Motorcycles are art on two wheels
In the five years Falcon Motorcycles has existed, the L.A. shop has produced exactly four motorcycles – all of them crafted from pedigreed British engines and aesthetically evolved well beyond what their manufacturers originally intended. In the hands of artisanal builder Ian Barry, storied motors from Triumph, Vincent and Velocette were merely the starting points for rarefied machines that have become coveted objets d’art with hand-made gauges, nickel components and polished silver brassing in place of crude welds.
Three of Barry’s motorcycles will now be shown, and sold, in a setting that’s as unusual for a custom motorcycle builder as it is appropriate for the sorts of high-end, one-of-a-kinds Barry creates. Starting Saturday, Michael Kohn Gallery, in L.A., will display the second, third and fourth bikes in the as-yet-unfinished Falcon Ten series, including the Triumph-derived Kestrel, the Vincent-derived Black and his most recent creation, the White – all of which are among the most valuable bikes on the market.
Finished late last year and displayed to the public for the first time through the gallery, the White is driven by a 1967 Velocette Thruxton engine and its stock transmission. Everything else, from the mesh-trimmed drum brakes to the knee-notched tank to the steering damper, was hand shaped in the Falcon shop.
On a recent weekday, the lathes and drills that would normally be working overtime were completely silent and still; the wooden and foam forms Barry used to work out his concepts, shelved. The exalted products of their efforts, however, were parked on the concrete for a final inspection by their creator before being shipped off to the gallery where they will be sold.
“I’ve shown bikes in many different environments, and this is one that I feel like I can really explore bigger ideas,” said Barry, who won the esteemed Quail Motorcycle Concours the two, and only, times he competed, with the Kestrel in 2010 and the Black in 2011.
Barry will not show the White at this year’s Quail, for various reasons, most significantly because the bike will be displayed at the Michael Kohn Gallery through Aug. 31. The exhibition is being mounted to give viewers a sense “that really anything could happen. You think you’re indestructible sometimes when you’re riding, but things can happen in an instant,” said Barry, who will also include five “complimentary pieces” that “are not necessarily motorcycle related,” such as a bin of aluminum metal shavings he salvaged from building the White.
With his shined black dress shoes and fitted beige button-down shirt, Barry is a complete contrast to the tattooed burly men that dominate the custom motorcycle scene. Despite gracing the cover of the New York Times magazine and being written up in a diverse array of publications, including Vanity Fair and Architectural Digest, he is a private person who prefers to let his work speak for itself.
“Everyone is always trying to categorize it as something,” said Barry, 40. “What I’m doing is expressing myself. I’m putting all my interests together and condensing them into an object. It feels as if I’m allowing, more than controlling, the process.”
An aficionado of iconic British iron, Barry started Falcon Motorcycles with the idea of making prototypes of could-have-been machines that never actually existed. The 1950 Triumph Thunderbird that Barry reworked into the Bullet he initially built for actor Jason Lee and recently bought back, as well as the 1970 Triumph Bonneville he remade into the Kestrel and the 1950 Vincent Black Shadow that is now the Black, are all examples of motorcycle innovation, design, engineering and form, Barry said. But the White “is a complete exploration of forms and ideas that weren’t tied up in history.
“If something’s getting in my way, I will it to be. I approach the material in an adversarial way,” Barry said of his process. “It’s as if the metal has a voice: ‘I don’t want you to do that.’ And then I ignore it.”
Despite building the bike around an engine that still holds the record for a motorcycle averaging 100 mph for 24 hours straight, Barry never intended the White to be street legal. It’s completely functional as a motorcycle, and has been ridden by Barry exactly once, but the bike lacks a headlight. In its place is a rounded headlight-like shape designed to displace air. Other elements of the bike are similarly unique, including a swingarm formed like a rabbit haunch that connects to a handmade wheel hub and other organic shapes that naturally flow from one piece to the next.
Art, by definition, isn’t supposed to be functional, yet all of the Falcon bikes are rideable – so much so that Barry feared the current owner of the Black might crash it before it went on display.
Barry co-founded Falcon with his wife, Amaryllis Knight, in their Echo Park garage in 2008. They moved the shop to downtown L.A. a year later and are now on a nondescript stretch of Third Street in Mid-City, where the Falcon garage is nestled in the back of Knight’s bespoke retail shop, Altai.
By SUSAN CARPENTER