Easy riders straddle the Berlin Wall: David Lancaster admires a stylish combination of British ingenuity and German economy
Thursday 15 September 1994
Since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 one of the most remarkable fairy tales has taken place at MZ. The ugly frog has changed into the handsome new Skorpion, stunning the 1992 Motorcycle Show, winning the BBC Design Awards and hitting showrooms at pounds 4,500.
The bike is the result of co-operation between a London design consultancy, German accountant turned entrepreneur and Japanese motorcycle firm struggling against a harsh exchange rate and a worldwide fall in sales.
When Peter Karel Korous took over the remains of MZ, he rechristened it MuZ and cast around for a 'flagship product' to re-establish a once proud sporting heritage - lost in 1961 when MZ's star rider, Ernst Degner, took advantage of his minders' enthusiasm for the racing and defected during the Swedish Grand Prix. Degner appeared in Japan six months later clutching a bundle of drawings and engine parts. Two years on, Suzuki swept all before them in racing with the help of technology supplied by Degner. He killed himself 20 years later, unable to reconcile himself with the price of his dash for freedom.
But it was the virtues that made MZ so successful in the Fifties - lightness, simplicity, pragmatism - that designer and motorcyclist Richard Seymour looked to when Korous approached him in early 1992 looking for his flagship. 'We knew it was a massive challenge,' said Seymour, one half of partnership Seymour-Powell. 'We had to design a bike, in a very short time, for a client unlike any we had worked with before.' Although over 11 years the company, with 18 staff based in a converted chapel in Fulham, has amassed an impressive CV, including lawnmowers and kettles to motorbikes for Norton and Yamaha, it did little to prepare them for a rundown MuZ with its outdated product line.
'In fact, it worked to our advantage in many ways,' insisted Seymour. 'The Skorpion had to be economical to produce, simple to make and maintain and if you like be 'the essence of a motorcycle' - and no more.' The discipline suited the company and the times. 'It's a European motorcycle and the most adventurous bike designs today, such as Ducatis, are the antithesis of a world product, in the manor of contemporary Japanese motorbikes.'
A 'culturally specific' motorcycle may sound alarm bells amongst the cynical, but the few success stories of late have all eschewed the God of performance. A Harley Davidson is as American as you get - chrome-laden, overweight and loud, while Italian Ducati has refound its niche by building lightweight, V-twin powered sports bikes that handle better than rivals and, crucially, are painted red.
The Skorpion is maybe more eclectic - it has a Yamaha 660cc engine (stamped 'MZ'), Italian running gear and British styling - but its swooping lines are unlike anything on the market. Richard Seymour is also keen to trace another blood line; to the heyday of British biking when the space and fuel efficient single cylinder sports bike, epitomised by BSA's Goldstar and Velocettes, took young guns to and from transport cafes in good-looking discomfort. 'The bike is really the first of its type for 15 years, an effective antidote to overcomplex machinery.'
Not everything is as Seymour hoped: the prototype's sub-300lb figure mushrooming to 374lbs on the production line; the swap for a Japanese engine, over the Austrian Rotax, has upset some purists, and ever more stringent noise and emission regulations have seen the silencer grow to ungainly proportions - while the prototype's bold use of aircraft technology glue bonding has been lost in the real world of production.
These details can take little away from Seymour, and his talented assistant Adam White. Where Japanese monolithics think of product development times in years, the unlikely alliance of a cash-strapped German firm needing something to sell quickly and British ingenuity has produced a stunning motorbike in just 14 months. MuZ is predicting sales this year of 3,500 units, with perhaps twice as many for 1995. Seymour has swapped his Honda RG30 for one.
Seymour-Powell has not stopped developing new bikes for MZ. There are persistent rumours of a new project, using the same specialist frame experts Tigcraft, but with a bigger, more powerful engine. The Yamaha unit on the Skorpion - with a sophisticated five-valve cylinder head - puffs out 48bhp enough for sub-five second 0-60mph times and a top speed near 110mph, but short of what hard-core sports riders are used to.
When a new bike does comes along, you can be sure it will subscribe to what Seymour calls the three 'Ss' that guided the Skorpion's birth. 'One S is for simplicity,' he explains patiently, 'one is for sustainability and the last one stands for, er . . . sense.' Sense? Seymour is uncharacteristically lost for words. 'Well, it actually stands for sex.' And he's right.
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