Now on view at the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA is our latest moto-centric exhibit: Electric Revolutionaries.  Curated and concepted by Paul d’Orléans, the exhibit focusses on 11 designers making an impact on the electric mobility scene, each in very different ways; from top speed to accessible mobility, from aesthetic perfection to hand-cobbled and crude, from luxury to mass market to one-off.  Each of these designers is tackling a different set of issues, illustrating the wide-open nature of EV design at this early stage of the industry.  Our 11 designers are brave pioneers, embracing what could be the future of mobility, digging in on what design features make EVs unique, and challenging our ideas of ‘what is a car or motorcycle?’

JT Nesbitt is a legend for his fiercely independent status in the motorcycle world, and two of his designs – the Confederate Wraith and G2 Hellcat – are among the most distinctive designs of the 20th Century. A New Orleans native,  JT received his Master of Fine Arts from Louisiana Tech University’s School of Design.  A stint writing for Iron Horse magazine led to a job with Matt Chambers of Confederate Motorcycles, and after Confederate left New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, he founded Bienville Studios, and drove his Magnolia Special CNG car across the USA, setting a record for an alternative fuel vehicle.  When Matt Chambers changed course on his bespoke motorcycle business to focus on electric vehicles as the Curtiss Motorcycle Co., JT Nesbitt joined him once again to design The Curtiss One.  While JT’s earlier designs flexed with aggressive, exposed structures, the One is an entirely different animal: elegant in an old-world way, with Art Nouveau lines and a joie de vivre surely reflecting his New Orleans roots.

JT Nesbitt awheel on his latest design, Curtiss Motorcycles’ The One, in prototype form.  The production version uses carbon fiber suspension arms. [Curtiss]
Paul d’Orléans interviewed JT Nesbitt in January 2022, with the assistance of our EV Editor Stephanie Weaver, and their conversation is below, lightly edited for clarity.  It’s a long interview, and full of gems!

Paul d’Orléans (PDO): Are you in New Orleans?

T Nesbitt (JT): Yeah, I’m joining you all from the what is now our [Curtiss Motorcycles] manufacturing facility.  I’m in the electrical subassembly area of my shop, and this is where I do all the tuning; it’s all done via computer, the same computer that I’m talking to you with right now.  We’re going to be lifting torque values, raising the torque limits.

PDO: Whose software are you using?

JT: We’ve engaged with the company called New Eagle, and they do a lot of EV integration This is a whole new world for me. I mean, I’ve built a fuel injected wiring harness before, but I’ve never done anything like all this high voltage stuff, I mean it’s dangerous. I’ve learned more in the past two years than I learned in the past 10.

You know, New Orleans actually has a pretty vibrant history of motorcycle manufacturing. Here’s one for for Paul, I bet you maybe you know this; in 1952 when Indian went out of business, the second largest producer of motorcycles in the United States was Simplex.

The Simplex motorcycle from New Orleans was once the second largest motorcycle manufacturer in the USA. [Mecum]
PDO: That’s right, I’ve written something about Simplex for a Mecum auction. It’s kind of like who? Sorry Simplex!  But they became the second biggest manufacturer of motorcycles in the USA for years.  So are you in the old simplex factory?

JT: No, it’s not that poetic. The old Simplex factory is now a Home Depot on Carrollton Ave. The funny thing is, it’s a history that that people here in New Orleans don’t celebrate because it’s so crazy that it could actually happen here. But it’s legit; the next motorcycle factory in New Orleans was Confederate. I’m going to call the Legacy Project, because it was serious production. So Curtiss is actually the 3rd bite of the apple.

PDO: Let’s just dig right into this: how long you been working on the Curtiss project?

JT: To be a motorcycle designer. I think you have to know a lot about motorcycles.  You and I are kind of birds of a feather, we really embrace that history.

PDO: Right, nerds!

JT: Moto nerds. I’m a blood and guts kind of guy, and other designers are more conceptual. Well, it brings it brings up the whole question about contemporary motorcycle design.

