Motorcycle Design Concepts and Illustrations | DRAWING THE LINE

The Existential Pleasures of Drawing

This cruiser concept is one of literally thousands of hand drawings the author has completed over his long design career.

The above title is inspired by Samuel Florman’s book The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. Most of us have no problem understanding—or experiencing—the pleasures of an engineered object like a motorcycle. The success of the Guggenheim Museum’s The Art of the Motorcycle show helped to cement the connection between art and engineering in the public mind, as well as the connection between the pleasure we take in art and the pleasure we take in engineering.

Not all engineered products make those connections as clear as motorcycles. Much of the engineering that goes into a motorcycle is open to the observer’s view, unlike an automobile, where the engineering is obscured by bodywork. The cover of Florman’s book depicts a bridge, another device that exposes its engineered elements to the observer’s view.

How do we arrive at artistic, beautiful, pleasurable, but still functional engineering? How does a motorcycle appear “from nothing”? It first must begin in the mind of a designer. Next, if the designer is not to work entirely alone, he or she must communicate the design to others. It might be possible to do this verbally, explaining the design in words, but verbal descriptions quickly become impossibly complex.

The way we solve this problem in engineering is by using drawings. The process might start with something as simple as the proverbial napkin doodle, which might be the first exposure of the designer’s thoughts as he sits over a meal. From that drawing on a napkin we progress to increasingly detailed and specific drawings, all the way to full 3-D CAD (computer-aided design) models, as we begin to make components then complete motorcycles that embody what started as a mere idea in the designer’s mind.

My drawing training started as a boy, before grade school. Drawing was in my family, but this was “art” drawing—not mechanical, architectural, or engineering drawing. Since I was practiced in mind/eye/hand coordination, more specialized drawing skills came easily. Drawing became for me part of work, part of play, and part of life—the “existential” pleasure mentioned in the title.

Because of its two wheels and narrow cross section, the motorcycle can be represented quite well in two dimensions. A side-view representation tells motorcyclists a great deal about both the styling and the engineering of the machine. I was initially attracted to bikes for the riding experience, but the drawing experience soon captured my imagination. I’ve loved drawing motorcycles ever since. Motorcycles I’ve built have been shown in museums, but I’m perhaps even more pleased that my motorcycle drawings have been in museum shows as well.

Many engineers I’ve known don’t really like to draw, and CAD is the perfect tool to bypass what for some can be the drudgery of drawing by hand. Since drawing for me is both a pleasure and something I’m quick at, I’ve always found CAD’s steep learning curve to be an intimidating obstacle. To get my stuff into CAD, I rely on those with the specialized skills that I lack.

Technical drawing by hand, whether in engineering or architecture or any technical field, is a disappearing skill. Working on jobs in Detroit in the 1990s and early 2000s, I watched the availability of drafting tools and materials almost completely disappear as car companies switched exclusively to CAD. Ironically, there is still an “old-school” technical printing and supply outlet within walking distance of my home studio.

Okay, so I’m a dinosaur. And we all know where dinosaurs end up. Much is being gained in shifting to CAD, and I see that in my own work. But I sense that something is being lost at the same time, and I don’t quite know what that is. Since I’m not proficient in both drawing and CAD, I don’t quite know how the mind works as CAD is created. I do know how the mind works during drawing, and it’s a truly existential pleasure.

James Parker designed his first original motorcycle in 1971; his most recent design is the Mission R electric superbike. In between, he worked on multiple other motorcycle projects, including 30 years spent evolving the RADD front suspension system used on the Yamaha GTS1000 and various other prototypes.