The Art of Motorcycle Design

Motorcycles are provocative things. Regardless of oneʼs attitude towards them, be it enthusiasm or disdain, the powered two-wheeler evokes powerful feelings in most people. Their design should, therefore, be something that harnesses those emotions to full effect, yet this has not always been the case.

The motorcycle, invented in the 1870s, predates the car but evolved much more slowly than its four-wheeled cousin. Largely untouched by modern industrial design until the 1980s, it’s not unfair to say that the motorcycle was a product with untapped potential.

1979 Suzuki Katana concept sketch by Jan Fulstrom/Target Design

To a casual observer, the most popular models of street bike from 1950 through to 1980 are virtually indistinguishable from each other, depending entirely on their mechanical elements to set them apart. Until modern times nearly all motorcycle manufacturers let engineers or draftsman to do the little bit of body styling that was needed.

Since the mid-1970s, the four large Japanese brands that dominate the industry have employed professional industrial designers in studios very similar to those employed by the automotive industry. The results have been well-crafted and captivating designs that usually capture the raw emotional power of the motorcycle.

Interestingly, over the past 40 years many famous car and product designers have tried their hand at motorcycle design, yet with very little success. Men like Giorgetto Giugiaro, Philippe Starck, and historic coachbuilders such as Bertone and Pininfarina responsible for a dazzling array of beautiful and influential cars and products failed repeatedly to win the hearts of motorcyclists. Even mainstream car design studios, responsible for advancing industrial design in all areas, often struggle when they dabble with two wheel concepts.

Are motorcycles more difficult to design, or is it that motorcyclists are too different from other product users? This series will look at motorcycle designs born from the hands of car and product designers, and examine their success through the prism of both commercial sales and the opinion of motorcycle contemporaries.

Honda VTR 1200 concept by Nicolas Petit


It is a fascinating exploration of contrasts, between the car as a primarily linear form study, and volumetric expression of the motorcycle. Whether or not you have ever ridden one or have any desire to design one, the art of motorcycle design will surprise you.


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