Why the Motus MST-01 needs design strength

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I honestly am not trying to be unkind or snarky. As the product of a tiny American startup, the Motus MST-01 is the kind of product Hell For Leather wants to champion. Truth is, I really think this small company needs the right kind of start or it will not make it. Here’s why Motus needs to re-think its design.

Modus Operandi

Creating something new, something that is genuinely new, is very hard.  Motorcycles have been with us for over 120 years, and in their present form for at least 30.  Despite motorcycling’s reputation for rebellion and counter-culture, the truth is that the vast majority of motorcycling’s intended audience is very conservative, trapped by the dogma of the brand temples that have been carefully cultivated over decades.  We expect BMWs to be tank-like; Ducatis to be sexy; and Hondas to be mechanically perfect.  Of course none of these dogmas are strictly true, but they are fed by advertising and our collective tribalism, the kind that makes bikers fall into irrational loyalties to specific brands and hostile to others.

So within this demanding and emotionally charged environment, it is exceedingly difficult to design and introduce something new that will be accepted, much less something inspirational.  Add to that the enormous pressure of delivering a design that all the stakeholders in a company, like the president, engineering staff, marketeers and consultants, will accept as adding value to the business case, and you have a nearly impossible task ahead.  This is true with all motorcycle OEMs, and can often cause designs to languish for years or get torn up and redesigned by many different teams in order to find what management call “compromise”.

This is the environment that Brian Case and the team at Motus must have found themselves in with the creation of the MST-01.  A small start up trying to prepare an all-new, all-American modern motorcycle in the middle of the deepest economic crisis in US history will surely have been under great pressure to deliver a realistic product offering.  One that would not alienate neither the target customer base, nor the inherently conservative venture capitalists who will need to be approached for additional funding later on.  Sure, many super rich and successful business people love and own seriously exotic, rare and unusual products, cars, yachts and perhaps even business ventures, but if history has shown us anything, it is that the motorcycle industry is an almost universal exception.

Each new and clearly unusual motorcycle has been slaughtered in the marketplace.  From the hundreds of one-off oddballs made in basements and small garages around the word, to upstart OEM products like the Moto Morini Gran Paso, Ducati 999 and the original Multistrada, to brilliantly engineered machines from established companies like the Yamaha GTS1000 and Honda DN-01, the consumer has spoken.  Nothing outside the box, please.

The American motorcycle industry is littered with a trail of brand corpses, mostly start ups but also some serious and very well funded brands like Excelsior and Indians version 6 through 9, all of whom thought that the market was ripe for another OEM to take on the establishment, by offering something different.  They were all wrong, and they all died.  The market doesn’t like different, it likes clichés. caricatures of ideologically perfect examples of what the motorcycle is supposed to be.  In North America, this is more true than anywhere else because the motorcycle is a toy, an expensive hobby good and most importantly a social status symbol, that prevents it from allowing reason into the purchasing equation.  This is why in 2011, half the motorcycles sold in the US will be brand new, modern motorcycles pretending to be relics from the 1940’s, while another quarter of them will be pointy, angry looking appliances that belong more on the set of a Saturday morning cartoon than in the driveways of the respectable middle-aged men who own them.

According to Wes, the Corvette ZR1 is the absolute best supercar currently on-sale in the world at any price. But look at it and you’ll understand why most think it’s more bass boat than McLaren F1. This is an example of American design failing to live up to its potential.

Motus Clausus

When I first heard that another brand was coming onto the field to take a stab at it, I thought all of the above and inwardly prepared for the worst.  “Another bunch of hard working, creative and ambitious people are going to walk into the trap of building a bike, perhaps even a great bike, that tells no story.”  I thought this because the secret to building a successful motorcycle company in western markets is not business acumen or engineering (that is merely the price of entry), it is about inventing a story and telling it well.  This is the culture of Hollywood, of underdog heroes and the meteoric rise of the little guy.  We all want to see the small, passionate team of real people take on and defeat the faceless hordes of the unfeeling Japanese corporate juggernauts.  Take that, Honda!