PDO: And why is it so ******* awful? I wrote when the new Indian FT series came out, ‘this looks like a remarkable motorcycle. But why did they make the engine so ugly?’ Do people think it doesn’t matter anymore?

JT: Well, you know what I think man. I think it’s about who your heroes are.  In all the time that I’ve been interviewing interviewing motorcycle design guys, the first question you should ask them is ‘who are your heroes?’  And in the EV world, it seems like their hero is Elon Musk. Not known for his exceptional taste. Elon Musk is not a motorcycle designer. He not even an automotive designer; he’s a visionary, which is a different matter. Therefore, he is not my hero. Steve Jobs is not my hero.

PDO: So who are your heroes then?

JT: well, let me let me show you something – I want to ask your opinion. What’s the most valuable motorcycle in the world?

PDO: The most valuable? Well…

Glenn H. Curtiss aboard his remarkable record-breaker built around his V8 dirigible motor in 1907. The machine now lives in the Smithsonian Museum. [The Vintagent Archive]
JT: [Shows photo of 1907 Curtiss V8] I could tell you what that’s one of them.

PDO: That’s one of them.

JT: So, the Vincent [that currently holds the record for most expensive vehicle at auction] is a very cool motorcycle, right? But this is a national treasure. This lives in the Smithsonian. It’s not in private hands. It could never be in private hands. So who are my heroes? Well, Glenn Curtis, who went 136 miles an hour in 1907. Yeah, I’ll take that guy.

PDO: On a machine of his own construction.

JT: That’s right: design, manufacture, construction and riding. Amazing what a what a person.

PDO: And he never crashed an airplane that he designed.

Glenn H. Curtiss; builder of the first American V-twin motorcycle, the first successful motorized dirigible, and the first successful airplane, among other things. [The Vintagent Archive]
JT: Actually, he invented the airplane.

PDO: Pretty much so, I think: his was the first to take off under its own power, and return to its start location.

JT: The Wright brothers had a kite with a little lawn mower engine in it.

PDO: You don’t have to tell me: I’m firmly in the Curtis camp on this one. The Wright brothers needed a slingshot to launch their kite with a little putt putt on the back,  and Curtiss made an airplane that you could actually maneuver.

JT: Yeah, take off:  the Wright brothers hated him.  It’s about ailerons – Curtiss invented the aileron instead of the wing-warp thing the Wrights used. That’s a good place to start, don’t you think?

PDO: Yeah, for sure Glenn Curtis’s probably the original. I mean, it’s just a shame that he basically gave up motorcycle manufacturing in 1912. I mean he licensed his name after that, but only briefly, to carry on motorcycle  manufacturing. But then he just became involved in airplanes.

JT: So you know, people who are real motorcycle geeks know the Glenn Curtis story. But sadly, very few people know the history of the things they love.

PDO: Well, that’s why I’m so excited to be talking to you.

JT: Because your audience gets it.

JT Nesbitt at the Electric Revolutionaries exhibit at the Petersen Museum, in which he is featured. [Motor/Cycle Arts Foundation]
PDO: For sure. I love your take on design being about heroes, and who inspires you. That’s great.  I’m friends with several OEM designers who are motorcycle history guys as well.  But they’re also working within the strictures of an internal combustion industry which is heavily regulated, and with a Board which is in an intermediary between their passions and the product, that must ultimately be sold and delivered.  So there’s a lot of compromise on their designs. I feel sorry for internal combustion designers, unless they’re customizers, which I think is why a lot of very talented people go into custom machinery and not into manufacturing.

JT: Because that whole world is dead. I mean it, it’s just gone, there’s no way to fix it, not not in our lifetime and moving forward. Then all these cars are going to be self-driving at some point, and I think in the fairly near future everybody’s going to have transportation pods…except for motorcyclists, because there’s almost no way to make a computer understand how to self-drive a thing that requires countersteer. So the only freedom the only freedom  in 50-60 years is going to be on two wheels, right?

