Episode 04 : 3D Without Glasses

The 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 four the  renderings from the designers and practical calculations of the engineers must merge and take form.

Husqvarna-701-ENDURO-The-Perfect-CombinationA new motorcycle project starts as words, and lines drawn on a page. Those first phases of research and development, the search for definitions, are what product planning, concept design and principal layout are all about. But when the industrial designer picks up his clay tools and crafts the full-sized physical form of a motorcycle for the first time, that is when a motorcycle is truly born.

Play Dough for Grown Ups

Every car and motorcycle you see on the street from a major manufacturer was first given form by making a full-sized physical model in automotive styling clay. The clay process is not the only way to render a motorcycle into three dimensions, but it is the most versatile and also the fastest.

In the past, designers carved master models out of hardwood “bucks” as they were called, onto which pattern makers could then hammer sheets of metal to craft the first prototypes. Then came plaster, a technique that Massimo Tamburini, the designer who gave the world so many spectacular motorcycles such as the Ducati 916 and every Bimota until 1986, swore by for decades.

Master motorcycle designer Massimo Tamburini taps lines onto the MV F4 clay model. Even he succumbed to the material's charms.
Master motorcycle designer Massimo Tamburini taps lines onto the MV F4 clay model. Even he succumbed to the material’s charms.

Most student motorcycle models, as well as many designs from tiny companies, originate in expanded polystyrene foam. Sandwiched into layers, it is a stable and inexpensive material from which you can carve pretty amazing things. On the down side, it is messy, the dust is toxic, and the final model has to be covered in epoxy resin and fibreglass so that it can be painted. It is also very unforgiving –  the designer must commit wholly to their model with every cut and be prepared to accept the consequences as it is impossible to add more foam.

As far as I know, only one production motorcycle from a major manufacturer was ever made in foam. The 1996 Yamaha SZR 660 was, legend has it, carved out of insulation foam in three weeks by a GK designer, who shall remain nameless. It was not viewed as a success by either the design community nor the motorcycle market, which probably says more about the concept than the modelling material.

Yamaha SZR 660 is if nothing else, a monument to a time when "Boom Boom" by Venga Boys was Italy's top hit.
Yamaha SZR 660 is if nothing else, a monument to a time when “Boom Boom” by Venga Boys was Italy’s top hit.

For professional designers automotive styling clay is the best choice. Developed by General Motors in the 1950s it is called clay but is, in fact, a completely synthetic material more akin to plastic. Its natural colour is grey but is generally sold in brown, perhaps as an homage to real clay, but more likely because it’s an easier colour to view shape in.

Inside General Motors in the 1960's when the cars of the future were modelled by men in crisp shirts and black ties.
Inside General Motors in the 1960’s : when the cars of the future were modelled by men in crisp dress shirts and black ties.  Image : GM

Unlike natural clay, styling clay is hard at room temperature but soft and malleable when heated to about 40 degrees C. The technique is considered additive modeling, because you pile it on by hand in hot globs, then slick or rake it down to shape once cool. It can hold a razor-sharp edge, is hard enough to sit on and can be painted. Perhaps its most valuable property is that it allows a designer to endlessly play with shape, growing or reducing volume, adding or removing surface detail, with tiny nuanced or massive changes, all day long.

A nearly complete clay model study from BMW Motorrad. Image : BMW
An evolving moment for a clay model study from BMW Motorrad. The black lines are graphic tape used to make crisp edges.  Image : BMW

It is not uncommon for a designer and professional clay modeling technician to complete an entire full-scale motorcycle model in a week, at which point it is photographed and 3D scanned so that it can be remodelled to explore alternative directions giving many possible design variations from a single model.

Act One : The Blob

My boss kneeled down next to the TZR clay buck. “This side is not so clear, Maikuru-chan” he told me.

A talented and highly skilled designer and clay craftsman, he had come down to Italy for a few days to help me model my first production motorcycle. A man I normally saw at the office in a dress shirt and quietly tapping away on a computer, he was a totally different person in the model studio.

“More build here” he said suddenly, pushing an egg-shaped ball of hot clay in his left hand towards the future air filter box cover. “More clay here, and less on the top.” His Japanese-English accent thick, his directions emphatic.

He sat for hours, silently, on a stool behind me as I built up clay, about 5 cm thick, all over the prototype chassis. I could feel his stare, smell his endless supply of menthol cigarettes and hear his approving and disapproving noises every few minutes as I worked.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

“Ummm. So-ka” followed a few seconds later by “Mmmm, hmm hmm.”

It was unnerving at first, but I was grateful for the guidance, because after a week the model was only half covered in clay and looking nothing like a motorcycle. Instead of matching the two sides of the model, I had plowed on, on one side only, hoping to find my feet with the design before tackling symmetry.

