Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art.


Here’s a sure way to get six conflicting opinions: put three motorcyclists in a room together and show them a photo of a bike. Some will love it, some will hate it, and then they start tearfully remembering all the bikes they used to have. Why did I ever sell my ’79 CB750K? That was the best bike ever! (No, it wasn’t.)

I recently posted a photo of a particularly tasty Triumph TT custom on a local forum of a bike I loved from the moment I saw it. The builder, Spain’s Pepo Rosell, took the tough, brutal form of the blocky ’90s-vintage Triumph Legend TT and its three-cylinder motor, modernized it with Daytona 675 suspension and wheels and topped it off with a modified Suzuki Bandit gas tank (with old Laverda gas cap). The fairing and tailsection are vintage-racing bits, but I really like the custom monotube subframe that matches Triumph’s hulking monotube backbone frame. Rosell put “Rocket III” livery on it because… well, maybe just because F-you is why. Pepo likes it, and I like it too.

Pepo Rosell’s clean-yet-brutish Triumph Legend TT-cum-BSA Rocket doesn’t have the universal appeal I thought it would have. Photos (top image and above): Cesar Godoy

Pepo Rosell’s clean-yet-brutish Triumph Legend TT-cum-BSA Rocket doesn’t have the universal appeal I thought it would have. Photos (top image and above): Cesar Godoy

Not so the general public, though. The peanut gallery acknowledged it was sorta cool…but didn’t like it as much as I did. The seat was too stubby and looked uncomfortable, and the bike just lacked visual balance. But maybe the big sin for many was that it just didn’t look rideable.

They missed the point, I thought! This is about aesthetics. For some more perspective, I headed down to Todd Chamberlin’s shop, Naked Moto in Hayward, California. Todd’s hardly some ordinary moto-shop owner – he worked for Polaris IndustriesVictory division, and though he lacks formal design training, he was closely involved in every phase of bringing Victory products to market, from clay mockup to manufacturing. He worked for four years alongside Michael Song on the Victory Vision and built a V92C roadracer (yes, for real), but most importantly, put a Ducati 900 mill into a DR-Z400 chassis, because somebody had to. That bike was stolen, and I wonder if the bike thief made it home unharmed and sane.

Todd’s customizing skills are bona fide. His specialty is taking sportbikes – his favorites are SV650s and Honda CBR600F2s – and stripping them down to the essentials. When I asked him what he thought made a bike visually appealing, he wouldn’t talk about line or form or shapes – instead, he said it had to look like it would “run 20,000 miles before you have to do a major service.”

Many in the general motorcycling public agree; a trained eye and brain, honed by many hours wasted towing, pushing or dragging stricken bikes to dealerships just knows if a bike looks tough and rideable, and you can spot the customs and factory designs that hew to that ethic. Back at the discussion forum, a rider named Russ wrote that “lightly modified bikes… add improvements to increase performance and usually the bike is well sorted.” That’s the only sort of “custom” he’s interested in: ones that look like you can ride them.

Naked Moto’s Todd Chamberlin worked with designer David Song on the Victory CORE concept. That monocoque chassis is underneath the sculpted bodywork of the Victory Vision and Crossroads tourers, which do not have carved hardwood seats, don’t worry.

Naked Moto’s Todd Chamberlin worked with designer David Song on the Victory CORE concept. That monocoque chassis is underneath the sculpted bodywork of the Victory Vision and Crossroads tourers, which do not have carved hardwood seats, don’t worry.

When pressed, Todd told me that there “are no right choices” when it came to making bikes appealing. “You can’t build a universal bike – I’ve been trying for years – but if I did build one, it would be a naked supersport of some kind.” His perfect bike would be “cleaner: no fairings, no subframes, the seat just kind of floating out there.” And of course, it would run well, with long service intervals so you could ride and ride.

