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Pipeburn Poll: Should ‘Form Follows Function’ Apply to Custom Bikes?

Posted on June 10, 2012 by Andrew in Other. 67 comments

Browsing the web the other day, I stumbled upon a repost of the beautiful Old Empire Pup we revealed to the world on these very pages. But unlike you pack of freaks, the guys reading this article were obviously not died-in-the-wool custom bike freaks, but more of your regular ridin’ Joes. Reading through the comments, I found one that went something along the lines of, “Aesthetically pleasing but I wouldn’t want to travel any distance on it. To me, any bike has to be ridden first, looked at second.” Now this really got me thinking. What kind of mad man would value how a bike rides over and above how it looks. Especially after seeing the the bike in question? The answer is, of course, heaps of people. I mean, how many BMW R1200GS do you see on the roads? And if there’s any bike that perfectly represents form following function, that old German mule would have to be it. But are they onto something? Are we all fashion victims just like that ape hanger maniac above? Are we all insane to judge a bike on looks alone and ignore how it actually rides?

  • Keeees

    Depends on the goal.

    Not every bike has to be a long distance tourer. A bike suitable for 600 km a day tours needs entirely different things than a bike suitable for a 50 km all-out hoon on local back roads or for being fastest around a track. That's all functional stuff.

    On the other hand, if you're taking it to a show on a trailer and not ever really plan to ride it in any practical sense of the word, I'd argue that you're making art, not motorcycles, and might as well not fit an engine.

    There's lots of grey area in between ofcourse. Even with the GS crowd, lots of them care how things look and fit lots of laser-cut aluminium trinkets that don't really do a whole lot other than weigh the bike down. 😉

  • Phil B

    The perfect custom bike is one that looks fantastic, but is also rideable on a regular basis. You need to be able to spend at least an hour or two in the saddle without crying inside your helmet. 
    Add some indicators and stop light to the ‘Pup’, and I think it would fairly usable bike as long as you keep it off the highway

    • Mcleodabe

      Or just hand signal… like they did before the safety police came along.

    • Jamie

      The ‘Pup’ does have both of those. The indicators especially are ingeniously positioned! I saw it at the Sideburn Dirtquake event last month, it really is a stunning looking thing and though I wouldn’t want to do any great distance on it, I don’t think it’s been designed with that in mind. It would be something that you could just hop on, enjoy and then hop off (no euphemism…)
      Why compromise on something’s beauty just to try and be a universally versatile as possible? There are plenty of mass-produced bikes that do that already.

      • Phil B

        You’re right, it does have lights. They are so well hidden it’s hard to tell. It’s things like that which impresses me with custom bikes, and it makes a bike that you can actually ride on a semi-regular basis. I still wouldn’t want to do a lot of highway km’s on the Pup, but with it’s front disc brake and turn signals it’s a bike I’d love to cruise around on. It would even be usable in city areas with heavy traffic and bad drivers.

        • davidable

          Maybe form doesn’t have to follow function..but it shouldn’t obliterate it.
          Like in the photo that accompanies this poll.

  • Aliasbmc

    As an artist and also a motorcycle enthusiast, that is a great question.  But I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. Each motorcycle owner is free to build what he or she pleases, to fulfill their own motorcycle desires.  If it’s being ridden on public streets, I would hope they think about their (and everyone elses) safety, but other than that, I am happy that all the stops are being pulled out and people are being really creative.  Turn your nose up if you want, but chances are someone has a problem with what you ride also, or even worse, they’re not even noticing you

    • Aliasbmc

      If you think that’s crazy, check out what they do in Japan…

      • Jeh0

         This bike is, in fact the first Google image search result for “bosozoku harley”.

    • GuitarSlinger

      This has to be by a long shot the most Politically  Correct ‘Non Answer ‘ I’ve read here since jumping on .

      Well……. here’s a clue . I’m an Artist & Custom M/C enthusiast as well . Composer / Performer actually with some 14 International awards ( from my peers BTW ) to my name .

      So here’s my Not So Humble opinion . 

      IF ! It doesn’t function
      Is not reasonably  ridable 
      Is not safe on the road 
      Cannot be ridden for more than a block or two without mandating a trip to the Chiropractor 

      It AINT no  freaking M/C . Mechanized sculpture ….. maybe ( though doubtful ) But it  IS NOT a Motorcycle . Period ! 

      And if you can’t build a M/C thats both ridable and good looking ….. then you don’t deserve the title : Custom Bike Builder .

