If anyone out there needed a reminder that our fates are governed by the old qualification “God willin’ and the creek don’t rise” then COVID-19 has provided it. That applies especially to the current exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery’s Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA)and its curators, Charles M. Falco and Ultan Guilfoyle. If those names look familiar, take a cigar: yes, they were the curators of the Guggenheim’s blockbuster ‘Art of the Motorcycle’ exhibition.

Yes, the entire Perreaux Velocipede is there to set the standard for the show. (Photo QAGOMA)

Where that exhibition traced significant moments in the development of motorcycle design, QAGOMA’s takes the motorcycle from the past into the future, and focuses on both art and technology. ‘The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire’ features 100 bikes as against the Guggenheim’s 114, but it reaches further both in time and in intricacy.

God was willin’ enough, it seems, and the exhibition delivers every bit of its promise. Sadly the creek, in the form of COVID-19, did rise and an absolutely world-class exhibition will possibly be seen by few enthusiasts from outside Australia and New Zealand. You will find a lot more on the museum’s blog https://blog.qagoma.qld.gov.au/tag/the-motorcycle/ , which is something. There is also hope that the various vaccines will make international travel possible again before “The Motorcycle” closes at the end of April 2021. Fingers are crossed all over the world.

The USA is represented by more than just H-D and India; this is an 1898 Cleveland tricycle.

Yes, it really is that good.

The exhibition starts with an amazing sight to prepare you for the rest of it: the first display is the steam-powered 1871 Perreaux Vélocipède, the world’s first motorcycle. Missing is the world’s first internal combustion engined motorcycle, Daimler’s Reitwagen, but that’s no surprise. It no longer exists, burnt in a factory fire. Opening the show is a simply beautiful Belgian Minerva tricycle with a Mills and Fulford Forecar, and next is the first American display, a 1989 Cleveland tricycle, its design based on the 1896 French De Dion-Bouton but with a unique claim to fame: the first suspension on a motorcycle.

An immaculate Spencer, the first all-Australian motorcycle, from 1906.

It wasn’t long before Australian manufacturers jumped onto the two-wheeled wagon and while most of them relied on imported components, Brisbane local boy David Spencer designed and manufactured his bike entirely locally.

This is how motorcycle parts were manufactured 115 years ago.

The exhibition includes wooden molds he carved for the crankcase and cylinder parts. Tragically, he had to decline an order for 50 of his machines by the Queensland police because he lacked the capital.

World’s Fastest Indian on the half shell — a rare opportunity to see the insides of Burt Munro’s record-breaker.

I spent one entire circuit of the exhibition (I made four) looking for a space filler, a bike that perhaps didn’t deserve to be there but had found its way in because, well, there was a space to fill. No luck with that. Everything tells a part of the grand story, and while I could probably think of another 50 bikes I would love to see included, I am not sure I could justify them.

While the motorcycles are all seminal in one way or another, they are not all well-known. There are Harley-Davidsons but also Crockers; Triumphs but also a Peugeot; a Honda but also a Tilbrook and a Majestic. One fascinating exercise is following the many ways in which different clever engineers have solved the same problems. One large-scale example of that is the pairing of a Vespa and a Honda Cub; both post-WW2 and intended as solutions to the challenge of getting women to ride, but completely different in their execution.

Most of the bikes are in as-new condition; this Crocker flat-tracker is as-raced.

Sometimes the juxtaposition of bikes in the displays creates resonance that the curators may or may not have intended. In a spectacular arrangement of Italian motorcycles, the Green Frame 750 SS Ducati with its spare beauty steals the show to the extent that the other, faired, motorcycles tend to fade into the background.

The futuristic and customised bikes on show range from slick styling exercises – fortunately there is only one chopper – to one-wheelers and other electric bikes. Those in turn range from the Vespa Elettrica, which pretty much looks just like any other Vespa to the startling Zooz Concept 01 and the reassuringly chunky and solid Australian Savic C-Series.

‘Futuristic’ does not necessarily mean electric or even modedrn; this Rodsmith bike is powered by a 150cc BSA two-stroke engine.

The curators have resisted the temptation to rely on the fame of racers and their bikes. The only current competition machine on display is Toby Price’s KTM, in a thoughtful nod to the exhibition’s host country. Other than that, there are some dirt, dirt track and speedway racers displaying their technology as well as two speed record bikes: the Vincent Black Lightning on which Jack Ehret set the Australian record (also the world’s most expensive motorcycle sold at auction) and the world’s fastest Indian, displayed in all its glory on the half shell.

Initially, the descriptions of the displays may seem rather sparse, but QAGOMA has made use of cutting-edge technology to provide a range of immersive interactives to enhance the visitor experience. The mobile companion site enables you to navigate the show and dive deeper into the history and stories behind each bike on display.

The 1930 Majestic is without question the Belle of the Ball.

You can also take a virtual seat on a 1950s Vespa, 1960s Dirt Bike or an Electric ‘Future’ Bike and go riding through a themed landscape. Or you can spend some time building and customising your own bike, in a touch-screen interactive display – and then save the result to show your friends. Film presentations liven up the display galleries. As well, ‘Motorcycles on Screen’ is a major film program of more than 50 titles showing at GOMA for the duration of the exhibition.

Another Australian contribution to the show, Rex Tilbrook’s 1956 prototype. And no, he wasn’t sponsored by Mercedes-Benz.

You will find much more at https://www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/, and if you live outside Australia, cross your fingers for a vaccine and add up your airline bonus points. Don’t miss ‘The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire’ or you will find yourself racked by the same regrets I had for missing ‘The Art of the Motorcycle’.

(Photos by The Bear)

(The Bear would like to thank the Queensland government for financing the show, as well as QAGOMA for making it happen and for inviting him up to see it.)

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