Todd, like most customizers, can’t start with a totally clean sheet of paper, so I decided to talk to someone who had. Marc Fenigstein is the CEO of Alta motors, and if you haven’t heard of Alta, you will: it’s an American manufacturer, based near San Francisco International Airport, that builds competition-ready battery-electric motocrossers and supermotos that are also street legal. The company’s been around for a few years, like most automotive startups, but this is its first year of production.

Alta Motors will unveil this Redshift ST concept at the One Moto show in February 2017.

Alta Motors will unveil this Redshift ST concept at the One Moto show in February 2017.

Again, I’d like to say I cornered Marc for a rare, exclusive interview as part of my relentless pursuit of world-class motojournalism. The truth is Marc lives a block from a restaurant that serves a hamburger with a doughnut for a bun, and I was hungry, so I invited him to join me. As we munched, I asked what made motorcycles appealing – and got a real education about some basic principles of moto-design.

I told Marc how much I liked his company’s latest project, the Redshift ST. It’s a minimalist take on a street-tracker, with abbreviated bodywork and dirt-track style 19-inch wheels. Created by Alta co-founder and designer Jeff Sand, it’s a styling exercise showing what Alta could do with the basic platform. Like Rosell’s Triumph, the shape of the bike instantly grabbed me.

That’s primarily because of something Marc and Jeff call “massing.” That refers to the basic proportion of the shapes, and Marc says “it’s the most important [element], and manufacturers get it wrong the most.”

Compare the Ducati 916 superbike to Japanese superbikes of the same era – where the 916’s proportions look light and balanced, a Honda CBR900RR or Yamaha YZF1000R look bulky, hulking, “like a guy with short legs and a big torso.” They’re more like bulldogs than cheetahs, and bulldogs are cool, “but nobody associates them with going fast.” It’s the same for cruisers; the Japanese manufacturers as well as European ones seem to struggle with getting proportions just right, and even someone with limited motorcycle knowledge can spot a non-Harley cruiser from a block away. It just looks wrong.

Fenigstein picked these two bikes – Yamaha’s new R1 (top) and MV Agusta’s F3 to illustrate the difference in Japanese and European motorcycle design.

Fenigstein picked these two bikes – Yamaha’s new R1 (top) and MV Agusta’s F3 to illustrate the difference in Japanese and European motorcycle design.

Also telling the story is “gesture,” the flowing lines that tell a visual story and give a sense of motion. Marc shows me an MV Agusta F3 as he makes his point. “Well done, it makes a bike look fast when it’s standing still and when done poorly, makes a bike look like it’s standing still when it’s going fast.” Gesturing guides the eye along the motorcycle without it getting lost or offended, and many American consumers have a tough time with modern Anime-inspired Japanese designs that shock the sensibilities with clanging Cubist features and distractions.

Rounding out a motorcycle’s visual style is “detailing,” and that is where Alta has an edge, according to Marc. “Function comes first,” he tells me as we eye several doughnut-burgers headed to their doom. “There’s no room for flourish or excess for the sake of design.” Sand has a rare quality in a designer, as he knows manufacturing as well as design, specifying materials that he knows can be translated into practical, cost-effective end products. Japanese OEMs often use plastic covers and baubles to hide ugly parts or mimic the look of aluminum or steel. If you have to use plastic, says Marc, “design forms that are beautiful in plastic.” By manufacturing the part in the designer’s material, “Jeff’s final result is true, authentic. There isn’t a single part that’s trying to look like something it isn’t.”

Oh boy. There’s that word: “authentic.” Hipsters have commoditized authenticity just for authenticity’s sake – my $400 Redwing boots and $250 Pendleton shirt show you I’m a real outdoor guy, even though I’m a marketing associate from Brooklyn – but motorcyclists actually need authenticity. A trained eye knows a thin seat will be uncomfortable for rides over 20 minutes, that you need fenders to avoid getting a skunk-like strip of mud down your back, and lights, turnsignals, mirrors and horns are more than just legalities – they keep you alive. So a bike doesn’t just have to look right: it has to look right to ride.

After chatting with Marc and Todd, I understand that the naysayers didn’t like my pick because it simply didn’t look good to ride. And that may be the most important aesthetic of them all.


