A Photoseries for Sunday: Working Decay

This isn’t a discussion about BMW motorbikes. It’s more about wear and tear which are together a bad thing, generally.

I noticed this old BMW motorbike and the working decay had an appealing character to it. My own bicycle is heading for the same style of worn tattiness which is something I cultivate as I don’t want the thing stolen.

In the photo gallery you can see the localised effect of rust and abrasion. Particularly artistic is the way the black paint on the fuel tank has worn down to reveal the primer underneath. I had a go at this on some paintings I did in 2009.

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Why is this tattinesss acceptable (to me anyway) whereas on a car it is much less so?  Here’s a correspondinly tatty Opel that used to live in my district:

1988 Opel Omega:

Unsurprisingly, I don’t see it around any more and nor do I see the even more run-down Rekord that mostly sat unused a few blocks away.

To answer my question from earlier, the charm of decay relates to the tension between states: the perfection of an artificial object (it could be a castle or house too) and the ultimate demise of the thing. The way castles and motorbikes are constructed allows them to sit for a really very long time in the state between perfection and destruction. The point at which this bike becomes unusable because of the rust is a comfortably long way off.

For a car such as the Opel shown, this intermediary state is shorter. I don’t think a car can stay visible rusty for more than a few years before something bad happens, at least in northern Europe. I had a friend in a drier, southern part of Europe who had a Citroen GS in pretty much the same state of total dilapidation as this bike. The decay seemed to be stable and not accelerating. It gave the car a wonderful aesthetic of ruined modernity.

Saab 99 GL

By chance I have another local vehicle which may remain in between states for a good long time. None of these examples seem to be within reach of Edmund Burke’s conception of the sublime that demands a sense of awe. We get a sense of that when seeing something like a ruined building.

By coincidence I have been looking at decay in “Abandoned” by Elhøj and Kirckhoff. It’s a beautifully photographed book. The most important distinction is that the places shown have been given-up. The tatty cars and motorbike are still in use – much like an old fishing boat or train, I suppose. What we realise then is that there is a graduation in decay. Age is acceptable and death is much less so. It depends on how much is left behind.

Image by Elhøj & Kirckoff: source

A completely stripped castle has a romantic charm. It is a stable state – it’ll look the same next year. The kind of abandonment in Elhøj & Kirckhoff is more redolent of festering, active decay. The lives lived in the places ended not so long ago and the biting of entropy is rapid.

The castle shell is dead and the recently-abandoned homes with personal effects in place are dying. We tend to look away from dying, out of respect, perhaps out of fear. The motorbike is old but alive (like my bicycle) and this is why its raggedness is not unsettling. It’ll be old for a good long time yet.


If we turn to contemporary cars I suspect they don’t weather so well or indeed at all. The rusting and scuffing of the BMW, Citroen and Opel have a consistent, overall quality, inside and out. Any decayed cars I’ve seen these days have another form of rot: the violent and very localised bubbling of otherwise very shiny painwork. The interiors look just fine. You’d be excused for thinking the interior of a car was cut off from the passage of time so that if you want to dodge time’s arrow, get into a car and stay there.

((Having hunted around the internet, I found a 1962 BMW R27 which has the same engine arrangment as the bike shown here but a different seat. The 1966 R69S has a similar seat but a different engine. As I am not a motorbike buff, anyone who could more quickly provide an identity for this bike would be satisfying my curiosity)).

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

3 thoughts on “A Photoseries for Sunday: Working Decay”

  1. The BMW R27 was made from 1960 to 1966, therefore the bike has a right to look tatty. In addition, it is nearly impossible to have corrosion on a tubular frame that is bad enough to endanger the bike as such. Even the base of a motorcycle looking as worn as the BMW can be restored relatively easily by a shotblast and paint job.
    Corrosion on a car very quickly reaches the point where it becomes downright dangerous because the car will fall apart in case of an accident.

  2. The (lack of) charm of visible decay on an automobile greatly depends on the kind of automobile.

    A Jaguar saloon needs to be spotless, for example, unless it’s supposed to look as though it was just jump-started on a used car dealership’s forecourt.

    Any Ferrari or Porsche 911, on the other hand, benefits enormously from a slightly casual stance towards ownership being displayed – not necessarily on the form of corrosion, but any Neunelfer with a bit of grim on it would make me a bit more willing to maybe have a word with its owner.

  3. There is a marked difference between decay through use (the thinning of paint on a frequently-used lever, the accumulation of oil on an engine, the creasing and cracking of leather on a well-used seat) and decay through abandonment. I agree that modern cars are generally not well suited to this more gradual process, as they are built to last only a short lifespan, so decay tends to be catastrophic and often ‘all at once’.

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