GO YOUR OWN WAY
Design guru Glynn Kerr talks about the rat-race among bike makers to follow a ‘success formula’
SURE, BEING A PIONEER PUTS YOU RIGHT UP THERE in the history books and captures the public imagination at the time – if all the planets are aligned. But in purely business terms, being number one isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For every success, there are a hundred failures and getting it right presupposes you probably got it wrong
There was a famous story, told to me by a staff member on an earlier trip to Japan, that Yamaha once came close to overtaking Honda in sales, but deliberately held back. Being number two may be less prestigious, but it’s is a far safer position to be in. Why take the risk that all your R&D investment is going towards the right projects? Far better to let someone addresses the shortcomings of the original at the same time.
In recent years, motorcycle categories have become ever more sophisticated, with the basic groups – street, sport, custom, on/off-road, etc, – broken down into ever more specialised sub-divisions. Take dirt bikes, for example. This category is now divided between trail-bikes, scramblers, supermotard, adventure tourers, Paris-Dakar replicas... and that’s just the road-going models.
Within each microcosm, certain models manage to hit the mark, by good design, good timing or just plain luck. It is entirely logical for rival manufacturers to want to cash in on the trend and copy that same formula, – and so they don’t get sued for copyright infringement. It may not be the most ethical philosophy or move the world of motorcycling forwards much, but, to the bean-counters, it makes perfect sense. The ultimate aim of all
When it’s just one example of imitation, it may be overlooked. But when part of an entire company’s marketing strategy seems to be based on another manufacturer’s model range, it becomes less excusable and that company is in danger of losing its own identity. Triumph’s Tiger 800s are also obvious Munich competitors and the latest Trophy has so much BMW design language incorporated into it that it’s almost an insult to superior in some ways to the models it’s trying to emulate (the design seems to be a homogenised mix of BMW’s two-, four- and six-cylinder tourers all in one). But, again, that’s immaterial. When I look at the Trophy, I immediately think ‘BMW’, not Triumph. And if that makes some marketing manager clap his hands and say, “Yes, we have achieved our goal,” then it’s something of an own goal. Why pay all that money and not prefer the fresh styling direction some of them have been taking in recent years and, I’m sure, many are technically superior at a lower price point. But just don’t pretend you own a Harley. That would make you and your bike a fake – and that’s the operative word here. To copy something openly devalues the copy.
Since the company’s resurrection under John Bloor, it’s actually been Triumph’s philosophy to mould itself on known successes. This started with Kawasaki, including an intense study of Japanese engineering and production processes, then positioning itself mid-point between Honda and BMW and later getting into Ducati territory with a few aspirations on Harley-Davidson’s turf too. The company has deliberately eschewed an in-house design department all along, preferring to outsource styling facilities which have changed on a cyclic basis to assure a fresh change of
style while preventing any long-term dependency.
And yet the most memorable recent Triumphs have also been the most unique. The triple engine, which started life as a basic building block for the modular 750/1,000 short-stroke and 900/1,200 long-stroke models introduced in 1990, was nothing more than a means to get more variations out of a common piston design. But it came to represent something uniquely Triumph – a handle that no other manufacturer had at the time and which made a lot of engineering sense. Laverda had moved away from triples and Yamaha’s XS750/850 was also long dead, so Triumph managed to spearhead the new revival in three-cylinder engines, with Benelli and MV Agusta following years behind. Fortunately, Triumph’s management realise they have chanced on something unique and have allowed the triple to remain a cornerstone of the range.
Likewise, the twin cylinder ‘classic’ bikes have held on to earlier decades of heritage. In parallel, they have also morphed into the current US-style models, which are unique enough that nobody could accuse them of being Harley clones. And the Rocket III was so out-there that we can overlook the obvious V-Max overtones. So there’s clearly plenty of independent spirit in the company, which is, perhaps, why the few forages into playing look-alikes seem so unnecessary. John Bloor has now retired, failed to keep the old company alive, but, thanks to him, Britain now has a motorcycle industry again. Perhaps, we should allow them the occasional deliberate error.
Identity is the handle that separates products bought from the heart, rather than through consumer report magazines or factual comparisons. Motorcycles being highly emotional products, that’s not something to take successful, dilutes that identity and detracts from any originality that’s left. When a large part of a company’s range starts to follow another manufacturer’s formula, that can have a negative effect on its entire brand image.
R E S U D N AT E R FE T E N K G BI ES
I D Would the real adventure tourer please step forward?
No prizes for guessing which models Aprilia had in their sights when developing the Dorsoduro and Caponord There’s more than a little BMW influence in Triumph’s 800 Tiger models too
Triumph’s most memorable designs are also the most individual
The amount of BMW design language in Triumph’s latest Trophy is noticeable and deliberate Some people will go to extraordinary lengths to borrow from an established identity. That’s a humble Yamaha XV535 under the fake engine covers Hopefully, this creation is meant to be tongue-in- cheek