Sadly, life in industrial production land is not a movie or that rare Sunday afternoon football game when your perennially bad home team scores the big upset.  Building a brand takes time, careful plotting and sticking to a clear and defined message, where everything from the product to the advertising to the font on the warning stickers, is in sync.  KTM rose to global popularity not because they made great motorcycles, but because they made good motorcycles and told a great narrative.  Heavier, more expensive and with less performance than many of their competitors, they leveraged design, marketing and an aggressive racing program to build a brand that rivals Ducati and Harley for prestige and loyalty.  But it took them fifteen years to do that, and even then they had to sell out to Bajaj to pay the bills.

Motus is a curious story.  They appear to have understood all of this, from my distant point of observation as an analyst.  The company is steering into territory not visited by an American OEM, ever.  The technical package is unique, not just in the US but in motorcycling.  Sure, Honda has been making the ST series of longitudinal V4s for ages, but not with this level of performance, cylinder head architecture, and not with such an attractive multi-tubular chassis.  The images and videos leaked over the last months reveal a motorcycle with enormous potential, not in terms of performance or ride quality (no one outside the company knows those things, so I would silly to speculate), but in terms of the story.  The sentence that keeps coming back is “like a pushrod V8 engine.”.  Sounds like it to me, and that sounds great.

So we have a new American brand, with a new, modern motor that makes a direct link to that quintessential American engine type, and sounds amazing.  Adding the lovely frame, compact dimensions and high performance and we have almost all the ingredients for a Great Story.  Almost.

The Cadillac CTS-V uses a similar powertrain to the ZR1, but it’s heavier, fancier and slower. Yet it’s this car that has BMW, Mercedes and Audi quaking in their lederhosen. Why? Because it looks better than any car the Germans make.

Motus Sans Mojo

The MST-01 lacks good design.  I have no issue with conservative styling on a motorcycle, since like many will agree, I believe that the current state of design trends toward vulgar over-styling, where no surface is left alone without adding some more pointless detailing.  But the overly simplistic shroud that acts as a fairing on the newly released prototype looks like the work of a student, or Triumph in the 1990’s.

There is no finishing detail, no attention to where large surfaces like the tank sides meet their end at the top of the frame, and the completely random way in which the luggage rails stick out on the generic tail is disappointing.  The lights look tacked on from a catalogue, which indeed they may be. from the rear quarter the sheer volume of uninterrupted plastic gives the bike a heavy, old feeling that reminds me of the 1998 Triumph Sprint or T595 Daytona.  Both nice, but utterly forgettable bikes.   From the front, the comparisons are less flattering. The Motus has no discernible face, no memorable shape at all, looking a lot like fellow American start ups Roehr and its amateurish E Superbike, and more worryingly the clumsy Vectrix scooter.  Vertically splitting the fairing is smart and I like that solution, but the lack of brand specific detailing, like some stand out panel lines around the all important headlight would have gone a long way towards leaving an impression.  Using simplicity in design is a good thing, but simplicity must still be executed in a way that generates interest.

The critical fault, however, is the junction in the knee cut outs where body panels just end, completely ignoring the most important feature on this motorcycle: the cylinder heads.  The heads and the exhaust pipes are the jewels of the Motus motorcycle, and the fairing needs to point your eye to them rather than just be peeled back in a generic sweep like curtains on a cloudy day.  I am not advocating some silly detailing, but rather careful surface tension in the plastic or one crisp line in the otherwise unremarkable bodywork that would create more focus.

My conclusion is that either the MST-01 was a rushed design, completely understandable under the circumstances, which would have forced many generic and unresolved solutions like the formless tail and face; or the designer lacked the confidence of the team or the experience to create a more individual solution that still respected the need to satisfy a cost target and an overall conservative consumer base.  In any event, Motus has missed a great opportunity to add a visual package as striking and desirable as the mechanical one they obviously worked so hard to produce.

Minimalism – Not for Everyone

I said it is very hard to make something different, and that Motus is in an even more difficult situation than most OEMs.  I don’t want to be harsh or overly negative, but in my professional opinion the design as it currently stands tells no story.  More importantly, it hides the one part of the story that is vital to the success of the Motus brand : the original vehicle architecture.  While I understand that the naked model is meant to address that desire for exposed mechanicals, there is no excuse for the weak, obsolete styling treatment on the faired rendition.

