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Motorcycle Design Creeps Out of Control

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.

Waving maniacally as I ride my Yamaha FS-1 (Fazer 1000 in Europe) home for the first time.
Waving maniacally as I ride my Yamaha FZ-1 (Fazer 1000 in Europe) home for the first time.

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.

FazerPlease

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.

With its colossal size and heft, the Honda Rune crushed mountains into boulders.
With its colossal size and heft, the Honda Rune crushed mountains into boulders.

“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.

styr_33j-01
2001 Suzuki TL1000R promised to redefine the v-twin superbike by being the most everything. It ended up a decent bike but lost all of what made V-Twin superbikes attractive to fans of the type:  a svelte and raw sports bike experience.

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.

UmWhat

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.

8 thoughts on “Motorcycle Design Creeps Out of Control”

  1. Good Article.
    Hated the reuse of the name Fazer…. The only Fazer is the 1986-87(1998 Japan) FZX 750 Muscle bike… Whatever Yamaha was thinking to me it is a shameful re-use of the name. The new CBR-250 is targeting Asian markets no? Will it even make it here? In Japan you could say there is a predecessor the MC22 CBR-250RR… which never sold in NA… because there are no cc limits for new riders here I assume. The NA CBR250 became the 300 no?
    Does project creep apply to liter bikes? I can’t get over a $20 000 liter bike… I love motorcycles and am tied to sport bikes but the price just is NOT fun. I think I’m the target market early 40s… but I’m totally out.. the fun factor is zero! (Who cares about 6 modes of traction control/BS power settings/and forks that can feel a pee drive under the wheel, make it fun and affordable!)
    Tony.

  2. my first bike in europe was a ’99 Fazer600, and it really reset my margins for street motorcycling with that insanely smooth engine. In fact, it set me on the course for extreme sportbikes. Truly a great motorcycle.
    The Rune I thought was more of a design exercise than anything else, where Honda just made the engineers go along (much to their chagrin i’m sure). I liked the fact that they built it even though I didn’t like the bike all that much. I just don’t get why somebody would want to ride a bike with an extra long wheelbase or one with poor handling just for looks. I can only imagine the performance must suck most of the fun out of it, but maybe that’s just me.

    An excellent read, as per usual. 🙂

  3. makes you think of 1000+ cc adventure bikes with a whole bunch of electronics while what you need to go on an actual adventure is a light, uncomplicated bike

  4. I rode and sold Yamaha FZ-6 and always thought it was the nicest middleweight bike that was made. Silky smooth but powerful engine ran with no fuss EVER, great transmission and I loved the styling. In the end a little small for me but for sure the best middle weight bike I had ever ridden. The last version was a shadow of the FZ with THE most uncomfortable seat ever. Cost cut to the bone I saw short cuts I have never seen Yamaha do before plus the engine to me had less power and torque and vibrated more. A major step backward in my opinion.

  5. Funny thing, I’ve got a Fazer 8, which is essentially a sleeved-down FZ-1 with a few other minor changes. I’ve really enjoyed it, probably because my expectations were lower. Fuel capacity seems reasonable, in the 200-300 km range, depending on how hard I ride it. Sure gets hot between the legs in hot weather, though.

    But yes, buying on the specs is a mistake many of us have made, at least once. Sometimes it works out, sometimes not. I bought a V-Strom 1000, slightly used, in 2003, based on its specs and reviews. It turned out to be exactly what I expected. Rode it for 11 years. But my first new bike, a Kawi ZX-6E which I had been attracted to for years before buying a leftover ’96 in ’97, was a similar experience – turned out it had little power down low, and was far from comfortable for me.

  6. As usual, you provided an excellent read Michael.

    Your point about a machine having too much performance and thus intimidating the rider is a good one. In the early 2000’s I had a KTM 300 2 stroke, which I rode in the woods. It was light, well suspended and powerful. One could stick it in 3rd gear and ride all day. So a couple years ago I decided I wanted the experience again and bought a KTM 530 four stroke. I have struggled with it trying to ride the same trails. It feels like I’m trying to wrestle a superbike around a go cart track sometimes.

  7. ” A camel is a horse designed by committee “.

    I appreciate your efforts Michael to not lose sight of the original intent, then getting sidetracked by conflicting demands – marketing, sales, serviceability, even the (sometimes lost) opportunity for after-purchase accessories all pull in different directions.
    One may not have much time for the cruiser market, but they (especially H-D) seem to have figured that part out. And lots of people still buy them.
    What people tell you they want, and REALLY want can be two entirely different things. Witness the return of the retro-hipster and naked bikes – did any of the deep thinkers see this coming ?
    Keep the faith, and please keep the tales a-coming !

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