PDO: I agree, and it’ll be safe because all the cars will be programmed to avoid them. It’ll be the greatest time to ride motorcycles since 1912.

JT: Here’s the question for you. What are the electric motorcycles that are being made now? How are they going to be viewed in 50, 60, 70 years?

PDO: They’ll be the awkward Pioneers.

JT: No, they’re all going to be on the trash pile. They’re going to be in a landfill.  Except for the Curtiss One. Because this one is designed to last forever.

PDO: In what ways – talk to us about that?

‘This motorcycle is like a tube amplifier’, says JT Nesbitt. An all-aluminum prototype of the Curtiss One. [Curtiss]
JT: This motorcycle [Curtiss One] is like a tube amplifier. It has the least amount of connectivity, the least amount of circuit boards, and digital bric-a-brac. Like I said in the video, this is an analog electric experience. I have a lot of Macintosh audio equipment, and the one thing that that you can’t get repaired is the CD players. Everything else you can get repaired. But when it goes that far down the digital rabbit hole, it is inherently going to become obsolete.  [The Curtiss One] doesn’t have complicated displays. There’s no servo motors that make things happen, there’s no screens with modes to fail, our VCU is the simplest VCU we can get. We don’t have traction controls. We don’t have crazy modes. All of that stuff in 50 years is what’s going to fail. So all the other guys, I’m not going to mention any names, but the other guys, there aren’t going to be vintage electric motorcycles from them.

PDO: When I curated our Electric Revolution exhibit at the Petersen Museum, we featured the Mission One, built way back in 2009. A dear friend of mine, Mitch Pergola, who actually used to work for me, was President of a design firm called fuseproject, belonging to Yves Béhar.  He’s an internationally famous product designer, who teamed up with a bunch of ex-Tesla employees who called themselves Hum Cycles, which became Mission Motors.  They built the first electric sportbike – the Mission One – and it debuted in January of 2009, and Mitch did me the favor of letting me break the story: I wrote about it for The Vintagent. When I curated Custom Revolution, I reached out to my Mitch and we eventually tracked down the Mission One.  Mission Motors only built two motorcycles.

JT: And then they got hired by Harley, the Mission Motors design became the basis of the LiveWire.

PDO: Seth LaForge eventually found the Mission One and the Mission R racer. The Mission One went to the Isle of Man, and was featured in the Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog in 2009!  Definitely the first eBike there.  Anyway, I asked Seth, who owns both bikes, ‘can we can we ride this around?’  He said, ‘no man if you try to charge this thing up, it’ll probably burst into flame because of the old batteries; we would have to remanufacture batteries because they’re obsolete now.’  And we’re talking like 9 years later, and it’s an important piece of history. It was the first electric sportbike. It’s a beautiful machine, and it was the first time a famous designer had put put their hands on an electric motorcycle; it’s super important to history but can’t be ridden.  It was an interesting lesson. I’m so used to dealing with old motorcycles, you know; it doesn’t matter how old it is…1904?  Sure, man, it’s just basic principles. You get the clearances right, you sort the parts, it’ll run.

Since this January 2022 interview, Seth LaForge has rebooted the 2009 Mission R with new batteries, and rode it on The Quail Ride: surely the most historic machine among the 100 bikes present. [Paul d’Orléans]
JT: That is no longer true with with digital and a battery. You’ve seen you’ve seen pictures of the motorcycle, our battery is in that cylinder. That’s an aluminum extrusion, and is internally and externally finned. So that extreme vision is our leader.  To be able to swap a battery pack out, once you know you’re what you’re doing, it’s 2 1/2 hours. It’s like swapping out a motor.  So, it drops, you can actually see the hardware that holds it in. When you’re looking at the motorcycle, that whole extrusion drops out; the back of it comes off, the front of it comes off. You push that battery pack out and put in whatever is the latest and greatest.The EV guys who are making bikes right now, the reason why their proportions are so off is 2 reasons: one is most of them are buying in their batteries. The reason is that they’re so worried about range that they’re trying to stack in these battery packs that are available today, right? With no consideration for what’s going to be happening in five years. The progression is a 10% increase almost every year in battery capacity. So I’ll put it to you this way: our bike has less range and that’s a choice that I made, because this bike is in it for the long haul, so the future is going to fix our range problem. I wouldn’t call it a problem, actually. It’s going to increase our range, but the future can’t fix ugly.

