“You get what you pay for”; “Bigger is better”. We’ve heard it all before, but that doesn’t mean that buyers should settle for inferior products based on market positioning and budget constraints. Designer Michael Uhlarik discusses the design development of the E&E XR338 to uncover what happens when a small company sets its sights on creating a product that delivers far more than its entry-level positioning would suggest.
Like most consumers, new motorcyclists expect design sophistication and practical features to be seamlessly integrated into the products they buy. The motorcycle industry has been very good at delivering those qualities in expensive models, but not great at providing them to the mass market.
The XR338 is a compact motorcycle concept by Italian firm E&E, created to prove that accessible performance and premium quality in an entry-level bike is possible. Developed as a near-production demonstrator, the XR338 mandate was to make a standout design for new American motorcyclists that didn’t compromise function or cost.
Easy Rider vs Evel Knievel
If you ask people to identify an iconic American motorcycle most will rightly point to Harley-Davidson, singling out one of that company’s big cruisers like an Electra Glide or Road King, heavyweight touring machines are famously ridden by policemen and by outlaws, professionals and tradesmen, bedazzling onlookers with polished chrome and tasseled leather.
While those motorcycles dominate pop culture, the most iconic American model among motorcyclists is the Harley-Davidson XR750 flat track racer. Lightweight and narrow, the XR stood out on and off the track, characterized by the brand’s signature big V-twin engine suspended between two massive 19-inch wheels and topped by a flattened slice of Harley’s famous peanut-shaped fuel tank. It was a legendary racing success that bred generations of American Grand Prix champions, it went on to define the style of the Harley-Davidson Sportster line up and spawned scores of imitations ever since.
In many ways, the XR750 was for Harley-Davidson what the GT40 was to Ford. Designed in a hurry for competition using many existing components, it gave the brand’s reputation a performance edge, searing its image into the minds of baby boomers growing up in the bike boom of the 1970s. Over the last decade, flat track racing has seen a resurgence across Europe and the US, with popular flat track-inspired road bike models from boutique manufacturers like Indian, Ducati and Husqvarna.
The XR338 by E&E is a mass-production concept, created in record time and based on the upcoming Harley-Davidson 338R platform. Keeping the unmistakable silhouette of the original 1970s icon intact, the new design combines a clean, integrated aesthetic, with an honest approach to materials and mechanical layout that delivers the premium quality feeling associated with the Harley-Davidson brand in an entry-level package for a new generation of riders.
A Question of Proportion
Respecting the lean proportions of the original 1970 XR was a priority, and the departure point of the design. Armed with a roll of tracing paper, a pen and a Sharpie, I spent a week working out the silhouette in elevation views, mapped over the technical package developed together with the chief engineer Daniele Alvisi and his team. We worked remotely, communicating daily and sharing ideas on how to achieve the desired look without compromising functionality or cost.
Most retro-styled motorcycles re-skin modern platforms with contemporary packaging, including a tall seat height and standard 17-inch wheels, which makes the long, low, and horizontal stance from past decades impossible to achieve. To gain the lean body look of the original XR, we selected 18-inch rims and flat track balloon tires, flattened the fuel tank – elongating it under the seat to recover lost internal volume –, and relocated the battery. These significant packaging changes were vital to minimize negative spaces around the wheels and balance the overall body design with the relatively small motor.
Unlike cars, motorcycles place much greater emphasis on volume than line, partly because they have smaller surfaces and less overall bodywork. Another consideration is the viewpoint of the observer.
From a standing height, adults look across at cars, but down at motorcycles, at angles that produce extreme perspectives that contrast changes in plan and side views. There really is no way to see a bike in side view, so the plan view becomes critical if a dynamic, muscular design is to come across in the typical viewing angles it will be seen from.
The XR338 design process placed a lot of focus on the rear three-quarter view, known as the approach angle. This is the last complete view of the bike the rider sees just before they mount a motorcycle. While most classically styled motorcycles have relatively little contrast in plan view, I like pinching bikes significantly around the front of the seat to create an exaggerated hourglass profile. Seen from behind, this has the effect of creating muscle without bloating the overall visual mass out of proportion, something that small motorcycles are particularly sensitive to.
The fuel tank bulges laterally, which not only accentuates the peanut shape in profile but adds to the internal capacity. A low and narrow seat, narrow at the hip point, was sculpted to flare towards the rear, casting a strong shadow that emphasizes the horizontal line of the bike. In this way, riders can easily put both feet flat on the ground when stopped but slide back for greater comfort in motion. The overall effect gives the XR338 added physical presence without unnecessary bulk.
