Bikes are a mass of detail. Show someone a car, and they will stand back to appreciate the vehicle in its entirity. But show any red-blooded enthusiast a decent motorcycle, and they will immediately crouch down to examine some localized area of particular interest. That difference is fundamental, and despite the onslaught of plastic body panels, lurid graphics and a generation of professional stylists, it hasn't changed in over a century.

Part of the explanation lies in the word "enthusiast". Whereas many car drivers are content with a simple transportation device, and consider a bumper sticker an expressive accessory, the average biker is a more hands-on character with a passion for machinery. We have to be, to put up with the cold, rain, insects, kamikaze van drivers and falling off every so often. Touchy subject, that last one.

It's only in the last couple of decades that motorcycles and their various consumables have become reliable enough to excuse riders from a basic knowledge of mechanics. Gone are the days when an afternoon's riding spree was preceded by a morning adjusting the valve clearances, but an interest in mechanics continues, and riders want to see that reflected in their machines. In the end, a bike is judged by the quality of engineering, not the shape of its plastic.

There was an outcry from purists when full-fairings became the norm during the mid-eighties, with the bodywork likened to joghurt pots by the disenchanted of the old school. Whatever the advantages in terms of aerodynamics and weather protection, the plastic hid all the clever bits, and that's what we sit in the garage and stare at on cold winter evenings. So when there has to be bodywork, those mechanical parts which remain visible become infinitely more important. I'll defy any bike fan to concentrate for long on a Bimota's bodywork, however attractively styled - it's the milled aluminium castings the eye is magnetised to. Bimota may hide the engine (and in turn, their lack of pedigree), but is very careful to detail the cycle parts, which after all is what they do best. Sorry, did.

Well-engineered components also tend to look good, so quality bikes were pleasing to the eye long before the first stylists arrived on the scene. Today more than ever, great atttention is given not only to the finish of the functional parts, but also to the bracketry and weld seams that hold them all together. Look at the latest brake discs and calipers, and you'll see engineering design at its best, although we're still a long way behind bicycle components which got there years before. Racing motorcycles have a strong aesthetic appeal despite their disregard for cosmetics, partly because what you leave off a bike can be more important than what you add, and partly because of the attention to detail they receive in the name of weight reduction. Drilled parts are an expensive option usually reserved for the track, so again the perception is that detail = exclusivity = quality.

This explains why many of the latest fully-faired models are trying to break down the bodywork into a myriad of tiny areas and broken surfaces, all apparently unconnected. There's often far more sculpture there than is necessary, or even comfortable to the eye, but harmony of form is not what the designers are trying to achieve. Quite the reverse - the expanse of plastic is being reduced by detail.

The ploy doesn't always work though, as BMW has shown with the new F650 CS. Here, someone seems to have become bored with friendly-looking plastic covers, and decorated the whole thing with cigar-shaped slots for no apparent purpose. It doesn't help that the cigars are all different, some rounded, some pointy, and slope in different directions, but the main problem is that they sit in neat rows within clearly defined regions, and fail to reduce that image of plastic. They just look fussy. The rest is pure product design, with all the offending mechanics tucked away under plastic covers like some kind of self-propelled food processor. That's a pity, as BMW were just starting to get it right - the R-1150R shows some wonderful feeling for form in areas like the telelever brace.

But whatever the designers do to hide it, plastic is still pastic, and the best way to detract from that is to give the eye an alternative distraction. If that feature can be something functional, or apparently so, then better still. Ram-air gave designers a wonderful baby to dress, and intake ducting made an immediate impact on models like the V-Max and Kawasaki's ZXR, becoming their primary focus of attention.

Without doubt, Tamburini is the master of detail. At one bike show, I agreed to meet some friends on the MV stand next to an F4 "Oro", and still hadn't finished taking in all the details when they finally turned up half an hour late. Washing one must be quite a sensual experience. Galluzzi tried hard to keep up with the V-Raptor, but whereas that bike appears disjointed and cluttered, an MV Brutale has a certain flow to its detail. It may be a little overdone, but you don't question that it all belongs together and is totally under control. Except for that damn headlight.

Finally, with their "New American Sports" study, Honda have produced a bike so detailed that the bodywork hardly exists at all. Unfortunately, that's exactly what Target Design did with the Sachs Beast a year earlier, as every magazine article since has duly observed.

If only Honda hadn't painted it the same colour, the world might never have noticed.

Glynn Kerr