PDO: What a great quote!

A pair of remarkable Confederate Wraiths during Pebble Beach week, 2009, after being road-tested by Paul d’Orléans and then Confederate Board President Francois-Xavier Terny (now also working in EVs with Erik Buell, at Fuell). [Paul d’Orléans]
JT: So I think, what are these guys are doing? They’re so concerned with with sales that they’re missing the point: good design is forever.

PDO: And so is bad design.

JT: Right?

PDO: I’m so with you. And you know the truth of the matter is, it’s just my personal editorial policy, we just don’t cover something if we don’t like it, you know, it’s like, I don’t need to tell the world that this thing is ******* ugly. You know whatever it is, the world will decide this.  I’m often shocked at how little taste people can have, but in general, people vote with their feet, they’ll let you know in the comments section how freaking ugly they think something is.

JT: Well, everybody thinks the Curtiss One is ugly.

Breathtakingly unique and beautiful; the Curtiss One. [Curtiss]
PDO: That’s not true, actually. You you may be hearing that because you’re a designer, but when I look at the comments section, when I post a photo or a video of the Curtiss One, two out of 10 are saying that’s ugly. The other eight are like holy ****,  so I I don’t agree with you.

JT: I think it’s because we’re getting lumped in with the other EVs. And not getting putting the bike in in context. All right, let’s pull up the image of that Moto Guzzi.  I’m a huge fan of William Henderson, but my heroes are Glenn Curtis and Carlo Guzzi. There’s something about the radially finned cylinder [of a Moto Guzzi Falcone], man, I don’t know why I’m so crazy about that. I’ve never been able to give that radially-finned round object out of my head. It’s just lovely, isn’t it? It’s the best part of the motorcycle.

A 1951 Moto Guzzi Falcone; an inspiration for JT Nesbitt. [Mecum]
PDO: Yeah, I mean, they’re fantastic. They’re gorgeous. I see where your inspiration lies.

JT: And it’s funny that the Guzzi singles are not better known. I mean, Carlo Guzzi was amazing, and what a life.

PDO:  Yeah, Moto Guzzi probably, of any motorcycle manufacturer ever, had the greatest range of engine designs they explored: single cylinder, V twin, V 8,  inline triple, inline4 four It’s like incredible what they built.

JT: You can’t go to the Moto Guzzi Museum and not be overwhelmed with the amount of sheer joy that man lived his life with. That’s my hero as far as how do you live? What’s a life well lived ? And Carlo Guzzi nailed that.

PDO: Absolutely.

The 1931 Indian 402 four-cylinder has a distinctive stance and silhouette, and was a big influence on The One. [Mecum]
JT: Let’s look at some American four-cylinders: Henderson, Ace, and Indian.  Look how beautiful this Indian 402 is.   So, if you overlay my bike with the Indian, and draw a line at the top of the motorcycle, and at the bottom, and here’s our wheels, and distance between the wheels, the wheelbase…what you’re going to find is something very, very similar to our bike. What do you see here? [Shows overlaid images]

PDO: I see your motorcycle – it’s almost the same silhouette, that’s amazing.

The catalog for the 1957 NSU Supermax. [The Vintagent Archive]
JT: Alright, let’s look at the NSU Supermax. It was designed by Albert Roder. You know who Roder was? He’s like really underrated and kind of unknown for some reason.