Mechanically Inspired Styling Solutions
In traditional flat track body design, the key styling features are a long and slim fuel tank, and broad number plates on the face and on either side of the seat. In the XR338 concept, these would follow a consistent philosophy: elements must communicate their individual function but connect visually to one another by using a common detail and design language.
This sounds obvious, but low-cost motorcycles typically use mostly off-the-shelf components that limits original design to body panels only. With XR338, we sought to cut cost in body design, by reducing part count and cleverly incorporating very low-cost production processes in low visibility areas, to make room in the budget to dress up off-the-shelf parts with bespoke covers, upgrade component materials and housings.
Flat track motorcycles wear a simple number plate on their face, an aggressive, low profile look that has since been captured in the custom bike scene and naked sportbike market. The original XR famously wore a #1 plate for years, so we set out to create a mask that incorporated a fully functional headlight that would pass the latest international homologation standards for lighting, but recall Harley-Davidson’s decade long winning streak.
XR338 prototype and E&E founder Alberto Strazzari (top right)
A great part of what made the original XR an icon was its purity. Rather than treat the face of the new XR338 as a superficial plastic body part, it was conceived as a family of aluminum castings that would simultaneously function as component housing, connect the suspension forks and handlebars. This constellation was designed as independent parts that proudly emphasize their mechanical functionality but are visually integrated, sharing the same chamfer, radius and surface language.
Lots of care was taken to preserve tactile quality and the hewn-from-solid feel that Harley-Davidson is famous for. Most of the design is metal, with only the body-color panels molded in plastic. The fuel tank is split longitudinally, with the visible black portion in the center in stamped steel topped by a CNC milled, black anodized aluminum gas cap.
The instrument panel bezel, radiator coolant and gas caps are all-aluminum, sharing the same helical-cut grip. The outer black tank pads are made of milled nylon and are designed as protectors that can be replaced in case the bike falls over. The orange rings around the engine cover as well as those surrounding the nylon tank pads are CNC milled, anodized aluminum. All the water-cooling pipes are anodized aluminum tubes instead of cheap rubber hoses. Anodized orange caps on the forks and clutch cover, and a matching orange rear suspension spring top off the understated livery.
From Zero to New Motorcycle in 120 Days
The XR338 design was created in a matter of weeks, using a combination of paper sketching, direct collaboration with Alias CAD modelers, then a full-scale clay model. Complete production parts engineering and development began at the CAD stage and continued in tandem with the design and styling process. In total, the XR333 went from a telephone conversation to a 70% production-ready state in just under 120 working days spread over seven months, including COVID delays.
The XR338 is not a show bike with glued-on parts or hand-modeled foam body panels intended to excite magazines and showgoers. It is a fully functional, pre-production prototype manufactured using processes as close to mass production standards as possible. It is fully compliant with noise, emission and lighting regulations. It has been thoroughly engineered, road and track tested, and as such is a worthy tribute to the original XR750, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last spring.
E&E can work this fast in part because this project began on an existing platform, but mostly due to its four decades experience developing over 140 motorcycles for OEMs around the world, from 50cc to 1300cc and fully electric designs. The firm’s immense in-house resources of around 110 designers, engineers and technicians in ten labs, can perform complete research and engineering for almost every aspect of motorcycle development. This all translates into fast project turnaround times.
Using Design to Build a New Audience
Designing high-end, low volume motorcycles is fun, but the vast bulk of the world’s two-wheelers are small capacity machines that cost less than $5000. Just as premium automakers stretched their brands downmarket in the past, luxury motorcycle brands from BMW to Harley-Davidson have all begun selling smaller, entry-level models to ignite new riders and broaden their appeal. However, sometimes these downmarket models hit their price targets by eliminating product content, hurting perceived quality and turning off sophisticated new riders. The XR338 is a demonstration that premium design quality can be achieved at an entry-level price point, without compromise.
Most professionals in the auto industry and some large, legacy motorcycle brands know that design is a value multiplier. But in the two-wheel world industrial design is still sometimes seen as a superficial benefit, one that comes towards the end of the process, subservient to engineering or economic needs.
This is especially true in entry-level projects, which is tragic because it inevitably leads to motorcycles that lack imagination and that talk down to consumers.
2020 saw a boom in entry-level motorcycle sales, as more people sought new ways to travel and recreate in a socially-distanced way. Parallel to this, many motorcycle manufacturers find themselves struggling with R&D resource constraints because of COVID restrictions or project backlogs. With the XR338, E&E hopes to ignite the imagination of moto-curious newcomers and win some new business from international manufacturers seeking partners.