Motorcycles are not consumer electronics, and so Modernism and Minimalism don’t apply.  The hyper clean designs that make iPhones and high end architecture so appealing don’t work on products that move so dynamically, something a company who’s very name means movement ought to understand.  Motorcycles literally force an intimate mating of a hard-edged, mechanical machine and the sublime beauty of the organic human body in something Yamaha calls man-machine interaction.  When this contrast is well balanced (something that, for the record, Yamaha has not done well in a long time), the results are motorcycles that stir the heart on first glance.  The Harley-Davidson Sportster and Ducati 916 have this balance.  Icons they may be, but the humble Yamaha R6 and Peugeot Speedfight have it too, which is why so many OEMs have copied them.

Looking at the MST-01 in photos the overwhelming take away is the silver plastic.  Nice looking silver plastic, but not shapes that make you feel like reaching out and touching them.  Motorcycles are a multi-sensory experience, where the look ought to draw you in to touch them, sit on them, ride them.  I cannot imagine myself feeling drawn to sit on this bike on looks alone, the way I do when I see an Aprilia RSV4 or Confederate Hellcat.   Without the intellectual knowledge of what lies inside, it the MST-01 is a forgettable motorcycle.

If like me, you are an enthusiast excited by the mechanical promise of that engine and frame, then ask yourself if you would even notice this motorcycle if you hadn’t read about or heard its engine.  In the impossible world of the motorcycle industry, Motus has to tell a great story, and it will need a strong design to help spin that yarn.

  • Tony

    Very nicely thought out! Since I first heard of the Motus, I’ve wanted to love it. American sport-tourer with all-new 4 cylinder V . . . YES! Bring it on. I’ve been watching the videos that trickled out hungrily and I couldn’t wait to see what the final product looked like. . .

    . . .and when I saw it, I was, sadly, underwhelmed.

    It looks nice, but I didn’t fall in love with it the way I did the 1190RS when it first broke cover.

    At $12,000 this seems like a great all-around bike. At the price they’ll have to price it at, I want to be riding something that looks more exotic. If I’m shelling out money in the 20-30K range, frankly, (and I’m not proud of this, but it’s just the way it is) I want to turn some heads.

    I’m really rooting for Motus, EBR and Fischer and hope to see a day when American motorcycles aren’t assumed to be big, long heavy chromed out noise-makers . . . but I wish Motus could have just put a slightly stronger foot forward in the looks department.

  • JonB

    All I see is Ducati ST3. Great article.

    I would also rather own a CTS-V or CTS-V Wagon over a ‘Vette any day.

  • HammSammich

    I looked at the first photo and thought, “Wow, kind of a 90′s Triumph Trophy or Sprint thing going on there…” Then I read your comparison to the 90′s Triumphs below. I wholeheartedly agree that the design of the body work is uninspiring and certainly doesn’t fit well with the otherwise exciting mechanicals of the bike. On the other hand, I prefer the utilitarian, if boring, bodywork to gimmickry. I guess your point is that there is a sweet spot somewhere in-between. The street fighter version of this bike is undoubtedly going to be beautiful, and here’s hoping they can do something to make the Sport Tourer follow suit.

  • munaqib Raja

    Learn from EBR.

  • bruce

    I think you’re jumping in early. The bags and pipes, two important motorcycle design elements, are obviously quicky add-ons to get the first bike running and in front of the cameras. Many (mostly German) cars look unfinished in their initial press introduction formats, coming into their own after a year of trim/color/interior detailing and refinement. I’m too old to really care too much about the looks — does it work!!! Eliminating the need to adjust valves is a much bigger feature than cutting edge ‘looks’ …. Bruce

  • http://www.thisblueheaven.com Mark D

    While I certainly think that the currently styling is bland, I think it has more to do with a limited budget and time. Getting an eye-catching design that is at once timeless and unique requires getting a top-notch designer. Personally, I understand wanting to spend that money on engineering. Like Triumph, they wanted to get a mechanically sound and viable product that wouldn’t turn anybody off first; then they could pen something a bit more controversial.

