Episode 01 : GENESIS – Motorcycle Product Planning

Husqvarna-701-ENDURO-The-Perfect-CombinationThe Making of Motorcycles series asks the Where, What and Why questions to reveal just how people come together to imagine, engineer and design the most amazing vehicles in the world.

In part 1 we look at how the initial decision is made. If marketing and branding experts are to be believed, the journey always begins with filling in or responding to slots in the marketplace. But many motorcycles don’t start that way, and very few of the great ones do.

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

That is what product planners do. Mapping out what a product needs to be for a specific target audience. Sometimes the people working on a motorcycle design fit in that audience, but it shouldn’t matter. You are not designing for yourself. You are making a motorcycle for others.

Act One : It’s Not About You

In 2004, my fledgling motorcycle design consultancy got a contract from a family run company that imported Chinese motorcycles and scooters and sold them under its own brand name. The task was to design a modern roadster out of a copy of a Honda Rebel cruiser that would then attract young, urban Europeans.  I was not allowed to alter it mechanically, but everything else was on the table.

After weeks of examination and a not insignificant amount of Spanish wine, I presented several concepts which not only looked cool, but were realistically possible within the given budget and technology.

“I don’t like it.” said the client, with a dismissive wave of his hand, sprinkling cigarette ash on the sketches.

I asked him what he disapproved of. He took a long drag of his cigarette. “It looks like a Ducati. I don’t like Ducatis.” he answered.

Taken aback, I responded “But your customers, the customers you said you wanted to attract with this motorcycle… they love Ducati.”  The next hour was spent carefully persuading  him that his feelings about the product were not as important as those of the intended customers, who, were not at all like himself.

This was one of many painful moments I experienced in motorcycle product planning. The person or people making the decision about what to build, completely failed to understand what this vital step in the process was about.

Above left : a generic copy of the Rebel 250; above right : my proposal for it's replacement based on the client's wish list.
Above left : a generic copy of the Rebel 250; above right : my proposal for its replacement based on the client’s wish list.

In the Beginning

In the beginning, there is nothing. The whiteness of a blank piece of paper, or perhaps more accurately in this digital age, an empty spreadsheet. This is the time where the entire motorcycle design and development process starts. “What shall we make?” is the simple, yet highly fretted over question that every manufacturer must ask themselves before committing huge amounts of money and time into the project.

Motorcycle manufacturers, like all companies, exist to sell products. Unfortunately, unlike other manufacturers of highly complex machinery, the demands from motorcycle customers is almost impossible to predict accurately.

In the developed world the motorcycle long ago exceeded the basic transport needs of consumers, and today it is a market that has more in common with fashion than a practical asset, such as a car, with decisions based on wants rather than needs. And those wants change fast and erratically. All of which makes product planning — where the “what shall we make” question falls under — extremely challenging.

Getting moody. This brand vision or "mood board" as it is also known, collects common associations that share certain values, so that the R&D team can understand the target audience, and what emotional strings it is meant to pull. Image : Michael Uhlarik
Getting moody. This brand vision or “mood board” as it is also known, collects common associations that share certain values, so that the R&D team can understand the target audience, and what emotional strings it is meant to pull. Image : Michael Uhlarik

Act Two : Survey Says…

We sat, drinking coffee and snacking on an endless supply of individually shrink-wrapped muffins, while a test clinic of motorcyclists were interrogated. It was just like a scene from a police drama, where we watched through a giant plate-glass window as a group of volunteers answered questions in a charmless conference room. Only instead of being hard-nosed detectives questioning suspects, we were a bunch of Yamaha product planners, engineers and designers, quizzing bikers about their motorcycling preferences.

“On a scale of one to ten, ten being most important, tell us how important fuel range is” droned our colleague. The volunteers, arranged around a large table, scratched their answers onto a sheet provided.

I attended dozens of customer interviews like this, for many brands of motorcycle and they all ended the same way. In each “randomly selected” group were a few loud mouths who had to prove they were the wildest bikers, the biggest authorities.

“I tool around at 200, 240 km/h most days.” answered one guy at a super sport bike interview, when asked about average road speeds. “I’m always flat-out.”