PDO: It’s partly because NSU got sold to Volkswagen in 1969, and the problem with so many of these companies, it wasn’t convenient for car manufacturers to celebrate motorcycle DNA. So they become these lost characters.

JT: Here’s something you may or may not know. In 1953, I believe it was when the NSU Max debuted, Soichiro Honda bought one.

PDO: Of course he did.

JT: And they reverse-engineered it and that’s what became the Honda Dream. He took this beautiful shape that we’re looking at, with all these sensuous curves, which I have absolutely used on my bike. All these beautiful curves.  Soichiro Honda took this and he squared it all off.  Like everything. The headlights square and the shocks are square.  He took the most beautiful little motorcycle ever and ruined it.  But, one of the things that he did is copy the shift pattern. NSU was strange for a European motorcycle because it shifted on the left. The reason why all motorcycles now shift on the left? It’s because of what we’re looking at right now.

PDO: I think the Japanese had a different agenda around design. I’ve thought a lot about Japanese science fiction and their motorcycle designs after the War. It’s just fascinating, but anyway, that’s a little too esoteric for this discussion.  But yeah, as far as I know through my research, Soichiro Honda visited the NSU factory in 1955, when they were at the top of their game winning every Grand Prix race they entered.
And they shared everything with him, and he may have even – I’ve never been able to confirm this – they may have sold him an obsolete racing engine. And that was the true basis of the twin-cylinder overhead camshaft Honda design.

JT: Let’s look at that image of the NSU one more time. One of the things I want you to notice about this, Paul is the distance between the exhaust pipe and the front fender. It’s so tight. And if you look at the Curtis One in the sport position with the 27 degree rake, you’ll see this super tight clearance between the front fender and the battery zone. Something you could never achieve with a telescopic front end, right?  Can we look at the Imme You know that bike?

The Imme R100 designed by Norbert Reidel. [Mecum]
PDO: Of course,  I think it’s the most brilliant example of economical design in motorcycle history. It’s incredible.

JT: Tell me why?

PDO: Because they use a single-diameter of tubing in the whole chassis, and duplicate functions; the swing arm is the exhaust pipe, it’s crazy. He he took it a little bit too far, though, because he was into this whole one-sided thing and used a an overhung single-sided crankshaft which was the weak point, and bankrupted the company because it failed early and they had warranty claims. But what an incredible design.

JT: You know he drank a little of his too much of his own Kool-aid,  but the chassis worked. What this motorcycle represents is true minimalism.  That doesn’t mean minimalism as a styling key. Because its styling is not minimalist, right? It has no flat surfaces. This isn’t a minimalist styling exercise. It’s actual minimalism. Minimalism is about the bill of materials and parts reuse. What I’m drawing from Norbert Reidel, from his most excellent project, is the ability to reuse parts in very creative ways. I don’t know if you’ve noticed on our bike,  but the suspension members are all the same. Have you noticed that?

The single part for the suspension arms for the Curtiss One appear in 4 places, flipped and reversed: a difficult design choice, as any change for one use changes the design for all uses. [Curtiss]
PDO: I had not actually.

JT:  So our girder our girder blades: part #1, quantity 4. There’s no fore and aft,  and there’s no port and starboard. It’s the same part that does all of the suspension work on the motorcycle. Which is way more difficult to design, because if you make a change on the front right, it changes the front left and the rear right and the rear left. It changes it in three other places.  So it’s a lot more work, but at the end of the day, you get this melody.  The Imme has it has a melody to it, because of its minimalism.

PDO: That makes sense. It’s like a Steve Reich composition, if you repeat things and then have a variation on a theme,  you create a new kind of music.

Alexander Calder’s mobile sculpture ‘Vertical Foliage. [Calder Foundation]
JT: Well, let’s let’s have a look at a Calder sculpture,  OK? It’s so lyrical. This on is ‘Vertical Foliage’, from 1941. It’s one of my favorite works. When I look at these shapes and the way that they interact, not only with themselves, but with the negative space; it makes a lot of sense. This is who I followed in school, and I was a Fine Arts major.

