Is a motorcycle a consumer product on the cutting edge of design, or a fetish object? Walking through the halls of EICMA, the motorcycle industry’s most prestigious trade show in 2019 revealed that both are true as a battle rages for the very soul of the motorcycle itself.
Motorcycle design has always been about satisfying fantasies. The unique experience of three-dimensional cornering is common to all two-wheelers, but the right design can add powerful, subjective emotional social and historical associations. Car design can do this too, but motorcycle culture today finds itself totally imprisoned by dueling narratives with inflexible ideologies. One is forward-looking, eschewing completely the baggage of history and classical design, while the other is a hyper-romantic backward-looking attempt to enshrine history and classical design.
This bifurcation is not a new phenomenon in the motorcycle industry. For 40 years Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki defined the motorcycle, introducing affordable performance, modern style and exceptional quality. Meanwhile, legacy names from Europe and America such as BMW, Ducati and Harley-Davidson retreated, selling expensive bikes that traded on intangibles like history, and unique, if not competitive, technologies. The Japanese represented progress and substance, the legacy brands heritage and emotion.
However, since the early 2000s it became increasingly clear that consumers were more drawn to the traditional motorcycle. Plastic bodies, complex compound lighting elements, and radical body styling was increasingly rejected in favor of the pure, classical look and materials of motorcycles from the middle decades of the 20th century. In the ten years since the economic crisis, retro-themed motorcycle design has come to define modern motorcycling to most millennials around the world, and to the remaining baby boomers still active in the market, a trend that has catapulted legacy brands back to the front.
In contrast to this, startups and Indian, Chinese and Taiwanese mass-market brands are mostly finding their global breakout in the form of futuristic electric motorcycles and two-wheeled mobility products. They aspire to capture the glow of technology and innovation of brands like Apple and Google, and with designs that match the advanced architecture of Asia’s newest and fastest-growing cities.
Motorcycle design in 2020 and beyond now clearly falls into these two opposing, dominant viewpoints.
The New Romantics
It is not an exaggeration to say that retro-themed motorcycles made up roughly half of what was on display at EICMA in 2019. Headlights were big and circular, with chrome or brushed aluminum bezels, and mounted with mechanical looking castings to long tubular suspension forks. While some details, like modern LED bulbs and CNC-machined components betrayed contemporary times, from a distance of three meters one could not tell what decade these motorcycles were from.
Among retro motorcycle designs, three main subcategories dominate: the café racer, the scrambler and the flat tracker. All harken to mid-century and use the same air-cooled vertical motor mounted in a steel tube frame architecture. Wheels are usually laced with wire spokes, and larger in diameter but narrower than modern motorcycles. This gives all of them a low, lean appearance that is at once visceral, thanks to exposed mechanical elements, but also unintimidating and compact. Most have little to no aerodynamic bodywork.
Most retro models are basic designs featuring parts chosen from supplier catalogs. Of the dozens presented, most were the very same Chinese and Taiwanese 250cc and 500cc motorcycles with minor material and color variations, marketed under various historic European brands resurrected by new money. The Fantic Caballero, Mondial and SWM are perhaps the best examples of this. Handsome and executed with very tight millennial branding, the designs are ultimately unoriginal and interchangeable. Alongside them, dozens of newly invented hipster-chic brands parked among wooden pallets, faux brick walls and craft beer, sold virtually the same machines for lower prices.
Ducati, Moto Morini, Indian and Triumph designs parallel this market with retro-themed motorcycles that add modern stylistic elements. Ducati’s Scrambler sub-brand showed a half dozen derivative models carefully designed to contrast retro themes with modern details and surface treatment. The DesertX and SCR Motard concepts pay homage to Paris-Dakar racers and modified single-cylinder enduros of the 1980s. Suzuki’s Katana is a reimagining of it’s classic 1980 design, updated for the 21st century, emulating many key design elements of the original.
