The rise of the “art” motorcycle

The 20-year crusade to classify finely crafted motorcycles as works of art is reaching its apotheosis in one-off commissions of awe-inspiring master craftsmanship. Simon de Burton reports

The White motorcycle, built by Los Angeles-based Ian Barry of Falcon Motorcycles, $750,000
The White motorcycle, built by Los Angeles-based Ian Barry of Falcon Motorcycles, $750,000

Exactly 20 years ago the forward-thinking former director of the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation, Thomas Krens, came up with the idea of dedicating a large area of the Guggenheim museum in New York to a show called The Art of the Motorcycle. The 114 exhibits comprised bikes dating from 1894 to 1998 and aimed to explain everything from the history of the powered two-wheeler to its position in society and, as the title suggested, its status as a work of art.

Many of America’s stuffier critics were outraged and berated Krens for lowering the Guggenheim’s tone with what they perceived to be an uncerebral subject. But the public thought differently, turning up in such numbers that The Art of the Motorcycle was attended by nearly 4,000 people per day and became the most popular exhibition the museum had ever staged.

Globally acclaimed Japanese designer Chicara Nagata
Globally acclaimed Japanese designer Chicara Nagata

Fast forward to the present day, and even those who decried Krens the loudest might have to admit that the words “art” and “motorcycle” belong together after all – because in the intervening decades since the Guggenheim show, many of the world’s wealthy have taken to commissioning highly talented builders to create one-off machines that are more likely to be found decorating a penthouse apartment than lurking in an underground car park. Often costing six-figure sums, these bikes certainly start, go and stop – but rather than being designed to travel from A to B, they are intended to demonstrate, for want of a better description, “the art of the motorcycle”.

As well as attracting private collectors, bikes are being commissioned by businesses for use as marketing tools and focal points at client gatherings. Earlier this year, for example, the global watch and jewellery retailer Bucherer took delivery of a Harley-Davidson-based creation made by Swiss builder Bündnerbike that features an illuminated, see-through engine and handlebar grips, front forks adorned with diamond rings, and a fuel tank fitted with two glass domes that respectively house a 5.4ct diamond ring and a custom-made watch incorporating engine parts. Dubbed the Blue Edition, the motorcycle is said to have taken 2,500 hours to complete and, while not widely advertised as being for sale, is potentially available to purchase from Bucherer at a cost of around SFr1.8m (about £1.4m).

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Other luxury goods firms to have commissioned art bikes of late include watch brand Bell & Ross, which called upon UK Harley-Davidson specialist Shaw Speed & Custom to build a concept bike called the Nascafé Racer in 2011, following it up in 2014 with the unique B-Rocket, which combined styling cues from speed record bikes and American jet aircraft of the 1960s. And this summer, Dutch watch brand TW Steel worked with VTR Customs of Schmerikon, Switzerland, to convert a run-of-the-mill BMW R1200R into a fully streamlined, racing-style machine enveloped in a handmade, riveted aluminium fairing that is said to have been inspired by a second world war Spitfire aircraft.

Perhaps the greatest art motorcycles, however, are those that contain the bare minimum of components that are recognisable as being from a standard machine, but such creations can take thousands of hours to build from scratch, with every part individually considered in relation to its effect on the completed design.

Watch and jewellery retailer Bucherer’s custom Harley-Davidson, dubbed the Blue Edition
Watch and jewellery retailer Bucherer’s custom Harley-Davidson, dubbed the Blue Edition

Among the pioneers of the method is Shinya Kimura, who founded Tokyo’s Zero Engineering in 1992 before moving to Azusa in California, and opening Chabott Engineering 12 years ago. There, in a stylishly cluttered workshop, Kimura works on no more than two or three projects a year on a price on application basis. 

Chicara Nagata, a graphic designer, is another Japanese artisan who many regard as being among the best exponents of the modern-day art motorcycle. Clean-shaven and of slight, almost delicate appearance, Nagata is a far cry from most people’s perception of custom bike builders as being burly, bearded types – but there are few in the motorcycle world who do not revere him. 

TW Steel and VTR Customs’ converted BMW R1200R racing machine, with a fairing said to be inspired by a second world war Spitfire
TW Steel and VTR Customs’ converted BMW R1200R racing machine, with a fairing said to be inspired by a second world war Spitfire

Ironically, he came to his secondary profession having spent eight months in hospital as a teenager following a bike crash. “I always wanted to create my own models from components I design myself and produce entirely with hand tools,” says Nagata, who is based on Japan’s Kyushu island. “The only existing elements I include are the vintage engines that form the basis of the bike – I always use details from the engine to determine a style that I believe corresponds to it.”

