Bespoke for Bikers
Small motorcycle manufacturers are leading the way with design and personalisation options
Automotive design arguably reached peak flamboyance in the 1950s and 1960s, when streamlined European sports cars from design studios such as Carrozzeria Pininfarina and exuberantly finned Cadillacs from designer Harley Earl reflected both advances in technology and the optimism of the jet age. But the growing complexity of cars in subsequent decades, along with increasingly restrictive design, safety and emissions regulations, have somewhat limited automotive design.
In the two-wheeled world, however, where development costs and barriers to entry are much lower, several low-volume manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic are taking advantage, with some very intriguing designs to show for it.
In Europe, for instance, Moto Morini in Italy and Ariel in the United Kingdom are brand names that date back to the 1930s and the turn of the last century respectively. Ariel ceased production in 1965, while Moto Rino stopped manufacturing in the 1990s. Both marques have been revived in recent years, with Moto Morini engaging Franco Lambertini, an engineer employed by the company in the 1970s, to design the engine of its Corsaro 1200 ZZ naked bike.
Other than the brand’s logo, there is little about the large-capacity Corsaro that resembles the small-capacity racing machines which nudged the brand to prominence in the 1960s. But as its racing heritage is shared with several other Italian firms, Moto Morini has been able to source 99 per cent of the components for the Corsaro in Italy.
Arguably, it was Ducati that pioneered what has become known as “street-naked” when it launched the Monster in the early 1990s. The term is motorcyclist shorthand for a bike designed for tearing around public roads, rather than racetracks, and one without a fairing, thus “naked”. But the Corsaro adapts the concept with its sharper and more aggressive style. Plus, with its hand-built, low-volume production—they don’t divulge numbers, but the factory spans only 500 square metres—the company claims that each bike will be different, depending on customer requirements.
Taking that personalisation concept just a little further, Ariel in the United Kingdom will change the frame geometry of the Ariel Ace to customer requirements. Choose a large steering angle, low-set footpegs, a high-rise handlebar and a wide saddle, and the Ace veers toward a Harley-Davidson cruiser style. Alternatively, a steep steering angle can be complemented with low handlebars, high set footpegs and exotic suspension components from the racing world to make the Ace look more like a supersports machine.
The secret is in the Ace’s modular frame, which is machined from billet alloy in six pieces—a 70-hour process for each frame—before being hand-welded to customer specifications and then hard anodised. Almost all other aspects of the machine are customisable as well, though it is very easy to double the starting price of the Ace—around S$35,000 at the factory gate—by doing so. Power is courtesy of the 1,237cc V4 engine from the tried-and-tested Honda VFR1200 touring bike.
The numerous builders producing one-off motorcycles in the US have given rise to businesses devoted exclusively to providing them with engines. One such low-volume producer is Arch Motorcycles, which was spawned from a conversation between actor Keanu Reeves and bike builder Gard Hollinger about a modification to one of Reeves’ road bikes.
The KRGT-1 reflects the pair’s ideal of a real-world street bike that not only comprises performance and looks, but also real-world practicality. Hollinger is clearly a fan of the time-consuming machining of parts from solid lumps of metal, so not only is the rear swingarm of the KRGT-1 the result of a 17-hour process, the fuel tank is a further consequence of 66 hours on the milling machine.
Its suspension and brake components are the best off-the-shelf items on the market. Owners can choose from different positions for the controls—Arch will measure buyers up in order to adjust the ergonomics to suit—and power is courtesy of a massive 2,032cc S&S V-twin engine with custom Arch Down Draft air intakes and final drive. Design-wise, the KRGT-1 reflects the pragmatism of its gestation, though there is beauty in the detail, such as the rear taillights that sit inside the reflective rear cowl, negating the need for a lens.
Utilising the same basic S&S engine, Confederate Motors takes a far more radical approach to design with its P51 Fighter Combat. From windows into the air box at the front, cam drive belt on the engine, and even the fuel tank under the seat, to the unusual girder-style front suspension and the bare machined alloy, the Combat Fighter is both brutal and beautiful. It will be a rare sight too, being limited to just 61 units. Confederate cements its bona fides by campaigning its machines at Speed Week on the salt flats at Bonneville, Utah, and has earned top speed records in their class.
Taking a thoroughly different 21st century approach is Vanguard, a New York City-based start-up attempting to bring Silicon Valley disruption to the motorcycle industry. Not only does the fledgling company have just one prototype in existence, it is also crowdfunding to get the project off the ground. Vanguard reckons its design expertise minimises the number of components required, which will bring the cost of the finished machine down to around US$30,000 when it is launched in 2018. To do so would be quite an achievement—it would mean that a company with no history of manufacturing motorcycles would catapult itself into full-scale production. Certainly, nothing about Vanguard’s approach could be considered orthodox, including its minimal yet beautiful design with details such as a fully enclosed rear suspension unit that’s unlike anything else available.
Clearly, motorcycle designers enjoy great freedoms—they start with two wheels and go where their imaginations allow. But designers in smaller companies seem to enjoy more freedom still. Some may focus on function and let form look after itself; others start with a design concept that dictates the function, while yet others simply adapt an existing style with more flair and attention than the major producers can manage. Whichever the approach, it is great news for buyers as well as fans of motorcycle art.
By Tony Watts