Around me, planners dutifully made notes, as I stole a glance from my boss, who rolled his eyes and smiled.

The results of these clinics were mixed for sure. Most of the time they were conducted by third party polling firms that the manufacturer hired, and much like political polling, delivered dubious conclusions. According to every single polling report I have ever been given regarding motorcycles, customers want four things; more power, more range, greater comfort and a lower price.

Always. And in that order.

To every engineering or design colleague I ever had, these events were excruciating as were incorporating their results. Who doesn’t want more of everything for less money? In most cases, these documents ended up turned over on desks in the design office next to telephones and computer terminals and used as scratch pads

"What's it going to be, punk!" A typical product planning customer clinic feels like this. The customers leave feeling like privileged insiders and violated miscreants at the same time.
“What’s it going to be, punk!” A typical product planning customer clinic feels like this. The customers leave feeling like privileged insiders and violated miscreants at the same time.

So what do you make for a customer who is fickle, irrational, spontaneous? If only it were that simple. Developing a new motorcycle also takes a lot of time —from two to five years —which means that you are not even planning a bike for the customers you see today. If pinpointing their wants today is difficult, how can one possibly know what they’ll be in the future?

But just who is given this onerous task? Well that depends greatly on where the company is located.

In most North American businesses it falls to Marketing and Sales, the group who do the actual selling and therefore have the most direct line of communication to the customers. In many Asian companies the task tends to be done by business-school types who make complex predictive models based on lots of empirical data. In Europe it is usually the design team that plants the seeds of new model development.

These are generalizations, but they outline three different methods of getting to the same conclusion: Sales and Marketing are looking at past feedback for inspiration; business analysts are searching for openings in the existing marketplace; while designers are dreaming of the future.

For motorcycle design all three are valid, but equally dangerous.

Act Three : If You Could Put It In A Bottle.

Marketing love key words. A few, well-chosen words or a single phrase can capture the essence of what a new product should be. A Harley-Davidson Electra Glide could be described as “authentic, American, cruising”, for instance. Those three words immediately conjure images of an open road in the desert, or loping along a sleepy mid-western main street, or riding past a lineup of party goers outside a club in nighttime Miami, neon lights reflecting off of glossy paint.

It’s an effective tool for sharing a vision. Until it gets weird, which it almost always does.

In every major brand I have worked with, there was always someone who, early in the product planning process, tried to get a little too deep. Motorcycles are emotional products, and the big brands come steeped in rich histories, complete with a set of baked-in legends and mythology.

“The new bike is a combination of the spirit of our heritage, plus our commitment to innovation!” explained one such planner at a meeting in London many years ago. “It will be bold yet classical, striking but refined…”

He went on for ten minutes before presenting us with a slide of the Cutty Sark, a rigged commercial sailing ship from the 19th century. “Clipper ship!” He announced breathlessly.

There was silence. The proverbial cough. I doodled nervously with my pencil on the back of a polling sheet waiting for my boss to say something.

“Isn’t that the boat from the whiskey bottle?” he asked finally. He was not a native English speaker and the historical allegory about the speed and grace of the Cutty Sark had gone completely over his head. Sometimes, key words and inspirational imagery need to be more literal.

That night, he and I sat up in the hotel bar and sketched out sport touring bike concept drawings, using our interpretation of the planner’s feelings, and our instincts. These we presented to the group the next day, and one was selected to act as the kick off point for the project, the Cutty Sark remaining on the bottle the night before, rather than in the presentation.

Jack Black shows us how to chart and navigate a complex market environment without an MBA. Image : from Paramount Pictures' "School of Rock"
Jack Black shows us how to chart and navigate a complex market environment without an MBA. Image : from Paramount Pictures’ “School of Rock”

A premium motorcycle is not a commodity like a vacuum cleaner, something that either does or does not fulfill customer’s best value proposition. As most motorcyclists can attest, you either love a bike or don’t. Brand, style, and performance do the heavy lifting. Of course things like value, reliability and practical matters like dealer location matter, but in developed countries these are typically minor influences.

The bike has to hit the heart of the target user, or it won’t sell big.

This is what product planners are searching for, this is their lode star. To find the one core quality that a target demographic will swoon for, and combine it into a spreadsheet of cost, technology and performance that will make it irresistible.

