For decades, styling came as an afterthought to the motorcycle design process, way behind power, speed and reliability.
Engineering priorities far overtook the need for a motorcycle to appeal visually, but as with many things over time, this has changed dramatically.
The biggest motorcycle names know that their machines sell not just for the thrill of riding them, but also for what they look like as an object – stationary or at speed.
Xenophya, one of the fastest growing motorcycle styling houses, is hidden away a few miles north of Newcastle in the UK, and works closely with prestige British brands such as Triumph and India’s Royal Enfield.
“The bike world has taken a long time to catch up,” admits Xenophya co-founder Mark Wells. “Motorcycle design as an activity has only been around – with an industrial designer, not an engineer doing it – since the mid 1980s.
“I don’t think I’d be unfair to say it’s still a bit of a bolt-on service, a bit of an afterthought, because a motorcycle is such a tight piece of packaging and it doesn’t have the same level of production volumes as automotive.”
Along with fellow founder Ian Wride the pair built up the two-man company designing add-on parts and fairings for motorcycles following university.
Triumph was one of the first companies to take note of their abilities early on, and remains a customer as Xenophya works on its new models for 2014.
Two bikes stand in Xenophya’s newly expanded workshop unit, with the space divided into areas that follow the process – a mezzanine design office, now populated with three other full-time designers, overlooking a clay modelling space equipped with two surface plates, and a confidential secure space for classified projects.
“We’d always wanted the design space overlooking the clay studio so you could move very quickly between CAD, 2D sketches, clay and swap between the three,” comments Wells.
“We very much believe in hands-on modelmaking. For us that’s still absolutely crucial to the process. “CAD is fantastic but you live in a ‘CAD world’ where radii are miniscule and don’t really exist: You get worried about things that don’t matter and forget about things that do.
“If you don’t get the right sense of proportion then things don’t look as they should do.” It becomes clear that the Xenophya team is beyond passionate about motorcycles, and that without this level of devotion designing a bike would lead to immediate failure.
“It’s important that you do interact with it: you get on the thing and you sit on it,” says Wells, now circling one of the bikes clamped onto the surface plate.
“We make a seat and a tank and you wrap your legs around the tank and you hug the whole thing. “The boys will take the piss because I’ve said this before, but you don’t hug a toaster in the same way you do a motorcycle – you literally put your arms around it.
“It’s an intimate product. You’ve got to make sure that from an ergonomics point of view that it’s right.”
A motorcycle’s tight packaging constraints mean that everything has to work in harmony; while styling is an element of the industrial design process that the team undertakes, there’s a whole bunch of other stuff to be considered.
Clay and clearances
Much of what is modelled relies on getting the clay modelling as exact as the CAD dimensions and clearances allow, meaning a reliance on the workshop’s three portage CMM arms.
Running in grooves along the surface plate they can be set up anywhere, measuring on three-axis in space, giving accurate measurement pick up points in line with the CAD model.
“You can record a point in space and use the arm as a marker to build clay out to.
“Say we’re building a panel to cover a radiator; it’s come from a supplier so it’s a fixed width so there’s not a lot we can do about that, the engineering team will define the spec of the radiator, and we’ve got to try and make that fit.
“We’re taking data points from CAD and then we’re using the metrology arms to pick out the points in space for the clay.” “Clay allows us to get all the little flicks and ticks, negative surfaces, get the light working, because the CAD never renders it quite properly,” continues Wells.
“You never get the real sense of who you do see and what you don’t see: How much does something pop against something else.”
A clay model tends to be an amalgamation of things: SLS 3D printed parts, plastic, wood and actual clay.
Once finished this is painted with in an epoxy resin, giving the clay a hard coat, like a candy shell, which can be sanded back to a good quality and painted. The model is then presented to the customer’s management team for appraisal.
Aesthetic tweaks to Triumph’s range of bikes have continued to add to the volumes it is selling.
Meanwhile Royal Enfield is reliant on the company’s skillset to help it increase the lucrative export of its retro-styled bikes from India.
This isn’t an area of design that can be approached easily from another product design field, and with the fortunes of the team continuing upward, their dedication to motorcycles has paid off.
The workload for Xenophya’s styling house depends on the customer it is working for, with the variations between the likes of Triumph and Royal Enfield dramatically changing the amount of input the team has.
Triumph has an entire product-planning department and arrives at Xenophya for aesthetic designs based on a written design brief and clear understanding of the customer base.
With much of the engineering already in place, Xenophya takes the product design integrity almost to production level.
For Royal Enfield, the process is the opposite. The team is drafted in from the beginning, helping define the product from the outset.
“Opportunity spotting, product planning, outlining and talking to the end user, understanding where the product comes from, they engage us for all of that,” explains Wells.
For the Royal Enfield project the team was enlisted to design a concept motorcycle to expand the company’s line of motorcycles that all run off the same single cylinder engine.
The legacy of British motorcycle manufacture in India, Royal Enfield’s styling and engineering had hardly changed since the early 20th Century, and the bikes were used to make stripped-down street racers — or café racers as the style is known — in 1960s Britain.
Wells and Wride travelled to eight cities across India in a fortnight, talking to groups of 20 or so post graduate age men to canvas what they knew of the café racer style.
The appreciation of the culture behind café racers was no more or less than in the UK — most motorcycle riders weren’t there in the ‘60s, and the whole understanding of that genre came from reading books, magazines, and the internet.
Convinced it would work, a team from Royal Enfield’s Indian HQ travelled to the UK to be educated in the way of the café racer, touring Britain’s iconic motorcycling heritage sites such as the Ace Café, motorcycle clubs and the National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham.
Building a classic
A design, complete with slimmed-down café racer lines, was sketched and then moved into 3D CAD.
With the help of British old school café racer builders Harris Performance the chassis design was built and the bike started to come together.
Yet it was in the details that cultural differences began to show.
For example, handlebar position in India needs to be high as you’re constantly weaving in and out of really tight traffic. Café racers, on the other hand, are about being low, elbows in, in a racing tuck.
The motorcycle had to have a modern starter motor, but the team felt that an additional kick-start would be in keeping with the tradition of the original bikes.
“The Indian approach was ‘let’s remove the kick-start — the kick-start makes the bike look unreliable’.
“Our approach was that in makes it look authentic, and it means when you’re at the Ace Café and you want to kick it over for the theatre of it you can, but you can also start it in the garage on the push of a button.
“It’s just the little cultural differences”
The working concept was launched in New Delhi to an overwhelmingly positive reception, but from here on the translation into a production model due out this year is out of Xenophya’s hands.
Letting go of a project, not knowing whether the design intent will be maintained, is difficult for Wells as an outside consultant.
Engineer ‘tweaks’ could result in a very different bike eventually hitting our roads. Yet the company’s role in the project was a resounding success, bridging the gap between generations of motorcycle enthusiasts with a bike that eschews vintage cool.