Easy riders straddle the Berlin Wall: David Lancaster admires a stylish combination of British ingenuity and German economy

If, two years ago, you had asked most motorcyclists what MZ represented, chances are they would have said cheap, noisy, asthmatic two strokes made in deepest East Germany and ridden by penny-pinching night shift workers in the Midlands. And the verdict would have been a true, if slightly harsh. For 30 years, shielded from economic realities by East Germany's generous state umbrella, the small factory in Zschopau produced bikes that inspired few but served thousands with simple engines, dated cycle parts and unrivalled economy.

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lawnmowers and kettles to motorbikes for Norton and Yamaha, it did little to prepare them for a rundown MuZ with its outdated product line.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.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

    £15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

    Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

    Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee