The best looking motorcycle that I saw at Biketoberfest was an entry in a bike show that took place on Daytona’s famous boardwalk. It was an eye catcher, easily drawing my attention despite the fact that it was parked in a row of flashy chrome, wild paint and outrageously extended forks. The funny thing is my pick for best in show was probably overlooked by most of the spectators who were there to see eye popping customs. The motorcycle that turned my head was a stock-as-it-left-the-factory 1969 Triumph Bonneville in Olympic Flame Red.
The aesthetics of certain motorcycles are described as “timeless” and what this means is a designer composed a series of lines that when they are molded out of steel possess a truth that is immune to the degradation that comes with the changing tastes and the passing of time.
From the graceful curves of the fuel tank to the sparse simplicity of the air-cooled Parallel Twin engine Triumph Bonnevilles from the 1960s are undoubtedly (in my opinion) a canvas that displays a masterpiece of human design. It’s a motorcycle stripped to the essentials and built for the singular purpose of speed.
The Triumph’s owner stood nearby and we struck up a conversation. He had wanted a Bonneville as a teenager and the ’69s had always been his favorites. Like many vintage vehicle owners it had taken him decades to get his hands on the bike that had caused his youthful heart to pound. It had been restored, bolt by bolt, with a love that the original factory technician could not have had for it.
I too had a connection to the Meriden twins. My Triumph memory comes from an old photograph that shows, in the fading hues of Kodak color, a flame orange 1962 Bonneville with my father, a smiling 17-year-old, standing proudly beside it.
But what I felt at the show was more than nostalgia for a machine that I knew only from photos and on which I had never experienced the unforgettable combination of exhaust note and engine vibration that imprints itself in your memory when you ride a motorcycle down the road. My attraction to the Triumph was primal, more visceral. Maybe my dad’s attraction to the limey rockets was also in my blood, transferred to me in an as-of-yet undiscovered twist of DNA that passes on memories as easily as it passes on eye color.
The other motorcycle that sticks out in my mind from the four-day rally was parked at a restaurant a half-mile from Main Street on Atlantic Avenue. It was a Dnepr, the Ukrainian-made BMW copy, with side car attached. Being an obscure Soviet refugee isn’t what made the Dnepr catch my eye, it was the sand that covered the machine. The owner, along with his two passengers, was pulling out when I saw them. He stopped to talk when he saw that his machine was drawing my stare. The sand, he explained, was a result of his getting stuck earlier that day at the beach trying to get his rig close to the ocean for a photo. It was all he, his two comrades and the Dnepr’s powered side car wheel could do to free itself from the advancing Atlantic.
Motorcycle owners go to great lengths to personalize their machines and make a statement that sticks out in a crowd. The Dnepr owner, in a lapse of judgment when picking a parking spot, had inadvertently done the only thing that could enhance the looks of a motorcycle whose Flat Twin Boxer engine, drum brakes and separate bicycle-style seats could cause it to be mistaken for a World War II BMW. A few grains of sand and I was thousands of miles and decades away from Daytona Beach 2008. The year was 1943. The place was Tunisia and the Dnepr was an Afrikakorps Beemer abandoned on a Mediterranean beach as Rommel retreated to Europe.
A rider takes his Harley on a spin at Daytona Beach, historic sands where Harley Davidsons dominated racing in the 1950s. Daytona has a history unlike any other rally spot in the world.
As he left the rider flashed a wide grin highlighted by clinched teeth that held a lit cigar. All that was missing were the olive green M1 helmets and what I had in front of me were three American G.I.s celebrating victory with a joy ride on their war spoils. A final wave and the black hack disappeared into the autumn dusk and I was left day-dreaming of rugged adventure in faraway places that can be reached only by motorcycle.
Thinking back on both bikes a few days later I realized the Triumph had a sandy connection to history as well. The concrete sidewalk on which the Bonnie was sitting was embedded with plates that commemorate Daytona Beach’s racing heritage that took place yards away on the sands of the world famous beach. In 1962, the year after the Daytona 200 was moved from the beach to an inland track and the same year my dad posed with his Bonneville, Don Burnett gave the British marque its first victory in the prestigious race. The sacredness that rests in the ground upon which great things have been accomplished, when combined with an emotional attraction that ran through my veins, had given the Triumph a special aura in the same way that in the magic of twilight and sand became the perfect pin striping for a Dnepr.
A custom chopper turns down Main Street to enter the parade of bikes that draw spectators from across the globe to Biketoberfest.
They say that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but they also say that the eyes are windows to the soul. The images of these two motorcycles passed right through my eyes, slipped past the part of my brain that turns colors into conscious thought and landed somewhere much deeper to stir feelings that words can’t describe.
As long as there are motorcycles that can stir these passions within a human being there will be people who are passionate about riding them. And as long as there are people who ride motorcycles there will be rallies in special places like Daytona where this inexplicable connection between man and machine will be celebrated.
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