Ugly… ugly ugly yuck. Just what is it that makes something ugly? Can we go with Dorothy Parker’s comment that beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes to the bone? I mean, what did she mean by that, to start with – and what do we mean when we say that something is ugly?
The word is medieval in origin. It is from Old Norse and it means ‘to be feared or dreaded’. If Ms Parker was thinking of that meaning, she was pretty much spot on. But the way we use the word is far less apocalyptic. It’s usually just something we don’t like, something that looks odd, occasionally we can even identify it by strangeness. And yet…
Francis Bacon said that “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion”, an idea that was picked up much later by Edgar Allan Poe. Baudelaire went on to suggest that “the beautiful is always strange… try to think of an example of banal beauty!”
He goes on to note that beauty requires “An eternal, invariable element, the quantity of which is extremely difficult to determine, and a relative, circumstantial element that could be, if you will, in sequence or all together, era, fashion, morality and passion. Without this second element, which is like the amusing, titillating, appetizing exterior of the divine cake, the first element would be indigestible, unappreciable, unadapted and inappropriate to human nature.”
In other words, Baudelaire thinks that beauty may be an eternal quality, but it requires a nod to current fashion to be acceptable to mere human sensibility. Think of The Birth of Venus: Botticelli’s model is cute, but she’s carrying a few kilos too many to be beautiful by our current standards. So what of ugliness? Time to go to that old standby, the Marquis de Sade.
“Beauty belongs to the sphere of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary, and there is no question but that every ardent imagination prefers in lubricity, the extraordinary to the commonplace.” And yet, Marquis, and yet… you ended up in the lunatic asylum at Charenton, and we didn’t.
Nevertheless, as the Haitians say, “nou led, nou la,” – “we are ugly but we are here”. So let’s take a look at some motorcycles generally regarded as ugly.
One contender within the memory of the current crop of motorcyclists is BMW’s R 1200 CL. One of the kinder reviews described it as looking like a puzzled squid, and despite many worthwhile characteristics such as outstanding comfort it died the death of the… ugly. I’m sorry to say that I consider that a deserved demise. What were they thinking in Munich? And I even thought the R 1200 C was a good-looking motorcycle, unlike every other motorcycle scribbler in the world.
Not that the CL can hold a candle to the first version of the Morbidelli V8, a motorcycle that managed to look even uglier than the Bimota Mantra. Pininfarina designed the Morbidelli, and the fact that they thought a walnut dashboard would be a good idea is enough to make me take another look at the much-lauded Pininfarina designs in the car world. Really? What were they thinking in Cambiano?
Sometimes you have to cut the designers some slack, for one of two reasons. The Amazonas, for instance, was created from a VW Beetle but only allocated two wheels. That was never going to end well, as the bikes I’ve seen in Australia which were re-engined with a people-wagon flat four demonstrated one and all. But the Brazilians had to work with what they had, and if the result looks like a VW power train which has had some sheet metal riveted to it, what else did you expect?
The other reason is that the designers simply had no idea what motorcycles were supposed to look, and work, like. Early home-grown Chinese designs were good – well, representative – examples of this. Some looked remarkably like machines assembled from three or more prototypes, and worked just as badly. And some were simply built for their market, making them odd but not really ugly.
What are we to say of the 2004 Multistrada or the Honda Rune? The Ducati is wrong; the Honda is pointless; both have been struck severely with the ugly stick. At least the Rune was interesting. So was Suzuki’s B-King, but that wasn’t enough to rescue it. Are we heading into an increasingly weird era of motorcycle design? Maybe it’s the whole world.
“Nowadays, whether we like it or not… we have to face the fact that, visually, the world is becoming an increasingly depressing place. It is not, perhaps, so much the occurrence of what might be described as ‘active ugliness’ as the prevalence of the dull and the commonplace.” That’s JE Gordon, whose book “Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down” will reassure you if you can’t work out what keeps bridges up, but a man who can obviously think past such quotidian concerns.
What about you? What do you think about designs bad to the bone? Show us your monstrosities!