The Haas that Bobby Built
By Sean Mooney: After his first motorcycle ride at the tender age of 64, Bobby Haas was hooked by, as he puts it, “the joy of engaging in an activity that has hardly changed at all in the past century, the intoxicating thrill of speed and the distinct aroma of danger that you sense in your nostrils”.
But instead of just cruising the highways of his native USA, Haas decided to assemble one of the most exquisite exhibitions of motorcycle artistry you could ever hope to find. Starting with a 1952 Matchless, Haas went on to collect scores of motorcycles of a multitude of vintages. These are now displayed at the Haas Moto Museum & Sculpture Gallery and another nearby facility in Dallas, Texas.
“Including eight custom cycles that are currently in fabrication but not yet installed in the museum, our collection now numbers 208,” Haas explains. “This is roughly three times as large as it was when we broke ground on the building of the museum less than two years ago.”
And what a collection it is. There are more than 150 vintage bikes, dating from 1901 to the present day. The custom collection features bikes by such talents as Jeremy Cupp, Bryan Fuller, Max Hazan, Kurosu Kaichiroh, Shinya Kimura, Craig Rodsmith, Walt Segal and Cristian Sosa, as well as creations by lesser known custom builders. “It’s an eclectic collection with highlights for both the moto aficionado and museum guests who are not as conversant with the industry,” Haas says.
From cans to cameras
Highly regarded for the central role he played in a venture capital firm’s acquisition of iconic soft drink manufacturers Dr Pepper and 7 Up in the 1980s, Haas is also world famous as the aerial photographer behind two of the most widely distributed books ever published by National Geographic. So how did a polymath graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, who excelled in the seemingly disparate worlds of corporate and securities law, strategic equity investments and photography, become a curator of such distinction? Haas cites three traits that he “found to be particularly helpful” in this transition.
“Firstly, in each case, I was fuelled by passion for undertaking the challenges of those professions, and I drew upon that passion whenever I encountered the inevitable setbacks along the way,” he says. “Secondly, I always tried to take a novel approach to my professional ambitions, seeking to unearth fresh turf in each field that had not been cultivated by others. Finally, I have always been driven by a heavy dose of perfectionism and, as the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers Vince Lombardi once said, ‘If we chase perfection, we can catch excellence’.”
Haas found the thrill of riding motorcycles to be a fitting successor to a decade of leaning out of helicopters taking photographs. “In that career as well… we were moving at high speed connected by a harness to an airborne chopper, and there were certainly moments of danger and near calamity.” He now rides three motorcycles of his own, all big-throated Harleys with sidecars attached. “But, as strange as this may sound, I have never had an urge to ride any of the bikes in our collection,” he admits. “I probably don’t trust myself in the saddle of one of those masterpieces. I feel it would be like using a Rembrandt as a dinner tray and hoping not to spill red wine on it.”
Driven by passion
Haas says he admires the focus and commitment of the giants of custom building. “They are driven by passion not money and are selfless in their sharing of their expertise,” he explains. “They are not obsessed with their image, are harsh critics of themselves but strong supporters of others, and are genuinely gracious people and not jaundiced by cynicism.” Furthermore, Haas says, the lives of many of them have been anything but smooth, but “somehow they have managed to convert personal strife into professional excellence, and to share that excellence with the public at large”.
This attitude resonates with a guy who, when he commits himself to a professional path, will never settle for something less than excellence as the ultimate goal. “In this respect, I think I’m no different from what many of our designer and builders of custom cycles bring to their trade,” Haas says. “That standard is both the fuel for our ambition and an albatross around our neck.”
Another standard Haas adheres to is a dedication to philanthropic causes, which has been a part of his professional life for the past two decades. From donating the royalties from his books to a variety of deserving entities, to helping war veterans, Haas’s philanthropic pursuits are part of his pledge to not contaminate the move from the corporate world to artistic careers with a desire for financial payback. “It is not grounded in any sort of noble character trait,” he admits. “It’s based more on how I decided to transition my life away from the pursuit of monetary gain.”
When you’re in the investment business, as Haas was for 30 years, the rewards are measured purely in dollars. And, as he explains it, the only direct beneficiaries of your success are you and the immediate members of your family. “But when I transitioned to life as an artist – as a photographer and an author and ultimately as the founder and curator of the museum – I moved into careers in which the beneficiaries of your success are as many people as you can possibly attract to your creations, as many people as you can inspire with your work, as wide a net of artistic influence as you can cast.”
Haas says he feels just as rewarded today as an artist and museum owner as he did when he completed a successful financial deal. “And at the age of 71, you become much more sensitised to what your legacy will be, and that is hardly ever measured in dollars,” he says.
‘A platform that appeals to all riders’
Such an attitude means that Haas supports projects such as Full Tank Moto. “The altruistic motives behind Full Tank – its dedication to men’s health issues and its donation of profits to charity – obviously resonate with my entirely non-financial motivation in the artistic fields that I have pursued,” he says. “It provides a platform that not only appeals to all riders, but also contributes to an image that many motorcyclists are devoted to values that extend far beyond ‘self’ and into the realm of sharing and contributing to others. Programs and platforms such as the ones promoted by Full Tank clearly enhance and help define the reputation of motorcyclists in the broader community.”
The spirit of Full Tank’s mission can also be found in Haas’s firm belief that taking care of one’s physical and mental wellbeing is central to any personal endeavour. “If I’m not taking care of my physical wellbeing, then I’m simply off target,” he says. “And through physical wellbeing and meditation and other techniques, I think we build up and insulate our self-esteem, which allows us to approach difficult professional challenges with our entire arsenal intact.”
This philosophy is part of the very fabric of the incomparable Haas Moto Museum & Sculpture Gallery. “If I’m able to approach designing and populating our museum with my self-esteem fairly well intact,” Haas says, “then I have the best chance of creating a venue which communicates and oozes the essence of motorcycling.”