Michael Uhlarik is an international award winning motorcycle designer and industry analyst with 15 years experience working with major OEMs in Asia, Europe and North America.
He is also, together with partner Kevin O’Neil, behind the Amarok Racing team, and the P1 electric motorcycle experiment. He lives with his family in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which is about as far away from the center of the motorcycle universe as one can get. This may or may not be a coincidence.
For the past fifteen years, a question I like to avoid being asked is “what do you do for a living?”. This staple of introductory conversation is awkward for me because my answer usually results in incredulous looks, or lead to more questions that require tedious explanations.
No one really thinks that motorcycles are designed, unless, if by design they mean welding and hammering metal like those beardy types seen on TV’s Orange County Chopper.
Dressed in brown cargo pants from the supermarket, a sweater from the GAP, and leaning out of a van filled with bored looking children, I don’t exactly fit that bill. I don’t look like I’ve ever ridden a motorcycle, much less have anything to do with making one. I also don’t match the stereotype of what a designer is, either. No $400 black cashmere v-neck, heavy rimmed geek-chique glasses or ironic smile. It doesn’t make sense.
Uncomfortable explanations follow, the answers to which don’t inspire confidence. “I used to work in Europe, Amsterdam mainly. Then I built this electric bike in my garage…”
That is usually the point when the customs agent, or parent at the school pick up, or party acquaintance or whatever, glaze over and change the subject. My occupation is no longer of any interest to them, I suspect because they think I am either some weirdo, or else I’m making it up. Probably both. Another frustrated, van-driving middle-aged man desperately seeking validation.
That’s fine. I really don’t care. Because for the better part of my adult life, designing motorcycles has been what I do, how I’ve made most of my living, while simultaneously enjoying the most deeply satisfying pursuit I can think of. I am a motorcycle designer.
Motorcycle design is actually not that hard to explain. Like all products of the modern industrial age, motorcycles intended for mass production are designed by a team of professionals. Whether it is a $500 Chinese scooter or a $25,000 exotic sport bike, engineers, stylists, product planners and marketers have all had their hands in crafting its look and feel, and defined its performance and price envelope. This is what product design is: invention with intent. And the intent is to make something people will want to pay money for.
Despite what decades of media misrepresentation have suggested, design is not art. Vehicle design especially. It costs several million dollars to tool up for just the plastic bodywork of a mass production motorcycle, so for a company to recover its losses, sales need to be brisk and plentiful.
Once you start inventing a bespoke engine and powertrain, chassis and electronics, the cost of research and development quickly becomes stratospheric. All serious manufacturers, including the historic legacy brands like Ducati, BMW, Harley-Davidson and Triumph, are looking for designs that will deliver sales results, all of which means that motorcycle design is just another component of the real invention behind these activities: creating a profit delivery system. Good design sells. Art does not.
Can good design be art? Maybe. Perhaps it should be. But that is not what The Insider column is about. Whether a particular motorcycle design is great or not is subjective, it is a delightful philosophical debate, a subject that I am happy to discuss in forums, in the comments section, editorials or maybe even at a bar some time. I am, like so many of you, just another motorcyclist with my own personal preferences and bias.
But The Insider is not the place for that debate, because motorcycle design, viewed from the perspective of the manufacturer, is not subjective at all. It is business. A fascinating, often frustrating business, filled with all the human drama, frailty, misunderstandings and genius that make any human endeavor compelling. But it is primarily about money, and success, and that means looking at facts.
The Insider is just that. An unemotional look at the stories, actions and numbers that make up the making of mass production motorcycles. It is a column that will place you behind the desks and in the prototype labs of the world’s manufacturers.
I have had the great privilege of meeting and working with some of the finest people in this business, and hearing their amazing stories. The Insider will bring those stories to the surface. Stories about how motorcycles come into being; who made them; and how critical decisions were made. I can guarantee that these stories will surprise and entertain you.
Many will disagree with how I frame this subject. There will be times when The Insider will appear to attack a particular brand, model, or company decision, and that means that inevitably there will be hurt feelings, cries of partisanship or worse. I can assure you that The Insider will present facts that are, as often as possible, publicly verifiable, while remaining editorially neutral.
Personal judgment is not the aim, and where I present a personal view it will be clearly written as such. Any doubts about my sincerity can be dismissed by considering that it is a poor, unemployable motorcycle industry professional who poisons his own pond. Criticisms and praise will be forthcoming, but always professional. I’ve managed to do both for over a decade and still found myself in work.
It is spring across the northern hemisphere (Eastern Canada being the exception), and to motorcyclists that means a new riding season full of great expectations. It is also spring inside the factories of the world’s motorcycle brands too, which means something else entirely. New projects are being kicked off in boardrooms wallpapered with charts and renderings.
Meanwhile, in the shop floors last minute pre-production issues are being ironed out of the new models due to come out in the fall. Test riders are racking up thousands of kms on matte-black, gaffer taped mules, and the purchasing and sales staff are trapped in another airport lounge, crunching the costs of the latest supplier.
And me? I’m reading the sales data from the last quarter; wondering if hydro-formed swingarms are cost effective, and doodling sport bikes on my tablet. And wearing my brown supermarket cargo pants while I do so. I am a motorcycle designer. Fiction is so rarely as entertaining as reality.