"Your usual table, Signor, and the lovely lady at the corner table has sent this bottle with her compliments." Ah, "la dolce vita," you think to yourself. Looking back for a moment you lovingly eye your... Kawasaki? The mental phonograph needle just skipped clean off the Caruso record! Damn, and just when things were getting really interesting.
Now don't get us wrong, we like Kawasakis. But unlike our opening trio of Italian supermodels, a search for high style among the Japanese Big Four will leave you hard pressed to find unique, inspired design. For example, the Suzuki GSX-R750 recently established solid leadership in sportbike value and performance, but it didn't exactly make its way to the top with irresistible beauty. Sorry GSX-R owners, but we think most people would agree that the Gixxer's visual design is no competition for the suave Ducati 916. Why is that? Maybe because the Suzuki is so much cheaper?
Not so, according to industrial designer Andrew Serbinski, founder and Principal of MachineArt Industrial Design of Hoboken, NJ. An avid motorcyclist since 1969 with 20 years of experience with Japanese industrial design, Serbinski showed us that the vision of a good designer can transform the ordinary into the astounding, appliance into coveted object, and yes, even a generic Japanese sport tourer into a kinetic work of art. All while still allowing it to sell at a reasonable price.
As proof he created the MachineArt MK9, a completely road worthy and street-legal concept bike that demonstrates what Kawasaki's competent but uninspiring GPz1100 could have been. Intrigued, we arranged to meet up with Serbinski at his home in rural New Jersey to talk about the current state of affairs in motorcycle design, and to get the first test-ride of his latest creation.
It's obvious that Serbinski is frustrated with the status quo from Japan. "Motorcycles that have lots of personality," claims Serbinski, "like Ducatis, were the vision of one or a few people rather than a committee -- which is how the Japanese ones are (typically) designed. When the Japanese do a new product, they gather competitive product pictures together and put them in a kind of a matrix of styles to evaluate. The problem is they're using existing products to capture visual information, and if they're designing something new they shouldn't base it solely on what exists now because it's already old stuff. They should be challenging existing norms and thinking of other ways to interpret what the design ought to be. (Instead) they're all watching each other very closely."
If you're wondering when the MK9 might hit your local showroom, the answer may be 'never.'
Serbinski took matters into his own hands when he created the MK9. "I just wanted to prove how you can take a rudimentary Japanese chassis and completely transform it into something exotic, simply through design," he said. "They failed (with the GPz1100) in my opinion because it's simply too orthodox." Quantitative facts seem to back Serbinski up here -- the GPz1100 flopped in sales rooms across America. Meanwhile, Serbinski's MK9 recently took top award honors in the concept vehicle category from the Industrial Design Society of America. Not bad for a first try.
Of course, it's one thing to promise such a transformation, but quite another to actually deliver a bike that can outclass the best results of a Japanese design team. But when Serbinski rolled the MK9 out into the clear light of afternoon, all hype became reality. I wanted it immediately!
Your eye is drawn by unbroken lines and flowing surfaces. Body panels use hidden fasteners for a clean appearance, with the large side panels and top cap being one-piece moldings that are removable with just four bolts each. Projector beam headlights tuck below an opaque windscreen reminiscent of a Ducati Paso while the rounded tail neatly houses brake and turn signals within the line separating top and bottom of the rear fairing.
Finally it was our chance to discover first-hand what it's like to ride the MK9, which up to this point had never been pried from the designer's loving hands. Your first impression is that the MK9 feels fat in the waist, splitting your legs apart like a wishbone. Combined with a wider-than-normal turning radius, this can turn low speed maneuvering into a chore. But once underway the impression of width is completely replaced by a sense of comfort, with lots of room to move around.
Instruments are nicely framed by high-tech looking, metal mesh grillwork that replaces the usual black plastic. Low-placed warning lights are hidden by an aluminum cover on the triple clamp. Mirrors are located on the same plane as the instrument panel for faster scanning with housings that incorporate the front turn signals. Unfortunately, in their prototype form they reflect back a severely distorted view of the world behind you. Other than these minor glitches, the MK9's relaxed riding position and practical, modern packaging make it suitable for production with little additional development.
I was pleased to find that the body was good for more than just first-class posing, being surprisingly effective at directing wind around the rider despite the short, rakish windscreen. We cruised on backroads at speeds up to 70 mph with little more than a breeze reaching the cockpit. With no wind tunnel testing in the picture, Serbinski admitted that he simply designed it to look good and got lucky with the aerodynamics.
If you're wondering when the MK9 might hit your local showroom, the answer may be 'never.' Executives from motorcycle companies have thus far expressed polite disinterest in MachineArt's offer despite the fact that Serbinski is confident his MK9 could be brought to market for under $10,000. In fact the latest spy photos from Japan suggest that big K's internal direction is to take the successor to the GPz1100 stylistically back to the 1970's.
That's a shame really, because we think an excellent case can be made that motorcycle design can move smartly into the future without losing its traditional appeal. As you read this, Serbinski and company are considering alternatives for bringing the MK9 style to the marketplace. And new plans are underway for the next MachineArt concept bike, this time to be based on a twin-spar frame design. Stay tuned.
MACHINEART Industrial Design 66 Willow Avenue Hoboken, NJ 07030 201 714-9846 201 714-9849 fax