PDO: So was I.

JT: There you go. Who’d you follow?

PDO: I was a huge fan of Max Beckmann and the Expressionist and the Blue Rider group in Germany and people like that. This was the early 1980s, I was into punk, and for me it was about expression. But I certainly learned my art history up and down.

JT: OK, I love Calder, Calder invented kinetic sculpture. And kinetic sculpture actually translates quite well into our chosen passion. Sculpture that moves, and what we love are sculptural things that move.

PDO:  Would that more designers adhered to such a philosophy, or acknowledged it, or even looked at art. God knows what they’re looking at these days.

JT: Or had any philosophy?

PDO: Can we kind of explore the importance of beauty to you? You know, a form over function almost. Can you talk about that?

Not a bushing to be found on the Curtiss One: this $75 needle roller bearing required a unique 15mm shouldered bolt to fit. [Curtiss]

JT: OK, let’s have a look at this.  So I think this is one of the most beautiful parts on the motorcycle.  This is our hardware; I designed all of our own hardware. And I designed it because of this bearing. So this is a very rare bearing; a double-row sealed needle bearing with a 15 millimeter shaft. There are no shoulder bolts for 15 millimeter shafts. Therefore you have to make one. So if you look at our bolt, you see a little lip on the inside of it. That fits a fiber washer that serves as a guard for a 15 millimeter double sealed needle bearing.  There’s a chamfer on the center; that’s so that our tool is self centered.  The little divot is for a set screw that actually locks the bolt in place. This system is used everywhere on the motorcycle where there’s reciprocating motion. We don’t have a single bushing on this motorcycle. There is no stiction anywhere. As you well know, with hydraulic fork tubes, one of their main issues is stiction. This eliminates all the stiction.  And this bearing retails for $75. When people ask me ‘why is this motorcycle so expensive?’ It’s because this bearing is 75 bucks. Just this. So when it comes to beauty, there’s a great quote by Ettore Bugatti: “There is nothing that is too beautiful or too expensive.”

PDO: I love that. Sounds like something Coco Chanel would say.

The ‘tool kit’ of the Curtiss One: “This is every tool needed to adjust the rake, trail, compression, rebound, preload, ride height, footpeg location, 2-up or solo seat, handlebard width/angle/pullback/height, steering neck bearing tension, kickstand/centerstand height, and completely dismantle the machine. Took kits are a symbol of self-reliance.” JT Nesbitt. [Curtiss]
JT: So my my point is that beauty is not a goal, it’s an outcome of solid engineering.  Everything that’s on this bike, every decision that was made, everything you see visually, it’s 100% engineering. There’s actually no styling on it. And Paul, I’m going to take you to task on that, because you said, ‘oh, it looks like some architectural stuff.’ I’m gonna show you why it looks like that. This is our chassis aluminum side plate. So it needs to be so it can be threaded, so that we don’t have to have nuts. It’s self-supporting and threaded,  so I need to have some some beef to it, but if we made the whole thing that thick it would weigh a ton. These pockets are machined to lighten it. These are lightening pockets. But they do a second job; they’re also structural to connect the part that experiences the most stress to the motor mount.The part that is the most stressed is the steering neck. The other advantage of the lightening ribs is that you increase the surface area, because it’s a heat sink. It’s unlike any other EV motorcycle chassis, which more or less an adaptation of a tube chassis. And motorcycle tube chassis are designed to isolate the motor, to isolate the heat and vibration of a motor. Ours are different because we have two other components that get hot, the inverter and the onboard charger. You need someplace for that heat to go so these ribs, increase the surface area. These are cooling fins.

PDO: Of course they are!