“Maikuru-chan, may I…?” he would ask, near the end of every afternoon, waving his personal clay rake up over his head like a flag.  My boss was telling me that it was time for him to take over.

Squatting behind the model, he began working the clay quickly, slashing back and forth in tight, controlled movements. In ten minutes a neat pile of brown shavings had grown at his feet, while a section of the model that had been a brown mass was transformed into a brilliantly sculpted form that looked exactly like the colour renderings taped to the wall.

Clay modelling is not hard, as my boss demonstrated.  It does however, require the modeller to have conviction and a clear idea of the shapes they want to create before they pick up a tool.

The Animals of our Nature

Deep down we are all just animals. For all the flowery rhetoric about function and form, design is really nothing more than the controlled manipulation of our lizard brains: the part of ourselves that responds automatically to sensory inputs and not the rationale of deductive reasoning.

This is what makes motorcyclists.

We love motorcycles because they appeal to our base nature as predatory animals. Loud, dangerous, fast and powerful, they triggers all of the same primal urges that have allowed the human race to get this far: fight, flight, and survival. Any good ride involve moments of real fear, physical pain, and the chemical stimulation that those sensations create in our bodies.


That, and that alone, is what make motorcycles addictive.

Motorcycle design is only good when it enables those sensations. Any good designer can take a sketch and translate it into a form that is pleasing and works well as a product. The ocean of generic and hopelessly forgettable motorcycles over the past hundred years is proof that making a viable two-wheeled conveyance is no real challenge.

A great motorcycle design, on the other hand, moves people by hitting them where they are at their most vulnerable. A great designer uses shape, proportion and contrast to unlock the deep-seeded joys and fears of people who let themselves feel like animals.

Yamaha electro-acoustic violin alongside Yamaha TZR 50. Image : author

A powerfully sculpted fuel tank evokes the bundled mass of muscle and tissue.

The silhouette of a motorcycle in plan view suggests a human form.

Lighting elements become the expression of a face.


These descriptions are not some marketing copy nonsense, but actual and contrived strategies employed by designers to trigger the very same responses that humans have evolved over millions of years through natural selection. They are only some of the designer’s bag of tricks that allow them to conduct the motorcyclist’s emotions. And they work.

Act Two : Hot or Not

The TZR was three weeks into the clay process, and by this time it was a 200 kg mass of clay packed onto a prototype chassis and steel tube support structure. To any casual observer, it looked like a motorcycle. A big, brown, bloated motorcycle.

I was brown too, in part because of all the Italian sunshine I was enjoying, but mostly because the clay was being pulverized into every pore of my body for twelve hours a day. Arriving at 10 AM, I would grab large fist fulls of clay from the oven and begin kneading them into the model as I listened to very loud electronic music. Once applied in sufficient depths, I moved around the model constantly, looking at it from different angles to plan my attack.

Transitioning to sharp tools, I’d begin sculpting down the brown mass into crisp forms, until security threw me out of the building at 10 PM.  It was hot, sweaty work.

All hands man your stations : clay modelling requires skilled labour. Image : author
All hands man your stations : clay modelling requires skilled labour. Image : author

As I did this, in my head I didn’t imagine a motorcycle at all, but a person. For me each motorcycle has a personality, and the TZR I decided, was the teenaged little sister of the R1. Almost an adult, with the beginnings of a sophisticated self-image but still a little vulgar; intelligent with a great athletic presence but talking loudly and wearing too much makeup.

The model in this middle stage of the clay process didn’t grow up, it was carved down. In one week, it shed 20 kgs of clay as I carefully cut back the fat, searching for surface tension in each shape that would evoke a youthful image.

Climbing into the unfinished second floor of the studio, I looked down at the TZR every night before I left for the hotel, so that I could study it from above.

“Last week it looked it had swallowed a watermelon.” said a coworker as he stopped by one evening. “Now it looks mischievous.”

I smiled. I was on the right track.

Design is a sport, not a video game.

Getting to a final, closed clay model design takes lots of intense work, a great deal of thinking and the patience of a saint.  Each corner, every facet of how parts and shapes come together needs to be explored and rendered in pretty crisp detail before a decision is made about the final look.  During all this, the project leading engineer comes by with a Vernier caliper and ruler to measure everything.  It needs to conform to technical reality, otherwise it’s just another art exercise.

Actual screen capture of the Yamaha TZR 50 Alias CAD model. Computer modelling has come a long way since this was made in 2001, but it is still just a substitute for reality.
Actual screen capture of the Yamaha TZR 50 Alias CAD model. Computer modelling has come a long way since this was made in 2001, but it is still just a substitute for reality.

