Reinventing the Same Old Stuff

This post is part of a year-end series by MBA students at California College of the Arts’ Design MBA Program. Read more about our annual partnership here.

By Ardy Sobhani

The Café Racer motorcycle was born in England during the 1950s and 60s. Its roots formed through a counterculture of individuals who raced their motorcycles from café to café, hence the name Café Racer. Often times, their goal would be to make it from one café to the next before the song over the radio ended. Over the last few years, Café Racer-style motorcycles have been re-emerging as a new cultural icon around the world. Even large companies like Honda, Ducati, and Triumph are going back to their proverbial drawing boards to capture and reintroduce this part of the past. I don’t really believe Café Racers ever went away, maybe because less is more or maybe because history and culture are more a part of our daily lives than we know. The way Ray-Ban Wayfarers — made famous by the Blues Brothers in the 1960s — are now more popular than ever before or how the release of the Beatles on iTunes made front-page news (and selling 1.4 million songs in just a week). Maybe, as a world, we need something familiar to remind us of our humanity.

The bikes have a raw, utilitarian and vintage appearance while the engine is tuned for maximum sustainability. Café Racer bodywork and control layout mimic the style of contemporary Grand Prix road racers, featuring an elongated fuel tank and a small, rear-facing, humped seat. A signature trait of this motorcycle is low, narrow handlebars that provide more precise control at high speeds and allow the rider to “tuck in” to lessen wind resistance. The ergonomics resulting from the low bars and the rear-facing seat, which requires “rearsets” or rear-set footrests and foot controls, are typical of racing motorcycles of this era. These motorcycles are lean, light and handle road surfaces so well that even the average, motorcycle non-enthusiast can appreciate it. I have been rebuilding old rusty motorcycles into Café Racers for a few years now.

Why rebuild the old when we can scrap it for a shiny new model, with all the newest gadgets and features? When we look at a solution to a problem, as individuals or corporations, we may try to reinvent the product, like what motorcycle manufacturers are now doing with the Café Racers; as seemingly sustainable as it may seem, it’s actually the complete opposite. We need to look at the entirety of the process-taking place. If we look closely at the exchanges we have had with previous products and designs, we might move towards making the product we are reinventing better. For example, when we decide to reinvent the clothes dryer to be more efficient, it seems logical to jump to the clothes dryer when in fact perhaps the true problem lies with the washer. Rather than making more stuff, let’s make the same old stuff better.

Given the extreme environmental challenges we face today, we will have to take on new, creative, and sustainable ethics in order to develop profitable and innovative strategies to ensure healthy emotional and personal growth. The emotionality here comes from the very idea that our actions, direct and indirect, have causation on the life around us and remind us of the urgency of sustainability. I propose sustainability in the form of the reinvention and re-purposing of old products. Instead of replacing an old motorcycle, we can give it new life by re-purposing it or by restoring it to new form. There’s an allure related to old things, repurposed into new; the rustier the better. The rust that makes the motorcycle “old” is the history that inspires me. The smell and feel of something old is only achievable through time, and time is very intangible.

These Café motorcycles that I rebuild are now prepared for many more years of use, in the style of sustainability. Café Racers exemplify the opportunity for repurposing—harnessing the allure of the old while embracing sustainable innovation. Whether related to motorcycles or not, we need to challenge and change culture to learn how to use and reuse our existing products, rather than scrapping them for something new like the 2011 Ducati Monster Café Racer (with an MSRP price tag of $8,995). This Ducati looks, feels, and sounds amazing but knowing that you have put your heart and soul to re-purposing an old ugly 1978 Honda CB750 to a Café Racer is undeniably joyful. Named the Green Giant, it cost me $2,000 to rebuild; the buyers of that Ducati Monster will want to ride my Green Giant and fall in love in the same way that I do every time I start the engine.

We need to move away from throwaway products. As a whole, we have developed into a throwaway society. The pride and self-satisfaction that you achieve from building or rebuilding a vintage product is something that no money can buy and well worth the long days and nights spent in the garage. Instead of replacing, let’s build and rebuild “it” better. Let’s make recycling cool.

Ardy Sobhani:

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.

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