Posted by: titaniumparts | October 6, 2013

Remembrance of things past

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The new Indian Chief motorcycle.

In my working life I’m a freelance designer. Well, perhaps that under-represents what I do. I conceive and create ‘brand collateral’ – web sites, brochures, print advertising – for businesses. In doing that my first priority is always to understand what a client’s brand is about, and if this isn’t clear then I help them nurture it as an idea, to understand it, own it, and create a visual identity system to express it. I spend a lot of my time thinking about branding, how and why it works.

Brand is a weird concept. We all know a brand when we see one. Brands inhabit our comprehension of contemporary society and we’ve all become conditioned to read them with an astute and reflexive fluency. The notion of ‘brand’ has become rather vulgarised by its widespread use as a management consultancy buzz term but, putting that aside for now, as a feature of our daily lives brands are a very real, potent and deeply experienced facet of the cultural landscape. And once you start pursuing what certain brands ‘mean’ to us, unpacking their symbolic contents, it can reveal a vast array of meanings that we respond to in some far-reaching, subtle and complex ways.

What set me off on this was reading about the launch of the first new motorcycle from a manufacturer whose name has been resurrected from motorcycling’s past – a brand not seen since 1953 – the new Indian Chief (shown in the picture above), and I’ll come back to it in a moment.

But first, consider this, probably one of the finest examples of articulating a brand identity that I’ve ever seen. It’s Honda’s ‘Impossible Dream’ commercial, created by ad agency Wieden+Kennedy. A short, yet richly textured work of cinematic ambition, that whisks us through the history of Honda, in an inspired and inspiring, if shamelessly manipulative, style. (I favour this, the original cut, over the 2010 extended version):

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There are many different strands of ‘brand narrative’ at play in this commercial and the makers of this film have been admirably sensitive to the significance of some of the historical moments depicted; if you know about Honda you can pick up these deft allusions throughout. (In fact, even if you don’t know the history, on some subconscious level you’ll have absorbed the essence of it by the end of those two minutes). But the particular strand that I’m thinking about here, and the one that gives motive power to the whole narrative of that commercial, is that of ‘heritage’, when given its stylised expression in retro, nostalgic atmosphere, and the simple yet immensely powerful influence this can exert upon our emotions.

Car manufacturers have channeled retro design influences with some singular and quite remarkable successes – both the new Mini and Fiat 500 have been immense best sellers. But nowhere has heritage and its expression in ‘retro’ become more pervasive in terms of both corporate identity and product design philosophy than in the motorcycle industry.

And I have a feeling that the amount of retro in general circulation has been steadily increasing in recent times. (Certainly seems to be a lot more of it than there used to be back in the good old days …).

So I found myself reflecting on the question of how much these new Indian motorcycles represented merely the deployment of a heritage branding formula, or might perhaps be somehow genuinely channeling some of that same spirit, character and unique identity that defined the original manufacturer.

It’s certainly striking how much sheer presence still inheres in the ‘Indian’ logo alone. Just one six-letter word set in an antiquated font; yet that simple graphical device is so powerfully evocative, so resonant of a whole tract of American history. ‘The world’s fastest…’ salt flat speed records, or skinny-tyred visceral wooden board track races and ‘wall of death’ stunt riders of the 1920s.

Speaking personally, cruisers just don’t do it for me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the elegance of the Indian Chief as a beautifully executed branding exercise, to say nothing of the commitment and rigorous attention to detail that’s been invested in reanimating this long-dead name from motorcycling history. I think it’s clear that they knew they’d be held to account if they’d got this wrong. That styling though is pure 1930s Art Deco, and delightful to behold for that. But it would be a rare and unusual event for a car manufacturer to develop a new model with such atavistic styling cues. Clearly there are some quite unusual commercial factors at play here.

