I went to see the exhibition of robert capathe legendary photojournalist born 110 years ago, founder of the Magnum agency together with Henri Carter-Bresson. I consider him a journalist to all intents and purposes: he used the camera instead of the pen, but his eye on the world was so extraordinary that his shots captured an image describing everything around it, even out of frame. The exhibition, at the Mudec in Milan, is a journey through time, an hour worth a century, from the Russian Revolution to Indochina, where Capa died on a mine.
Russia, indeed the Soviet Union, caught his attention: he went there in 1947 together with John Steinbeck, the author of Furore, for a report published by Life magazine; the two were at all times controlled by Voks, the Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. Capa said, “The further east you go, with a camera, the less people like you for many, many reasons: and most of them are not good.” Looking at the shots of that reportage, chronicle from a mysterious and fascinating world, I tried to imagine the curiosity and amazement of Western man of the time in observing those images, when it occurred to me that we at Motociclismo also made a similar journey, in some ways.
In 1980 the late Charles Perelli, accompanied by Paolo Tamburi, went to the Soviet Union! For the first time two Western journalists had the opportunity to visit the great motorcycle factories of the USSR. A trip probably made possible by the fact that Moscow was to host the Olympics that year. Many points of interest emerged from that trip, perhaps less pedagogical than Capa’s thirty years earlier, but certainly no less surprising. Among the main ones: the production of two million pieces a year and the circulation of ten million motor vehicles made the USSR the second motorcycle power in the world after Japan; there were two and a half million cars, but concentrated in the cities, while motorcycles (especially sidecars) were “rural” vehicles. The factory managers were aware of the technological backwardness: the motorcycles were not sophisticated, but neither were they robust and a Dnepr sidecar (built in Ukraine, in Kiev, by KMZ) “if used correctly” could travel 45,000 km before needing a major overhaul; the same sidecar cost between 1.9 and 2.3 million lire, while the average salary of a worker was 250,000 lire a month, which could reach 400,000 with piecework, quality bonuses and overtime (maximum 24 hours a month).
Half of the factory workers were women; a vehicle left the assembly lines every 2/3 minutes, but with a high percentage of missing details, due to the delays of the (always Soviet) suppliers, which is why the courtyards of the factories were often crammed with finished but… incomplete vehicles. An extraordinary response from a chief designer to the question: are you thinking of adopting fairings, given your climate? “We have tried them but they don’t seem necessary to us, because the speed of our vehicles is modest”.