Back in 2008, after more than a decade working in the motorcycle industry, I finally bought my first brand new bike. Like the kid in the candy store, I wandered through my local motorcycle dealership with my stomach in knots, knowing one of these shiny, magnificent machines would be mine. But despite years of experience and insider knowledge, or perhaps because of it, I let the bike’s specifications take over the decision-making process. As a result, like many people, I bought a motorcycle that deeply disappointed me.
The Yamaha FZ-1 was technically faultless. My problem was that it did nothing particularly well. With a tiny fuel capacity and hard, juddering ride, it was a lousy touring rig. Conversely, it was too bulky and soft-tuned to take full advantage of its R1-derived motor and chassis as a back-roads carver.
It was bigger and faster, with a superior suspension and better materials technology than its predecessor, the Fazer 1000, and yet somehow the new package equalled less motorcycle. I should know. I helped design the Fazer 1000.
When you ask motorcyclists what they want in a new bike, the answer is always “more.” More power, more space, more features. The only thing they don’t want more of is cost. It makes sense – we all want more of a good thing. The problems often begin when designers and engineers are tasked with piling on those ever increasing specifications to an existing model, causing the root mission of the motorcycle to get lost. If it’s not managed carefully by a strong project leader, this specification creep can end with a product that looks brilliant on paper but doesn’t work well in the real world.
Set Fazers to Stun
The 1998 – 2004 Yamaha FZS600 Fazer was a wildly successful motorcycle design. At a time when entry level, middle displacement (500cc to 650cc) street bikes were either extremely basic or used obsolete technology, the Fazer delivered modern handling and performance in an attractive, user-friendly package. It featured an engine and brakes from Yamaha’s Supersport line, and a compliant chassis made of steel pipe to keep costs down, and it sold like mad to beginners and experienced riders alike.
Yamaha introduced a mildly revised Fazer two years later, together with a larger, 1000cc version that copied the successful formula to a larger format. It worked so well that Honda copied the idea of supersport technology in an inexpensive middleweight package with the CB600F Hornet. Yamaha sales plummeted, so along with a dozen other designers and engineers, I was brought into a group to create the next, all-beating Fazer.
And that’s when the wheels came off the cart.
There was a whirlwind tour of European cities, in which we interviewed hundreds of entry-level 600cc customers. The specification list grew longer and longer each day as the demands of existing users piled on. More fuel-tank range. More wind protection. More cargo-carrying capacity. And of course, more power. Always more power.
Back at headquarters, the project leader handed over the project brief. As a very young designer, I was confused. The new Fazer would have an R6 motor, with only mild retuning for low-end torque. It would feature an all-aluminum, Deltabox frame, lightweight R6 rims and a 180-section rear tire. Projector headlights. LEDs. Twin underseat stainless steel exhausts. The brief read like the spec sheet from a top-of-the-line flagship project, not the replacement for Yamaha Motor Europe’s best-selling, entry-level motorcycle.
As the design work continued the project went from compromise to compromise, as conflicting specifications battled for supremacy. The ultra rigid chassis vs. high-performance powertrain; expensive, multi-layered body work with the largest ever (for Yamaha) transparent screen vs. the need to meet the Honda and Suzuki rivals’ price points. The solution was always escalation: more of everything.
“Erecting Standards Never Before Imagined”
This is project creep, and it happens when an organization is beset by fear and acts ignorant of the bigger picture. The reasoning seems sound: if your opponent has three guys with clubs, you’d better make sure you have six. It makes sense until you discover you only have enough food for four, so you compromise and field six starved, sub-standard guys against three strong and healthy ones. In manufacturing history there are hundreds of examples of this, and the most famous may be the Ford Edsel. It had more of everything than any of its competitors, and yet was so much less of a car.
With motorcycles, the temptation is always to add more performance, because motorcyclists are fundamentally sold on the thrill of speed and aggressive handling. The problem is that too much performance makes most motorcycles into unmanageable, sphincter-clenching torture devices. Among our tribe, few are skilled enough to exploit even half the potential of a modern bike. Of course our egos won’t allow us to admit it, but inside we are terrified of opening the throttle mid-corner. So we don’t, and instead wobble around on large, expensive bikes that don’t satisfy, while feeling disgraced because we cannot master the objects of our desire.
At the cruiser end of the spectrum, the height of the chopper era saw mature, fully grown manufacturers launch models laden with Edsel levels of project creep. The Honda Rune was presented as the be-all and end-all of the cruiser genre. According to Honda America’s Ray Blank, the company “…wanted to set the bar higher than ever, erecting standards that no one else had yet imagined.” The result was a seven-foot long, 400 kg, six-cylinder monster that boasted 50 per cent more torque than Honda’s then-flagship superbike.
It was literally the most cruiser you could buy from any mainstream manufacturer, and yet its’ excess was its failure. At $26,000 (US) it wasn’t more expensive than a range-topping Harley-Davidson, but the market balked at its bulk and cornucopia of pointless styling. Honda had failed completely to stop the design at some stage and roll it back. It didn’t ask the team to refocus on what makes people yearn to cruise on a motorcycle: the simple joy of sitting astride a large mechanical powertrain suspended between two chunky tires. The Chopper is, by definition, a bike “chopped” down to its basic, core elements. A little baroque styling and flair is cool, but it’s not the main attraction.
When in Doubt, Look at What Everyone Else is Doing
As an industry, the motorcycle business is not very good at learning the lesson of project creep. The endless fight to produce the sexiest products in the marketplace inevitably drives a race that produces great innovation but also squeezes out lots of poorly-conceived motorcycles. If a bike comes out with a strong styling direction that hits the market like a storm, then copying it only with a more extreme execution is not going to work. When a competitor eats your lunch, as the Honda Hornet did when it replicated the original Yamaha Fazer concept in 2003, then just doubling down on the specifications is not going to win the market back.
The second generation FZS600 (called the FZ6 in North America) that debuted in 2005 with all those crazy upmarket features did well in Europe for a few years, but alienated many customers who loved the original Fazer’s rugged, approachable simplicity. They flocked to the second generation Suzuki SV650S, which was a better Fazer than the new Fazer. By 2008, Yamaha introduced the FZ6R, a confusingly named but genuine successor to the formula that was simple, cheap, versatile and easy to use. It quietly dropped the over-spec’ed FZ6 Fazer without a replacement.
In the market battlespace, project creep is easily seen in the most hotly-contested areas. The 250cc class ballooned to 400cc because Kawasaki needed to edge out the class-leading Honda CBR250. Then Yamaha produced the 320cc R3, then KTM launched the RC390, and so on. Last winter’s new Honda CBR250RR is a very far cry from the CBR250 I tested in 2011. In five short years, the baby Honda sport bike went from being what I called “the missing link” – a motorcycle for everyone that the industry so badly needed – to being a mini CBR1000RR World Superbike contender.
I love the look, and if I am completely honest I want one badly. But how did we end up in a place where an entry-level, 250cc street bike comes with racing style, upside-down forks and a mouse pad for a seat? I suspect it has a lot to do with looking sideways, instead of ahead.