Motorcycle Design and Demographics

Smoothing. Making a complex machine look neat, uncluttered, and simple.

Complex motorcycle designs made to look neat and simple.
Complex, made simple: Note how the cast metal seems to blend with the plastic, and very few fasteners are visible.©Motorcyclist

I've always been a fan of the Ducati Monster, going way back to when Miguel Galluzzi's design was first shown at the 1992 Cologne show. I can't say I've kept track of every development over the nearly quarter century of the Monster's history, but I always check out the new models in print and online, if not in the showrooms.

I didn't get a chance to really look at one of the new Monsters until I visited a local dealer earlier this year. The bike was a 2016 Monster 1200S, and it caught my attention as few motorcycles have done in recent years because it showed what I felt was a new direction in design, a new "design intent." If I had to give it a name, I'd call it "smoothing."

2016 Ducati Monster 1200 S
2016 Ducati Monster 1200 S©Motorcyclist

I don’t mean smoothing in the sense that a complex mechanism can be smoothed by hiding it behind plastic fairing panels or the plastic covers that obscure so many car engines these days. No, the Monster was a naked bike and remains so. And not only is it naked, but it now has a big radiator, a water pump and hoses, ABS, and other electronics. And yet to me it looks simpler, cleaner, and more elegant than earlier Monsters. How do you make a more complex machine look simpler? By integrating design elements, by creative packaging and placement—by smoothing it.

The picture here is just a single detail shot of the Monster but one that I think exemplifies smoothing. Under the seat are the rear shock, the swingarm, and a small rear fender. It’s all functional but surprisingly neat and uncluttered. There is no wiring visible and very few fasteners. This kind of design doesn’t just happen. It takes time and effort, planning and coordination. And I saw details like this all over the Monster.

This kind of design doesn’t just happen. It takes time and effort, planning and coordination.

I talked about this with PJ LaMariana, owner of PJ’s, a Ducati/Triumph dealership, and his take was very revealing. He says that his customers are increasingly without mechanical or industrial training, experience, or interest. Instead, their core technical experience is of electronic devices that are clean and smooth and that function invisibly except for a lighted screen. Buyers of earlier generations, who took shop classes in school and who may have worked in manufacturing, have a different machine aesthetic from these younger customers, and manufacturers are responding to the new aesthetic.

PJ pointed out the latest Triumph, the Bonneville Street Twin, newly arrived in his showroom. It’s perhaps an even better example of this design direction than the latest Monster. Again, the new, more complex Triumph Bonnevilles, with liquid-cooling and ABS, are simpler and more basic looking than the previous air-cooled models that I could see across the showroom. Views of the new bike’s radiator and cooling lines are deftly minimized or hidden, making them virtually invisible, and other attention to smoothing is apparent all over the bike.

I spoke to Tim Prentice, who designed the Triumph Thunderbird (introduced in 2009) and who has contributed to other Triumph projects. He confirmed that serious work, hours, and money had gone into making the new Bonnevilles look simpler than they actually are. CAD is of course a great help in producing these simple designs, as multiple design iterations can be tried even before building prototypes, and rapid prototyping of various kinds helps similarly, but the driving force here is this new design intent that I’m calling smoothing.

The deindustrialization of the US economy is having multiple effects, and one effect is certainly that people are less exposed to the world of manufacturing. Many of the results of globalization, like jobs going offshore and the resultant unemployment, are negative. But if motorcycle buyers subject to deindustrialization are indeed preferring this new design aesthetic, I have to admit that I’m becoming a convert as well.

James Parker designed his first original motorcycle in 1971; his most recent design is the Mission R electric superbike. In between, he worked on multiple other motorcycle projects, including 30 years spent evolving the RADD front suspension system used on the Yamaha GTS1000 and various other prototypes.