Over the years, many brands and many more software companies have tried their level best to eliminate the clay model process by insisting that product design can and should be done completely on a computer.  However, modelling “on the tube” as designers call it, has consistently failed to deliver on the trifecta of promises the software boasts of : lower cost, faster development and greater accuracy.

As early as 1990, big auto firms like Mercedes and Ford experimented with “straight from video” modelling and discovered that in the end, the software implementation costs were stratospheric, the time to production tooling longer than modelling in clay and scanning, and most crucially, the design quality sucked.

During my time at GK/Yamaha, they too flirted with the “straight from video” routine, only to find that there was so much post production work in hard, physical modelling required after to correct the errors in the CAD model, that the projects took the same amount of time but only cost more and frustrated everyone.

Ducati Panigale rendered in 3D CAD software, possibly from a scanned physical model. They're getting good at this virtual reality thing.
Ducati Panigale rendered in 3D CAD software, possibly from a scanned physical model. They’re getting good at this virtual reality thing.

Of course, computer simulation and CAD 3D modelling have made engineers happy, but that is because they are not trying to manipulate the lizard brain.  Welded tubes and electrical conduit do not need to be so subtly arranged as to trigger the sexual instincts of, say, a 30-year-old motorcyclist in rural France. Body design is different.  It is all about subtlety.  Nuance.  The delicate way that light fades to shadow as the curve of a plastic fuel tank cover blends into the seat.

On a computer screen (or seen from inside a virtual reality headset – something that we experimented with as far back as 2003) it all looks great, but you cannot touch it.  And even if you could, it would just be a simulation.  An unreal representation of a real thing.

Amazing looking at a glance, this Triumph Street Twin is a CAD rendering made in Alias, a surface design app.
Amazing looking at a glance, this Triumph Street Twin is a CAD rendering made in Alias, a surface design app.

Act Three : Even Better Than the Real Thing

Six weeks of burns, cuts and too many take out pizzas to count, the clay model was finished.  Every panel intersection was crisp and the surfaces had all been “slicked” with spring steel sheets to a fine polish.

An optical 3D scan had been made using lasers that translated the clay model into a virtual points cloud. This was readable by computer software and would allow an army of engineers to convert the giant clay model into engineered plastic parts for mass production.

The motorcycle had to be presented to the global heads of new product development at Yamaha, at an annual conference held in London that year.  Rather than ship a brown clay model, the scan was fed to a computer controlled milling machine that cut out a full sized replica in lightweight EPS foam that could be mounted on a real rolling prototype chassis.

I saw the final, painted TZR P1 model as it was called, just before it was sent away.  For the first time, I saw the motorcycle design as it would actually look in production.  Mirrors, brakes, lights, and fully detailed paint and graphics made the solid  foam come to life.  The only way you knew it was a model and not a real motorcycle was if you touched it.

Standing next to it inside a giant warehouse at the back of the factory, I fondled the shapes of the bike.  Inside my head the same music I listened to while sculpting the thing played on, while I tried to imagine what it would be like to ride it.

“Is that the new R6?” asked on of the guys who were about to load it into a truck.

“No.  It’s a prototype”  Answered the project leader.

Prototype: a first, typical or preliminary model of something, from which other forms are developed or copied. Yes,  This is where a motorcycle is born, I decided.

Ducati Panigale clay master model alongside a painted EPS plastic presentation model (sometimes called a P1). Image : Ducati
Ducati Panigale clay master model alongside a painted EPS plastic presentation model (sometimes called a P1). Image : Ducati

No other step in the design process delivers this kind of punch. And no other medium, computer modelling included, allows people to get a very real sense of the final product like a physical model. You can look at a screen image of a hyper-realistic computer generated model, but it is still just a representation. A model can be touched, handled, pushed into a sunny lot and sat on. They require no explanation, or five hours of lighting design by a CGI specialist to be understood by anyone.  Once the designer is finished, the design is instantly communicable to the world in the most elementary way.

Humans are visceral animals that still respond most strongly to physical stimulation. And good motorcycle design demands a strong physical presence.

Coming up next in Episode 5 : A Grindhouse Production

It’s 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.

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. Great story again Mich…just a note, the great Harley Earl used clay modelling in the 1920’s:
    “Company executives decided to show off Mr. Earl’s full-size clay models of the 1927 LaSalle to the board of directors.” http://www.post-gazette.com/business/businessnews/2008/10/16/Harley-Earl-s-design-innovations-changed-the-auto-industry/stories/200810160525
    And he was the one to bring clay modelling into GM afterwhich everybody else followed. Having been working in CAD modelling for a couple of years (and converting clay models into class- A CAD models) I still think that clay is there to stay. It’s not only the touching and seeing but also the subtility fof a good clay modeller in defining the surfaces (curvature, tension, etc.) which can be done in CAD but you never have the tactility or 3D feedback of a surface like a good clay modeller.

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