The capacity for cognitive thinking marks humans as special among all species. We’d take that a step further and say that thinking about classic motorcycles marks motorcyclists as special among humans. When Swedish motorcycle collectors Christer Christensson and Ove Johansson pondered the subject, they decided that instead of looking at classic motorcycles through the familiar lenses of speed, power and industry, perhaps design, culture and technology should be the relevant points of focus. Thus was born the MC Collection classic motorcycle museum in Sweden.
The seeds of this classic motorcycle museum began when Christer, who started collecting classic motorcycles after his brother restored a Norton 99 Dominator for him in the 1980s, visited the Guggenheim in New York in 1998 for the landmark exhibition The Art of The Motorcycle. The exhibit inspired Christer to open his own gallery, so he teamed up with Ove, a well-known restorer, collector and motorcycle historian in Sweden.
Together they founded MC Collection, assembling a modest selection of more than 100 important classic motorcycles and opening the collection to the public in 1999. For the next 10 years the collection was housed in a mansion some 100 miles north of Gothenburg, deep in the Swedish countryside, but late last year the museum moved into new, purpose-built digs just outside Stockholm, Sweden’s capital city.
Sculpture at its finest
Christer calls MC Collection a “museum of art, a museum that exhibits mechanical sculptures.” You could interpret this as meaning good motorcycle design is the outcome of artistic vision meeting technical realities. Yet the technical aspect of the motorcycle is undoubtedly very important, and it’s reasonable to argue that the quest for power and speed is the ultimate driving force behind the evolution of the motorcycle. Or at least it used to be. Today’s motorcyclists constitute an increasingly aging group, a fact that’s certainly behind the success of Harley-Davidson and its clever use of retro-tech.
Speed doesn’t seem as relevant as it used to be, and as modern rationality becomes postmodern, does that mean more room for the emphasis of art and design regarding motorcycles? Is MC Collection a sign of the times? The museum offers no easy answers to what motorcycles really are. The point is rather to pose questions and let the visitor reflect on possible answers. Or if they prefer, simply hang around and indulge in the sheer beauty of the collection. It is, after all, quite possible to appreciate beautiful motorcycles regardless of their possible status as objects of art, objects of design or simple outcomes of industrialism.
And if you love motorcycles, you will appreciate the machines assembled at MC Collection. More than 100 motorcycles are displayed on two floors. The lower floor covers the first half of the 20th century, while the second floor covers the rest, from 1950 until today. And while MC Collection presents the motorcycle as art, it also shows the history of the motorcycle over the past century through a carefully picked array of machines. The collection is a little heavy on racing bikes, and while ordinary commuter bikes aren’t completely left out, they aren’t represented in a way that reflects their real impact as commercial products, either.
Because MC Collection is about motorcycle design, culture and technology, it naturally includes a substantial number of motorcycles of unquestioned importance. Among these are early examples from Indian, Merkel, Pierce, Henderson and Harley-Davidson, along with a Brough Superior, a Zündapp K800, a Vincent Rapide C, a Triumph Speed Twin, a BSA Gold Star and more.
A relative abundance of American motorcycles is partly explained by the museum’s plans to have different themes over the years to come. For 2010 the collection salutes Harley-Davidson, displaying 20 important Harleys from different eras, and 2011 follows with a focus on American motorcycles in general.
U.S. visitors will surely note three very special bikes in the collection: a 1912 Henderson 4-cylinder, a rare 1939 Crocker and a stunning Harley-Davidson “Peashooter” from 1926. The Peashooter is menacingly, almost dangerously, beautiful, with the kind of aura every race bike should have, but few really possess.
This particular Peashooter is extra special because while Harley-Davidson is known to have sent quite a few racers overseas, they where nearly always exported under a firm condition that essentially read, “Have fun, but don’t forget to return to Milwaukee after use.”
The bike in question became a love story for Swedish track racer Henry Molin, who not only managed to persuade Harley-Davidson to sell it to him, but he also kept it for the rest of his life. Long before Henry passed away, Ove had his eyes on the motorcycle, always eager to buy it and always stopped in his quest by Henry’s blunt refusal and smiling reply that Ove had to wait until Henry himself was safely installed six feet under.
To make the story even more beautiful, this particular Peashooter experienced quite a few moments of success back in the late 1920s on the ice of Lake Edsviken, a small lake only a short walk from the museum. The orientation of the Peashooter in the museum is the same as it was back in the old days, at the start line of ice races on Lake Edsviken.
MC Collection also highlights a handful of Swedish motorcycles, including two Husqvarna lightweights from 1958 and 1962, the “Golden Arrow” and the “Silver Arrow,” along with the two real Swedish gems of the museum. The first is a Husqvarna 500 Racer from 1934. Yes, it is a reproduction, but when you realize that only a handful were built to begin with and that all of them perished in a fire, you might be able to excuse Christer and Ove for cheating just a bit. The second important Swedish motorcycle exhibited at MC Collection is a Lito 500 from 1962, once owned by famous Swedish MX-rider Bill Nilsson, MX 500 Champ of 1957 and 1960 on a homemade AJS and, respectively, a Husqvarna.
Every motorcycle in MC Collection comes with a story, and if you have the chance to travel to Stockholm, I highly recommend dropping by to learn a few more.
Visit the museum’s website for more photos from the museum along with images from the museum’s new book, Icon of Motorcycle Design, a beautifully crafted book celebrating motorcycle design and the opening of the new museum. MC Collection will constantly reinvent itself at a well-calculated pace. MC