Nagata’s first machine, Chicara One, emerged in 2004 after a remarkable 7,500 hours of work spread across several years. Since then he has set out to design and build one machine per year, in a series named Chicara Art, and has found international fame with models such as Chicara Art IV, a fabulously futuristic, £75,000 symphony of chrome and polished alloy that hangs on a bespoke suspension setup created by Chicara himself. Chicara Art I and Art III, meanwhile, were offered for sale with price tags of around £320,000 each, but perhaps one of his most remarkable builds is the stealthy, black and minimal machine he created for an undisclosed sum for a Japanese security company that incorporates surveillance cameras into its framework. 

Watch brand Bell & Ross collaborated with Harley-Davidson specialist Shaw Speed & Custom to build the unique B-Rocket
Watch brand Bell & Ross collaborated with Harley-Davidson specialist Shaw Speed & Custom to build the unique B-Rocket

In 2016, however, Nagata had to stop building motorcycles because of ill health. “The condition is slowly getting better, and about a year ago I started my creative activity again – although the process is still slow,” he explains.

Another of the best-known names in the business is that of Ian Barry who, with his London-born wife Amaryllis Knight, runs Falcon Motorcycles in Los Angeles. Previously a network engineer for a software firm, Barry works with the same philosophy as Nagata in that he builds his machines from scratch around an existing, always beautifully sculptural engine. The first Falcon project, The Bullet, was commissioned by Almost Famous actor Jason Lee and developed around the engine from a 1950 Triumph Thunderbird. Barely had Barry finished it than it scooped the Best Custom Motorcycle prize at the 2008 Legend of the Motorcycle gathering, since when he has worked slowly and meticulously to create further machines – costing $750,000 apiece and all thought to have been sold in advance – named The Kestrel, The Black and The White. 

Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles is currently running the Custom Revolution bike exhibition
Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles is currently running the Custom Revolution bike exhibition | Image: Ted7.com Photography/Petersen Automotive Museum

More often than not, buyers of such unique and valuable motorcycles prefer to remain anonymous. Not so in the case of Robert “Bobby” Haas, a true renaissance man who dovetailed a hugely successful career in investment banking with a talent for photography that has made him one of the world’s most celebrated aerial lensmen. His relationship with motorcycles only began seven years ago at the age of 64 – but he now owns around 160 machines that he exhibits at his purpose-built, open-to-the-public Haas Moto Museum in Dallas, Texas. Within the 1,860sq m exhibition space, Haas has created an area called the Custom Shop that is dedicated to 25 art motorcycles in what is described as “a clear acknowledgement that one-off custom cycles in some sense represent the very pinnacle of motorcycle design and engineering”.

Among the Custom Shop’s star exhibits are creations by leading art motorcycle specialists such as Maxwell Hazan, Revival Cycles, Bryan Fuller and LC Fabrications – but among the most widely admired are the bikes of Craig Rodsmith, an ex-pat Australian who was broke and working in obscurity until last year when he showed a mirror-polished, turbocharged Moto Guzzi at the Handbuilt Bike Show in Austin, Texas.

The Craig Rodsmith-designed Corps Leger art bike on display at the Haas Moto Museum in Dallas, Texas
The Craig Rodsmith-designed Corps Leger art bike on display at the Haas Moto Museum in Dallas, Texas | Image: Haas Motor Museum

Haas immediately bought it and then commissioned Rodsmith to work with him on an equally radical machine called the Corps Leger art bike that is now famous around the world and has secured Rodsmith’s place as one of the most respected craftsmen in the business. “Motorcycle collectors are the unsung heroes of the custom scene,” says Rodsmith’s website. “Most keep a low profile, but they all provide an essential service: they give builders artistic freedom and financial support, helping them to weather the inevitable ebb and flow of cash and customer demand. Bobby Haas is one of the most prolific supporters of bike builders in the US.” 

According to Paul d’Orléans, a bike historian and avid student of two-wheeled history who founded the Vintagent motorcycle media company in 2006, the growing interest in meticulously handbuilt machines is only a small part of something bigger. “I see it as part of a far broader revival of motorcycle culture that is taking place in stark contrast to what is happening in the mainstream industry, where manufacturers are struggling to attract millennials and younger buyers,” says d’Orléans, who was chosen to curate the Custom Revolution exhibition, running until March 2019 at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. “We haven’t seen as much enthusiasm around motorcycles in terms of film, art, photography, style and the machines themselves since the post-Easy Rider era of the early 1970s. Today’s generation of motorcycle builders is achieving far wilder things than anyone is doing with cars, because they have the ability to be freer in what they do – and more people seem to appreciate the fact that a person’s relationship with a motorcycle is incredibly intimate. We climb on top of these things, we wrap our arms and legs around them, and riding them provides a really visceral sensation. They are a form of art that we can physically experience.”  

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