In Praise of British Experimentation

Jun 28, 2014 View Comments by

In Praise of British ExperimentationDuring a recent lecture, I discussed how in the early stages of our language there was an amazing amount of linguistic creativity. As an English teacher, I am intrigued by how those Medieval Brits were taking various language influences and melding them into something new and unique a millennium ago.

This is true of the evolution of any language. The early to middle developmental stages are experimental. Different elements, styles and ideas are mated, matched and mismatched in vibrant attempts to create effective and powerful communication. Later stages of language development are a much more subtle with additions, tweaks, and refinements.

So what does this have to do with motorcycles? It dawned on me during a recent trip through the motorcycle section of the San Diego Automotive Museum that the early stages of motorcycle engine development mirrored the formative years of the English language with experimentation in both form and function. Interestingly, this was especially true of the engines being produced by the early British motorcycle pioneers 60 to 100 years ago.

As I studied the sweeping lines of the power-plant of a Vincent Black Shadow, I was struck by the almost organic engineering style. Graceful, stem-like exhaust headers emanate from floral exhaust flanges. There is nothing in modern engine building like it.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Velocette engine. The upright, stand-at-attention lines of the Velocette mill are geometric and erect. The design influence is much more industrial than that of the Vincent.

Somewhere in the middle, design-wise, is the Ariel with its Square Four engine. Exhaust headers look grafted like shoots into the “square” monoblock head. It is a mating of the organic and the industrial, and is reminiscent of no other design.

It is clear that British engineering minds of the first half of the 20th century were creative and unrestrained. Engine builders were going for innovation and uniqueness not similarity. There was no mistaking an Ariel engine for its Vincent counterpart. Most every motorcycle engine created at the time was imaginative and original. Some worked and some didn’t.

That was the case then—not now. While I love modern motorcycle technology, we have lost something. In keeping with the language analogy, we are in the “subtle refinement” stage. Increasingly and understandably, internal tweaks and modifications have trumped innovation and external aesthetics.

If you pull the engine from the plastic cocoon of any modern super-sport and mask the branding on the cases, it is very hard to tell one from the other. Even the V-twin world is remarkably copy-cattish. Only a few marques (mainly of Bavarian and Mediterranean origin) retain unique engine layouts.

The obvious up-side to the current stage of motorcycle engine refinement is that we are in an age of unparalleled performance and reliability. Those are both very good things. The downside is that diversity is a rarity.

I guess the bottom line is this, I love modern novels and I love modern motorcycles. Yes, the English language is at a nice stage of refinement as are modern motorcycles. However, there is nothing like the creativity of early pioneerism. For a taste of what I mean, listen to a bit of Chaucer read in the original or listen to the exhaust note of a Vincent.

Text and photography by Tim Kessel

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