The raw chassis of the Curtiss One, showing the finned battery housing and chassis ribs. [Curtiss]
JT: So the way the bike looks, what you would mistake for styling is actually thermal management. Now regarding the color, and I think this is quite clever.  There’s a little lip machined on our interchangeable water jet cut chassis panels.  The panels can be any material, texture, any color of the rainbow. I can do it in powder coated aluminum, stainless steel, copper, brass, bronze, carbon fiber, aluminum, wood.  I’m waiting for somebody to ask me to give him a wood inlay bike.  It’s a way doing a custom motorcycle that’s not disruptive to production. They just attach panels in those little in those cavities, it’s all machined to accept them. The pinstripes on the bike aren’t painted, they are actually water jet cut.Now, this is the swingarm pivot and the output shaft for the driveshaft. This is a shaft-driven motorcycle, believe it or not. This is a really important invention because this is where the swing arm pivots. It’s centric with the motor output, and we patented it. And also our kickstands; the reason we have to have these crazy kickstands is that the whole motorcycle adjusts, it’s got adjustable rake, which has never been done before. You know that, right?

PDO: Well, Bimota SB2 has an adjustable rake.  We had one in our Petersen Museum exhibit, ‘Silver Shotgun’.

JT: It has adjustable offset; functionally the same, but we can have another conversation about that. But no, it’s not the same at all.  Adjusting the offset is the angle of your fork, that is not your rake. Your rake is your steering head angle, and that’s fixed, right, so you can adjust the offset not the rake. This motorcycle has an adjustable steering head per se. I’m talking about an actual adjustable rake, right?  Rake is dictated your steering axis, which is dictated by your chassis.

PDO: What’s your history with EVs?

The Magnolia Special, designed by JT Nesbitt, and driven across the USA on compressed natural gas. [Bienville Studios]
JT: I’ve built a compressed natural gas (CNG) car and drove it from New York to Los Angeles and established a coast to coast record for all alternative-energy vehicles. That was in 2011 and 2013. Elon Musk took my record from me by building an infrastructure, but he had to build charging stations all the way.

PDO: And he had a grant of $400 million from the government to do that.

JT: I was just a guy in a car with a credit card.  Leno did a did a spot on it for Jay Leno’s garage.  When I got to LA, I reached out to Ian Barry. One of my fenders had a hairline crack in it, it used all aluminum fenders and I needed somebody with a welding machine to tack it up. He brought me into his shop and was real nice to me.

PDO: I’m just thinking that you two have a similar philosophy about design. When he’s building custom motorcycles, I’ve written about how he approached reassessing design decisions on existing motorcycles. It’s like, OK, let’s look at the shifter mechanism on this Triumph. That part was designed by someone within certain parameters.  So how can we re-approach this design problem, and see if we can make something better,  maybe improve it, maybe make it more beautiful, maybe make it lighter. I’ve talked to a lot of motorcycle designers. and not a lot of them think that way.

JT Nesbitt chatting with Ian Barry of Falcon Motorcycles at the Electric Revolutionaries reception. Ian Barry designed the layout of the exhibit. [Motor/Cycle Arts Foundation]
JT: That’s the way that we think about a component; how can we push that farther so that we arrive at a completely new destination in terms of the final design? It’s like, don’t just knock it off and say, OK, that’s good enough.  Good enough is not good enough, what we’re received is not good enough.  I think a lot of the custom bike builders are really cool guys, but not one of them is thinking about ergonomics.

PDO: Yeah, that’s true. I’ve ridden those bikes. I mean, some of them hurt.

JT: Why go to the trouble of coming up with all those very crafty, clever solutions, yet produce something that doesn’t solve one of the most fundamental problems of motorcycles, and that’s ergonomics. Something that nobody’s talking about.  Now, let me let me grab a part.  [Picks up Curtiss One seat]

Stephanie Weaver: It looks like a horse riding saddle!

