MOTORING / The call of the wild ones: Britain's 'anarchic' motorcycle designers are being courted by everyone from BMW to Yamaha. David Lancaster finds out why

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
BMW's motorcycle division only rarely introduces a new model. The smaller, poorer cousin to the company's car division, it has neither the funds nor, it loftily claims, the wish to follow the high product turnover of the Japanese manufacturers. So the recent launch of the new Funduro is significant.

This dual-purpose bike occupies a niche similar to the car world's off-roaders; like them, it will probably never see any mud, but looks as if it could cope if it did. But this is not what makes the Funduro remarkable. Nor is it BMW's co-operation with another manufacturer, the Italian company Aprilia, though this too breaks new ground. No, what distinguishes the Funduro is that its styling - a mix of BMW tradition and Latin flair - is the latest in a long line of designs from a group of motorcycle stylists called, by some, 'the British mafia'.

The man behind the Funduro is Martin Longmore, a graduate of Newcastle Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art. Yet it could have been any one of five or more names to whom clients such as BMW, Yamaha and MZ have turned for inspiration. So why are British designers courted so? Is it because their technical training is unmatched elsewhere? Or is it something far less tangible - what marketing buff Peter York calls 'a cultural atmosphere that manufacturers believe will give them brands and not just wind-tunnel products'?

The Royal College of Art's postgraduate course in automotive design has been running for 26 years. It has long been a rich hunting ground for companies on the lookout for the talent of tomorrow. 'Motorcycle design is an increasing specialisation,' says course tutor Dale Harrow. But the attraction, he says, lies less in the college's excellent technical facilities than in the 'melting pot of different ideas that helps students push the design envelope.'

Such is the esteem in which the RCA is held that even Italian manufacturers, once a byword for brilliant design, are hiring RCA graduates to complement home-grown talent. South African Pierre Treblanche did his RCA master's degree in the mid-Eighties and is one of a new generation working for the giant Cagiva empire on its flagship Ducatis.

Glynn Kerr, a British veteran of the motorcycle design scene, has his own theory about his compatriots' success. 'The average Brit is a bit of a headcase,' he says, adding that eccentricity is crucial in bike design, 'just like in music and fashion.' It doesn't take long to think of a handful of noted exports of this cult of nonconformity, from ex-Hornsey Art School student David Bowie to the current enfant terrible of Paris fashion, John Galliano, born in Gibraltar and trained at St Martin's School of Art.

But what is the secret of their success? Could it be that good boys just don't produce good design, and that British colleges offer more opportunities for creative types to sit around drinking beer, smoking and having brilliant ideas?

Richard Seymour, head of a talented team at the Fulham-based partnership SeymourPowell, believes it is 'love of the product' that marks out the British from the rest - a combination of pragmatism and flair that is peculiar to us. 'A bike is an emotional object,' says Seymour, and bike designers are often bike nuts, which helps.'

He certainly fits the category himself, riding to work most days and testing his MZ Skorpion prototype on the Isle of Man last year. It was this lightweight, elegantly designed bike that gave the East German company MZ its big break, helping it become the unlikely star of 1992's motorcycle show. Production, using a Yamaha engine, is due to begin in the spring.

Funduro designer Martin Longmore is now at Audi, back on cars. Like others he has nothing but praise for British schools, and agrees that design flair 'must be to do with life here as a youngster. There are more opportunities to be creative.' But he also believes that in Britain designers are forced to be more creative than elsewhere. With our once-thriving automotive industry a shadow of its former self, British designers - who are usually employed in a freelance capacity - have to advertise themselves more on the world stage.

This view is shared by the people who employ designers. Bob Trigg has been with Yamaha Europe for 14 years; before, he witnessed the British decline close at hand while with Norton, BSA and others. 'My experience is that the British develop good engineers, good designers, but lousy managers and lousy companies. There are lots of good designers in Britain because of the system - good education, but hardly any industry.'

In Germany, by contrast, a handful of assured giants such as Porsche and Mercedes offer better management, a stronger corporate culture and steadier promotion prospects. Design students tend to be more conservative, and they don't have to tout their skills internationally in the way that the British do.

BMW, on the year of its 70th anniversary, chose to capitalise on the overflow of British talent in its break with tradition - the F650 Funduro. Its attractive styling sets new standards in this sector, once the preserve of trend- setting Italian manufacturers. Some see this as evidence of a British design renaissance.

Others in the industry are less than certain about the notion of the individual designer anyway, fearing that talk of such is misleading. John Mockett, who has worked for Yamaha, Suzuki and the reborn Triumph, emphasises that producing a bike is a team effort rather than the work of one high-profile genius. 'When I'm paid by someone I'm a brick in the wall, a craftsman,' he says. 'I do a job.'

Whatever the cause of Britain's pre-eminence - and it would seem to be a combination of both inspiration and perspiration - there are concerns about how long it can last. Glynn Kerr speaks for many when he warns that our design courses, at graduate level, are becoming over-subscribed and understaffed. According to Richard Seymour this could lead to the colleges turning out very ordinary students - the death knell of creative design. And what of the Japanese, so adept at learning fast and overtaking even faster? Seymour admits he has 'had the unnerving sense of being under the microscope for some time now'.

Yet it's likely that bike and car manufacturers will be knocking on British designers' doors for some years to come. It is hard to imagine Japan or Germany producing punk culture - perhaps the extreme proof of true creative licence. A country able to nurture such creativity - whether in bike, car, clothes or furniture design - is usually anarchic, perhaps even disrespectful. And as firmly as that rules out Japan and Germany, it rules in Britain.-

(Photographs omitted)

Comments