Friday, July 11, 2014

The power of patina

Late 1940s flathead, on display at Harlistas rally in Varadero.
  "Patina" gets mentioned a lot these days. In its broadest sense, it's the visual evidence – faded and peeling paint, blossoming rust – of the effects of the environment on a surface over time.
   Many who love old stuff – cars, motorcycles, furniture – treasure patina, and not just because it separates the reproduction from the authentic. With its unique patterns and textures, patina can turn the mass-produced item into something individual, a piece with its own story to be pondered even as that story continues to evolve.
   Plus, patina is free. Not every classic vehicle owner can spend thousand on that perfect (for a day) paint job, but all can elect the default: just let it rust in place. It's probably fair to say that cost was a larger factor than aesthetics in the rat rod movement that surfaced in the early 1990s.
   Of course, not all patina is honest patina. Just as unscrupulous dealers have long "antiqued" dressers and chairs by beating them with chains and dipping them in solvents, so too do some owners subject their vehicles to acid baths and other indignities to try to replicate overnight the testimony of decades of sun and rain, heat and cold.
   When I first noticed this pockmarked Harley-Davidson, I wondered if had been "antiqued." But after studying its many scars and rust bubbles, its cracked leather and tarnished brightwork, I decided that here was a genuine survivor.
  Also, when I thought about it – what Cuban could ever desire to to make something look old?

Scarred or not, this survivor had its admirers.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Mountain of a motorcycle

The Ural: Three wheels on the ground, another as spare.
   While the Harleys drew admirers, this Ural 650 stood alone. Russian machinery gets scant respect in Cuba today.
   Yet to someone who hadn't run across a Ural before, the big three-wheeler was worth a closer look.
   It wasn't, I think, as old as it first appeared. Based on the pre-war BMW R 71 – see the horizontally opposed cylinders? – the Ural has had the same basic design since production began in 1942 in Irbit, at the edge of the Ural Mountains. The sidecar-equipped bikes were intended to give the Red Army mobility against fast-moving German troops (themselves sometimes on BMW three-wheelers).

A mobile Red Army. IMZ-Ural photo.
   This one could have been made any time before the 650 cc Ural engine was upgraded to a 750 in about 2000. Probably, however, it dated to before 1989, when Cuba lost the support of a dissolving Soviet Union.
   With its stability, traction (both rear wheels are driven) and remarkable cargo capacity, the Ural is known as a near-unstoppable workhorse, well suited to rough Russian (and Cuban) roads. Some 3.3 million have been built over seven decades for both home and export markets, and production continues, though today in fairly limited numbers, at the now privately owned IMZ-Ural factory in Irbit.
   The Ural is prized by many for its classic looks and rugged constitution, and derided by others for its archaic technology. In Cuba, it doesn't appear to have many admirers.

Ural is one of the few manufacturers today of motorcycles with integrated sidecars. Perhaps it's the only one.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

His chrome away from home

Mike Norgard and his Hydra-Glide: Cuban heritage with some Canadian shine.
   And not every Harlista is Cuban. Havana-based oil industry consultant Mike Norgard is a Canadian who came south to share the knowledge he acquired in the oil fields of Alberta.
   He acquired his 1951 Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide "in pieces" three years ago in Havana. Now the Harley that may well have originally served the Batista-era military is a showpiece with flawless chrome and gleaming white paint.
   Mike says his regular trips back to Edmonton were a big help in the restoration project.
   "I'm lucky," he says. "I can bring parts home and get them plated."