Twenty-two years ago, the ‘Art of the Motorcycle’ rolled into New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. In a few snooty sectors of the art world, sensibilities were offended that something as base as Motorcycles had camped in the rotunda gallery designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. But most critics and every Motorcyclist certainly got it. So did hundreds of thousands of others. Two decades later, AotM is still one of the most well-attended shows in the museum’s history, with 301,037 visitors. As reported here earlier, it’s only taken two decades for another gallery to pay attention to powered two-wheelers as the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in Brisbane, Australia has opened its doors to ‘The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire’.

Lines around the block on opening day for ‘The Motorcycle’ exhibit in Brisbane at QaGOMA. [Ultan Guilfoyle]
Just who is behind these displays? They are the work of co-curators Ultan Guilfoyle and University of Arizona optical physics professor Charles M. Falco. Ultan spoke to me early in December, just days after the doors opened at GoMA to reveal ‘The Motorcycle’. Our discussion arced back to the beginning, and this conjunction of architecture, art and motorcycles lays firmly at Ultan’s feet. In the late 1980s, Ultan was an independent filmmaker working with Bob Geldof. They contributed arts programming to the BBC, and were interested in telling the story of Frank Lloyd Wright. That led Ultan to the Guggenheim, where he met then-Director Thomas Krens. “When I met him, we were talking and he showed me a document that he’d started writing,” Ultan explains. “It said that Harley-Davidson was the first motorcycle, and that he’d like to, one day, put together a motorcycle exhibition.”

Ultan Guilfoyle at home with a few of his motorcycles. [Ultan Guilfoyle]
Ultan says he wasn’t a motorcycle historian, but he knew that Harley-Davidson did not build the first motorcycle. He returned home to London, found some good books on motorcycle history, re-wrote the paper, and sent it to Krens. Not long after, Krens hired Ultan to put together the Guggenheim’s nascent film department. Ultan moved to New York to work at the Guggenheim, and Krens pulled out Ultan’s re-written document and suggested they get to work on mounting a proper motorcycle exhibition. Ultan says he didn’t immediately commit, and took some time to think about the proposition, but finally agreed.

Among the most remarkable machines at the Art of the Motorcycle exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum was the amazingly original 1871 Perreaux steam cycle, that lives in the Sceaux Museum in Paris. [Ultan Guilfoyle]
As a young lad, Dublin-born Ultan spent hours on his bicycle. “We went to school on bikes, delivered newspapers on bikes – bicycles were freedom for us,” he says. “I’ve still got bikes, and enjoy riding. Back then, we didn’t have mountain bikes, and had they been around when I was 10 years old my life might look much different than it does now.” His early pedal bikes included both a single-speed and then a three-speed Raleigh, and while not ideally suitable for rough stuff, he rode them in the dirt. One of his favorite bikes was his father’s old VeloSolex moped. The motor, which sits in front of the handlebars and drives the front wheel via friction roller, had seized. Ultan stripped off the engine and says the ‘bicycle’ rode like nothing else he had – with low gearing and a now much lighter front end, he could wheelie for blocks. Because of his predilection for rough ground, as a teenager his attention turned to internal combustion engines and trials riding aboard an OSSA Mick Andrews Replica. Scholarly training was obtained at Trinity College Dublin, where he read English, Philosophy and Art History. Ultan adds, “Those were truly the days of a liberal arts education.”

Ultan Guilfoyle in New York City in 2017. [Paul d’Orléans]
After moving to London, Ultan rode a Norton Commando on the street. When he arrived in New York to work at the Guggenheim, he picked up another Norton, this one a wrecked 850 Commando with a bent front end. He recalls, “I brought it into my office in the Guggenheim, laid a sheet down on the floor, and took it apart there. It wasn’t long before I was told I couldn’t be doing that in my office, so I worked on it in the Guggenheim’s workshop.” It was while toiling on AotM that the Guggenheim’s chief curator Lisa Dennison suggested Ultan needed some intellectual backup for the event. “She said, just get somebody academic,” Ultan recalls. “I knew Charles, and I knew he had one of the best book collections on motorcycles in the world, and he had an academic approach to motorcycles. He was someone who could tell you the facts, and we asked him to be a curatorial advisor. That’s how we became known for the Art of the Motorcycle.”

