The Making of Motorcycles – A Six Part Series

Husqvarna-701-ENDURO-The-Perfect-CombinationThe Insider tagline is “the making of motorcycles”, but how do you make a motorcycle? The question is simple but the answer is not. Like any complex consumer good, the development of a motorcycle requires the dedicated labour of hundreds of professionals and trades people, and thousands of hours of work.

Unlike most items you pick up off a shelf, creating motorcycles brings together a series of very unique and often conflicting variables.

Starting next week this six part monthly series will walk through the steps of how a motorcycle goes from an idea to “in stores, everywhere”.

We start by examining product planning and how a company decides what to make. We then go into the heart of the creative design process, from sketching to 3D clay modeling, ending with the twin efforts of pre-production design, which prepares a raw design for mass production, to the celebratory promotion and launch to market.

Hand drawn concept renderings like these for Honda’s 500cc based lineup remain the center of the R&D process. Photo : Honda

The making of motorcycles is at once philosophical and logical, a contradiction that only works when the two spheres intersect in a way that entertains the consumer. Hundreds of books and millions of words have been spewed about this: the “art of the motorcycle”. From gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thomson to high brow New York Times columnist Frederick Seidel; from Elvis to custom builder El Solitario, the purpose, vanity, cultural and even sexual significance of motorcycle designs have been examined to death.

So imagine that into this maelström of powerful human emotions enter a team of business people and engineers. People for whom reason alone dictates truth, and hard, empirical data such as cost, weight, and the absolute, involute sums arrived at by mathematic calculation inform decision making. From these passionate yet analytical left-minded people, a bridge must be built across to the baser right-minded emotional types, such as the designers, marketeers and fervent customers.

It's not just the motorcycle that's designed. The whole experience is mapped out deliberately inside the boardroom.
It’s not just the motorcycle that’s designed. The whole experience is mapped out deliberately inside the boardroom.

The journey from idea to production motorcycle is, therefore, so much more turbulent than the development of a car. Car companies are larger entities by an order of magnitude, possessed of resources and procedures designed to eliminate variation in working methodology. Even car companies that make motorcycles, such as Honda, Suzuki and BMW, have struggled for decades to bring disciplined regularity to the motorcycle creation process.

Motorcycle projects will just not be tamed. Because when they are, the results are excellent products that make mediocre motorcycles. They are flat and lifeless, and ultimately fail to impress the marketplace. Making a two-wheeled transportation system that is efficient and profitable is one thing, extending those virtues to include desirability and devotion is something else entirely.

It is never easy, and rarely the same from project to project, company to company, even within the same organization. Designing a motorcycle is fun but requires the R&D professional to be supremely flexible, relenting utterly to the conflicting demands of science and passion. I have been lucky to serve inside several factories in this capacity, and to have worked with engineers, designers, and technologists who I consider to be among the most gifted, complicated and interesting people I’ve ever met.

Polaris designer Michael Song works on a full size "tape" drawing of the Victory Core concept. Photo : Polaris
Polaris designer Michael Song works on a full size package drawing using tapes of various thicknesses, prior to beginning the 3D clay model process of the Victory Core concept . The tape drawing is made on translucent paper so that the engineering plot can be seen underneath.  Photo : Polaris

Each episode in this series will highlight the challenges and human consequences of trying to create the most compelling and insane vehicle yet conceived: the motorcycle. It will demonstrate many different styles in the R&D universe and give some examples of each. There will be stories, most of them unbelievable, all of them true, about how things actually got made. As with most endeavors, the reality is much more interesting than the marketing narrative fed to the media, because like anything involving real people things get complicated.

Motorcycle design is magical because motorcycles are magical. Maybe that’s just so much romantic nonsense, but to me and to most of the motorcyclists I have ever known and worked with, that magic flows from the anthropomorphic flaws we project into our motorcycles every day. The very good ones at least.

The making of motorcycles is about trying to distill that magic and purposefully bake it into a bike from its very genesis. It’s been my experience that no matter how well you try, no matter how gifted the cooks, the results are rarely what you intended. It’s this alchemy, the melding of rational and irrational, that makes this process so unique, and so rewarding.

Episode 1 : Genesis

How do you decide what to build? If marketing and branding experts are to believed, the journey always begins with filling in or responding to slots in the marketplace. But many motorcycles don’t start that way, and few of the great ones do.

