Von Dutch.  Artist, Custom Culture demigod, legendary misanthrope, tee shirt brand.  Kenny Howard was many things – in his lifetime and beyond – but regardless his troubled personal legacy, he deserves credit as a keystone in the development of the American custom motorcycle.  Howard’s wacky custom Indians and Triumphs of the mid-1940s were like nothing else, and pushed custom motorcycles away from purely performance-oriented modifications, and into the realm of Style, creating a movement that would ultimately find its expression in the chopper, and beyond.

Kenneth Howard (aka Von Dutch) in 1946, with his Indian Scout in its first modified iteration, with his Howard ‘H’ chrome tank, hi-rise bars, and upswept exhaust. He shortly painted the tank with flames, among the very first vehicles so decorated. [Photo from the terrific biography ‘The Art of Von Dutch’ by Kahan/Nason/Quattrocchi/Smith, 2006]
Howard was also a pioneer of the cultural controversy we see today in the #metoo movement; his hatred of just about everyone, especially people of color, made many retailers drop the Von Dutch brand in 2004, after artist Robert Williams revealed Dutch’s dark side in OC Magazine.  Kenneth Howard is a perfect example of our conundrum around important figures with distasteful personal views, which is especially problematic as we make legends and heroes out of actual human beings; Von Dutch the myth versus Kenny Howard the man.  The myth sells a lot of tee shirts, the man was a compulsive outsider artist, and was pivotal in launching an enormous aesthetic movement. Having studied the Western canon of art and architectural history extensively, I can assure you Von Dutch was not alone in having terrible politics.

A lovely drawing of an Opposed-Piston four-stroke engine in a self-contained unit. The O.P. engine was invented in 1882! [Bonhams]
At the big Las Vegas vintage motorcycle auctions this month, Bonhams will sell 14 of Kenneth Howard’s drawings, 11 of which feature ‘alternative’ engine configurations – one of his well-known penchants, along with surreal, dystopian imagery, and drawings of guns (an example of each is also included in the sale).  The art is apparently from a single collection, and it’s difficult to speculate on the sale price of these works; Von Dutch-painted motorcycles have sold for as much as $276,000, although his paintings and drawings fetch a small percentage of that.  Bonhams’ estimates range from $400-$750 for each drawing, which seems calculated to draw interest from ordinary hopefuls.  But you never know how it will go at an auction!  Have a look at the Bonhams catalog here.

A notional streamliner, along the pattern of 1930s BMW/Gilera land speed racers
A redesign of the Triumph twin-cylinder engine with a DOHC conversion; the notes say ‘drawn freehand by Von Dutch, 1951’
A streamlined Triumph with an air intake at the back, presumably for a supercharger.
‘500 alloy single engine design, Von Dutch 1952’

 

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