Electric vehicles are marvelous things — powerful, silent, and durable. But they can’t adequately capture the visceral appeal that made the internal combustion engine the motive power of choice for the world of transportation over the past 100 years or so.
Yes, engines are fiendishly complex machines with too many moving parts, any one of which can fail and leave us stranded on the side of the road. But the sound of those engines fueled humanity’s love affair with cars. It’s why motor racing fans go to places like Indy and Monza.
My first race weekend was the US grand prix at Watkins Glen in upstate New York. That was 50 years ago and I still remember waking up on a frosty morning to the sound of Formula One engines coming to life at sunrise. On race day, a pack of snarling race cars came climbing up from the starting line, though the esses, and screaming to redline as they flew down the front straight.
The sound of the cars howling past joggled my gizzards. It made my heart race and my ears ring. All those pistons slamming up and down sent raucous, boisterous noises crashing against the hills surrounding the track. The hills sent back ethereal echoes that washed over the assembled multitude like waves crashing on the shore. It is one of my fondest memories.
Last Sunday, my friend Ken Anderson drove his F-150 down from Marblehead to meet me in the bucolic town of Bolton, Massachusetts for the annual British Bike Show. We strolled through the sunshine looking at rows of Triumphs, BSAs, and Nortons. There was an AJS, a Rudge, and a modern day Morgan as well. Scattered around the perimeter was a an assortment of BMWs, Harleys, Hondas, and Moto Guzzis.
Most of the machines were waxed and polished to a high luster. One or two looked like they hadn’t been washed since they left the factory. All were appraised and approved by a collection of older men with gray hair and grayer beards who had the light of nostalgia in their eyes.
My personal favorite was a mongrel — a BSA bobber built using a frame from the 50s married to an engine from the 60s. To my eye, it is the epitome of what made early motorcycles so appealing. No fairings, cowlings, engine covers, or packaging. You can look at it and tell instantly what every component is, why it’s there, and how it functions.
British bikes are time capsules. The Japanese came along and made copies that worked better and cost less. The demise of the British motorcycle industry is a chapter in the ongoing story of creative destruction that is playing out again today as manufacturers of electric cars are pressuring traditional car companies to adapt or die.
There is no question that today’s electric cars are better in almost every way to the internal combustion powered vehicles that preceded them — except one. Years ago, I was driving through the Alps with a friend. We stopped on the side of the road after a long uphill climb from the small village that now lay 1,000 feet below us.
Suddenly, a low growl came wafting up toward us. It echoed off the sides of the mountains, getting louder by the second. I had barely enough time to grab my trusty Sony point-and-shoot before two sports cars came blasting by us, chasing each other to the top like rambunctious Labrador Retrievers frolicking in the dappled sunlight. Give a listen.
If the sound of this brief encounter doesn’t make your heart race, check to see if you have an actual pulse. Despite all the reasons why internal combustion engines are bad for us and bad for our world, they still have an emotional appeal that other modes of transportation are hard pressed to match.
Electric motorcycles are coming and they will be awesome, no doubt about it. But there is still something elemental and satisfying about the beat of a Triumph Bonneville or a Norton Commando on a sunny Sunday in June.
Photos by the author.
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