The gorgeous artistry of the vintage motorcycle

Mecum, Bonhams auctions provide temporary museums for art appreciation

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This 1912 Thor board track racer with its single-cylinder engine is an example of the exposed simplicity that makes vintage motorcycles works of mechanical art | Larry Edsall photos

You don’t have to own or even ride motorcycles to appreciate them, and especially those of an older vintage, as mechanical marvels or for their amazing sculptural designs.

And if we revere the pioneers of the automobile, what sort of pedestal should we reserve for those who first challenged what passed as roadways on two wheels, and totally exposed to the elements, or for those who raced around high-banked, wood-plank board tracks on machines that had engines and handle bars but no brakes and pretty much no cushioning suspension either. 

These are thoughts that came to mind this week as I wandered among the vehicles on the docket for two major vintage and collector motorcycle auctions in Las Vegas, a one-day sale by Bonhams and a nearly week-long parade across the auction block by Mecum.

In both cases, you could buy or sell — and the auction houses were delighted if that’s what you were doing. Or, like me, you could simply enjoy what felt like visiting a couple of marvelous if temporary motorcycle museums. 

Exposed mechanical bits

Automobiles hide their mechanical parts beneath bodywork made of steel, aluminum or composites ranging from fiberglass to carbon fiber. For the most part, and for most of the parts, motorcycles expose their mechanical bits for all to see and enjoy. 

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1911 Pierce
1924 Patria Ace-Henderson

Fuel tanks as works of art

Lit from within, there are few transportation items more artistically beautiful than the globes that once topped the fuel pumps at gas stations. But the logo designs on motorcycle fuel tanks have to be considered works of art in their own right.

1909 Excelsior Auto Cycle

Motorcycle miscellany

Motorcycles allow us to enjoy gauges and even fenders for their beautiful design, and then, of course, there are the external ribs of the Steib sidecar. 

1918 Harley-Davidson Model 18J
Front fender, 1946 Indian Chief


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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

1 COMMENT

  1. This article was quite interesting.My only experience with cycles is…(1) My dad and mom had one with a sidecar when they married…so I was told, and (2) I tried (with no previous knowledge/experience) to ride a cousin’s 1948 Indian …which almost took my leg off from my failure to :stand on ” the kick- starter” when kick-starting. …Did NOT repeat that mistake! …..I wish, however, sometime someone with absolutely nothing else on their plate would explore and write an article about the rise and fall of whitewall tires . Back when I was growing up (50’s). I fell in love with a little MG TD I spotted parked along side where I would get off the school bus after school.I never stopped loving them, ultimately having several and still currently rebuilding a ’55 TF. One constant “bone of contention” however, is the back and forth commentary as to whether or not whitewalls should “be permitted” on an old Mg sports car! Younger idealists call it “heresy”, whereas having seen (and having had same) whitewalls back in the day, I find it strictly a matter of desire, nothing else.Methinks the younger generation should be schooled as to how often whitewalls were prevalent back then!, therefore making it altogether “OK” to wear them when restoring! Just my 2 pennies!

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