JT: Very perceptive – and an English saddle at that.  The problem is that motorcycles ergonomics are all based on the early days of a mashup of a bicycle with a little motor clipped into it. When you’re pedaling a bicycle, you don’t use the seat. You’re standing on the pedals and and any friction that that you would encounter between your thighs and ass would slow you down.  Using bicycle seats on motorcycles is like putting lawn chairs in sports cars. It’s crazy. Where should we be looking for inspiration? 2700 years of research and development. That’s the interface of man and animal. That’s where it all comes from. This is where you grip the motorcycle, and one thing that I’ve noticed is I can tell when I’m looking at a female riding a motorcycle. They ride differently than men: men do this manspreading thing. Women grab that motorcycle with their knees. Now, why in the hell do we have human beings grabbing a piece of painted steel with the most sensitive parts of your knee? That’s crazy. All of the surfaces of of interface between man or woman and machine need to be reconciled. We have to start over with this whole proposition. First principle, originalist thinking dictates that we rethink motorcycle ergonomics, and we make them gender neutral.

The solo seat of the Curtiss One resembles and English riding saddle: “2700 years of research and development.” [Curtiss]
PDO: Or toward gender-specific, that’s another possibility.

JT: Well, here’s the thing, Paul. You’ve never ridden a motorcycle where you could feel the chassis through your inner thigh, and the it’s sensitive part of your knee. No one has. It’s delightful because you can really understand what’s going on with the exchange of information from the chassis to your body.  It gives you much more confidence, you can actually for the first time really feel what the chassis is doing. The thing is, when you eliminate, all of the vibration, all these little things that you don’t really notice on a bike that’s buzzing around underneath you start coming to the surface. Because your your mind is now free to think about those things.

PDO: User interface (UI) is a huge industry now.  I actually have a niece who studied brain/computer interface as her postdoctoral research at MIT, and then she went to work for the train industry. Because we haven’t designed a new train in the United States since, what, the 1950s really, and you know and and the number one problem with train design is keeping the operators awake and interested.  So you’ve got this huge investment that’s happening in user interface for very specific reasons. For all sorts of industries, but I don’t see a lot of UI research going into motorcycling.

JT: It’s because all people care about is the way a bike looks on the sides; that’s not how how motorcycles are actually seen in the wild. They’re all seen with a rider on board. So while this motorcycle [the Curtiss One] might look a little weird, once you snap the person into place, it completes the object. It’s incomplete without the rider attached to it.

Can a motorcycle be art? We’re in the ballpark here. [Curtiss]
PDO: It’s part of the discussion around ‘Can a motorcycle be art?’ What makes a motorcycle unique is the experience of riding. It leaves art in the dust.  And it’s impossible at the current state of museums to present that experience to you as an observer. You can look at a painting or a sculpture, and you can appreciate the design of a motorcycle, but you can’t appreciate what makes it truly special until you ride it.  So in a way exhibiting motorcycles in museums is such an incomplete experience. It’s like, you missed the point.

JT: You know why people treasure this object? You know it’s about the experience. It’s completely unique. You know there’s nothing, nothing that comes close. But a Vincent, I’d much rather experience it on the side stand.

PDO: Is that right? Well, I love the experience of moving through space under under the power of my right hand, on the throttle or lever or whatever my vintage motorcycle is. And sometimes sometimes they’re uncomfortable.  But it’s also sheer joy.

JT: I got to tell you man, my Norton Commando is now up for sale. Because I’ve seen a new way and man, this is  just better.

PDO: You’ve been ruined!

JT: I have.  It’s better because the feeling, the sensation is so much more connected.  The stress level is like down because of all the things that we’ve done to elevate the riding experience, that analog riding experience. It’s just better in every way.  I have no desire to ride my Commando. I’m a Vincent owner who’s getting rid of his Vincents.

PDO: How interesting. I can’t wait to ride your machine.

JT: I hope that you’ll agree with me.

PDO: Well, it’s a motorcycle and I love motorcycles. I already think it’s beautiful. I’m really curious to see how it feels to ride it.

“Beauty is not a goal, it’s an outcome of solid engineering.” JT Nesbitt. [Curtiss]
Paul d’Orléans is the founder of He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.


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