Classics - Vroom

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In the year 2000 the Auckland Museum staged an exhibition to celebrate a hundred years of motorcycling in this country called VROOM.

Now a further 22-years on it’s interesting to look at some of the bikes that were featured in that exhibition. There were eighty bikes in all. It was inspired by an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1998, which drew record numbers and was heralded “a ground breaking cultural event”. An article about VROOM in the NZ Herald of December 9, 2000 said “The motorbike has been a constant cultural companion through the 20th century, its invention predating the automobile by 25-years, and the aeroplane by 36-years.” I was quoted, in the same newspaper as saying “Someone who says of motorbikes, you get wet and cold, and fall off, is missing the point. There’s something about riding a bike that’s a challenge. You have to think differently.” Endearing attributes of motorcyclists are their unpredictability, and their willingness to disagree and still be bound by a common interest.


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A major sponsor of the both the Art of the Motorcycle at the Guggenheim, and VROOM at Auckland Museum was BMW. A company spokesperson from BMW said, “In the motorcycle one sees an all-encompassing reflection of the very nature of mobility. At the turn of the century, [presumably meaning the 20th century] mobility was a necessity; it meant work, bread, survival. Today, mobility of course remains a necessity, but in the world’s advanced societies it is also much more: an expression of freedom, of being where we want to be when we want to be there. Since the motorcycle’s existence it has ridden the high and low points of history, reflecting society and the diverse directions it has taken. The motorised twowheeler, originally a vehicle of necessity, has evolved into a means of expressing individuality and a symbol of active, optimistic lifestyles”.

The Guggenheim programme also enthused, “The motorcycle is an immortal cultural icon that changes with the times. More than speed. It embodies the abstract themes of rebellion, progress, sex, and danger” I can understand how some will be mildly confused, or even puzzled by a motorcycle being described as rebellious, progressive, sexy, and dangerous, but I suspect that is what happens when an imaginative writer, at one the world’s most celebrated museums, is asked for the description of a motorcycle.


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Not surprisingly in the work of a museum, historic facts are plentiful, and some of them surprising. To begin with, around a hundred and fifty years ago neither the bicycle nor the engine existed in forms with which we are familiar. “From 1868 to 1871 Louis Perreaux installed, and patented, a steam engine in the first commercially successful pedal bicycle.

By 1894 the Hildebrand brothers and Alois Wolfmuller had patented a water-cooled two cylinder gasoline engine in a bicycle type frame. More than a product of the industrial revolution, the motorcycle took on broader significance”.


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Motorcycle usage has changed dramatically in this country. From the 1950s through to the 60s, universities, and almost anywhere young people were active, or employed, were usually surrounded with hordes of motorcycles. Cheaper cars changed all that, and the motorcycle took on a whole new character. It became a vehicle of choice, and not simply cheap convenient transport. The two exhibitions covered these changes, and gave a detailed description of just where the motorcycle belongs in the history of transport and also the more sporting and recreational side of motorcycling. Let’s hope the museums do it again.


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