San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Exhibit takes visitors on ride through history

Enrique Piedra ran his hand over the handlebars of a motorcycle he knew all too well. He said he used to own a similar model over 50 years ago. Piedra, now 70, excitedly recalled driving his German-made Quickly N moped through the streets of San José at the age of 18.

“I don’t remember it being dangerous,” he said. “I remember how exciting it was.”

The NSU Quickly N moped is one of more than 40 historic motorcycles on display at the Contemporary Art and Design Museum in downtown San José. German-made NSUs, Belgian FNs, Royal Enfields from England and U.S.-made Harley-Davidsons are among many other models on display. The exhibit, titled “Design in Motorcycles from 1900 to 1975,” showcases the progression of European, North American and Japanese motorcycles for the greater part of the 20th century.

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“Design in Motorcycles from 1900 to 1975”: On display at the Contemporary Art and Design Museum in San José, 1930 Harley-Davidson V-twin 750 cc.

Jessica Phelps

Marco Guevara, the museum’s design curator, said the exhibit is set up to accentuate the motorcycle’s progression from the rigidly simple yet powerful bikes of World War I to the user-friendly, fine-tuned models of the 1970s. Guevara put special emphasis on the large collection of Vespa motorcycles featured in the exhibit.

Engineered by Italian manufacturer Piaggio shortly after the conclusion of World War II, the Vespa’s iconic design propelled the moped into international prominence several years after it rolled off the assembly line.

“Costa Rica was one of the first countries to have a Vespa distributor,” Guevara said. “I remember when I was a kid, Vespas were like an icon for our generation.”

The Vespa’s international acclaim soared to new heights in 1952 when Audrey Hepburn hopped into the sidecar of Gregory Peck’s Vespa in the feature film “Roman Holiday,” sending sales of the Italian bike through the roof.

“In the ’50s and ’60s, everyone drove Vespas,” Guevara said. “In the ’70s there was a transition to more affordable, faster bikes.”

The faster, cheaper, finely tuned bikes of the 1970s were the result of Japanese manufacturer Honda making its way onto the motorcycle design scene. Built with an unprecedented level of precision and ease of use, Japanese motorcycles supplanted their European counterparts as the world’s premier racing and leisure bikes. Several early-model Japanese motorcycles are included in the exhibit. Piedra said he recalled the Japanese bikes being easier to operate and less imposing than European models.

“They were built lower to the ground and easier to ride,” he said.

The success of Japanese manufacturers Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and finally Kawasaki is readily apparent in the crowded streets of present-day San José.

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1939 Zündapp KS 600.

Jessica Phelps

“I wouldn’t drive a motorcycle in this city today,” Guevara said. “It seems like suicide.”

Despite his reluctance to join the throngs of modern-day motorists, Guevara said the exhibit is well worth a visit for both motorcycle enthusiasts and pedestrians by choice.

“Design in Motorcycles from 1900 to 1975” will run through June 4 at the Contemporary Art and Design Museum in the National Culture Center at Avenida 3, Calle 15. The museum is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $3 for foreigners, ₡700 for Costa Ricans and residents, ₡500 for students with ID and free for children and seniors. Admission is free for everyone on Mondays. For information, call the museum at 2257-7202 or 2257-9370, or visit

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