Close your eyes and imagine your favorite motorcycle.
Is it a Norton Manx? A fine choice, sir or madam. That was my pick as well. But props to you if you picked a Moto Guzzi V7 Sport, BMW R75/5, Ducati 750 Sport, Honda Hawk 650, Britten V1000, Ducati Sport Classic, BSA Gold Star or – to avoid being dragged from my home and beaten by a crazed, torch-wielding mob – the Ducati 916. And, of course, any number of other iconic bikes you may yourself have owned when you had more hair and less belly fat.
What’s the common thread of these motorcycles? They’re elegantly simple, with little or no bodywork – two wheels, a motor and a gas tank. Everything else is as minimal, only as much equipage as you need to make the bike rideable.
But so long as it uses gasoline to move on its own, it’ll need a gas tank, with enough capacity to win a race or put a smile on your grille on a Sunday morning. And I don’t care how good the rest of the bike is, ain’t nobody gonna buy it if the tank looks like crap. That’s because it’s dead center, right in the middle of the motorcycle. Your eye goes right to it, and if you’ve ridden a motorcycle, you know what looks right. It can’t be too big, it can’t be too small. It can’t hinder your ability to ride the motorcycle, and it has to carry enough fuel for your mission. Within those parameters, there’s a lot of variety, so what’s the best-looking one?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, but I needed some backup to sound authoritative enough to get you to read 1200 words of my column, so I called up Evan Wilcox. Toiling away in the damp upper reaches of the California coast, Evan’s been hand-making exquisite motorcycle tanks since 1992.
I was worried Evan would be one of the strong-but-silent types who expresses himself solely through his handicrafts. Forty minutes into the phone call, I realized I shouldn’t have worried. Wilcox, a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, is articulate and knowledgeable about design language. When I asked what his favorite tank was, he responded like he’d been waiting for somebody to ask that question all his life.
“The G50 Matchless. The lines flow diagonally to the rear and it’s seconded by the seat and frame, all the lines are complementary going front to back, even the fairing. It’s functional – the riders knees are the last puzzle piece. Flowing lines, big radii, elegant use of straight and curved lines, with just a slight crown on top.” And I was just going to say it “looked good.”
Evan isn’t a fan of modern motorcycles (and he may have a different definition of ‘modern,’ as he told me he hasn’t yet “accepted” disc brakes). “As the chase for horsepower has dominated what is good, the motorcycle got wider, heavier and more ponderous. Everything is crowded in with electronics, airbox, who knows what else, so it’s further up, holds less fuel … the tank is up on top like an appendage, like a pillow or sleeping bag – I’m not interested.” Still, he admires Tamburini‘s 916 and Terreblanche‘s Supermono, as the tanks on those bikes fit in so well with the rest of the bike, a “fitted, beautiful design statement.”
He also sends props to fellow Pasadena grad Miguel Galluzzi, designer of the classic Ducati Monster M900. The original Monster’s tank “carries the day” on the Monster, along with the classic, simple lines of the air-cooled V-Twin. Everything else on the bike – trellis frame, tiny seat, minimal instruments – is abbreviated.
Evan has built around 1,200 fuel tanks, about one a week for the 20-plus years he’s been shaping steel and aluminum with his English wheels and doming hammers (yes, a doming hammer is a thing. Look it up). It takes him 40 or 50 hours to make a tank, and no two are identical. Pricing starts at $2,000, or in the case of Larry Pegram, who needed a tank for his 1098R in exactly four days when the AMA told him, “Oh, you can’t race with a plastic gas tank” at Daytona, $5,000 or more.
That’s a lead-in for the other reason modern motorcycles get our adrenaline pumping but don’t strum our heart strings as much – seams. Look at a modern classic-styled machine and your eye will go right to the tank … and rest on the ugly seams protruding underneath. It’s what keeps the Star Bolt from looking quite right and why putting one of Evan’s tanks on a modern Triumph Bonneville turns it into a sex machine. Seams.
You can make a tank by hand, like Evan does, carefully filing down the seams after welding or rolling them up underneath, but that’s expensive. Or you can do like most manufacturers and make the tank out of two sheet-metal stampings and then weld the seams together. Finding myself at a press-launch dinner in between a pair of Yamaha‘s designers, I asked why the Bolt‘s tank had big, visible seams when the Harley Sportster 883 Iron (which is as awful to ride as it is awesome to look at) didn’t.
“Ohhhhhhhhh …” sighed the man, so deeply I thought he was going to burst into tears of humiliation and shame. Instead, he launched into an animated discussion in Japanese with the other designer before turning back to me and explaining that Harley-Davidson, since it designs new motorcycles and tanks much less frequently than Yamaha (the understatement of the year, if you ask me), can invest in the specialized and fantastically expensive tooling to cost-effectively make seamless (or at least hidden seam) gas tanks. The Star Bolt is better than the 883 Iron in most every respect, but … that tank. It looks as authentic as a badly fitted toupee. But Star can’t sell the Bolt cheap enough if it spent the money it would take to make the tank pretty. And so Harley lives to fight another day.
Of course, we’re probably at the tail end of motorcycles having gas tanks at all. I won’t stir up the pot by proclaiming a specific doomsday for the internal combustion engine, but electric vehicles have come a really long way in just the last decade, so I think it’s inevitable, if not soon. What will that do to motorcycle design, I asked Evan?
Well, some would feel the need to simulate the look of a gas tank by placing the battery where the tank would go, but “it might be more elegant to do away with that traditional shape and have some new bodywork that’s a stand-alone statement.”
That means the iconic motorcycles of the future will essentially be a giant gas tank – a large structure that provides function while being visually interesting. Evan probably won’t be a part of it. “I’m excited for the future, but my heart is in that early classic stuff.” I’ll love riding those future classics, but they’ll never look as right as a ’50s British Single, roaring down the straight at Donington with a black-clad figure hunched over the tank to squeeze out those last few miles per hour.
Gabe Ets-Hokin won the Nobel Prize for motojournalism in 2008 and used his prize money to fund a salami sandwich on rye bread. Cheese was $.50 extra, so he just had it with mustard and pickles.