Act Four : Sowing Wild Seeds

Most motorcycles are born in a manner similar to what’s been described so far, but there are also those that come from unexpected places.

The  original Yamaha MT-03 was my most popular design, and much has been written about its origins. But as with almost all backstories, what happened behind the scenes is not obvious. The project was created simply because Yamaha had a lot of surplus 660 cc single cylinder engines.

The project called for a simple, low-cost motorcycle along those lines. My inspiration came from Japan. I was stunned and inspired by the stripped down, raw appearance of basic single-cylinder motorcycles that young people were modifying in Tokyo. Hipsters, like the kind so often berated here, were a thing in Japan fifteen years ago, complete with sleeve tattoos and eclectic vintage clothing. And like their contemporary Western counterparts now, they loved café racer culture.

Yamaha SR400’s, Suzuki Goose 400’s, scooters, dual sports, you name it, they were chopping and cafe-ing them out back in the year 2000. I took hundreds of photos, browsed the bike shops and stayed out late every night to try and capture the feeling they had. These cheap, low horsepower singles were light, pure and somehow very masculine. At a time when superbikes ruled and design was all about complexity and sexiness, these motorcycles were beefy and brutal. In many ways, they were cooler.

The early concept sketches of the MT-03 won over the planning unit because they were nothing like any other 660 cc single in the market. I was very lucky it struck a chord with my senior colleagues as it was a huge risk, and I am eternally grateful that the Yamaha planning and engineering staff felt so strongly about it.

In the end, it defied the market and early poor reviews to not only win awards but also sell very well in Europe and later Brazil.

2003 Yamaha MT-03 concept sketch and presentation model. Born from a sleep deprived wander through Tokyo. Image : Yamaha
2003 Yamaha MT-03 concept sketch and presentation model. Born from a sleep deprived wander through Tokyo. Image : Yamaha

The final act of product planning, once the basic market fit is clear, is to assign it a project code. No code, no project. It really is as simple as that.

Inside a large manufacturing concern, you cannot begin any significant work unless you have a number you can bill to. From ordering materials to ordering people to spend time working, the bureaucracy needs to account for each penny and minute spent. And that does not happen until a project code is assigned.

Once the motorcycle project is given a code, resources begin to pour into it, a project leader is assigned and we’re now ready to make a design brief – defining what a motorcycle product should be, in enough detail that the designers and engineers can craft a physical vehicle that is reproducible at a profit.

It's been months (years, sometimes) but it has finally arrived : The Design Brief! Now all you need is to make.
It’s been months (years, sometimes) but it has finally arrived : The Design Brief! Now all you need is to make.

Because motorcycles and motorcyclists are so divisive and often controversial, setting down a strong design brief does not guarantee a strong final product. Market tastes move like cats chased in a garden, meanwhile the bureaucrats hack at the timeline and budget causing all manner of mid-course corrections. Moody designers, over-worked engineers, and executive turnover all contribute to the chaos.

In the end, it comes down to a vision. Does the new motorcycle-to-be say something? Does the project pivot around one core element?

In the case of the roadster I designed for the tiny Spanish importer, that vision was “Discount Mini Monster.” It did very well in the marketplace, and in an ironic twist, the Chinese copy of a Honda Rebel cum Mini Monster was itself copied and is still sold under a half-dozen brand names today. The Clipper Ship sport tourer hit rocks early on, and the project sank, while the MT-03 had a smooth and trouble-free gestation.

Product planners have a terrible burden on their shoulders. On them, whatever their professional background, lies the responsibility of choosing that critical starting point. But even if you get a rough idea of what to make, what the audience and market are searching for, you still need a focal point to crystallize it around, so that the entire research and development team can rally to a single, clear objective.

Despite the horror of coming up with the seed of greatness from the blank sheet of despair, when a motorcycle succeeds, it is always the planners that take credit.  When one fails, it is usually blamed on the execution. Ultimately, the product planners have it good.

This is what visualizing what's next looks like. Timelines, dates, project codes, and drawings as placeholders for future products. It's all vague. Very vague. Image : Michael Uhlarik
This is what visualizing what’s next looks like. Timelines, dates, project codes, and drawings as placeholders for future products. It’s all vague. Very vague. Image : Michael Uhlarik

Coming up next in Episode 2 of The Making of Motorcycles : 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.