Ultan with his BSA B33 hybrid, a back-lane bike perfect for his Catskills weekend home…at which he’s spent many months this year. [Paul d’Orléans]
With 150 machines on display, the AotM became one of the most important shows thus far highlighting the motorcycle. After its successful June 26 to September 20, 1998 run at the Guggenheim, it traveled to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, then Bilbao, Spain before appearing in 2001 at the Guggenheim Las Vegas followed by the Guggenheim-Hermitage. Combined, more than two million visitors saw the show at these four museums. Years later, when Charles was conducting a lecture at GoMA – also known as the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art, or QAGoMA – director Chris Saines approached Charles about mounting another motorcycle show. Ultan was quickly brought into the discussion, and the three met over lunch in New York City. “Chris said he didn’t want to rehash the Guggenheim display, and asked what did we think we could do? We suggested looking to the future and the rising prominence of electric bikes,” Ultan says, and adds, “This was to be about personal transportation in the 21 st century, but with a few highlights from the Guggenheim mixed in.”

The truly awesome 1994 Britten V1000 displayed in the Guggenheim: the same Britten is on display in Brisbane, and appropriately graces the cover of ‘The Motorcycle’ exhibition catalog. [David Heald]
One example, in particular, was the Britten. “The Britten is,” Ultan says, “The greatest motorcycle ever designed and built, and especially in Australia, you’d have to have a Britten as it’s from New Zealand. In fact, my first call after that initial meeting was to Kristeen Britten, John Britten’s widow. She couldn’t loan her motorcycle, but she said she’d find us one, and it turned out to be the original Jim Hunter bike that we had at the Guggenheim. The new owner/lender is thrilled to show it – and that was all a coincidence.”

…aaand the catalog in question, which is available now. Shameless plug, it lives next to Paul d’Orléans book ‘The Chopper: the Real Story’ in Ultan’s living room! And the keen-eyed will recognize the original ‘Art of the Motorcycle’ exhibition catalog below. [Ultan Guilfoyle]
The other was the c.1871 Perreaux steam velocipede from the Musée Sceaux in Paris. “Apart from those two that were included at the Guggenheim, we wanted to look at every other bike and change it up,” Ultan says. “Whether that was a different bike, or one that represented the same design ideas. Some bikes you can’t change, like the Vincent Black Shadow – but you can decide whether to go with a later Series C or an earlier one. Same with a BSA Gold Star; that’s one of the most important bikes in British motorcycle history – the DBD engine was ubiquitous. But instead of a DBD34 Clubman Gold Star, we wanted to find a Catalina Gold Star rather than repeat what we’d done at the Guggenheim.”

The curators on site: Charles Falco and Ultan Guilfoyle at the GOMA Bodhi Tree Terrace, wiht one of the display Indians, and 8-Valve racer. [QaGOMA]
Ultan and Charles prepared initial lists of machines, and swapped them between themselves. Then, their combined list was handed to QAGoMA, where it was soon noted there wasn’t a chopper on the list. “I like bob jobs and cut downs, but eventually we made a decision to put in a Panhead chopper we found in Australia,” Ultan says. The exhibit would not be laid out in chronological order; rather, Ultan chose to create themes, including Sport, Custom, Speed and Electric. In the last category, the team wanted to highlight many new machines, but Ultan tells an interesting story about finding Swedish-built CAKE bikes. “I was in Sydney at Deus ex Machina and saw a CAKE bike there. I talked to them about it, and made a note to myself to look into it. Soon, I had a call from a fellow in Sweden, and he talked to me for a bit as we’d both contributed to a book called Spoon (100 designers, 10 curators, 10 design classics). I still wasn’t really sure who he was, but it turned out to be Stefan Ytterborn.”

The design brilliance of the CAKE Kalk, one of the electric bikes chosen for ‘The Motorcycle’ exhibit, which looks more timeless every year in its spare simplicity. [CAKE]
Stefan had at one point operated his own design consultancy and had worked with the likes of Swedish furniture powerhouse IKEA. “Turns out, Stefan had gone from design consultant to designing all his own POC Gear (cycling, skiing, sunglasses, etc.),” Ultan continues. “He’d always been irritated that dirt bikes left a big footprint on trails, and thought an electric bike with a mountain bike tire would leave a smaller footprint on the environment, and designed the CAKE. He was calling me because the people at Deus had told him I’d taken an interest in the CAKE, and the conversation went on from there.”

