Why the Motus MST-01 needs design strength

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Category: Dailies

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.

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