    Also, just look at Buell; “unique” styling to be sure, which has grown on me, but was also probably the #2 reason the brand was never a huge commercial success. Motus will find its own personal design, I’m sure.

  • Roman

    Gotta say, it’s nice to see a professional talk about their field of expertise. I’m really rooting for Motus, but the design is just a little too bland for my liking. Would like to see a few more high-res pics of the naked version, though…what little I saw looked pretty appealing in my non-design professional opinion.

  • GT

    I like it quite a lot but I also like FJR’s and BMW K bikes. I am thankful it is not a cruiser patterned after most other American bikes.

  • Ryan

    There was a recent quote about style, “Style is expensive.” The quote came from an executive at a computer company when he was asked why other manufacturers don’t have Apple’s sense of style.

    The styling looks like the product of a engineering company that spent it’s budget on engineering the product. It’s not beautiful, but it works and it’s probably cheap to produce.

    I would have expected better styling if Motus had used off the self components, but they went the hard way and build an engine and frame.

    I do expect them to have better styling once they get some money coming in, and they aren’t in start-up burn mode.

    • http://www.amarokconsultants.com michael uhlarik

      Style is NOT expensive, lack of a design vision is. And more to the point, design is not styling, it is consumer experience + product architecture + styling. Anything else is superficial, and wasting opportunity.

      The problem with most mass-production brands is that management typically see design as an add-on cost, rather than a fundamental R&D component. All products are designed, whether they are good or not, so paying for a poor or incomplete design is no different than paying for poor or incomplete engineering, something no company would consider acceptable.

      Bad design is a cost.

      Once you are investing in new parts and new tooling, having well considered shape and design are free, if the alternative is a bad design which is nothing less than burning money.

      • Ryan

        I break style out into a category separate from design. Good design means the product is intuitive, works as expected, and doesn’t have any quirks to deal with. A good design makes the tool an extension of the user.

        Styling is taking a design and making it pretty. I like using cupcakes as examples. A good cupcake is good; a good cupcake with good nice looking frosting is even better. A bad cupcake is bad; a bad cupcake with good nice looking frosting will still entice people to pick it up. Styling pushes good designs over the top.

        This is really just a difference of opinion on correct function or correct forms.

        Aside from where styling fits in, I agree 100% with the rest of your points. That is essentially the point of the quote, in the context of the original article.

        There is no reason products can’t be art in their own right. Most companies set a price point and compete on features. They don’t make style a priority, and there isn’t a reason not to. They just cost cut.

  • http://theprojectbeta.com/ andehans

    Good article. For me its not about whether its bland or not or pretty or not. What makes the Motus unique, the engine and the engineering, should be reflected in the design, currently they’re not. And be proud of that engine!

  • Erik

    I dunno folks, I realize there is nothing else to evaluate yet, but this discussion about style makes me wonder whether we are talking about motorcycles or three piece suits? Maybe there is no longer difference, as suits and bikes only function is to make their wearers/riders look good(?).

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      Assuming that design doesn’t play a role in motorcycles is pretty naive. Look at the Ducati 999, it was a comprehensively better bike than the 996, but it was a sales flop.

      • Myles

        It sucks so much that you’re right. Hopefully it says more about Ducati-ista-italia-farrari-wannabista than the general motorcycling public.

        What people need to realize is that while the outward style of the bike may matter during the bike shopping experience, it doesn’t mean half a shit while you’re on the road and it doesn’t mean much more than that while it’s in your garage.

        I think the style and the stats wouldn’t matter as much if it was easier for people to test ride a ton of bikes.

  • Jeffery

    The bike does look better in person, and you are right most motorcyclist do not really go for the outrageous. I think if the goal is to sell bikes people can ride and ride long distances then you also need to make them accessible for daily use.

    With a new company and the main investment in the power plant that is their own you know what that costs and how important it is to get it right. So to have that and a workable design is step towards success.

    Most bikes shape changes in person, the angles and depth are missed in flat pics. They are in places you do not see normally focused on in pictures but felt by riders. In Motus’s case I found the seat area to tank is more sporty but still allowing room to move about for comfort. The seat to footpeg area is very realistic as well with support and control being comfortable but not constricting blood like a Supersport RR. This will be a rideable bike.

