Forget the Speedmaster and the Submariner. The dial of distinction is the Veglia Borletti tachometer
Motorcycling—alongside bank-robbing and grenade-juggling—punishes inattention. At 100 kilometres-per-hour, 28 metres vault past every second (88 feet-per-second at 60 mph). While it’s tempting to think of your tachometer as a benign instrument, it’s nothing of the sort. A half-second eye-diversion from the road ahead is 14 metres of blindness in traffic shared with an Uber driver who hasn’t had a restful night’s sleep since the third child arrived. A tachometer that relays information poorly is more than maddening. It’s murderous.
Veglia Borletti, whose gauges were once ubiquitous on Italian cars and motorcycles, last outfitted a tachometer to the Ducati 900SS of 1998. (Though dormant, Veglia remains part of Magneti Marelli.) The Veglia (for correct pronunciation ignore the g) tachometer remains the high-water mark for an analogue gauge. Why? Clarity and austerity. The numbers are without drop shadows (to imply three-dimensionality) and lack the italics lesser designers use to imply speed. And no colour, either, aside from an authoritative red strike at redline and the safety orange of the needle. The Veglia tachometer has everything you need and nothing you don’t. It’s the Hemmingway of tachometers.
On my Ducati the tachometer is rotated to rest redline at midnight. Using terminology pinched from horology may seem out of place describing an instrument that measures an engine’s revolutions-per-minute, but the clock dial remains the gold standard for legibility. Don’t believe me. Believe Cinderella. She knows when the hands of the clock point straight up her wardrobe goes straight to hell. Cinderella counts the minutes to midnight only in the figurative sense—the hands’ relative position on the dial tell her what she needs to know.
The clock is of such familiarity that no manner of overwrought design can destroy its clarity. In a (short-lived) fit of fashion, I once owned a wristwatch with satin black numbers on a flat black dial. Yet the relative position of the hands made time easy to tell, even with illegible numbers. A lifetime of experience and the unwavering position of the numbers on the circumference of the dial make a blank clock decipherable.
At the advent of the digital era, motorcycle manufacturers, keen to be seen as on-point with technology, largely dispensed with analogue tachometers in lieu of digital gauges. Most were difficult to read. Some remain so. The problem is twofold. We, the citizenry, take time to adapt to what’s new. And it takes designers time to fully understand how to exploit the digital cluster for clarity.
A digital tachometer that illuminates along the flat line of the x-axis as revs rise should be as easy to read as an analogue instrument—a redline seven-eighths of the way across a ruler-straight readout should be as easy to note as an analogue gauge with a redline at the 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock position. But it’s not. Why? Because of our familiarity with clocks, we ascribe, without knowing we’re doing so, a time-of-day equivalency to the face of an analogue tachometer. We instinctively know the difference between the 2 o’clock, or 3 o’clock, or 12 o’clock position—rotating my tachometer keeps eyes at the top of the dial, closer to the road. We do not have the same confidence in delineating the three-quarters from the seven-eighths position along a straight line. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before we do.
My wife’s 2015 KTM RC390 has a tachometer that runs a straight line from left to right. The numbers are miniscule; three or four millimetres high. And the cluster has the contrast of bacon floating in black bean soup. I’ve ridden her bike a few thousand kilometres but still can’t determine the redline. But the 2019 Ducati Panigale V4S has a bright, thin-film-transistor digital dash that displays the tachometer as a faux-analogue dial. Even in sunlight it’s as easy to read as the old Veglia. When light is low, it dramatically surpasses the Veglia’s legibility.
It’s important to resist the temptation to elevate everything old to hallowed status. Nineteen-sixties suspensions or 1970s brakes should die in their decade of birth. But analogue gauges—or their digital likenesses—rightfully deserve to live on.
Yes, the KTM RC390, above, is a budget machine. But don't all revs deserve to be counted? The Ducati Panigale illustrates the maturation of the digital dash. But wouldn't it be swell if the Ducati's redline could be rotated to the top of the dial?