advice for beginning riders, and advocates helmet use, in the interview that follows the article.  Reading the piece gives us a fascinating glimpse into the desert racing machines of the mid sixties, as well as real taste of McQueen’s personality, and genuine love for motorcycling. 
-Ironhand Cycles

Modern replica of McQueen's desert racer by Metisse Motorcycles
McQueen in the desert on his "hybrid".

What I Like in a Bike-and Why
By Steve McQueen
Popular Science, 1966

First of all, I don’t set myself up as an expert on either setting up machinery for racing, or in the actual sport of racing itself.  But after 2 ½ years of desert riding in Southern California, TT Scrambles, Hare and Hound, and a bit of racing in the wet in the Six Day Trials in East Germany in 1964, I sure hope I picked up a little about motorcycles and riding along the way.  It hasn’t hurt, either, being partners with Bud and Dave Ekins in a motorcycle shop in the San Fernando Valley.  That’s been a keen education-like going to school.  Dave won two gold medals, and Bud picked up three representing our country in the Six Day Trials, and they are two of the best desert bike riders this country has ever produced.
I was very pleased and flattered to be chosen to test six dirt bikes for PS.
Let’s get to the point immediately.  We assembled all the bikes on a scrambling course of six-mile perimeter, which had just about every type of terrain I could think of: cow trailing with a top end close to 70 m.p.h.; a sand wash with some rocks (to be avoided at all costs); sand dips of the washboard type with a depth of two feet maximum; several high-speed jumps of the TT variety; and a lot of fast trailing with quick changes, both up and down and side to side.  Here are my impressions of the bikes and how I rate them for desert riding-the kind of riding I’m mainly interested in.

The BSA Hornet.  The first bike I tested-the BSA Hornet-is designed for desert riding or scrambles.  It has a powerful 650cc engine and a damn good air cleaner-real important for hard riding or in the desert.  It’s important for the longevity of the engine because you don’t have to take the carburetor apart to get the slide unstuck from sand and grit, a problem they don’t have in the East.  It’s a keen bike.  But I found it awfully heavy.  A lot of weight would have to be stripped off to make the bike competitive. (I prefer a lighter bike, which seems to adjust to the driver.  It almost seems to become part of you in the test.)
The Hornet also has a tendency to want to go its own way.  I always had to stay on top of it.  But it sure had a good-functioning power train.  I also think the front forks should be raked on a more forward angle.  With this adjustment, the BSA would have a more stable ride in the rough and would be generally a smoother performer.

The Norton-Metisse.  This is a TT bike with trials tires and no knobby (treads).  It’s a 750cc, four-stroke, two-cylinder that ha lots of torque.  With its Harmon and Collins camshaft and two Amal Monobloc carburetors, it produces almost 60 horsepower at the rear wheel.  It’s a handful.  This semicustom model isn’t a true scrambler.  It’s more of a TT, or track racing bike, because of the shorter forks which give you less ground clearance than I like a scrambler to have.  Norton’s history in road racing is well known, but desert racing is a bit different.  You need the torque, but you also need the handling.  I would say you need at least 6 ½ inches of travel in the fork and stiffer shocks, but it’s sure a goer.  And it’s very forgiving.

The Triumph Bonneville.  My feeling has been that the Triumph Bonneville 650cc has been best for the desert until recently, when the lightweights started to nip at its tail.  It has more wins in desert racing than any other bike.  It, too, is of the brute variety.  I found its new unit construction to be quite an advance over the earlier separate engine and gearbox.  The front end has a tendency to push, but then you adjust to that and have a very smooth ride, and the Triumph front forks are bloody good.  I would think, next to the Ceriani forks, they are the best.  Having two carburetors has always been questionable in my mind-just another cable could snag, and not that much speed is involved.  However, the Triumph is a very strong bike that handles very well.  The extra inch of travel and additional raking of the forks produce a smoother ride than it had up to now.  The geometry of the Bonneville’s suspension is set up for oversteer, and it handles real good.  Its weight is competitive.  The electrical system can be somewhat unreliable, but once sorted out it usually stays sorted out.  I’d like to see something to replace the present electrical unit, which has caused problems for me in the past.

