My father was a firm believer in keeping his dinghy brown corduroys for decades after they had fallen off the pages of Vogue in the hopes that those slacks would make a comeback and he would be a few steps ahead! But while the chances of catching my father on the catwalk in Milan were infinitesimal, he was definitely onto something with regard to aesthetic trends and the cyclical nature of style.
Motorcycles are not immune to the constantly changing tastes of buyers, either. As a result, over the past century, builders, fabricators and painters have continually reimagined these two-wheeled works of art. Every craftsman weighs the importance of function and performance against beauty and originality. They translate creative visions into physical incarnations on a canvas of steel freely displayed in the world’s gallery for all aficionados to appreciate.
Many of the earliest motorcycles by Harley-Davidson® and Indian® were built almost entirely based on functional necessity. Over time, touring cycles with functional panniers began to give way to specialty cycles for the performers and “athletes” of the sport. Narrow and nimble board-tracker bikes and hill climbers with knobby tires were the antidotes to heavier models created for touring and general functionality.
This trend of a front-runner and then a few more niche models has been consistent in motorcycles over the past century. With that said, many current motorcycles can attribute their design influence to the nostalgic look of these historical relics, no matter the breadth of popularity associated with the original archetype. An example is the Scrambler, released by Ducati in 2014. This flickable ride, which can be as much fun on dirt as it is useful on the road, is Ducati’s tip of the hat to the classic American Flat Track racing circuits of a bygone era.
Nostalgia isn’t the only influencer of motorcycle style. Major life experiences can often be the catalyst for motorcycle purchases, and the same can be said when many people experience similar events that encourage adoption of a riding lifestyle.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the U.S. witnessed many GIs returning from the military looking to capitalize on the freedom they defended overseas. These veterans invested in Harleys similar to the 90,000 bikes they produced for the war.
The most well known was the 1942 Harley WLA shown below.
But unlike the uniformity of military olive drab, these returning soldiers were using bikes as a canvas for self-expression. And as is always the case, the rise of a mainstream culture will be followed by a counter culture not far behind. Within a few years, these stock cruisers were raked, stripped, painted and customized to take on shapes likely never imagined by the factories. There is no better example of this revolution than the movie Easy Rider starring Peter Fonda as Wyatt … better known as Captain America. Fonda sported a customized Harley chopper that introduced the chopper lifestyle to mainstream American pop culture.
Since the late 1960s, many styles have come and gone, but all have arisen from necessity. They have gone through much iteration on the path to full customization only to be overdone to the point of being virtually unrideable. The cycle usually takes between 10-15 years and has staunch supporters and dissenters debating the machine’s virtues in every instance.
The chopper did see a resurgence in the 1990s, though, with some changes from Wyatt’s stars-and-stripes model. The fat rear wheels found on American Iron Horse, Bourget and Big Dog Choppers were bold from a curbside vantage point but nightmarish around corners. Tires as wide as 300+ that belonged on Formula-1 cars and six-foot forks made this style interesting but very inefficient for riders. The price tags also became a turnoff, starting at $40,000 for a custom and going upward of $70,000 depending on how original you wanted the bike to look.
These models were replaced by a variety of less ostentatious styles, ultimately creating the bagger phase that has grown in popularity over the past decade. Again, baggers started as old-man cruisers (often nicknamed “geezer-glides”) optimal for piling on a week’s worth of gear and heading out on the open road for a relaxed road trip. Fabricators recognized the popularity of these bikes and the incredibly large canvases that could be the targets of their next custom projects. Stretched bags and fenders, the rebirth of ape hangers and front wheels more reminiscent of a child’s big wheel tricycle than a motorcycle would fill the pages of motorcycle magazines. The utilitarian nature of the bikes had been lost, but the design element was strong in these Frankenstein creations. Predictably, over the past year we have witnessed a correction in the market, with more rideable baggers entering the scene.
What will be the next style du jour? Will bobbers or café racers become even more mainstream? Will baggers continue to own the open roads of the U.S.? Should we expect the movement to smaller motors, electric bikes and reliable commuting models to take off? Only time will tell, but whatever style finds its way into the decade-long spotlight, it will start with necessity of purpose and will then be customized to a point where it loses functional identity just in time to be pushed aside by the newest, shiniest object!
Just be sure to keep those spare parts because, much like a pair of worn corduroys, they will have their day of glory in the decades to come!