Without a doubt, there's a resurgence of interest in the "old school" bikes. Some are vintage bikes that are restored, and some are new machines with styling cues from the past. Rekindling the past in new designs isn't really a groundbreaking phenomenon. Remember the brink of the demise of the AMF Harley? In a bold move, the company's original family descendents bought the company back. They then took a calculated risk to revisit the past in their "new" designs when they boldly introduced the Heritage Softail model in 1984.
Harley-Davidson chose design cues from their 1940's Hydra-Glide and incorporated its vintage look with their newly developed technology in their Evolution motor. They took the lines of their rigid-frame bikes of yesteryear and added hidden suspension, calling it a Softail. These new "old school" designs were the key that brought the motor company back from the brink of bankruptcy in the 80's, thus proving the power of reviving something old and making it new again.
The key to what the new Harley-Davidson VP of design, Willie G. Davidson, inherently knew is that there was coolness to the image that their old bikes had, but they needed to improve the performance of the old bikes if their company would prosper. The Harley-Davidson motor company has been incredibly successful marketing their "Heritage" and "Nostalgia" line of motorcycles. Other than taking a large risk in developing the V-Rod bikes with air-cooled motors, they haven't really taken any new leaps in styling.
I don't think you'll find any argument that the new "Old School" look is very exciting. Just like any fashion statement, motorcycles become dated by what was popular at any given point in time. Just look back on the last couple of decades of motorcycles in magazines and you can almost pick the year the bike was built by the paint scheme. In 1988, two-toned turquoise and cream was the bike to have. By 1992, bright "slimed" wild paint was the ticket, and in 1995 scalloped paint was the rage. By 2000 the rules all changed to personalized detailed illustrations, and skulls were no longer taboo for the average guy. Now we're seeing a resurgence of simple paint-jobs with 50's inspired pin-striping while the endless variation on flamed paint is happening again. Today it's even cool to have a solid clean monochromatic paint scheme. This year, everywhere you turn, there is a new bike with old school styling on the cover of most every bike magazine.
Check out the photo of the restored bobber. This was never a factory Harley look, but racers inspired designs after WWII eliminating all the unnecessary parts to lighten up the bike. In the 90's, the factory built Heritage bikes had more bolt- on options available than you could shake a stick at. The only purpose of these accessories was to weigh your bike down with more chromed decorative covers than your riding buddies had. The styling of today's stripped down bobbers is a direct 180 swing of the pendulum back from the excess bike designs of the last few years. I think it's fair to say the resurrection of the modern bobber look is a direct knee-jerk reaction to the gaudy over-done 'jewelry' custom bikes of the recent past.
Something old is always new again. If you're after a 'Genuine Harley' bobber, I don't think there was ever such a thing. These were all bikes built by the now nameless forefathers of motorcycle customization, not at some factory. The original bobber was the product of individual innovations before there were thousands of pages of aftermarket parts available to upgrade your factory machine. These old timers were making their bikes custom by taking stuff off or "bobbing"; like the popular hair-do of the day that 40's pin-up Betty Paige sported. These early trailblazers were creating/modifying new parts in their garage to make a personal statement.
I'm sure the late great Indian Larry has inspired many builders today to take a look at the 'roots' styling in building or personalizing a motorcycle. Larry had it going on. What he was building was real and from his heart as a true expression of what a motorcycle was in his mind's eye. Indian Larry lived it too, and he used vintage motors in his creations to "keep it real". This might not be the best choice in a power-plant for the new school guy who wants a trouble free bike to ride.
Vintage motors (Knuckleheads, Pans and Shovels) have their place for the experienced mechanic, but there is a reason why these vintage motors have been abandoned by the original manufacturer for newer models. It's called improvement. There's absolutely no performance or reliability reason to run one of these older engine configurations. They developed these newer generations of engines to improve them; they certainly weren't taking any steps backward with each mechanical revision or up-date.
Technology has come a long way in the last 40 years. We may be still running air-cooled V-Twin engines, but the displacements and durability have made huge leaps in the last few years. Improved starters, automatic compression releases and engine sizes are now reaching over 140 cubic inch displacements. Don't forget the old school panhead and most shovelhead bikes ran point-type ignitions and the big-inch engine back in the day was 74 cubic inches. If you're the purist, and have to run one of these older engines in your bike, you'll need the dedication to understand how to maintain it on daily basis if you intend to ride your bike regularly. You'll truly have a relationship with your bike. If you're up for those kinds of challenges in your day to day life, more power to you.
I have a ton of respect for the guys that take on the responsibility to have that type of relationship with an engine. I prefer riding to wrenching now, so give me a monster motor that starts every time I push a starter button. I like suspension under my butt, so I can walk after a day's ride without a visit to my chiropractor at the end of the day. If that makes me a sissy, I'll be proud to carry the torch for you other sissy bikers out there.
When you compare the bikes we're building now with the "real" old school bikes, there's a true purpose to the engineering and styling. It's a way of paying homage to the past, with respect for the simplistic intentions of stripping down a bike to its core essentials. Today you can have all the latest improvements available, without buying a bike only to throw away the parts you don't like. No jewelry, but real "old s'cool" inspiration melded with the latest innovations, kind of like what the guys at HD did in the 80's. Let's give credit where credit is due, but let's take it to the next level.
The Steed bike in the other photo has some essential vintage styling cues like spoke wheels, Springer front end, small peanut tank, and minimalist looking hidden instrumentation. Now look at the latest technology in fat-tires (at almost a foot wide), 111" or more engine displacements that fire up effortlessly delivering reliable torque, and unheard of horsepower. Don't miss the accuracy of digital instrumentation heads-up in the mirrors, and the Steed proprietary Monoshock suspension. The features just described were not available until recently, and now they're available as a complete package for the new school rider, with a federal VIN and extended warranty.
No matter what you think about these bikes, they are all testaments to innovation and extensions of the rider or bike builder's personality. I think it's really cool that we're back to paying a little respect to these historic bikes, while at the same time eliminating some of the excess of the recent past. Now bikes are available with current technology bringing performance and reliability with historic styling cues. That's what I call "New S'cool". Check out more of these machines at www.steedmusclebike.com.
Keep the rubber side down.
- John at Steeds
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