A local hero on display, the 1951 Vincent Black Lightning originally raced in Australia by Jack Ehret, that famously fetched nearly $1M at auction, and is the star atop our ‘Top 100 Most Expensive Motorcycles’ tree. [Bonhams]
By late February 2020, the majority of 100 bikes for the QAGoMA show had been chosen. Ultan had the loans all lined up, and says they’d cherry picked many motorcycles without yet having any formally signed agreements. Then, Covid hit. “March 13, the shit hit the fan,” he says. “Many of those loans just disappeared, from Britain, Germany, Spain and Italy, everyone shut down their operations. About 30 per cent of the exhibit was coming from Europe, and those loans just evaporated, leaving us scrambling.” By July, QAGoMA confirmed they had the green light from the Australian government to go ahead with the show, mainly due to low Covid case numbers. Could Ultan and Charles deliver? They said yes. “We were already heavily into both David Reidie’s Harley-Davidson and Crocker collection and Peter Arundel’s Indian collection, but it forced us to go much deeper into other Australian collections to find machines that told similar stories to ones we’d lost. And, we found some very good examples of Australian-built motorcycles, such as the Spencer, Tillbrook and Whiting. Covid caused me my biggest problem, but it offered me great solutions with opportunities we’d not have otherwise recognized. With the time difference between here and Australia, from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. every night I was on the phone talking to collectors.”

Even with all the bikes chosen and agreed, COVID threw a wrench into the works, and many bikes had to quickly be re-sourced from willing exhibitors, like this 1914 Whiting, and 1927 Douglas DT5. [Ultan Guilfoyle]
Ultan says they wanted to have 100 motorcycles on display, simply for the fact that in motorsports, 100, or the ton, is a mystical number. One of the 100 motorcycles telling a distinctly Australian story is the Spencer, a machine made by David Spencer in Brisbane c.1906. Spencer made bronze and cedar molds and patterns – several are on display with the machine — for his components, from crankcases to carburetors to control levers; all pieces are numbered and bear his name. It is thought Spencer produced 10 engines, and one of the two complete surviving machines in ‘The Motorcycle’ has been restored with its 475cc single-cylinder engine, bearing the number 3, in its frame. At the other end of that spectrum is the 1951 Vincent Black Lightning ridden by Jack Ehret in 1953 to set a 141.5 mph Australian land speed record. It set another record at Bonhams’ 2018 Las Vegas motorcycle auction when it hammered closed for $929,000; making it the most expensive motorcycle ever sold at auction.

Dare Jennings and Carby Tuckwell, the founders of Deus Ex Machina, with one of their signature modified Yamaha SR500s. This is the ‘Drover’s Dog’, which comes complete with a surfboard. [Dare Jennings]
Just as AotM had an outstanding 432-page catalog to complement the exhibit, Ultan and Charles worked together to write a 320-page hardcover exhibition catalog for ‘The Motorcycle’ complete with fresh new photography. Published by Phaidon Press, The Motorcycle is, according to the QAGoMA description, “An essential and compelling exploration of the design, history, and culture of the motorcycle – an icon of the machine age.” Ultan and Charles made two visits to Australia pre-Covid to meet with collectors and discuss the displays with QAGoMA staff. The last time they were there was February 20, just before the world pivoted to lockdown mode. Although ‘The Motorcycle’ was permitted to go ahead, with no international travelers allowed into Australia, this meant the entire installation was done at arm’s length – again, with Ultan working long into the night via telephone and online conferencing to set up the galleries. Now, with the doors open, Ultan says, “In the end, we’re very happy with the exhibition.” Will the show be able to travel, as AotM did after its run at the Guggenheim? “That’s always in the conversation, but now I think all bets are off with Covid,” Ultan says, and concludes. “I don’t know, maybe with vaccines on their way, it might be realistic to travel it.”

A pleasure temporarily limited to Australians: visiting ‘The Motorcycle’ exhibit in Brisbane. The exhibition design includes extensive wall graphics and continuously running motorcycle films. [QaGOMA]
We’ll have to wait and see, but for now, Australian art, design and motorcycle enthusiasts are the lucky ones; they have the opportunity to attend an exceptionally curated, landmark motorcycle exhibition.

2015: Ultan Guilfoyle joined the judging team for the Motorcycle Film Festival. l-r: Mark Hoyer (Cycle World), Jack Drury (co-founder MFF), Ultan Guilfoyle, Marin Cianferoni (La Mala Suerte Edicioines), Corinna Mantlo (MFF co-founder, now Editor for Film at The Vintagent), Melissa Holbrook Pierson (The Perfect Vehicle), Cliff Vaughs (Easy Rider), Paul d’Orléans (Chief Judge MFF), Stacie B. London (LSR racer), Larry Marcus (Easy Rider). [Mark Hoyer]
Greg Williams is a motorcycle writer and publisher based in Calgary who contributes the Pulp Non-Fiction column to The Antique Motorcycle and regular feature stories to Motorcycle Classics. He is proud to reprint the Second and Seventh Editions of J.B. Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics series. Follow him on IG: @modernmotorcyclemechanics
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