My pal Chuck asked me if I would do the valve lash adjustment on his Ducati Monster 1100 Evo; a beautiful bike, I might add. One of the last full-on air cooled beasts. The finishes are beautiful*, and all the major** components look like artwork you could hang on your wall. This appears to be Ducati in a nutshell…

…And now for the asterisks:

Although the finishes are beautiful, they are capital “D” delicate. Like slightly damp tissue paper in a windstorm, on Jupiter. Let me explain; When I’m working around “Class A” surfaces (painted, polished…that are clearly visible) I try to take some kind of action to keep them protected from service damage. This might mean hanging a sheet or a rag over it, or taking precautions not to bounce a ratchet handle off of it. In this particular case I took the time to protect the alternator side engine case with some blue painters tape. Normally this is plenty to prevent any agonizing little scratches or blemishes. In this particular case, this measure backfired in spectacular fashion. I was wrapping up the work, wiping off my hands, and I reached down to casually rip of the no-longer-needed tape while happily whistling “Where Eagles Dare”. It came off easily, along with a thumb-sized chunk of engine case paint. I screamed. Probably for about ten seconds solid. A choking, shrieking, goat-caught-in-a-bear trap sound. It was completely justified. I mean, c’mon! It’s blue painters tape! It wouldn’t pull the hair off a frog! How could it possibly pull off engine case paint! But it did. And now my neighbours think I slaughtered a animal with a hammer in my garage. This is not helping my devil worshipper image with the neighbourhood. The Misfits on the shop stereo probably doesn’t help either.

The frame, the swing arm, the seat, the headlight, the levers, the foot pegs… Are all gorgeous. You could hang them from a gold chain and wear them around your neck. There is however a cost to this; the minor components, things like the fuel lines, brake lines, and the myriad of unglamorous little parts which are mission critical end up being quite ugly. Let’s consider that fabulous equal-length exhaust as an example. On the right side of the bike we have this very organic curve where the pipes meet (and go into Chuck’s impossibly short, and implausibly loud “muffler”). It resembles the swell of an athletic feminine backside, not an accident I’m sure. But this sensuous feature comes at a cost of having to make a sizeable pass-through for the vertical cylinder’s exhaust runner. It has to wind it’s serpentine path out of the back of the vertical cylinder, through the subframe, past the frame  to the front of the cam covers to meet with its partner from the horizontal cylinder. Making all this room for that rear exhaust runner means that the fuel lines, brake lines and wiring all have to get out of the way and find their own route home, all zip tied into whatever passages were available. It makes servicing a pain in the ass, and is probably no treat for assembly either. These kinds of aesthetically driven decisions also invariably lead to some fundamental packaging corollaries that can be real head scratchers. For example, the fuel lines (I know I’m harping on the fuel lines, but it’s warranted), come out of the sending unit under the seat through quick-disconnects directly above the hot exhaust runner! I presume living in this sauna at least partially explains why the O-ring seals on these connectors were completely bollocked on this particular bike.

This, to me, seems to be a clear case of a machine that was conceived from the outside in. It’s as if the styling department in Modena rolled their clay masterpiece into the engineering suite and the technical staff were left with the task of figuring out how to jam all the oily, turny bits into the silhouette they were given. Adrian Newey, the master F1 car designer once said that the beautiful cars were always the ones that seemed to work the best. Certainly, there are many possible interpretations of that statement, but I choose to read it as this; function creates an inherent beauty. Consider a well-made blade, there are few things as enchanting and provoking as a very well made knife. It communicates purpose (and maybe just a touch of danger) and as such its form implicitly is beautiful. I think that the individual components of a vehicle can have this characteristic. A suspension link, when made from the right materials and designed to have the minimal weight and maximal strength, can have an implicit beauty. This is further enhanced if we can see evidence of direct human intervention. The laying-upon of a crafters hands imparts a certain magic. This is why Max Hazan bikes are always so gorgeous. Many of his parts are hand made with great care, and they clearly communicate their purpose upon sight. They may not be practically usable, but they sure stir the soul.

So then if we take all the unglamorous parts of the machine, and take the time to make them with care then combine them in a manner that maximizes their function and efficiency. Does that guarantee a beautiful outcome? Or must we instead take the Ducati approach and start with the beautiful form, then make the functional bits work within the constraints it provides? I would argue that either approach can create something special, and that it’s not even possible to extricate one entirely from the other. That said, when we take the Bauhaus approach, and let the form be defined by the function, then we at least have some assurance that the machine will work as good as it looks. And maybe, blue painters tape won’t be able to spoil it.

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