Lost in Translation
The trials and tribulations of an itinerant motorcycle designer and consultant
During my many years with the motorcycle industry, I have been required to be, whether for a few days or several years, in a lot of very different locations. Getting there has sometimes been challenging, and getting back occasionally more so. And as I’ve usually been immersed alone into an environment where neither the language nor the culture was familiar, the intervening times have also provided some interesting moments.
It was said that an Englishman abroad requires just two phrases: “Do you speak English?”, and if that fails, “Then fetch me someone who can”. In these post-colonial times, the reality now involves a lot of facial animation and gesticulation, but usually I’ve managed to make myself understood, if sometimes at the cost of my dignity.
The fact that I started work with BMW on April Fool’s Day, 1982, should have been ominous in itself. My arrival coincided with the Munich fashion show, and all the hotels were fully booked, so my first night in that city was spent on a wooden bench inside the airport. A policeman prodded me with a gun around 2.00 am, saying that they were about to close for the night, but with nowhere to go, he eventually let me stay put, and locked the airport around me. With modern security procedures, it’s unlikely I would even be that fortunate today, but such was my arrival in Germany.
BMW’s Personnel Department helped locate a hotel for the following night, and until I could secure more permanent accommodation. That took three months. My tiny room had a sink, but no bathroom, so basic hygiene was a matter of creativity and a certain amount of acrobatics. A lack of laundry facilities was resolved by five different coloured shirts, which were alternated daily, along with copious applications of deodorant. If any of my colleagues spotted the ruse, they were either too polite or too embarrassed to comment.
As a consultant with Yamaha, I got to visit Tokyo and ride the bullet train to Hamamatsu, all under the supervision of an experienced corporate minder. On the second trip, they decided I was now a seasoned traveller who should be capable of finding his own way to the design office. The Metro signs weren’t even in my own alphabet, never mind in English, but, fortunately, a helpful fellow traveller was able to push me out at the right stop, and a business card in Japanese helped a taxi driver get me to the
final destination. Weary, jet-lagged and apprehensive, I stumbled into the office, dragging a suitcase behind me. “Hi, Glynn, perfect timing. The meeting is just about to start. Take a seat.” Welcome to the world of international consultancy.
This was just a warm-up for the Italian experience. The prototype for the first TDR125, due to be produced by Yamaha’s Belgarda division, was constructed by a company outside rural Parma (ham, dairy products...). The airport was notorious for fog, which would roll in just before nightfall. After the final visit to sign off on the model, I boarded the plane home with perfect visibility. Then the captain’s voice came over the PA system, explaining that our departure would be delayed for technical reasons. As the delay increased, fog started to build, to the inevitable point where we could no longer take off. Everyone would have to disembark, collect their luggage, return any items of duty-free to the store, and wait for accommodation to be allocated in the town. My suitcase didn’t reappear on the carousel with everyone else’s, so I missed the bus to the hotel while filling in a missing luggage claim. When I finally arrived at the hotel, there was chaos, with a scrum of several hundred people ahead of me, all trying to claw their way to the reception desk. I finally got to my room at 4.00 am, only to be woken two hours later by the reception desk saying a bus was waiting to take everyone to the airport. Of course, we didn’t take off until noon. Ugh.
One happier Yamaha memory was being flown to Amsterdam (business class, dressed in bug-splattered leathers) to pick up an FZR1000, and ride it over to the Isle of Man TT race. This was one of the works prototypes which were hand-built and put out far more than the standard power. I covered four countries in less than four hours, and that included taking the hovercraft from France to England. Ah, those halcyon days before speed cameras!
On my first trip to India for Bajaj, I arrived in Mumbai to be greeted by a local company representative who put me in a taxi for the four to five hour road trip to Pune. I was delighted to find the car was a Hindustan Ambassador, a direct continuation of the 1956 Morris Oxford, and quintessentially Indian. Shortly after being waved off by my host, the driver suddenly screeched to a halt at a chicken market, and disappeared into the crowd. All around, people were arriving in taxis and stuffing as many live chickens into the boot as they could fit, with the associated frantic clucking and explosions of feathers. Seated in the back, closely clutching my wallet, these vivid sights, sounds and smells,
Spot the odd man out. No, not The Last Supper, but sharing Teppanyaki with Yamaha designers from GK Dynamics in Tokyo
An alarmingly youthful-looking author flanked by Atsushi Ichijo (left), designer of the original V-Max, and Atsushi Ishiyama, then president of GK Dynamics, in Tokyo. Well, it was nearly half my lifetime ago
Not a bad view to draw motorcycles by — my home for two months on Lake Geneva while being lecturer at the Art Centre Europe
No, dad, I don’t want to swap it for your Austin Maestro. Quick family stopover in Wales on the way to the IoM TT with Yamaha’s prototype FZR1000
The bullet train is a great way to travel, provided you know which one to get on and when to get off
The Tokyo subway won awards for its user-friendly clarity — provided you can read Japanese