NO SISSY BARS FOR THIS DESIGNER
With his long hair and lifelong obsession with motorcycles, Richard Seymour could be mistaken for a member of the Hell's Angels. Indeed, when the managing director of one of Germany's oldest motorcycle makers first laid eyes on the hefty 41-year-old, who was waiting outside his office, he slammed the door shut. "I thought he was a thug," explains the executive, Petr-Karel Korous. But Seymour, a partner in the top British design firm of Seymour Powell, doesn't mind his outlaw image. In fact, he seems to relish it. "I'm sort of the Antichrist of design," he jokes.
Still, Seymour's firm may turn out to be the German motorcycle company's savior. With the collapse of its Soviet-bloc markets, the former East German manufacturer, Motorrad-und Zweiradwerk (MuZ), took the unusual step of asking a design house to help relaunch the company. The strategy: To use a jazzy new motorcycle design as collateral for new financing while adding new panache to a stodgy communist image. In just 51/2 months, the team produced the Skorpion, a hot new bike that has captured the industry's imagination.
The tale of how Seymour, with partner Dick Powell, resurrected one of the once-great names in German motorcycling illustrates the pivotal role that design can play. "It has transformed MuZ from a backward Eastern European manufacturer into a company with new ideas," says Robert V. Trigg, head of European research and development for Yamaha Motor Co.
The story begins in 1989, shortly after the Berlin Wall came down. The Treuhandanstalt, the agency set up to privatize East German companies, had put MuZ in the hands of a marketing consultant named Wolfram Sauerbrey. MuZ's production methods were primitive by Western standards, but Sauerbrey saw value in the company's brand name. MuZ, founded in 1907, invented the first two-stroke engine and by 1931 had become the world's biggest motorcycle manufacturer. Even under the communists, MuZ kept up its race program, competing in Italy, West Germany, and Belgium. At its peak, the company produced 80,000 motorcycles a year, exporting to 100 countries.
Since 1945, most of its bikes have been sold in the Eastern bloc. But some went to Western markets to earn hard currency. The biggest importer was Britain, where MuZ motorcycles attained cult status. The two-cylinder bikes were durable and cheap--costing a third as much as Japanese models. By the early 1970s, the company was selling 10,000 a year in Britain. There are still 40,000 MuZ bikes zooming around the country, estimates Michael Jackson, MuZ's British importer. "It's like the VW beetle of the motorcycle world," he says. "Quirky styling with pretty good quality."
But the British fans weren't enough to compensate for MuZ's overall losses. In all of 1991, the company sold only 30,000 bikes, and German authorities announced plans to shut it down.
GAPING HOLE. At the suggestion of British importer Jackson, MuZ contacted Richard Seymour, the London-based designer best known for his styling of the hot Norton F1 motorcycle and his
firm's longtime relationship with Yamaha Motors Europe. Running out of time, MuZ asked Seymour to design a new bike that could compete in the West.
"I would have done it for nothing," admits Seymour, who occasionally races his 900cc cherry-red Ducati. "It was the most exciting motorcycle project to come up over the last 10 years." He was responsible for not only designing the bike but also identifying its potential market. The catch was that a working prototype had to be ready in time for Britain's biggest motorcycle show in December, 1992, less than six months away.
Meanwhile, MuZ got a new boss when Korous joined the firm at the Treuhandanstalt's request. A former finance director at computer-maker Siemens-Nixdorf, Korous soon decided to buy the company himself, snapping up 100% of its shares for upwards of $6 million. To save the company, Korous focused on negotiating with bankers and potential investors, leaving Seymour largely alone.
Working out of SP's offices in a converted Baptist chapel in London, the five-person design team roared off. The strategy was to create a simple, lightweight, single-cylinder motorbike, aiming at a gaping hole in the market. "The whole concept of the motorcycle has been hijacked by the Japanese, whose multicylinder, plastic-clad bikes celebrate mechanical complexity," Seymour argues. "The concept of a motorcycle as a simple vehicle has disappeared." Seymour figured that MuZ could challenge Japan's 94% headlock on the British motorcycle market.
The team quickly produced a dozen concept drawings and MuZ chose two: a 660cc Skorpion sport and a tamer roadster. Both used the same strikingly simple chassis--two drain-pipe-sized steel tubes running from handlebars to engine. Most innovative, the chassis would be super-glued together, using the technology that secures the wings on F-14 fighter jets. Gluing, rather than welding, would cut time and cost. So would simplifying assembly by slashing the number of parts by 30% and buying components from Italy and Japan.
The night before the big motorcycle show at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre, Seymour and team stayed up until 1 a.m. putting the finishing touches on the Skorpion. When the show opened, the paint was still wet, but the Skorpion created a mighty stir. "The idea that a new MuZ could be the star of a major international motorcycle show in the 1990s might seem as unlikely as a Trabant outshining a Ferrari, but by common consensus, the improbable became reality," noted Alan Cathcart, a well-known British motorcycle racer and design reviewer.
The Skorpion quickly picked up a couple of European design awards. With its tail flipped up in the air and its headlights resembling two giant eyes, it has a certain animal grace. Saskia Partington, a senior curator at London's Design Museum, quickly mounted an exhibition on the Skorpion.
The flurry of excitement helped Korous nail down financing to actually move the new models into production. A few months after the show, the 37-year-old German had a crucial meeting at which he convinced bankers to loan MuZ the money. "The financing was secured on the back of the bike's design," says Partington. Once the banks agreed to back the venture, the German government came up with a $19 million loan guarantee. In both case, the crucial factor was Seymour's work. "The design was important for the banks," adds Jurg Geiger, chief of staff for Saxony's Economics & Employment minister. It also helped that Saxony's Prime Minister, Kurt Biedenkopf, had visited MuZ's factory, a big employer in Zschopau, located near Dresden.
For all its flair, Seymour's design isn't going to make it to dealer showrooms unchanged. MuZ's engineers vetoed the gluing technology, opting instead for more traditional welding techniques. With time and money in short supply, they decided it was too risky to use a new technology. A Yamaha engine is being used to power the Skorpion, as well as a number of other Yamaha parts--a fact that MuZ's marketers, anxious to position the Skorpion as a German-made motorbike--aren't hyping.
LATE TO MARKET. On Apr. 18, the MuZ factory shipped off the first 50-bike order of Skorpions to a German dealer. MuZ has already gotten more than 1,000 back orders for the bike, according to one source at the factory. Seymour says the number is closer to 2,500.
The Skorpion design alone can't save MuZ, however. The company's first delivery was three months late. The Skorpion costs a hefty $6,660, not significantly lower than its competitors. Traditionally MuZ was known for its low prices. And it won't be available in the U.S. anytime soon because it doesn't meet noise and emission standards.
But MuZ is clearly in a far stronger position than it was two years ago. Not only does it have a viable product for most world markets but it has also been able to attract capital and management on the strength of the Skorpion's design. The Seymour team is already working on future designs for MuZ, including a new street bike using the Skorpion chassis. But the real test will come in the showroom, where paying customers will decide the value of the Skorpion design.Julia Flynn in London, with Deborah Wise in Berlin