When the offerings that the cycling world present to us have a high level of sameness, it forces designers to do something different, something out of the box, something perceived as a bit weird at first sight, or even a bit quirky. Quirky is a strange English word that means eccentric, idiosyncratic, unconventional, unorthodox or unusual. In short, something that is trying to break the mould and move things on a bit, even if it is a bit weird.
Every industry has its quirky designs which appeal to some people, and are wholly rejected by others at first sight or smell. Quirky designs are noticeably different because they were made by people who thought differently, and looked at things differently. I find this type of thinking and approach very refreshing, but not everyone is with me on this one. The fashion world is a classic example of an industry trying its hardest to be quirky from the cat walk to mainstream at the website, and it works. It is the same with the music industry.
Looking at the cycling industry as an appropriate example, there is a small-ish section of the bicycle buying public who see their two-wheeled steed as special self-expression, a subtle statement that they are a little bit different from the crowd. This group of people walk the tightrope betwixt wierdness and the mainstream, and get very excited by it.
In most cases, quirky bicycles never become a sales success. Even if they progress beyond the concept stage, they are always met with a lack of understanding from the general cycling public, and a heap of criticism/cynicism from the mainstream cycling press. However, we cannot help not loving these designs, simply because they represent the creativity and courage that defies mainstream cycling trends.
Sometimes, a number of these weird and quirky bicycles hide some innovative design and engineering solutions. Sometimes, it is also just cool to have something quirky that other people don’t have, or even want. And sometimes, you just fall in love with the quirky bike, and you have to have it in your shed.
Bicycle collectors always want a big slice of the quirky pie, and partly because they’re excited by it, and with a regular need for a ‘quirky-fix’. It doesn’t matter if the bicycle was a failure at the time, in fact, it can even enhance its longer term value because probably not many we’re ever made, so this makes it a bit more exclusive, and even historic (apologies for that last, long sentence, but I did put commas in for you to breath).
Another thing that happens with quirky bicycles is that over time, and well after the design company has finished with it and production has ended, a small network of ‘improvers’ starts to re-think or re-design the original to make it do what it was originally intended to do, but better. Crucially, the changes are subtle because the DNA of the bike must not change. These garage or shed engineers spend time and energy fixing the concept and making it real. Networks are then created and experts of the quirky bike emerge. Before you know it, parts are available on-line, and global expertise is only a few minutes away with some keyboard typing.
There’s another observation I’ll throw out there too. When the designers of the quirky don’t realise their dreams through wholesale product acceptance and sales, they start to go mainstream. Mainstream is safe, and is a lot closer to a full bank balance.
Here’s the point. The bicycle company Cannondale has a history of questioning the norm, designing and making the unobvious, and generally just being quirky. They’ve been very successful at it as well. I like Cannondales and all of their quirkiness. A lot! When I bought my first Cannondale Super V mountain bike in 1999, Cannondale had not long announced that they were going to start applying their two wheeled pedalling engineering experience to a new Moto-X motorcycle. The list of innovations on this product was staggering from the reverse cylinder engine configuration, to electric start, to fuel injection and to the oil-in-frame design. Prototypes looked stunning, and one magazine even awarded the design as ‘bike of the year’, two years before production stock hit the shops! Quirky was winning over the industry. Unfortunately, trying to take on the global Moto-X industry without enough rigorous testing meant that when magazine testers gave the bikes some real thrashing, the bikes failed spectacularly. This obviously affected sales, and the few dedicated customers that did buy the bikes ended up disappointed. Warranty claims were common and the design work continued in response to, and at the same time as customer’s bikes failures. Not good. Mainstream Moto-X buyers were proven in their initial rejection of the bike. There was one other flaw in the design as well, because the design team had taken their initial inspiration from a Honda Moto-X bike, which wasn’t very good either.
Long story short. Quirky finally killed Cannondale. The MX400 as it was named, was dead, and pushing the moto-particular quirky boundaries just didn’t work, so the bank eventually said ‘no’. The good thing is that the original bicycle part of the Cannondale business emerged from the ashes and continues to this day as an innovative producer of bicycles. However, what about that quirky Cannondale Moto-X bike, the MX400?
There are still a few around the world from the small production run, and quite a few of the early bikes have received over time, the updates and fixes to initial problems. I liked the bike the first day I saw a picture of it, and whilst I haven’t been explicitly looking for one, it has been on my sub-conscious ‘want one before I die’ list.
Last week I came across one whilst looking for something else, weirdly. The seller had two of them and was selling one to make shed-space apparently. The seller also wasn’t that far away, the Cannondale MX400 would fit in the van, and the price seemed very reasonable. I bought it. The condition was quite good and after some cosmetic improvements, a few hours cleaning it in the shed, it looks pretty damn quirkily good.
One of the several, known weaknesses of the bike was the electric start, which wasn’t really up to the job, and when I arrived to collect the bike, the owner apologised as his repair of the previously broken electric starter, wasn’t successful. He gave me some money back and I put the bike in the van, and still very pleased with my quirky purchase.
Because my MX400 has an electric starter which doesn’t, it means rolling the bike down a hill and bump starting it, because it doesn’t have a common, and proven, kick-starter. This requires a quirky technique that I’ve discovered, and once mastered, the engine barks into life and growls like a very loud, angry, quirky thing, and subsequently takes off like an even madder thing. This is obviously great fun.
What’s interesting is, l’m not alone in my admiration of Cannondale’s foray into motorcycle manufacture, and I have discovered a group of global experts who have fixed all of the problems that Cannondale never did. The global guru appears to be Ken at http://www.blackwidow-ok.com/ and to date, he’s been really helpful in my quest to understand these bikes and hopefully, get my electric starter fixed and any other things that I come across.
What is interesting is that when I look at my Super V mountain bike sitting next to the MX400 in the shed, I can see the DNA and the family resemblance, both being very quirky and not liked by everyone. So the big question is; where are you on the ‘buying-quirky-things-ometer?’ At the no-buy end or the buy-it-now end? The answer to this question will define your quirkiness or mainstreamness.
All photos by the Author