The Larz Anderson Auto Museum holds the nation’s oldest automobile collection, but for the next year, the cars take a back seat to motorcycles, with Beauty of the Beast, a year-long exhibit focused on the motorcycle’s art, form and function, and the freedom two wheeled travel has signified since the earliest forms of powered transportation. The exhibit kicked off on May 8, 2015 and runs for an entire year, at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Smack in the center of the museum’s exhibit hall — the carriage house of the original Anderson estate within view of Boston’s skyline — are two motorcycles that bookend motorcycle performance: the 1912 Flying Merkel and the 202 mile per hour Ducati 1199 Panigale.
The Flying Merkel was the pinnacle of performance in its day. Joseph Merkel’s motorcycles — featuring its innovative telescoping girder fork — were the platform which Maldwyn Jones rode to a National Championship in 1913. In 1914, Jones campaigned his Flying Merkel in a highly publicized five mile match race against a Mercer on a dirt oval in Dayton, Ohio, beating the car handily.
The Ducati next to it debuted at the 2011 Milan Motorcycle show, billed as the world’s most powerful production twin-cylinder motorcycle, churning out 195hp at 10,750 rpm. The 2012 Panigale produced 202 horsepower with a top speed to match.
One of the Larz Anderson Auto Museum’s challenges is that at best, it has space for 20 cars at any given time. But with motorcycles, it allowed the museum — led by director Sheldon Steele — to display almost 70 motorcycles, from every era, broken into groups that help casual motorcycle observers to understand their development through history.
Steele is most proud of the 1928 Indian Scout a few steps deeper into the carriage house. It’s an unrestored example, which is rare enough, but it’s also an example of a motorcycle that was used to navigate a Wall of Death, a giant wooden tub that carnies would move from town to town in an effort to score a few bucks from rubes stationed at the top lip. “Look at the handlebars,” Steele said. “Look how many times they’ve been welded.” The machine shows the bumps and scars it received those 87 summers ago, as well as the numerous coats of paint it received at the beginning of every carnival season.
The exhibit is broken into logical segments: Early Days of Motoring; American V-Twins; BMW; British; Italian; Custom and Drag Bikes; Honda; Motorcycle Engine Microcars; and “Something Different.”
The “Something Different section is the gallery of motorcycle oddities. There’s the Rokon Trailbreaker, an ATV predecessor featuring tractor tires and and a chain-driven front wheel; the Morbidelli, one of four featuring a compact V-8 engine; the Benelli Sei, with its massive inline six-cylinder engine hanging wide of the frame on either side; the Hercules with a Wenkel rotary engine looking like a giant starter motor under the fuel tank.
One room is dedicate to nothing but Yamaha TZs, a range of production racers from 125cc to 750cc two-strokes that allowed privateers to get out on the track and race competitively with factory-backed teams. Kenny Roberts dragged a knee around Laguna Seca on board a TZ750 in 1975, then yanked that motor out and jammed it into a flat track frame. At the Indianapolis Mile, the TZ750-powered animal could hit 150 in the straights, despite the fact that he couldn’t find traction anywhere. With the rear tire burned to cinders, he managed to find enough traction to blow past the Harley-Davidson trio of Rex Beauchamp, Corky Keener and Jay Springsteen in the final feet of the race. “They don’t pay me enough to ride that thing,” he’d say later.
It’s a top-notch exhibit that’s as fascinating — and features some of the same bikes as — the now legendary Art of the Motorcycle exhibit at the Guggenheim museum in 1998. The exhibit is here through May, 2016.
Larz Anderson Auto Museum
15 Newton St Brookline, MA 02445
Phone: (617) 522-6547