If there’s one thing the motorcycling community is full of it’s opinions. Ask 10 people what they think is the best tire and you’ll get 10 different answers. Same goes for oil, exhaust pipes, and heck, motorcycles themselves. Despite this, I think we can all agree: starting your own motorcycle company is not a great idea. Thankfully, Markus Kramer never got that memo. Well, he did, he just didn’t care – and, to me, the world is better off for it.
Last week, I told the story of how I got to be the fortunate soul to take the Kramer Motorcycles GP2 Prototype on its maiden voyage around the spectacular Barber Motorsports Park. It was a real treat on my riding resume, and it all came about because I wouldn’t stop pestering Kramer’s US importer, Joe Karvonen – the subject of my last Trizzle’s Take column – on social media. The icing on the cake was having Markus Kramer himself come to Barber to be a part of the maiden ride in person. After riding his motorcycles and meeting him in person, his was a story that had to be told.
For someone who now has his own motorcycle company, it’s amazing to think two wheels weren’t a part of Kramer’s life growing up in Northern Germany. Instead of motorbikes and racing – one of the most expensive sports to get into – Kramer’s world was filled with soccer, where all you need is a ball, some sticks to make goals, and enough space to run around.
Everything changed during Markus’ teenage years. At age 15, Kramer was introduced to two wheels, in the form of the Hercules MX1 moped (look it up). With looks and style not at all befitting to a name like Hercules, the little 50cc moped might have been slow (tiered licensing meant 15 year olds are capped at 25 kph/15 mph anyway), but none of that mattered because Markus formed a “moped gang” with his brother and their friend, and would buzz all around their town. “Then we were addicted,” he said, and motorcycles were to be a part of his life from then on.
Like many of us (MO staff not included), hobbies eventually tend to give way to real life, and Markus landed himself an apprenticeship as an industrial mechanic building gearboxes for container ships. After the apprenticeship, university came calling again and soon Markus added a master’s degree in mechanical engineering to his resume, getting to and from class aboard the original KTM Duke. Being a poor student, “my mother offered to buy me a car and pay for the insurance,” Kramer says. “I still bought the KTM instead.” Little did he know at the time how much of an impact KTM would have on his professional life…
With his master’s degree out of the way, Kramer packed his bags and moved to Canada – without knowing a word of English. “I knew my opportunities would be limited if I only knew German,” he says. Still, he got himself a job at Ontario Drive and Gear, making amphibious vehicles. “The first six months were really hard, but eventually my English was okay.” The job actually wasn’t too bad, he says, and he was starting to like Canada, giving serious thought to putting down roots there. Then a job at KTM came calling, and he couldn’t resist.
Slightly unexpected, Markus packed his things again and went back home – well, to Mattighofen anyway – to start his career at KTM. The year was 2007, and he now had a nice job as a CAD engineer in the Power Parts department. Not a bad gig considering the impending economic downturn that soon awaited. Until now, Kramer had been a supermoto guy all the way, due in part to the Duke he terrorized the town with. “Sportbikes were the enemy,” he says. “Full fairings make the rider invisible!”
His world was about to get flipped upside down when, during his first year at KTM, he was brought to a trackday at the Salzburgring, where he rode a 990 Superduke. “I was hooked after that,” he says. “By the time I got home that night I was looking for cheap Japanese sportbikes to go to the track with. I was becoming the enemy!”
The whirlwind took over Markus instantly. The following year, 2008, KTM released the RC8 fully faired sportbike and Markus took it club racing straight away. He admits, “I was stupid and thought a literbike was the perfect bike to start racing with. I looked in the mirror and said to myself, ‘this is too much bike for me. It’s too much stress.’ I didn’t really enjoy it.” In his heart of hearts, single cylinders like the 690 Duke were always his love. That’s when he got the idea – why not put a 690 Duke engine into an RC8 frame? Thus formed the early beginnings of Kramer Motorcycles.
Being a single guy sharing a house with other KTM engineers, Markus devised a plan to get his co-workers to help him out after hours. “We were at a party at the end of the 2008 season, and I waited until they were all drunk to tell them I wanted to build my own supermono and that they were going to help me.” Maybe it was the alcohol talking, but they all agreed. As Markus explained, Mattighofen, where KTM is based, is out in the countryside. There wasn’t much else to do after work, none of them had girlfriends at the time, and KTM itself was much smaller than it is today. “We literally had KTM know-how at our side. Everybody was happy to lend their support.”
