On yourBike

Janice Kirkpatrick looks at accelerating innovation in the motorcycle industry

If you’re a designer the odds are you’ll crash your motorcycle. Insurance statistics show that we belong to the professional group most likely to fall off our bikes. But we’re also among the most likely to climb on them in the first place. Research doesn’t explain why creative people have an affinity for two wheels, but it may have something to do with our enthusiasm for environmental concerns and our ability to spot an attractive idea when we see it.

It’s hardly surprising then, that it was a BMW motorcycle-riding, in-house designer who talked the manufacturer into producing the strange C1 car/ bike hybrid, launched to a stunned automotive audience in May 2000.

Even committed non-drivers couldn’t have missed the launch of the new C1. Its image reverberated throughout the motor trade and entered the Sunday supplements before spreading to the style magazines. It’s a brave and iconoclastic package designed to persuade executive car drivers to leave the car at home, get out of the traffic and save the planet. The C1 is the first of a new generation of hybrid vehicles that the motor industry has spent years talking about, but never, until now, had the nerve to back.

While bike accidents are statistically decreasing, safety remains the reason most drivers cite for not travelling by motorcycle. BMW tackled this problem head-on by designing the C1 with passive safety features similar to those you’d find in a car. Indeed, much of it looks like a car: the C1 could almost be a section through a Land Rover Discovery, with a seatbelt, dashboard, windscreen wipers, two wheels and a roof. Like a car you sit in it, rather than on it. But unlike a motorcycle or scooter, where the rider relies on defensive riding and protective clothing, the C1 uses the vehicle’s frame and bodywork to absorb the impact of a crash, while restraining the rider within a protective cage. BMW is also keen to tell C1 owners not to buy costly protective leathers, or even a helmet (subject to legislation). Experienced motorcyclists feel BMW may be pushing their expectations of safety features too far, but with the cleanest petrol engine on the market and 97 miles on one gallon of petrol, who cares what they wear?

BMW is playing a long-term game to win riders by changing hardened attitudes to two-wheeled transport through the use of radical design-led solutions, and it may succeed. It has enjoyed record motorcycle sales for the past eight years and launched a more powerful version of the C1, the C1 200, in January this year.

Meanwhile, the rest of the automotive industry continues to manufacture more traditional products that continue to attract new riders, who are anxious to play a part in reducing traffic congestion, fuel costs and exhaust emissions. In February, the London Motorcycle and Scooter Show attracted 18 600 such visitors, the majority of them novices or non-riders who placed scooters high on their list of “most wanted” vehicles.

Until now, nostalgia and speed were the two greatest reasons to take to two wheels. But today it’s easy to see why bike ownership is rapidly increasing: 1.1m people travel to London daily but only 12 000 use motorcycles or scooters. The average commute by car is 55 minutes, while journey times are 33 per cent less by motorcycle on a typical rural-urban commuter route. Research by the European Commission reveals that motorcycles and scooters consume between 55 per cent and 81 per cent less fuel than cars over the same journey, and riders don’t feel their blood pressure rise every time the traffic stops.

A snapshot of the London show reveals why some models stand out from the rest. For those not yet in-the-know, here’s a design guide to the motorcycle industry.

Japanese motorcycles are the industry tabloids, with huge market share and racy, tell-it-as-it-is names like Majesty, Hornet, Ninja, Drag Star and Bandit. They’re underpinned by superlative technology, build quality and performance, but often fail to satisfy in the styling stakes with their fag packet graphics and plasticky fairings. The Italian marques – Ducati, Aprilia, Benelli, Piaggio, Italjet and MV Agusta – are the colour supplements: emotional, desirable and often expensive, but with designer fairings and components, and graphics you’d be proud to be seen with. Apart from the odd Ducati Monster, the Italians prefer to describe themselves with numbers and letters. They use more flat colour in preference to decals because they’re more attractive and can afford to reveal their sexy contours. Aprilia and Ducati have even broken with tradition, adopting sans serif typography for their corporate identities, amid howls of protest. The Ducati marque is designed by New York consultancy Vignelli Associates.