Of course, in the world of motorcycling, few have ploughed this heritage furrow more effectively than Harley Davidson, arguably the heritage brand par excellence. They sell huge global volumes of what are among the most expensive of mainstream production motorcycles, yet ones whose defining engineering principles have remained largely unchanged since the mid-20th century. Nor indeed (let’s be frank) do Harley make particularly capable motorcycles, at least for any purpose other than travelling in long, undeviating straight lines with a certain kind of heavy metal, Wurlitzer-meets-agricultural chic.

Yet, judging by the number of them I see on the roads (British roads, with bends in them!), and the way that on certain sunny weekends they seem to outnumber other makes of motorcycle by a ratio of at least two-to-one, they’re clearly providing something that a good number of people will enthusiastically buy into, even if it does cost them nearly twice the price of a far more technically advanced and capable European or Japanese bike.

And so, it seems to follow, the business case for these new Indians derives from a recognition that there’s a very sizeable market of people, with considerable amounts of disposable income, who really, really love this kind of stuff.

Almost all the large, mainstream motorcycle manufacturers seem to have a retro niche in their line-ups, referencing glorious moments in their past.

Doubtless with full awareness of their role in fostering and fulfilling many of our wishes and dreams from the earliest age, it seems that automotive engineering enterprises particularly lend themselves to deep and multi-faceted brand identities. And an intrinsic quality in most of these brands, to a greater or lesser extent, will be a nod towards heritage and the brand’s place in our shared social history. Only the newest, brashest johnny-come-latelys seem to eschew this angle in their brand profile (I suppose I’m thinking here of a company like KTM, whose comparatively brief history requires that they promote their primary virtues as being those of a kind of unabashed bad-boy modernity).

Here in Britain – during the 1980s – the moribund Triumph brand was resurrected and reborn, and the new company bearing its name has since gone on to become one of the shining success stories of British engineering. And although they now build some of the very best contemporary sports bikes, the top-selling cash cow, the model that has sustained them throughout, has been their carefully nuanced replicas of the original 1960s and 70s Bonneville. In engineering terms these Bonnevilles are not the same as their namesakes from the brand’s former heyday, although the new Triumph company have gone to some considerable lengths to reproduce the style and dynamics. Certainly these Bonnevilles are pretty enough, but still they’re firmly rooted in a heritage theme park ethos. For the brand (or marque) itself there’s little if any continuity with those former factories in Meriden, now flattened and replaced by a housing estate, all traces gone, save for a few evocative street names. But still the Triumph name and original logo manage to evoke a time when British motorcycles dominated the world – and it seems, as far as heritage goes, that’s sufficient continuity for most people.

Moving down to a virtual cottage-industry level, you can now once more buy a new, box-fresh Norton Commando (albeit beautifully reinterpreted and updated to the 21st century in engineering terms). These are being manufactured in limited numbers from a small workshop adjacent to the Donington Park race circuit.

As an aside – I’m struck that I find myself wanting to use the terms ‘brands’ and ‘marques’ interchangeably, even though I realise that each brings into play its own subtle distinctions and value judgements, and says something about the power of words to influence our terms of reference and to shape our interpretation of an ‘objective’ reality.

So what’s going on here? Why does retro remain so influential?

There’s no doubt that we all necessarily look to the past to appreciate iconic landmark design moments, those beautiful convergences of form and function that come to define the eras that produced them. Perfect expressions of a concept or ambition with the power to trigger deep responses in our collective aesthetic sensibilities. That’s a part of it.

Within my own preferred marque – Ducati – there are some particularly interesting examples of the way that this can play itself out in the brand narrative.

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Ducati Sport Classic 1000LE ‘Paul Smart’ edition

Ducati have created both deliberately retro products – the Paul Smart edition of the Ducati Sport Classic range from a few years ago is one of my own personal favourite factory retro bikes – but they’ve also had to contend with the unexpected retro effect exerted by their own iconic design history. I’m referring, of course, to the bike that came to define the company in the 1990s: the 916. This was a contemporary design landmark so huge, so significant, such a game-changer, that one could argue it has cast far too long a shadow across the subsequent design thinking of the factory and the sensibilities of its customers ever since.