      For the record I’m an adherent to the Shaker philosophy 

      ” First …. MAKE IT WORK …. then make it as beautiful as possible without diminishing its function 

      Jeeze I’m getting sick of all this namby pamby Politically Correct garbage 

      Stand up for something …. or get outa the way 

      • Seems like the votes are against you… and 50 years of custom bike building, too. You could argue that the whole cafe racer scene was about looking cool over and above “functional, rideable, safe, comfortable” bikes.

        Take a perfectly good Triumph, add clip-ons, rear sets, and strip it of equipment to make it less functional and comfortable. Hop up the engine to make it less safe. Then add various studs and other needless decoration that serves no other purpose than to “look cool”…

        Wouldn’t you agree?

        • Davidabl2

          Except for the studs  with the classic café you’re trading one type of performance for another i.e. speed at the expense of comfort, safety and reliability. Instead of sacrificing everything  else on the altar of good looks.

      • Guest

        shut up idiot

      • Davidabl2

        Shaker philosophy also included making the designed object as simple and unadorned as an end in itself. There are few if any motor vehicles actually designed that way for any consumer market, I think.

        • Unless you live in Eastern Europe in the 70s.

          • Davidabl2

            True, I’ve actually driven a Polish car of the era.
            Seems I forgot the Elegant part of Simple+unadorned+elegant =shaker design.
            The Polska mini missed the ‘elegant’ part.

      • Guest

        Damn you’re the most annoying commenter here. Always so confident with your absolutely non-sense point of views. You said it yourself, “I’m an Artist & Custom M/C enthusiast”.
        Key word there being “enthusiast”. Get off your ass and make something, bleed some, sweat some, then come back here and voice your opinion. No one here gives a shit about your stupid “international” awards as a “composer/performer”. That will get you no credibility here. We’re creators of ridable mechanized speed machines with great respect for others of the same nature. Perhaps you should decide where you belong and where your opinion is wanted.  

        • arnold

          I secretly think that G.S. is Linsey Lohan.

          • arnold

            Oops I did it again. Crap that’s the other waif.

        • davmo

          Gentlemen, please.

      • Unitedguitar

         I would like to see GuitarSlinger’s body of work including his obviously awesome motorcycle builds and his apparently fantastic music that has won him so many awards. What gets me is that GuitarSlinger claims to be an artist yet fails to see the art in building a motorcycle to the tastes of the rider. Not everyone wants to ride a cruiser. Not everyone wants to ride a Goldwing across the countryside. Some people want a bike to get them to the local bar and back and to go out and have fun. If that means they roll on a chopped up hard tail Triumph with apes or a Cafe’d Honda with clip-ons then so be it.

        So, GuitarSlinger, I humbly await a link of some sort to your awe inspiring body of work. But by the way you trash everything that comes across this fine website, be prepared for your “hard” work to be dissected to pieces.

        I would also like to take this time to add a piece of my work on here so that I don’t seem hypocritical in calling out GuitarSlinger and not posting something of my own. Feast…

        Do the Ton page-

        • arnold

          kinda interesting, but lame. Did you do the work yourself?

          • arnold

             Hang it on yer wall, quit yer yappin, and build the next one,ald

          • Unitedguitar

             I’m cool with it not being your cup of tea or anything groundbreaking but I think its cool and has a few special features not normally seen on a bike like this. Plus it started out as a pile of crap purchased for $50. Here is a pick of it before.

  • TMcSp

    I’m one of those people who like function over form, blame my architecture background I suppose. To me the form is derived from the function. The opposite of that old Mies adage. In my mind a motorcycle needs to function well as it’s primary purpose. But that does not mean it has to look terrible. For example, look at any modern supersports bike. Sure they have cool angled fairings, and sweet looking big suspension, and nice light wheels, but all of those components serve a real purpose other that simple aesthetics. The form in this case is completely subjugated to the function of the machine. To me that is the better approach.However, I’m sure plenty of people would disagree with me, which is fine. And that’s why they make firestones…

    • davmo

      Agreed. The best designs take something totally functional and make it beautiful in the process.
      Less is more, and when pared down to the bare minimum…perfection.