BMW and Triumph have northern European broadsheet tendencies. BMW acknowledges, rather than celebrates, German engineering. It exhibits an innovative, if sensible approach to safety. Four recent additions to its range include the R1150RT tourer, the R1150R roadster, the R1200C Avantgarde cruiser and the K1200RS sports tourer, all available with the company’s own anti-lock braking system and a three-phase catalytic converter. BMW has a predilection for bland colours, constabulary graphics and a protestant attitude to styling, with the exception of the exuberant R1150GS off-roader.

Triumph is the British motorcycle industry’s own success story. It’s a grand old marque that’s been given a fresh lease of life, best represented by the new Daytona 955i, the best-selling flagship of the Triumph range since the original fuel-injected super-sports triple (then called the T595 Daytona) was launched in 1997. The T595 was the first Hinckley-built Triumph designed to compete directly with high performance machines from Japan and Italy, therefore hedging its bets and using both names and numbers to differentiate it’s products. Triumph is an industry legend and literal heavyweight. It’s retained its old script-styled marque, but funked up the finishes with gorgeous, bright, metallic colours. It continues to offer loyal riders a dose of macho nostalgia which underpins sports performance with a certain dignity, even if the bikes appear to get lighter and brighter with every new model.

Some of us are prepared to pay more for a heritage brand, so why not consider something a little further from home? Harley Davidson and Harley-powered Buell defy comparisons to the world of publishing and head straight for Hollywood. Harley is pure Walt Disney, peddling the romance of the open road. Owning one is about more than just owning a bike. It’s a lifestyle choice, complete with fringed leather bags and a host of accessories, including swimwear, aftershave and ceramic eagles.

But you can own a bit of two-wheeled history without living the American Dream. Piaggio manufactures the world’s best known and best selling scooter, the new generation 50cc Vespa ET4, as modelled by Natalie and Nicole Appleton of pop group All Saints at the London show (while boyband Five posed alongside their Ducati Monsters). Or you could go for something with a race pedigree, such as Ducati’s first retro bike, the MH 900e, inspired by British biking legend Mike Hailwood’s Isle of Man TT race-winning mount from 1978.

The UK is Europe’s fastest growing motorcycle market and there’s a two-wheeler for you, regardless of your age, class, sex or prejudice. Manufacturers are keen to ensure no niche is passed over in the two-wheeled revolution. Consequently, past models and marques are mined for every last trace of marketability, while new ranges are created to capture the hearts of new generations. Piaggio’s Gilera Ice is a new model targeted at “street kids – to make its rider stand out in a crowd”, while the Piaggio NRG MC3 has a “flat, footrest space that easily holds a large bag or rucksack of schoolbooks”.

In 2000 there was a 25 per cent increase in women taking Compulsory Basic Training (as a prelude to the full motorcycle license) with a similar increase expected in 2001. This means 25 000 women are currently shopping for two-wheeled transport and manufacturers are producing equipment aimed specifically at them.

The hot favourites for this year are Aprilia’s stylish and revolutionary Ditech and Benelli’s Tornado. The Ditech scooter has a radically new two-stroke, direct-injection engine that’s designed to cut fuel consumption and maintenance drastically while improving performance. Being a two-stoke (as opposed to a four-stroke) means it makes more power for less weight. It also looks fantastic and smells great.

Finally, a tip for the motorcycle to watch out for must be Benelli’s beautiful new Tornado 850 triple, which will be in showrooms later this year. But don’t take my word for it. Visit its website at www.tornadobenelli.com where you can see and hear the Tornado. You can even download an attractive screensaver. This will give you something to look at while you plan what you are going to fall off next.

Janice Kirkpatrick is creative director at Glasgow design group Graven Images

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