Professionally executed, they play the game of fan service, like easter eggs in a classic movie reboot. The DesertX is almost a straight copy of the original 1988 Honda Africa Twin, and the SCR Motard was an urban sub-genre of modified single-cylinder motorcycles that Ducati never produced. Is it good design? Yes. Is it honest? No. But that is irrelevant in a consumer market eager for perceived authenticity. Brands without a specific history are using design to capture the zeitgeist.
Electric & Eclectic
Contrasting sharply to this were the many wild concepts and production designs based around electric propulsion. After more than a century shackled to the vertical piston engine, the highly conservative and inward-looking motorcycle is at last free to try radical packaging and styling experiments. Many of the brands that have gone all-in with traditional and retro-homage themes also played to the new.
BMW presented the Vision DC roadster, a complete rethink of motorcycle architecture. Using broad aluminum sheets sandwiched between flat battery packs, they act as heat sink while recalling the cooling fins of old combustion engines and simultaneously forming the frame of the vehicle.
This link to the past – along with electronic control units hung off the side like the cylinders of traditional BMW boxer motors – is obvious without being patronizing. Unlike so many neo-retro designs where historic elements are forced, the Vision DC is wonderfully understated. To a neophyte it looks cohesive and modern, but an enthusiast will immediately get the reference.
Pierre Terreblanche, the South African designer responsible for many iconic Ducatis in the 1990s and early 2000s debuted the Hypertek, a similarly questioning electric motorcycle roadster. Designed for carbon fiber wheel supplier BST, the Hypertek presents a classic silhouette but deletes the bulk and volume, deriving its elements from pure engineering need.
Central to the bike is a composite monocoque frame, on which are hung exposed battery packs, the inverter, and inside of which the cooling liquid for the electric motor is contained. Terreblanche went to great lengths to emphasize the mechanical aspects of each component, to address the frequent criticism that electric motorcycles lack personality. The rear suspension is contained entirely within the swingarm but the damper is partially exposed via a cutout. The back of the motor has a turbine shape housing a waterproof speaker emitting a sound that varies according to throttle inputs.
A common idea with the innovative electric motorcycle designs like the Vision DC and Hypertek is to rethink the traditional fuel tank. Without the need to contain a liquid, this area is now free to be used for other things, be it storage, housing for electronics or suspension, or hollowed out. A rider still needs to grip the bike with their knees, but this opens up possibilities in shape that were never before possible. Floating panels become not just a mere styling gimmick, but practical solutions and styling opportunities at the same time.
More than 60 electric scooter models were present at EICMA, many of which were notable for taking advantage of new materials and electric architecture such as the Nito Bikes N4, the Yadea V7, Ottobike, and Qjiang Bo. Delightful and sometimes weird, electrification and brand novelty allows designers to explore shape and layout in a way that legacy brands cannot. Honda, Yamaha and the Piaggio Group, the leaders in traditional combustion scooter markets, all had new models but they were derivative designs. No one outside of industry pundits can tell the difference between a 2005 Vespa or Yamaha T-Max, and models for 2020.
Of course, some electric motorcycle designs play it safe, blending as much as possible into contemporary motorcycle culture. The Energica Eva, SuperSoco TS, Zero SR/F and Kymco SuperNEX are impressively finished with many thoughtful design touches, but they tread perhaps too close to existing tropes. Steel tubular frames, Transformer toy body styling and anonymous pointy rear end treatment mean these designs disappear among their gasoline-powered brethren.
2020 and Beyond
Can the two sides of motorcycle design meet or is one theme destined to succeed the other? The demand for cultural cosplay, to dress and ride a motorcycle in period costume in an endless series of reboots will continue alongside mainstream culture’s fascination with the past. Motorcycle designers may be better-served binge-watching Stranger Things than attending design fairs like the Milan Salone del Mobile or CES.
On the hand, we may be at peak retro. In 2007, European and US motorcycle sales were strong and each of those markets were dominated by what were then considered unassailable design concepts. No one could have then imagined that cruiser and superbike trends would evaporate. A giant economic downturn wiped out most small motorcycle brands and many consumers, jarring motorcycle design into its present state endless replay. It will likely take a major external social force to put an end to motorcycle design’s allure of the past.
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