And alas it was a case of woe betide the man who sought to replace it. That man was of course Pierre Terblanche and the bike he designed was the 999 (together with its smaller capacity but otherwise identical sibling the 749, which is what I ride).

I’ve loved everything about my 749 ever since I bought it, brand new, back in 2006 – including its styling. But I’ve lost count of the times over the intervening years that I’ve ended up fielding the same remarks from other bikers – ‘but it doesn’t look like a proper Ducati’, ‘it’s a bit of an ugly duckling’ – on each occasion defending my bike with the counter-argument that really it just kind of depends how you look at it.

And now, oddly enough, ten years since its launch, the angular elegance of Pierre Terblanche’s design is being reevaluated – increasingly elevated to the status of a ‘classic’ – and contemporary eyes are more ready to see that it was indeed an inspired attempt to assert a continuity with Ducati’s heritage as an innovator. But the punters – the Ducatisti – who the company needed to actually buy the things – well a good many of them weren’t ready for too much innovation at that time, and they grumbled about the styling, and the betrayal of Ducati’s heritage, and they stayed away.

The 999 had a production run of just three years (2003 – 2006) before they were dropped, and the company took a headlong step back into the past by echoing the lines, stance and ergonomics of Tamburini’s 916 design in the 1098 model that replaced the 999. I recall at this time how it seemed to me a little shabby the way the company swiftly sought to characterise the 999 as an aberration, suggesting that the true lineage of the company’s superbike heritage ran more correctly from the 916 to the 1098. You really could sense the desperation in their attempts to get the heritage brand narrative back on course.

Even in this story the subtle complexities of brand and heritage – what they mean to different people all of whom have an opinion about it – can be seen playing themselves out.

Interestingly, it’s only now – with hindsight, as the passing of time allows people to look back at these bikes – that they’re coming to be appreciated. Seems we’re prepared to embrace cutting-edge futurism once it has taken its place firmly in the past. To describe something as ‘ahead of its time’ only serves to locate it more firmly in a time that’s already gone. This seems to free us to become nostalgic about the way that we were once shocked and unsettled by a startling new design departure, and so begin to view it more fondly.

Another aside – What few people appreciate, and something that you can’t really appreciate unless you’ve ridden Tamburini’s original iconic design and Terblanche’s angular and divisive successor side by side – as I have – is that Terblanche’s bike was, and still remains, one of the very finest sports bikes for the road that Ducati have ever produced; a far better proposition than the 916 (996, 998 etc.) ever was. Aesthetics aside, the 999 was a superior engineering solution in almost every way. Its biggest problem was really only the way it was perceived as transgressing the company’s brand values –  for that reason alone it didn’t sell in sufficient numbers, and that was its downfall.

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The Ace Cafe London back-in-the-day

While the Harley and Indian brands evoke one particular narrative of nostalgic yearning – the Route 66 road movie version of the American dream – in the UK brands like Triumph and Norton sit within a more parochially English kind of story, one that encompasses within its sweep – to select just a few pins in the cultural/historical map – pre-war speed trials on the Brooklands banking; waxed Belstaff jackets; ton-up leather boys at London’s Ace Café of the 1950s; the Isle of Man TT; and youth riots on Brighton beach. Deep within the British psyche there abides a grainy black-and-white, often slightly grungy working class rebellion narrative of motorcycling, out on the margins of society. But still it’s a compelling and alluring one, and seems to be instinctively recognisable to most English people. Today the revived Ace Café serves as the heart, soul and hub of the UK retro bike scene.

It’s as though these showroom-new retro motorcycles become a kind of modern totem, embodying a complex set of historical and cultural values (to adapt the traditional definition of totem as an object representing the tribal stories of a mythic or ancestral past). They embody something that resonates with our sense of ourselves and the history we feel that we’re a part of, or perhaps at least a history that we yearn to have participated in, and they connect us with an idealised sense of our national and cultural identity. And, because we feel these things, those emotions also become invested in the meaning and interpretation we bring to these brands as a whole.