    Will it get everything perfect for everybody? No nothing ever does. But being new to the game with a clean slate has pluses and minuses as we know. But one of the best pluses is room to evolve as the product matures and get the real world feedback that validation cannot get from all the unique situations real use creates.

    Remember the first Buells? Many people commented on the “future” styling as a cheap way to cover ugly bits underneath. So the bolder statement in my tiny opinion is to let people see the build quality and what lies beneath. Skin is easy to update and I do like the ability to blend especially if I am travelling across areas where small towns are in route. There is a reason stealth fighters are not painted orange so to speak.

    • HammSammich

      I think you are absolutely correct that bikes are experienced very differently in person vs. in pictures, but the problem here is that the pictures have to present a bike that is at least attractive enough to get people interested in going to see the bike in person. This is true of bikes from any manufacturer but is absolutely crucial for an upstart who lacks any physical presence in most areas, let alone an established dealer network.

  • Chris Davis

    I get the practical reasons this bike can’t be a CTS-V coupe. It’s just too consuming a task for anyone’s first project. It took Cadillac eight years to get from the first CTS which looked like a pile of rocks compared to the crisp suit of the V coupe. What’s more, they’ve taken as many risks thus far as is prudent. They need to get their feet under them and deliver a product that will perform at least well enough to get them to the next step.

    That said, I’ll go a step further and say the frame isn’t even appropriate for this bike. One look at it and I think Italian. Yes, it’s lovely and yes Italian bikes are considered premium products, but this is not an Italian bike. The whole package needs to communicate American at its finest. The body work does look American, but not in a way that makes me proud to be one. The one character line they use is aped from Victory.

    Oh hey Victory, didn’t see you there. Yeah well it looks good on you, I mean you’ve got what it takes to pull off something like that. It works because Victory is framing the large side view of their V-twin. From the side, what Motus needs to feature is the relatively small side view of their head/pipes/valve cover and disguise the visual weight of the lower block. But in a more basic sense, they need to embrace the longitudinal V of that engine. Showing it off is going to be a challenge. What view do we associate with a push-rod V engine? It’s actually the top view. It’s the valve covers and intake runners. Can you even do that with a motorcycle and still make it dynamically feasible? I have no idea, I’m an apparel guy. But right now, that engine looks uncomfortable in its frame, like Brian Urlacher in a Ferrari.

    Someone suggested referring to EBR, and I agree, but in the most elemental sense of creating solutions that exploit the virtues of that engine rather than cramming it into the motorcycle paradigm. The poor thing just looks beaten down, overwhelmed by the weight of convention.

  • Ducky

    Michael, I hope that Motus takes a look at your article. It might be too late for their first bike, but if they survive, they can definitely improve the “brand image” design and styling for the next generation.

  • http://rohorn.blogspot.com rohorn

    How many times have bikes (especially show concepts) been unveiled before production that look perfect, only to look like a steaming pile when they hit the showroom floor? Yamaha MT-01 or Suzuki B King anyone? This bike has the potential to do the opposite of that.

    I think the shock of this one comes from the lack of mouseclick gothic intended to distract from the fact that virtually all designers have run out of ideas and only have “different” to lean on. There are extemely few recent outlines or profiles that are beautiful. This bike might not be accepted as that by some/many/most, but I think it is a huge design step in the right direction.

    And now the unpopular part: I think that the motorcycle design world in Europe and Japan is creatively bankrupt. The only new designs I’ve seen in a LONG time that excite me (Mission R – which came from the same guy who did the Honda NAS, Czysz E1PC, EBR, and some others, even the Fido scooter) are coming from the USA.

    My $.02 on this bike: pull the entire fairing back 3-5″, adjust the lower half lines to fit the tank, and it will look perfect.

  • Brendan

    Missed a good opportunity for a pun when you didn’t write MOTUS operandi.

  • mikedard

    I’m really impressed with Michael Uhlarik, HFL, and articles like this! The reason… you understand why. I’m once again reminded to look into the mirror, understand who my hero’s are, and why.

    I just resubscribed.