    • You could also argue that modes sports bikes are the anthesis of form following function – mainly in the fact that they are designed to be replica race bikes for the road. That is to say that they aren’t really either. If you started with a clean piece of paper and had the brief to design a fast bike that spent most of it’s time on the road in or around big cities and had a track day three times a year, and a ride with mates ever month or so, I really doubt that it’s end up looking like yr average Gixxer…

      • Davidabl2

        Actually it might be like a Gixxer..but with  removable, interchangeable  not-too-expensive plastics, adjustable interchangeable seating, rear sets/mid controls and modular, adjustable
        handlebars.. Something of a “transformer bike”

  • arnold

    Museums are packed with road and praise worthy motorcycles (ie Barber), displayed as art. Art by my definition   is representation of reality interpreted by the “artist”. The question is where to draw the line. Here’s the crayon. I 100% gar en tee that no two of us will draw it in the same place. Does that mean that your opinion is wrong because it does not agree with mine? In some cases the answer is yes. Does your argument have any merit or thought, background or weight? Many museum pieced are doomed to display for the rest of their rust free and pampered lives. Would say, The Bolo, be treated that way fifty years from now?

  • arnold

    Sorry last thought, it may be art but is it good art. I yield the soapbox.ald


    I think your missing the point; “form follows function”;  every bike has a different function according to its owners needs. because if everyone had the same idea of function we would all be riding the same exact bike… we need more variation even if its ridiculous.. it’s what sets the truly incredible and well designed bikes apart from the wrest.

  • James-r-o

    I’m studying automotive design and i believe that its based on the context whether form should follow function, if its a race bike and your going to get the edge by ignoring what looks great but performs better then perhaps that’s what you should do… but for the rest of us…why should function dictate form. We should make things look how we want and then hand the challenge over to the engineer to make it work! isn’t that how we progress? If we cant have dreams to work towards then will we ever see any more massive break-through’s like we have in the past!?

  • Davidabl2

    It’s an unfair criticism of the”Pup’ that the reviewer wouldn’t want to go ‘any real distance” on it.
    After all he probably wouldn’t want to on a stock Enfie either.. all day cruising speed  being about 55mph.
    So no terrible amount of “function” was given up for “form” it this particular case. Other than hard tailing it of course:-)

  • cam

    whats rideable to someone might be far too uncomfortable for someone else. i think clip ons and rearsets are way more comfortable and rideable than a bike with mid or forward pegs and high bars. to each his own!

    • Davidabl2

      When you’re sixty, see then how you feel about clipons & rear sets.
      And for how many hrs. in the saddle?

  • The topic is completely subjective. Taste, aesthetics, functionality, blah blah blah. They all play a part in your opinion. Fine art is form and content, commercial art form and function. How far does one push two wheels and a motor before it stops being a motorcycle and becomes something else? I don’t know. I’ll leave it to the custom bike philosophers of Pipeburn to decide that. I just want Andy to keep posting pics. By the way, that guy in the pic up top looks like a freakin’ jackass. Reminds me of my dad.

  • Heckwellenbrettreiter

    I think it is possible to build a bike, that is nice to look at and good to ride/ handle and vice versa. These two points are not necessarily contrary. The rest lies in the eye of the beholder.

  • Markus

    I find that a lot of people who dismiss custom bikes have never ridden one and subjected themselves to a different type of riding pleasure.
    I have both ‘sensible’ daily riders and two triumph rigid framed bobbers. The types of bikes are poles apart and offer a unique riding experience.
    Riding a hardtail on a sunday afternoon brings a huge smile to my face and a feeling I can’t describe, riding my sensible Honda gives a feeling of being able to go anywhere in reliable comfort – they both have a place and neither type should be dismissed.
    My bobber are useable, if not practical, but certainly rideable.

    Before peple dismiss tyre choice, hardtails, bobber or any custom choice they should consider what the builder/rider is trying to achieve – a big smile ride or a practical machine.

    I don’t believe in building bikes that are truely un-rideable or show pieces of engineering, but bobbers and the majority of customs are perfectly rideable and offer a great fun, and that is what bikes are all about.

    • A good point. I have found that most bikes, once ridden regularly, usually “come good” and seem to work and feel a lot better than they first did. That’s why it’s crucial for bike reviewers to do some serious miles – otherwise they aren’t really reviewing the bike itself, just the differences between it and whatever they ride to and from work…

    • I’d like a light cycle from Tron. They look cool (to “H” “E” double-tooth picks with comfort) and that energy trail could come in handy…

  • If you want pure function over form, get an enduro/dual sport. Otherwise at least put a modicum of effort into aesthetics.

    • Davidabl2

      Function over form would also indicate powder coat on everything, plastics that had the same surface color  as the interior (so scratches didn’t show) etc. etc.

      • Or take off the plastic and let the bike show through.

