With the launch of the Empulse, Brammo may well have succeeded in
monopolizing the limelight for the 2011 model year. Since the collapse
of motorcycle sales started in 2009, the major OEMs have pretty much
eliminated new product releases (with a few notable exceptions). With
the all-important Milan EICMA global trade show looming in November, and
slow signs of recovery on the horizon, the pent up expectations of a
public eager for new motorcycles is great. Now, a small player with
barely a couple years of production experience has debuted a credible
alternative to the mainstream that combines this desire for novelty with
the first electric production motorcycle that looks like a genuine
motorcycle. Here’s an in depth design analysis of the first motorcycle
created for the 21st century. >
Unlike many purported electric production bikes presented in the past 12 months, the Brammo Empulse is designed from scratch to fulfill its role as a battery-powered vehicle, sharing no common parts in its frame with a similar ICE powered machine. However, unlike many of the more esoteric e-bike designs, the Empulse still carries within it the DNA and proportions of a classic naked roadster, and as such is instantly recognizable and easily digested.
With so many designs appearing on the internet proclaiming to be “the future”, it is refreshing and exciting to see an electric motorcycle that finally gives bikers what we want: a visceral, raw and mechanical machine that hides little, uses the latest innovations, but is still a motorcycle.
It makes no attempt to hide its batteries like the KTM Freeride, or simply hangs them out in the wind like everything else including the 2010 MotoCzysz E1pc. Rather, it boldly displays the new architecture of energy cells architecturally linked in series along its twin spar frame. Each cell, while just a yellow box and lacking the visual interest of, say a deeply sculpted clutch basket, is highlighted by sharply cut metal cross braces. The sheer functionalism of the whole mechanical (if that is the right word) package, with its folded black sheets, chrome hardware and clean wire management is reminiscent of a precision digital instrument, like a Cray supercomputer. Even the heat sink that covers the controller is deeply finned in a whimsical wave, taking the familiar language of cylinder air cooling but rewriting it to match the digital age.
The body design of the Empulse is where the masterclass narrative ends. Unlike the engineered beauty of the naked machine, the plastics tell no consistent story, relating neither to the mechanical package nor Brammo, or finally to the human occupant.
There is also no visual cue to link it to the first Brammo motorcycle, the Enertia. Of course, most ardent bikers with agree that is a good thing. The Enertia is almost an anti-motorcycle, devoutly flaunting its lack of normal wheel size, proportion or styling. But the Enertia was first, not only the first bike manufactured by the Brammo brand, but the first modern, mass production electric motorcycle. It is a missed opportunity to not have at least distilled one styling detail, however small or subtle, with the Empulse.
The silhouette is strong, but not flattering. The “tank” is crude and immature, from it’s overtly downcast angle and box construction, to the simplistic knee cut outs. It screams home-made streetfighter, which although bold and aggressive, does not mirror the finesse present in the mechanicals. In execution, it is more like a $5000 Moto-Hispania MH-7 125 than a Ducati Streetfighter.
A tank is the center piece of all motorcycle design. It is visible in both plan and elevation, often both at the same time, from standing still and from the rider view. The rider touches it constantly with the most sensitive and intimate parts of their body, using its surfaces to pressure and guide the motorcycle through turns and to balance. Every part of a motorcycle’s style and shape converges at this central point, from every view. In the case of a naked roadster like this one, it also forms the largest styling component. A bold tank need not be complicated, but it does need to communicate man-machine interaction, more than originality. The total profile of the complete motorcycle delivers the unique brand message, the details should only reenforce them.
The tail is original too, and apparently ergonomic. Its general side view is like an XR750 dirt tracker, the most successful American racing motorcycle of all time, an excellent theme to start with. But here too the design is short of convincing. Compared to the short, vertically stacked, boxy tank, the tail looks like it came from a different bike. The bid for originality in the back end disappears with the anonymous upside down half moon brake light seen on millions of machines since the first BMW F650 in 1993.
Finally, several of the details need further integration. The knee pads are random enough that they appear to act like covers, as though hiding something. Whether they are or not as important as why they look like flat plates in an area so critical to man-machine interaction. They, like most of the plastics lack a strong 3 dimensionality, almost as though the whole machine was designed in strict side views or by a CAD jockey with limited time or resources.
Although I am mildly flattered that Brammo chose the MT-03 headlight for this first prototype, I do hope that the final production unit carries with it some of the mechanical purity of the frame/battery/propulsion unit, perhaps using the triangular battery supports as inspiration for the headlight brackets.
If it appears that I am overly critical, it should be noted that it is because the total effort the Empulse represents is so great, so unexpected and so far above the electric motorcycle pack that it really needs only another 10% to be considered on par with the major OEMs. This little company has now demonstrated its ability to manufacture and survive. If it can deliver the Empulse as promised, with some further refinement, then Brammo will have punched well and truly far above its weight.
At long last, an electric motorcycle design that is proud. It does not hide behind plastic or excuse itself for being what it is. It stands alone as the first honest attempt to create a new electric motorcycle design aesthetic, without resorting to cliches, looking like a plastic box full of Duracells or being so wildly weird that it won’t be accepted by that most notorious bunch of conservative tribes : motorcyclists.
Michael Uhlarik is the designer of the Yamaha MT-03 and 2003 Yamaha M1 and works as an industry consultant.