Black Side Down

Looking Back

The beginning of a new year often finds us looking back in the rearview mirror of life, pondering what's been and is now gone as we move forward. I'm not usually one to dwell on loss, but it feels somehow wrong — improper even — not to note the passing of some major figures from our universe, faces that won't be shining their light on our little corner of the world anymore.

Although best known in automotive racing circles, Dan Gurney, who passed away Jan. 14, 2018, at the ripe old age of 86, was well known to our group. An avid motorcyclist himself, in his later life he focused his passion on the Alligator, a semi-recumbent- style motorcycle he developed to make riding more fun for tall riders like himself.

A month before, on Dec. 10, 2017, we lost Bruce Brown. Known to every motorcyclist of a certain age, Brown's critically acclaimed 1971 film, On Any Sunday, helped launch motorcycling into the American mainstream, thanks in no small part to the involvement of superstar actor Steve McQueen, with supporting roles by major racers including Mert Lawwill and Malcolm Smith.

Closer to home for me was the passing on Dec. 16, 2017, of Derek "Nobby" Clark, 81. A mechanic to the stars, the list of racers whose bikes he fettled reads like a Who's Who of Sixties and Seventies motorcycle racing greats, including Mike "The Bike" Hailwood, Jim Redman, Giacomo Agostini, Gary Hocking, Kenny Roberts, Barry Sheene, Jarno Saarinen and more.

Born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Nobby's career was aided by fellow Rhodesian and high school friend Hocking, who hired him as his tuner when he started riding for MV Agusta in 1960. After Hocking's death in 1962, Nobby tuned for Redman, which led to his hiring by the Honda factory, a relationship that cemented his career as a foremost GP tuner. During his time with Honda he tuned the brand's epic 4-, 5- and 6-cylinder GP machines, remarking about the multi-cylinder Hondas in one interview that "you had to use tweezers on a lot of parts, like valve collets, because the parts kept getting smaller, but your fingers stayed the same size."

I first met Nobby in 2006 at AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days at the Mid-Ohio race track. I had tagged along with a group gathering to meet some of the great Daytona Beach racers of the Fifties, and was standing off to the side when I looked over and saw Nobby, also standing off to the side. Although I knew I'd seen his face, I couldn't quite place it, so finally I walked over and said something to the effect of, "You look really familiar. Have we ever met?" To which Nobby, in what I would learn over subsequent years was typical classic understatement, simply replied, "Maybe, I've been to a lot of races in my life."

Nobby, as I came to appreciate over the time I was fortunate to know him, was one of the most grounded, down-to-earth people one might ever hope to meet, and honest almost to a fault — unique qualities in a sport peppered with larger-than-life personalities. For years I'd hoped that someone would sit down with Nobby, put a tape recorder on the table and get him to share all of the stories of his incredible 50-year racing career, start to finish. That never happened, although in his later years his unique role in motorcycle racing's history was finally being fully appreciated, particularly after his 2012 induction into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Nobby's passing won't go unnoticed, with a special ceremony planned at Daytona in March and, I've heard suggested, at the Barber Vintage Festival in October. Rest in Peace, Nobby you'll be missed.

Ahead to the Past

When Heinrich and Wilhelm Hildebrand teamed up with Alois Wolfmüller to produce the world’s first production motorcycle, in 1894, they were building a machine targeted almost exclusively to a growing leisure class, a population of individuals with the time and resources to toy with emerging technology.

It’s doubtful they could have imagined how profound the motorcycle’s impact on society and culture would be. Although the motorcycle’s historically recreational status in the U.S. has limited its influence here somewhat, in other countries the motorcycle offered — and still offers — an unparalleled opportunity for personal transportation. Motorcycle sales may be slow here, but elsewhere, particularly in India and Asia, motorcycle sales are exploding.

In the U.S., increasing motorcycle sales closely followed our rise as the chief international and economic power after World War II. Twenty years later, we saw a real sales explosion following the rise in Japanese manufacturing capacity and competence that led to Japanese domination of the American market.

Yet the motorcycle in America remained at its core a recreational purchase, and often a seemingly offhand one as small Japanese and European motorcycles became available at places like Sears and Montgomery Ward, enticing customers who otherwise might have been shopping for a new lawn mower.

Changing technologies and consumer tastes led to larger and more powerful motorcycles, which increasingly elbowed smaller offerings off the showroom floor. Until recently, that evolution seemed set to continue unabated, as a growing category of ironically heavy and huge “Adventure Bikes” stormed showrooms. Then a surprise came in the fashion of a new generation of small, user-friendly two-wheelers, led by a handful of 125cc to 250cc Honda-clone-powered Asian singles. Japan’s Big Four jumped in, each offering their own take on how to make small fun again, in the process creating a ripple effect that has produced a bevy of really cool mid-size machines, a category that seemed to have mostly died after the Seventies.

Along the way, old has once again become cool. Manufacturers across the globe are digging into their corporate past, pulling styling and lifestyle cues from the bikes of yore to satisfy the changing tastes of a changing universe of riders. And if they don’t have a past, they’re buying it. Indian manufacturing giant Mahindra bought the BSA name and plans to build a BSA-badged single. At the EICMA 2017 show in Italy, now Chinese-owned and produced Benelli introduced the single-cylinder retro-cued 400cc Benelli Imperiale. Due for production in 2018, it looks more British than Italian, which makes a certain odd sense when you learn it’s aimed at the growing leisure market in India, where British thumpers of old are revered.

Royal Enfield is arguably the leading figure in the retro-themed category, a reality of ironic proportions given they were pretty much forced into that corner as they continued building the same vintage motorcycles for decades. Yet RE has evolved markedly in the past 10 years, adapting to a changing market and introducing improvements and new models, most notably at EICMA, where RE took the wraps off its first ever twin, the 650cc Interceptor and Continental GT. New it may be, but RE’s retro roots dictated its design, down to a single-overhead cam engine designed to look like a traditional pushrod mill.

As EICMA underscored, manufacturers keep looking forward, but with an eye on the rearview mirror. Like good friend Eligio Arturi said after visiting EICMA, Ahead to the Past!

Richard Backus