The Honda 450. They have learned a great deal at Honda about desert riding.  And they have set up the Honda Scrambler accordingly-good electrical system, super suspension, and a very good power train.  They can be made to perform like a 500cc and you have a lot of r.p.m. to play with.  It’s a keen bike for the money.

The Greeves and Montesa.  Despite my preference for four-strokes, I was surprised at the performance of these two-stroke bikes.  The Montesa is a Spanish import with a 250cc engine.  It’s a great bike-a keen bike-and a comer.  It has real good rear shocks with five adjustments and 6 ½ inches of travel in its front forks.  The forks are very similar to the Ceriani, perhaps a bit stiffer. 
The Montesa is a very neutral-handling bike with a light front end that can be brought up and down by turning it on full song in the first three gears, and it handles great.  The high revs necessary for the two-stroke have been worked out very well.  The revs just seem to keep going up and up.  A couple of times I missed the corner.  I was in fourth gear and honking right along.  I was already sliding and too dedicated to change my line and just went flat out completely off the course.  I expected to be up on the front end any minute doing a swordfight in the air with the handlebars, as there were some ruts and I was bouncing along pretty good.  But the suspension took the punishment and I found it very easy to keep the weight going the way I wanted it-very forgiving indeed.  It’s an awful lot of bike for $800.
The Greeves Challenger is also a high-revving two-stroke that has been very successful in European scrambles, and well as in the desert.  It’s strictly a race-bred vehicle.  A very healthy piece of machinery, it has even more beans than the Montesa.  I’ve raced against them and they don’t break down even in the hot baked desert air where the two-stroke is affected more than a four-stroke.  These two-strokes have a lot going for them, but frankly I’m too attached to four-strokes to be completely won over.  Despite the quality of the two-stroke engines, I still don’t feel that I have all the torque I need to get out of trouble.

A hybrid bike.  I prefer the big four-stroke engine, but on a light bike.  The best way I’ve found to get this combination is with a bike I put together with the assistance of the Ekins brothers in our valley shop.  I used a Rickman-Metisse frame-a revolutionary piece of equipment that does away with the oil tank.  The oil circulates through the tubes of the frame, which keeps it cool.  That’s especially important when you’re racing or driving under hard conditions.  It helps to avoid breakdowns and should make piston seizures quite rare.  I used a 650cc Triumph engine as a power plant for this bike.  The drive train and gearbox are also Triumph.  It has Ceriani forks with 7 ½ inches of travel for a real smooth ride, and a BSA crown.  The fiberglass fenders and tank hold the weight down to a notch under 300 pounds.  The rig is the best-handling bike I’ve ever owned.  And the power-it’s like supersonic.  You can build a rig just like it by ordering the frame from the Rickman-Meitsse distributors in England.  The frame costs $400 and you can scrounge any other components you need to complete the bike from junkyards.  You should be able to put together a real first-class bike for a very modest sum-and that makes plenty of sense. 
Summing up, I’d say they’re a high-performing group of bikes and I had a ball riding them.

Capsule interview with Steve McQueen: “I like to ride flat out…”
“Boy, isn’t it just great.” Steve McQueen told me when he had finished testing these motorcycles for PS.  (There were originally 10 in the group, but testing was not completed on the Suzuki X6 Scrambler, BMW R60, Harley-Davidson Sprint, and Yamaha Catalina because of technical difficulties and McQueen’s tight schedule.  Nevertheless, they are included in the chart on page 70, for your complete information.)  Why does a movie star who just received $750,000 for making The Sand Pebbles, for 20th Century-Fox, spend his time cow trailing on a motorcycle?  “It’s the clean smell of the desert in the morning.  The satisfaction of setting up a rig and having it work perfectly in every way,” McQueen told me.  McQueen is happy about the popularity of motorbikes today.  But he is a little concerned about new riders.  “I think you have to learn to ride away from heavy traffic.  Myself, I like to ride flat out, where it’s allowed,” he says.  He urges motorcyclists not to take chances, though.  Even though he reluctantly consented to pose for a few pictures without a helmet for PS, he urged motorcyclists not to ride without one.  It can make all the difference between getting up from a crash and dusting yourself off-or having someone send you flowers in the hospital.
-Herbert Shuldiner