Form and Function

Over the years I've given a lot of thought to the concepts of form and function, because I'm a fan of both. I admire good form, no matter its manifestation. I also want things I own or use to have functional qualities, unless they are meant to be objects de arte and simply sit on a shelf or hang on a wall to attract attention, scrutiny, and comment.

As a gearhead I have long admired form in vehicles - cars and motorcycles. The first car I bought new, upon returning from military duty, had to have a lot of form in the sense of exuding power and intimidation, good looks, horsepower, sound, and in general a look that screamed macho and power even at a standstill. When running, the expression of its machismo had to be even louder and stronger. I accomplished this with a Chevelle Super Sport, 396 cid engine, with 350 bad-ass horses ready and willing to show any other car who was king of the road. Since then my vehicles have gotten progressively more functional, and the form quality has unfortunately taken a distant back seat. I've always regretted this aspect of automobile ownership that occurs as one progresses from bachelorhood to family man.
My current vehicle, a Ford Escape, is very functional and has served me in a totally dependable manner for 100,000 miles thus far, but it doesn't scream anything - standing or rolling; other than perhaps that its owner is a practical person who values function more than form. But that's not true - I do value form, unfortunately it takes a back seat in my 4-wheeled vehicle, from which I need function more than sex appeal. My Escape is expected to pull a trailer, haul large objects home from the department store, carry several passengers and their gear, traverse sandy two-track trails, carry a canoe on its roof, and perform other tasks that just aren't compatible with a vehicle that has aesthetics as its primary quality. The cars I really want, a Mustang GT or a new Camaro, just couldn't do all the things my Escape must do to earn its place in our garage, and they would thus fail the family man test.

But I do insist on form in my motorcycles, in nearly equal portions as function. I definitely want a bike I can ride cross-country, but I will not give up looks in the search for such a motorcycle. (I did once buy a bike based only on capability, and I regretted it) All of my other two-wheelers over several decades were attractive as well as functional.

I once had a red Kawasaki Concours that was described by a friend as 'the Ferrari of motorcycles', with its aggressive (and attractive) bright red color and sportbike attitude. But it was also a fine touring machine and took me across much of America during our time together.

My current ride is also a looker, while definitely also maintaining the functional side of the equation. Most folks are surprised when I tell them that I ride across the country on a 1200 Harley Sportster. But make no mistake, the new XLs make a fine touring mount for the solo rider. A touring seat, windshield, and removable saddle bags complete the package. Very comfortable, functional, efficient (always more than 50 mpg), dependable, and damned good looking at the same time - my kind of bike.

I personally don't go in for choppers because they are mostly, or even all, form, and not enough function. I also demand dependability, which they usually lack. If a rider wants to make a statement about him or herself, then riding a chopper is a good way to do it, but a price will be paid in the areas of comfort, ease of maintenance, and dependability. Of course there are riders who just don't place a high value on these mundane qualities - they're out to prove something, or, they just don't give a damn about societal norms such as these and are willing to ride their ride regardless of what others may think and of whatever inconveniences they might experience. It's the attitude, even more than the bike, that separates chopper riders from other motorcyclists.
Items based primarily on form can have very limited real-world application, and that's not for me. Some things, certainly including motorcycles, are meant to be used, not just shown off. A machine that can have both great aesthetic value as well as functional qualities is quite an accomplishment.

Motorcycle craftmanship is a unique specialty in which artisans take great pains to transform what in reality is just a machine into a bona fide work of art. Arlen Ness is one of the best (the yellow bike pictured above is one of his many creations). His hand built bikes are truly works of art - I don't think anyone could argue that fact. Certain hand built or limited production motorcycles in my opinion qualify as art because, like paintings or sculptures gracing museums around the world, these select examples of highly attractive motorcycle craftsmanship evoke different feelings in people. Some might marvel at the use of colors, some may find the overall form praiseworthy, mechanically oriented observers will be amazed at how the pieces all fit seamlessly together, while others will daydream about the bike as a ticket to freedom and as a means to escape from the restrictions and duties of everyday life. It's no different than the differing reactions people get while looking at the same Monet print or a Rockwell painting of down home America.

The mark of truly skilled and artistic craftsmen, whether they build motorcycles or furniture, is to build functional objects that have aesthetic values in such quality and quantity that their handiwork can be appreciated by even disinterested persons. Thus, motorcycles can most assuredly be works of art, as can a Louie XIV chair.

And it's all good. Vive la Difference!