Gabe Ets-Hokin is one of the principal deities of Hinduism, and the Supreme Being in its Vaishnavism tradition. He enjoys shattering worlds and plays jazz accordion.

  • azicat

    “Japanese OEMs often use plastic covers and baubles to hide ugly parts or mimic the look of aluminum or steel”

    Triumph Bonneville. *drops microphone*

    • Yeah, those guys too!

      • Ryan Flowers

        Ducati Scrambler. *Picks mic up to drop it but throws back out on the way down. Assumes fetal position and demands a bottle of Jameson to “Stave off the darkness”.*

        • My experience with Jameson’s is that it kind of brings on darkness…

          • Ryan Flowers

            All things in moderation…….is a concept I could never grasp. But, touché.

  • Starmag

    I like the BSA thing. But yeah, the seat and clip-ons are silly for more than 10 mins. Whats amazing to me is we’re such a rich country that designers can spend, what ? $20-50K cost on nearly un-rideable bikes. Like, where are all those masochistic OCC bikes now? And all those other ridiculous hard tail things? And bikes with wood seats. LOL. The salesman-speak to cover the self indulgence maybe the worst part for me.

  • Donnie

    What is the obsession with all of the space between the seat and the tires? Is it to make the motorcycle look lighter?
    I’m also not a fan of the short tail section.
    It occurs to me that I am getting to be a grumpy old man, keep off of my yard you damn kids!

  • JMDGT

    Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. All you need to know is what you like. One man’s vibey is another man’s silky smooth. Great article.

  • john phyyt

    R1 and F3 look the same to me. Paint each differently and I would be hard pressed to tell them apart. I like both. .. I am happy for these guys to spend heaps as it is “authentically” interesting to look at them. I would like a custom sporting builder to come up with an aethetically pleasing front end with F1 tech ( double wishbone push rod) which could take a ultra-light electric motor. 2WD scrambler Uber-cool.

    • Andre Capitao Melo

      “Italian design” is overhyped as shit.

  • Fantome_NR

    I loooooove it! And I also like the others. Some people are just closed-minded petty mean spirited jerks, and should be ignored.

  • Racing Enthusiast

    “I’m going to write about something that I know nothing about, because my readers know even less…”

    As long as “Credentials, connections, and conceit” matter more than “Talent, enthusiasm, and vision” in motorcycle marketing, design, media, etc.., then expect to see loads more crap.

    Please tell me I’m not turning into TJ wotsisname…

    • Wow! My Inner Critic has a Disqus account.

      • Racing Enthusiast

        Sorry for being rude – I should thank you for bringing up a subject that deserves a lot of attention and conversation.

      • Starmag

        Lol. Clever.

  • DickRuble

    Fenigstein’s pick simply shows how clueless he is. He most likely worships the Teutuls. The Yamaha is a much better balanced design than the MV F3.

  • DickRuble

    When I look at this, I know it’s right.. Balanced design, gesture.. whatever..
    http://motorcycle.com.vsassets.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/081516-ktm-rc16-motogp-150214_Studio-KTM-RC16-2016.jpg

    When I look at the Alta concept, I know it’s crap.

    • BDan75

      It’d be nice if we could ditch the crazy paint and just see the lines of the bike (mostly looking at you, MV).

  • It seems to me the automotive world is much more lenient when it comes to customizing or building the car of your dream. I happen to like this interpretation of a modern racer but also understand I didn’t do it and that it is only what someone else did. It wasn’t done for me.

    I think we need to remember that when we have a problem with something, we have the problem, not the something or someone’s product.

  • mog

    In 2003 the Buell XB9S Lightning won the Chicago Athenaeum: Museum of Architecture and Design Award and again in 2004 for the Buell XB12R Firebolt, right along side automobile winners such as BMW Z4 and 5 series and Audi A8 that year. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a69d9fd838ee10b32e29d1aed540947c535ef731c535c3bdfd98bbea417a04d3.png