Even in the custom bike building sphere the rise of the urban ‘café racer’ movement continues to look steadfastly to the past for its inspiration. Reviving the old, either by painstaking restoration, or by crafting layers of retro styling upon a more modern donor machine, remains its primary ethos.

Whilst music must be the most common nostalgic trigger, some objects – and particularly motorcycles – can also exert an immense nostalgic power upon us, stirring us to a misty-eyed romanticisation of the recent historical past, with feelings that are bound up with notions about simpler, happier, more human-scaled times.

We tend to experience nostalgia as a spontaneous, sub-rational and emotive response. And the past that is symbolically alluded to is often highly idealised, selective in its detail, and quite possibly lacking in a good deal of objective historical accuracy. But still, these are sensations that can be mobilised to great effect to convey a story, doing so in terms of how it might have felt more than how it actually may have been (see Honda advert etc.).

There’s a view within psychology which asserts that experiencing nostalgic feelings – those reveries of sweet sadness – are actually closely linked to a strong, positive sense of emotional well being, even a perceived sense of physical warmth, as though this is a technique we’ve developed to help ward off the vicissitudes of life in the present and draw a comfort blanket around our troubled minds for a while (perhaps equivalent to the benefits derived from wearing a ‘psychological jumper’ as my wife calls some of her less fashionable but, she insists, still greatly comforting items of heavy knitwear).

Is the allure of retro a response to the seemingly exponential pace of change – especially technological change – in our contemporary lives?

Maybe the enduring presence of ‘retro’ in industrial design is playing to a part of culture where, as we individually get older, we seek – or at least recognise an affinity with – products that enable us to make some sense of the passage of time, of the scale of progress, and specifically to somehow ease the melancholic sting of the passing of our own years.

I’ve noticed that my own most common nostalgic reveries are rooted in my experience of the world at a key formative stage in my youth. Coming to consciousness, as it were, in my early teen years in the mid 1970s, I’m hopelessly captivated by blue-smoke ring-ting-ting 2-stroke Kawasaki triples and big green Z900s, red and white speed-block graphics on thumping Yamaha XT500s, Honda CB750 Fours and silver, six-cylinder CBXs. As powerfully as a pop song might, the sight of bikes such as these can instantly drop me through a wormhole straight back to a way I used to feel, to a time when life had yet to fully begin and felt full of rich possibilities, and also to the mean disappointment of the fact that such bikes were way beyond the reach of a teenager of such modest means as my own at those times.

It’s worth remembering that these iconic bikes from the 70s were, of course, utter rubbish by today’s standards. Although that doesn’t diminish one iota their potency as nostalgic totems.

Indeed, the thing is, they weren’t rubbish then. Or rather they were, but they were still as good as anybody could make them at that time, and better than anything that had gone before. But our standards and expectations are continually plunging forwards into the future. Today’s cutting edge technology, that looks so new and fresh to us now, will soon enough come to seem anachronistic, and we’ll wonder how we ever thought it was so amazing. But this very pace of change, the remorselessness of it, perhaps also plays its part in the appeal of the retro/nostalgia thing.

Fact is, we all seem to love our retro in some form or another. The motorcycle industry cannily fills these respective niches with carefully judged heritage products to seduce us, to seek out our particular nostalgic trigger, whether that be a giant art-deco highway cruiser or a silver and turquoise, old-school Ducati café racer.

Opening the garage door on a 21st century Norton Commando is perhaps a bit like having your own private time machine of the imagination. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, at least so long as looking backwards doesn’t obscure an appreciation of the many positive achievements that can be found in our own time, or encourage us to fall into simplistic notions that the past really was a golden era we should be seeking to return to in a political and social sense. It’s fun to time travel a little, but our true time is only and ever now.

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