    Thank You

  • Peter

    Well stated. First time I saw the bike all I could think was “Motus just made the most interesting engine in recent days, and all I see in their design is the tank line.”

    I hope they’ll restyle the bike to showcase the motor. It’s the centerpiece of their brand and should stand out as such.

  • DoctorNine

    I couldn’t disagree more.

    My estimation is that the design is perfect for its functional necessities, and I find its simplicity refreshing in a world dominated by overtly ‘design’ ornamented bikes like that monstrosity the Ducati ‘Diavel’.

    The test of a design is how well it is accepted by the people likely to buy it. And as such, it is much too early in the production cycle to ascertain how well it succeeds.

    I have been impressed by Motus’ direct approach to its engineering solutions, and its choice of design language, is just another example of where it succeeds in this regard.

    I intend to ride one as soon as I can, to see whether it fits my touring needs, since it is simply impossible to tell by pictures alone. But if awards were given out on the basis of how well a new motorcycle integrates its design and function, I would be inclined to give this one top honors. Its one of the best I’ve seen out of a new manufacturer, period.

  • http://www.firstgenerationmotors.blogspot.com Emmet

    personally I’d like to see more motor and frame, but the naked version answers that.

    I’d also like to see the headers follow a more exciting line instead of dropping straight down. They make it look too tame!


    I like it. To me, it doesn’t look like anything else out there. I think it’s going to be REAL important how they price it, which to me was a big EH problem. It’s just so hard to tell from pics, I look forward to seeing it in person some day.

  • Brook

    The Cadillac CTS-V is the ugliest production car in the world. The Motus looks OK. It’s actually kind of refreshing when compared to the robot-styled Japanese bikes. The Motus almost looks like it wants to be a Moto Guzzi. I would be very interested in seeing a naked version of this bike.

  • jonoabq

    I suspect, that the volume of thoughts considered, and words written about the like, dislike, or apathy about the Motus visual appeal is because it’s all we currently have to discuss about it. As design and function can not be entirely considered apart from each other I’ll hold off saying anything hypercritical until it gets test ridden a few times. Hopefully the bike will perform well enough, so that it will be around long enough for a few iterations and updates to what on the surface seems to be somewhat underwhelming.

  • Don

    Love the engine. Ditch the plastic.

  • jbennett111

    Motus is finally at the starting line and the feedback will help shape what we see as a true American motorcycle. Case is a top designer and crafted the crazy Confederate bikes, so the Motus is a big departure from that. Case also said in the vids that the Motus is a “clean slate”, so pull the plastic off if you don’t care for it and wrap it in something different. Hello aftermarket. One thing about the moto world is we love to do things to our bikes. The story of Motus is just beginning and Conn and Case will be riding it to your city, so go take a look and tell them what you think.

  • BuellDoc

    Could Motus have followed John Britten’s bold design and pleased Michael?

    • http://www.amarokconsultants.com michael uhlarik

      We all love the John Britten story, but that is not what I was talking about.

      Strong design does not have to mean weird, outrageous or otherwise.

  • jbennett111
  • Paul

    I don’t think the point being made was that it wasn’t pretty enough, but that it lacks any distinguishing feature that sets it apart and alllows others to recognize it as a Motus. In it’s current iteration, it is just a generic shape and headlight which is not memorable or a brand distinction. Ideally there should be one aesthetic whether it is headlight, tank or bodywork shape that links to the brand and allows anyone seeing the bike for the first time to associate that aesthetic with Motus. Currently it lacks this and is therefore not memorable in any way either good, bad or weird.

  • Scott-jay

    Nice train of thought there, Michael. Thank-you.
    Would proper Motus styling recall classic muscle-cars?

    (Design once shared top billing here.)

  • muckluck

    Looks like they took the headlight off of a KTM 1190RC8R or a Kawasaki Versys. No doubt they had to rush it, maybe when the production model will come out they will have a little more time to mold plastic in a more pleasing manner. That was just a running prototype right?

  • always_go_big

    Excellent design/business critique, definetly earned the subscription fee with this piece, keep up the execellent content !

    Unfortunately that still doesn’t solve Motus’ problem of being the proud owners of the styling love child of a 90′s GSX750 and an ST-3, damn shame.