        • I think the use of plastics instead of metal in motorcycle industry is totally wrong, cause when you look at some 60s, 70s machines right now, they look great with that used rusty pattina. But that crappy old plastic at some 80s and 90s bikes looks so fucked up.

  • …then there are those who have the skill & courage to ride just about anything fast as hell no matter how “poor” the function may be.  Hope that helps blur the lines of custom form and function.

    • Agreed, RS. Some people have sucked all the danger, joy, thrills, and grins out of riding bikes by analyzing them to death.

      • Doug

        Pipeburn’s post has merit….some builders lose sight of their “canvas” and build something that contradicts the original purpose of riding; and no matter how skilled a rider is they can’t reasonably ride fast or for long distances (e.g. apes above).  

        When a custom doesn’t cross that line, then there is someone still able to ride the wheels off of it even if the function suffered some from the form

  • Ccc40821

    I asked first my two customized bikes what they thought of it, then my other bikes that alll are pretty much stock. None of them cared one bit.

  • Godffery

    I’m confused… I was under the impression a custom bike was meat to make
    one look “cool”…?
    Not look like a window licking retard…!

  • George Brough had the right idea about form/function: put a big motor between two wheels and ride the hell out of it.

  • Generic1776

     I love custom bikes so done out they can’t be ridden in the normal world.  They are AWESOME.  Please do not stop making them and showing them off. 

    HOWEVER, please don’t take them where they don’t belong…. freeways… neighborhoods…. city streets….

    Trailer queens belong on trailers.  But I want to see them, whether to laugh or drool.

  • Baker

    I’d like to see forward controls and ape hangers banned from the roads. If you can’t weight the pegs or lift your butt off the seat it doesn’t belong on the street. Others may disagree. 

  • redrumracer

    i like motorcycles!

    • James

       Well said! I gotta find me a set of these ape hangers just to piss everyone off! HAHA!

  • Dean

    I’m 42, with a bad back, and I’ve been a tradesman for 20 years (lots of aches and pains). My hardtail Ironhead is a blast to ride, for me up to 60 or 70 miles at a time. I think some of you underestimate the function of spring seats. If I were 20, I’d ride my bobber across the country

  • I also come from an architectural, background, but one that has more use for Michelangelo than Mies. “Less is more” is the mantra of the “machine age,” but that only holds up so long when it comes to the most moving machine of all time: the motorcycle. The more I work with and design motorcycles the more I believe that all that nonsense about the machine is complete rubbish.

    Motorcycles are like architecture: they must be beautiful, functional and made to last. Less is only more when you want efficiency, and regardless of whether some motorcycles will rightly claim better fuel economy, etc., motorcycles are about a whole lot more than efficiency. Motorcycles are about an experience. What makes that experience more powerful or moving or beautiful? that is what motorcycle builders confront every day. Form is inherently the leading design que, but I answered “both” to the poll question because form and function need to be in a balance to achieve that glorious experience that a motorcycle delivers. It does have to work, but sometimes being uncomfortable, or dangerous, or stately is the most important part of that experience.

  • Harpadapr

    Form always follows function. The function of the bike in the photo above is to make the rider look like an orang-utan. The function of Deus bikes is to make the rider look like a hipster who knows nothing about bikes. The function of a Honda CB250 is to get the rider to work. And they all look like it.

  • The Dude

    Wow!!! All this fancy talk that adds up to just about nothing. Art is art and, motorcycles are motorcycles.
    You can throw shit on the wall and call it art but, it will still just be shit. The same goes for motorcycle. It’s easy to build a pile of shit bike and call it art. And sure, some know-nothing, who doesn’t really know what they’re looking at may say, it’s a master piece. But, what’s their opinion really worth? If you’re going to attempt to build a custom motorcycle, do your home work. Because, someone who know what they’re looking at will see it. All the trinkets and catchphrases in the world wont be enough to fool them, either. Shit will always be shit to those who know the difference. You’ll hear a lot of people use the term “art” very loosely these days in regard to motorcycles. When you do, check your shoes, you may have stepped in something.   

    • Aliasbmc

      That’s kind of bullshit.  If by “fancy talk” you are not understanding some very intelligent people have ongoing conversations about, at its base, the creativity (art) that has been infused into the motorcycle world over many years of millions of people being fascinated with motorcycles, then you are not really understanding how much “art” and creativity happens all around you in just about every man made thing you can see or hear or touch.  Some of the greatest revelations in mankind have been stumbled upon by a creative person just trying things out.  There is so much “art” in a motorcycle strictly from an engineering stand point, to the stance, all the way down to the paint job.  People are not using the word “art” loosely.  Mankind already knows how to get two wheels rolling safely down a road with an engine, what’s the harm in someone wanting to get “creative” in the visual aesthetic of his own ride, to make something that visually pleases him, or to be something that he thinks “says something”.  