From repurposing surplus engines, to imitating cash-strapped youth in Shibuya, to the whims of a CEO on a mission, the birth of new motorcycles is often as random and fatalistic and human procreation.

Episode 2 : Drawn and Quartered

The design brief is in, the sales people handed off a binder full of market speak, and now the designer has to invent a concept using only a pencil and their imagination. Or, sometimes, some help from a skateboard shop owner, or a visit to the zoo.

It all looks so good when studied in a darkened studio at eleven o’clock at night with the music blaring, but will it be enough to convince the decision makers? Making a 2D impression worth investing millions in is a lot more like dating than industrial development.

Episode 3 : Layout

Engineers are usually credited with motorcycle design, because they are usually the project leaders. But behind the calculations and years of rational discipline lies a kid that used to draw motorcycles with rockets on them. And this is the person deciding the fundamental technical design.

Most good engineers are part artist, and the most creative gravitate to motorcycles and aeroplanes. Sure that exhaust header could go down and under like every other bike, but that wouldn’t be sexy.

Episode 4 : 3D Without Glasses

The layout and concept art are done, and engineer and designer are still on speaking terms. Now comes the hard part of translating virtual thinking into a real, physical design prototype to find out just how much is right and wrong.

From rapid-fire, straight-from-video modelling; to the renaissance-like epic of one man’s seven-year odyssey to sculpt motorcycle perfection, it takes all kinds to escape virtual reality.

Episode 5 : A Grindhouse Production

Its been over a year since the design was “frozen” but the phone keeps ringing with endless “minor changes”. The fuel tank is 12% too small, purchasing is insisting on those cheap, ugly handlebar grips, and a man from Sweden keeps sending indecipherable charts about spring compression. Will this ever end?

The last 10% of a motorcycle design takes 90% of the effort. Unless it’s a third generation Chinese clone of a Yamaha YB250, in which case it definitely doesn’t.

Episode 6 : All Good Things…

Must be marketed to death. The day has come to tell the world about the amazing new motorcycle. The ad-buy is four times the design budget, media companies have made short films, and the press releases are flying. Wait, what? This was not in the design specification…

There are lies, damn lies, and then there is the delusional fantasy land of motorcycle marketing. Like the time that the final word on actual horsepower and weight came from corporate communications after the motorcycle entered production.



  1. Great idea for a series. The little corner of the automotive industry that I occupy sounds like it would belong somewhere in episode 5 … someone else has designed the vehicle, now we have to figure out how to make all the bits and pieces and put them together, and this is a big job that involves lots of people to make it happen!

  2. From a cost and ease of manufacturing perspective, why does my Honda have an endless multitude of different types of fasteners, all to do essentially the same thing? There must be five different styles of plastic push-pins alone. Errrrr!

  3. The quote is from a friend in the powersports business, reflecting on the values you suggest. Long term thinking seems to be (generally) a thing of the past.
    I applaud Polaris for instance, for coming up with new ideas, well engineered products and after sales support – strengths the Japanese manufacturers have had in spades since day one.
    Triumph and Ducati aren’t building technologically earth shattering machines, just stuff that seems to be hitting the mark (?)
    I wonder what will happen once the Chinese figure that out….?

  4. I was told once (by an industry insider) that “everything you’ll do in this business is sales support”.
    If it don’t sell, you’ve wasted your time- just ask Eric Buell….

    • Not sure what you are alluding to with your comment, TK4, as you didn’t mention what industry your friend served. You are right, businesses exist to sell goods and services, for sure. However there are different ways to come out on top.

      Today’s North American business climate is focused entirely on quarterly results, with R&D, purchasing and manufacturing operations are all considered “support”, in order to win short term sales / profits. Cutting investment while boosting shipments are valued above all else, effectively making manufacturing companies into marketing companies. In the long run we see that this model results in failure. Just ask GM and Harley-Davidson circa 2009.

      Once upon a time here in North America, we made many of the best manufactured goods in the world and prospered mightily because business understood that what you sell is value to customers. Values like effectiveness, quality, and reliability at a fair price. Sales come as a result because consumers are not dumb. Just ask Toyota and Honda. To your point, Eric Buell’s companies rarely possessed any of these.

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