About the author

Michael Uhlarik is an international award-winning motorcycle designer with over 16 years of experience creating bikes for Yamaha, Aprilia, Piaggio, Derbi and many others.  He is a seasoned motorcycle industry analyst and part-time industrial design lecturer.  He is based in Nova Scotia. 


  1. Some day you will be able to design your own bike on the manufacturers website from a long list of design options, then they will just print one out and ship it to you.

  2. Great article. Maybe I missed it or it will come up later. Why would manufacturers spend so much time and effort on focus groups when they already have a dealer network? Wouldn’t the dealers have a front line knowledge of what their clients want? Or is the relationship between dealers and manufacturers not very good? Or perhaps focus groups is just a marketing ploy all on its own.

    • Johnson, I’d say the dealers are a biased audience, and as we know all too well here in Ontario can barely run their own shops successfully. Then again, I’ve seen so many focus groups with unclear objectives, flawed methodologies and unskilled moderators that I’ve lost count. In all – Michael was spot on when saying it’s a crapshoot when developing motorcycles.

  3. All great empires are destroyed from within. The big four foundered in a perfect storm. By 1980, the baby boomers were more concerned with mortgages and golf clubs than greasy motorbikes. Interest rates went up to end 1970s inflation leading to a recession.(no one knew what the word meant back then) HD grew rapidly, but this meant going from 20 pct to 30 pct (pure guessing). Also, I suspect that H and Y fully expected HD to follow triumph into history. They were gearing up production to take over HD s former customers.

  4. Michael, working in similar fields as you, though for other industries, I enjoyed the read and agreed with much of your points. But you’re missing a critical enabler to the execution of a vision, which is the project sponsor – the Tadao Babas of this world. The greatest success stories have such people. And it’s clear you don’t get that when you write off comments like Relics’ – I’ve seen firsthand the connection the Davidson family has with its clients. Most failures come from an inability to understand the market, it’s not tarifs alone that kept Harley from failing (Jap bikes were still way cheaper than Harleys but the market still preferred Harleys), but rather their understanding of how the NA market preferred their bikes to look AND function.

    • Rui

      Your point is well taken, and I agree with you about product “champions”. Tatao Baba at Honda clearly made projects like the Fireblade (CBR900) a possibility; or, closer to home, Bombardier design director Dennis Lapointe nurtured and labbied for the Spyder. People like these had to fight against many contrarian voices, market data and “conventional wisdom” to execute something the customers were telling them.

      I don’t mean to suggest that all product planning is like this, or that there aren’t valuable lessons to be taken from other channels. The Making of Motorcycles is an overview of the process at most scaled OEMs.

      As for H-D, Willie G and the resurrection team in the 80’s are a textbook study in one of the most successful corporate turnarounds in history. I only wish to highlight that it was far from a fair fight.

  5. My pet theory is that the Japanese bike glut was partially due to the conversion to vacuum diaphragm carbs. A steel spring is balanced against air pressure. The slightest leak or blockage will throw them off.

  6. Good article , will surely read the upcoming episodes. I can`t help but also mention the MT-03 as this was such a good looking bike and still is to this day and it can`t be said for all designs as some simply don`t age well but this one need to return with updated fork and brakes and maybe some led brake light or such little details but keep the main design as is as well as the side shock which made it stand out from the rest.

    Would like to see other designs you were involved with.

  7. Ok I only read the first paragraph. I blame video games for my lack of attention. HD was rescued from the scaffold because Willie G went to bike meets and talked to people who spent their own money on bikes. Was this done for buell, vrod, or the street twin?

    • HD was saved from bankruptcy because in 1983 Willie G and his investor posse convinced the Ronald Reagan administration to impose a 45% tax all Japanese motorcycles over 650cc. When you have massive federal protectionism, who needs product planning and design?

  8. Fascinating stuff Michael, thank you.
    Too bad the MT-03 never made it here.
    I remember being told (in a different context), ‘we want it different, but not too different’ and ‘it can’t cost any more than the old one’.
    Its a tough gig for sure…

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