Hip to be Square

Different eras are defined by different things. Of those, none are more popular than music and fashion. Helping identify time and culture instantly, each era claims shapes or sounds the population gravitated towards. Be it musical style or type, the clothes went with the tempo and its been that way for decades. Before the global uplink information traveled much slower, but the world’s roadways expanded almost in unison during those evolving decades of the 1960s and 70s, and speeds increased. To those responsible for delivering the next big thing, a fresh new look was needed then delivered – courtesy of the fashion icons of Italy.  A natural trend, motorcycles often borrow auto style and that’s what this is about. Call it irony or an oxymoron, what is ‘out’ makes the greatest impact when it suddenly becomes ‘in’. Knowing that great pearl of wisdom, who would have guessed it’s hip to be square?

Both falling under the umbrella of industrial art, classic motorcycles and cars are the same. Sort of. Generally priced by the pound, auto collectors must memorize pre-and-post depression production, everything that came after the 1946 restart, then the distinct patterns emerging in the 1960’s and beyond. That’s a pretty wide field that doesn’t include military spec, specialty vehicles or (depending where you live) imports. Motorcycles, on the other hand, flow cleanly between pre-and-post war heritage in three major categories: touring, sports, and off road/dirt. Much like the experience of riding one, motorcycling’s history is direct and easy to recognize, even if the machine’s themselves vastly differ.  

(For 1967, MV Agusta’s 600 4C introduced key elements that would become production mainstays. It’s bold, retangular lamp and ‘hump’ profile didn’t resonate with many, but nontheless reflected future styling trends, The MV 600 Four was also the first with a production disc brake) 

Still, there’s no denying the deep thinkers inside the auto industry have dictated moto-style and even layout. Some of these, like Italy’s Pininfarina, Italdesign and others went on to become where design and execution were born – releasing adventurous new designs then waiting the typical 18-20 months until they reach production. Meanwhile, some ‘gap’ machines mix old and new elements. Since computer engineering became the norm many things have changed (some for the better) but as always, the game remains in the hands of those with the most talent.

(International angularity – Germany’s BMW K100RS (1986) Italy’s Guzzi 1100 Sport squared v-twin (1996) IROC Camaro from the USA, circa 1986)

Hip Londoners in sharp suits and pointy boots were on the scene by the mid-60s, meaning the evolution of contemporary auto styling was well underway. Slowly, the 50s gunboat gave way to progressively tighter corners, and by the time Hendrix took the stage at Woodstock nearly every US automaker employed a European division. Car maker Alejandro de Tomaso was part of this, a player on both sides after his early 70s assumption of Benelli and Guzzi. De Tomaso’s ‘Modena wedge’ influenced bikes and auto design on a worldwide basis for years. His legacy.

Coming into the market about the same time, Giorgetto Giugiaro / Italdesign’s angled 860 GT Ducati was released, joined by De Tomaso’s squared off six-cylinder 750 SEI. Following the big multi were more similar small displacement Guzzi and Benelli fours, but buyers didn’t care for the Ducati, which was quickly re-drawn. Truth is, they didn’t care much for the SEI and its cousins either, but the mold was cast. Say what you will about who was leading whom, but history shows the angular avalanche that swept over motorcycle style had De Tomaso pushing from behind.

(De Tomaso’s Benelli 750cc six (Godin photo) and Giugiaro’s even more sharper-edged 860 GT Ducati in green. Kick only 860’s are now in demand)  

Each maker used its own interpretation of the angular theme, but a pattern (at least on top line, or largest displacement models) was evident by the time 1980 rolled in. Finishing the job before going to a strong endurance-replica look inspired by Dutch tuner Jan Kampen and others, De Tomaso even chiseled corners into Carcano’s lovely round barrels the next year, and they’ve stayed that way since. Of the other Euro makers, Ducati, BMW lagged a bit before adding the rectangle but the changes were met with great, if not profound success. Focused on just the distinctive square headlight that’s captured my imagination, which Japanese maker did it before Yamaha with its XS-Eleven? Of the Euro brands, it’s a matter of record that MV got the jump in 1967 with its 600 Four. By 1980 Suzuki’s square-lamp ‘Lunchbox GS sport bikes were revamped with 16v heads and better suspension, proving the maker’s strong desire to offer the best handling multi. Oddly, Suzuki was softening the edges by the time more conservative Honda and Kawasaki were actively re-shaped theirs. The early V4s and the CB1100F are Honda’s strong reminder of the angular 80s, and Kawasaki grew it reputation on the squared off Z-1R, KZ1300 six and open-class GPz 1100. All somewhat in demand.

Like everyone I have some favorites. They start with De Tomaso’s first (world market) Le Mans 1000 (here, next to the Queen Creek tunnel in 2015). Owned since new, this machine is simply the best decision I’ve made, but there’s others to admire. Renown for durability and Japan’s best chassis, Suzuki’s first 16v GS1100 set new standards of excellence for Japanese motorcycles. At least, in 1981. It’s not hard see why the four’s funky monkey suit puts some off, but because it was unique the Lunchbox is now a classic. From its beautifully boxy lamp to bulging taillight the GS1100 received some of the highest testing praise imaginable. Making the point again, motorcycling’s first angular phase coincided with substantial improvements to each machine’s mechanical and aerodynamic performance. A very special era.  

(More appealing without its standard USA ‘western’ handlebar, the Suzuki GS1100 Lunchbox set the standard for Japanese superbikes in 1980)

For sure, I’d be remiss in omitting the aerodynamic aspects of this styling trend. As it has been explained to me, every vehicle has an aerodynamic factor – some slipping the stream better than others. In the case of De Tomaso and his lead enginer Lino Tonti, the Modena wedge proved ideal for increasing downforce pressure…this concept trading some drag for pushing bike ever harder into the tires as speed increased. In Guzzi’s favor, not every manufacture had an onsite wind tunnel (built by Tonti’s predecessor Julio Ceasar Carcano, an icon of early  aerodynamic studies) but every car and bike maker used a method of testing this by the mid-80s. Now you know why Guzzi SP and Le Mans II owners are always smiling, but the point is trading some slip for increased rider safety and confidence is a decision all owners appreciate.      

(Evolution of angular styling and speed: 2022 Honda CBR1000RR-R. 215-hp, 200-mph, 435-lb wet.) 

Hard-edge quietly morphed into something else after the 1980s, but the angular art that preceded changed design forever. Back to modern, Alex and I recently viewed the new Honda 1000RR-R (in 30th Anni Fireblade livery) and if there’s one new machine I’d like to try, it’s this. Making over 200-hp and weighing only 430-lb I suspect most riders would appreciate the electronic control built into the Honda’s prodigious power delivery, and it’s absolutely stunning in person. Photos are unable capture its subtle dips and dramatic angles, but I’m not seeing much Benelli influence here. Still, 50-years on, all the top superbikes display the same aggressive angles. Certainly the case for De Tomaso’s six and all that followed, square things are usually more purposeful and less elegant, so I suppose it was inevitable more makers viewed the business-first approach as a quick trip to sales success. Impressively, these hip squares followed the 1970s – what many consider the most impactful decade in motorcycle history. Still affordable and in many cases well supported, increasing numbers are doubling back to this once forgotten era. Nolan Woodbury

(Yamaha XS-Eleven – bold rectangle lamp, uniform patterns and loads of shaft drive delivered torque. An underrated, under-valued classic)c)

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