Von Dutch Condor Custom Motorcycle - A Look back
At first glance, the unassuming, Swiss-made motorcycle from the 1940s may seem like a curious but unexceptional antique. But in the case of a particular 1941 Condor, the object offers a glimpse into the psyche of Von Dutch, one of the most influential and mysterious figures of custom car and bike culture.
Von Dutch was born Kenneth Howard in 1929 near Watts, Calif. The nickname “Dutch” came from family members who considered him stubborn as a Dutchman. His father, a painter and gold leafer, exposed him to the arts at an early age.
While working as a cleanup boy at a body shop, the young and precociously talented Dutch volunteered to paint a motorcycle using a brush from his father’s toolbox. The results were so staggering that no one believed it could be his work. Von Dutch accepted a bet over repeating the feat and so kickstarted a life that would be marked by stunning artistic achievement and alienation, all of which ended with his death from cirrhosis of the liver in 1992.
Pinstriping has existed since ancient Egyptians decorated their carts, but Von Dutch’s innovative manipulation of the art form began in the late 1940s when he painted stripes on cars and motorcycles in order to distract from sloppy body work. Rather than adhering to the vehicle’s preexisting contours, Von Dutch’s free-form, calligraphic painting revolutionized the craft and became its own reason for being.
In spite of his burgeoning notoriety—or perhaps because of it—Von Dutch became a bitter contrarian. Attaining iconic status from the success of his work, he grew to loathe money and the comfort it brought. By conscientiously resisting fame and fortune, he created a discomfort zone in an effort to maintain the integrity of his work.
“There’s a struggle you have to go through,” Von Dutch explained in 1965, “and if you make a lot of money it doesn’t make the struggle go away. It just makes it more complicated. If you keep poor, the struggle is simple.”
Von Dutch cultivated that discomfort by refusing to let anyone get close to him. As he intentionally disobeyed the requests of his clients, his work became an increasingly defiant, self-serving entity. For instance, when a nightclub owner came to Von Dutch with a Mercedes-Benz Gullwing that needed extensive touch-up work, Von Dutch responded by painting flames across the entire body.
“We ate up about two cases of beer, a few jugs of wine, and about 20-odd rolls of masking tape,” Von Dutch boasted. “After I turned this thing loose on the world, it caused accidents.”
The more he excluded those around him, the more infamy he earned. Disgusted with fame and the cult of personality, Von Dutch would initiate rumors of his demise by systematically disappearing. He painted “Von Dutch is still alive” on bikes as a private, tongue-in-cheek gesture of life affirmation.
Eventually tiring of the buzz around his absence, Von Dutch would reemerge from a period of seclusion wearing a “Von Dutch Is Still A’ Live!” T-shirt. The message, he said, “saved answering a whole lot of questions.”
Von Dutch addressed his vehicles the same way he lived his life—with a tough utilitarianism mitigated with his singular style. He spent many of his later years living and working out of a converted Long Beach city bus. While he painted countless cars, he also enjoyed a lifelong love affair with motorcycles.
The owner of numerous bikes, including a 250cc, alcohol-burning Rudge Speedway racer, his favorite was probably the unassuming 1941 Condor. Originally designed for use by the Swiss army, the bike’s 580cc, horizontally opposed powerplant and no-nonsense layout made it a poor man’s BMW.
Though Kustom Kulture typically dictated the removal of logos, Von Dutch celebrated the Condor’s quirky brand name by hand painting its emblem across the bike. Von Dutch, an accomplished gun and knife maker, made the Condor more functional by hand-fitting custom made, knurled sleeves around the foot pedals. Other personalizing included a leather Lugar gun holster attached to the rear side of the bike, a hand-etched “Stop Von Dutch” message on the headlight lens and electrical tape wrapped over the handgrips and part of the well-worn, no frills rubber seat.
The nostalgic smell of stale engine oil still emanates from the metal saddlebags that house a tool kit, and Von Dutch’s personal logo—the now ubiquitous bloodshot eyes with wings—adorns the engine block. While those personal touches make the bike unique, the most evocative element of the Condor is Von Dutch’s hand painting.
A clean black and gold swoop accentuates the gas tank, and gold pinstriped accents complement the curvature of the bike’s body. Though the stripes appear unremarkable from a distance, closer inspection reveals the freehand lines echoed in a series of perfectly parallel stripes. The gesture is masterfully insouciant: one uniformly thick, free-form line is a seemingly arbitrary representation of artistry, but a perfectly matched mirror of those lines shows the level of his refined proficiency.
Toward the end of his life, Von Dutch lived in seclusion, surrounded by whimsical machines he built, including a steam-powered TV set, a coin-operated guillotine and a Ford engine-powered pencil sharpener. His mechanical facility produced some fantastic creations, but, like Paul Klee’s Twittering Machine, they were also symptomatic of a bleak distrust of people and humanity, as evidenced in a letter he wrote to fellow artist Gene Brown shortly before his death: “I have never read any books other than trade manuals— motorcycle engines or guns. I am not, nor ever, interested in people, only in what they make…I use people to make money or lift heavy things for me. And would just as soon see everything covered in concrete.”
Obsessed with transforming ordinary transportation into art, Von Dutch spent most of his life encased behind a fortress of custom made guns, knives and machines. His possessions—as evidenced by his customized Condor—spoke of a raw utility. In a sad testimony to the lonely despair of his personal life, unlike the people he encountered in life, Von Dutch’s machines never let him down.
Photography by Cordero Studios
1941 Von Dutch Condor Motorcycle - Photo Gallery