      • “But, what’s their opinion really worth?” The Dude seems to beg the question of what HIS opinion is really worth.

        • The Dude

          My opinion and a buck-seventy-five is usually enough to get me a cup of Starbucks but, not much more.

      • The Dude

        Go ahead, keep telling yourself that.

      • arnold

         ” People are not using the word “art” loosely.”
         Yes they do all the time,24/7. ald

    • OK. Sounds like you don’t know much about art or motorcycles.

  • The form follows function argument can be very appealing at the outset. Sure, “bikes are real, and there’s nothing artificial about them,” the self-proclaimed purist says, but even he has his own set of values that he applies to motorcycle aesthetics. Maybe he he prefers a no-nonsense approach, or cannot abide drop bars, or or will never ride anything with more than one cylinder, or likes corgis. The point, however, is not that everyone has their own opinion and that’s that, but that he appreciates a certain look because of the way it is made, or how it looks. He can make such judgements because bikes aren’t about pure efficiency, because he is part of a culture that has some general agreement about what looks good on a bike, and therefore because there is a rational argument for why one design is better than another. Sure, “shit is shit,” but you had better make sure we know you don’t wallow in it yourself, and the only way you are going to be able to do that is to admit that one design is superior to another and explain why (and please don’t tell me it is based on how efficiently it gets you from point A to point B).

    I used to think that the “less is more,” “form follows function” argument worked, if just for machines, but it doesn’t. The motorcycle is the paragon of machines, and yet it flies squarely in the face of unadulterated “function.” Even the most prosaic commuter bike has little flashes of formal beauty about it. And I mean that not in the sense of beauty as a direct result of its function, but in the sense that that little flourish was put there, or done that way because it was, quite simply, cool that way. If we look back at the most iconic and respected designs, especially from the more primitive years of motorcycling, we find that form always trumps function. Look at how sleek and fast those old Zeniths and Broughs looked. Yes they went fast, but even more importantly, they looked like they were going 100mph whether they were at Brooklands or whether they were parked in front of a pub. 

    Maybe I agree with the Deus comment, I can’t quite get over how appearance-based that company and its bikes and boards and clothes and logos and attitude is, but saying “motorcycles are motorcycles and form follows function, period” isn’t going to help or change anything. Function is to be expected, beauty is what transforms motorcycles from hunks of metal into objects capable of rendering grown men weak in the knees. If we cannot discuss a bike’s relative merits or shortcomings by actually critiquing the bike in an objective manner then there is no point in the existence of this blog, and since we’re all here, I think it’s safe to say that Pipeburn is doing us all a service by asking just this kind of question, and of course posting some really marvelous pictures.

  • Rohanarchy

    I definitely think both – it’s whatever the owner is willing to cop! My CB750/4 has low clip ons, no seat, straight through 4into1 and ultra hard suspension, which is exactly what i wanted! and often people think I’m dumb for it but who cares? Riding it is like picking up a 20c coin from under a toilet door at the pub! It’s my back not yours and I spent my own money!
    I think some of the coolest bikes out there are reasonably impractical, or ‘a challenge’ to ride – as long as it’s done in a classy way that suits a certain style and it’s visual communication is a cohesive concept then go for it!
    To each his own, and as long as you’re proud with it and you’ve invested quality time and effort into building something you can truly say is ‘yours’ then that’s really all that matters. I don’t like some things as much as others but riding and customisation is all about expression and personality, it’s something that should give you confidence and esteem – not something to be judged on.

  • CharlieHamilton

    Bikes are already dangerous enough to ride. Cagers, gravel, birds, hail, etc…
    Why add another element of worry by making a bike more dangerous to ride?
    I say to each their own, but on my bikes, I’d prefer not to have to worry about a lack of brakes, poor suspension geometry, rear tire rubbing on my frame because I added a loop and didn’t account for suspension travel (same with front), weakened frame splitting because it’s been hacked up and not reinforced, or the frame isn’t strong enough to support the modern suspension that was swapped on…

    The real challenge behind a good custom build isn’t just making it look cool. Any monkey with a idea and a few tools can do that. The real challenge is engineering a beautiful bike that is enjoyable to ride.