The EVO1, as it was to be called, was a 690 Duke frame with RC8 headstock. Markus got his hands on 690 engines used for durability testing that were destined for the crusher and then made his own subframe and fuel tank for the bike. Markus and his friends even developed their own engine map because EFI was relatively new. In fact, the first year of the project (2009) they converted the engine back to carburetors to make things easier. As Markus explains, “Almost everything broke or cracked or fell off because of vibration. We’d get about two hours of riding, then spend the rest of the day putting it back together.” Of course with time things got better year after year, to the point the bike was eventually good and reliable. As the ultimate proof of concept, they raced the EVO1 in the local club level Supermono championship and took second. A wildcard appearance in the European championship netted an eighth place finish. Then the wheels started turning in Kramer’s head, and thoughts of doing this full time took over.
Of course, starting your own motorcycle company is crazy. Just look at Erik Buell or Michael Czysz, or Alta, or Motus. All of them had great ideas. All of them eventually folded (with the exception of EBR, kinda…). Meanwhile, Kramer was doing well for himself at KTM, getting promoted to R&D Group Leader of the Power Parts department. But still, his itch had to be scratched, and by mid-2013, he made the decision to leave KTM and branch out on his own.
Leaving a job isn’t new, of course. But of all things to do, who in their right mind leaves a good job at KTM to start his own motorcycle company? As Markus explains, “I’ve always had the inner drive that wanted to be an entrepreneur. My hobby was taking more of my time and was a growing thing. We developed the bike further and further, and I’m a big believer in lightweight racing bikes for the starting racer. After three years, we got the EVO1 to a stage where we couldn’t make big steps in development. I already had the EVO2 concept in my head and how it should be, but at that point, I knew I couldn’t do it as a hobby. I took a year to think about it with my new wife, friends and family.”
Ultimately, Markus realized “It’s a crazy big risk, but in the end, you only have one life. I knew if I didn’t do it I’d regret it. I had to try it. I might fail, but I have to try.” The next step was getting the cooperation with KTM because obviously, “without engines, I can’t do it.” It was a pretty ballsy move to get in front of the KTM board and to tell them he was leaving their company and wanted to use their engines. “I was expecting they would say they weren’t interested in a niche market like this,” Kramer admits. “But I talked with the CFO of KTM, Hubert Trunkenpoltz [the T in KTM]. He’s big into racing, and he said he would support me as much as possible,” agreeing to sell Kramer engines – making Kramer Motorcycles the only company in the world with direct cooperation with KTM. Markus laughs, “When Trunkenpoltz gave the thumbs up, I said ‘f*ck, I have to do it now!’”
Thus, the EVO2 was born. Much like with the EVO1, the EVO2 would use the latest 690 Duke Single – a new one this time, not a test mule – as the heart of the motorcycle. An entirely bespoke frame, not a 690/RC8 mashup, would then wrap around it. Markus leaned on his industry friends to help in their off-time with several aspects of design. Having made connections while at KTM with a large supplier network, they then helped produce the components. The fairings, for example, were made from a 1:1 3D print that was then used as a mold. Roto Industries produced (and still produces) the combination subrame, rider seat, and fuel tank. WP provides the suspension, Dymag the forged wheels on the up-spec R model (stock cast wheels from the 690 Duke are used on the lower end S model), and Brembo helps with the brakes.
As an example of an area Kramer knew the EVO2 could be improved over the EVO1, Markus explained how his design of the shock mount position alone saved 3.5kg of material between the EVO1 and EVO2. As a byproduct, it also became simpler, easier, and faster to work on. Since the EVO2 was destined for the track, crash resistance was also important. Kramer designed footpegs that are interchangeable left and right, so race damage doesn’t matter as much and are easier to replace if you happen to find a spare peg in your parts bin.
Engine-wise, the EVO2 was basically starting over again. Leaning on his network some more, he turned to KamaTec to help with tuning. The owner is friend and also a previous KTM guy. By May2014, the first EVO2 R&D bike hit the track, literally, at Oschersleben. Test rider Lukas Wimmer crashed it at the very first turn! “I didn’t think it would happen that soon!” Kramer laughs. Jokes aside, the new bike showed promise, and the very next month Kramer and Wimmer entered the EVO2 in the Supermono championship at Snetterton, which ran alongside the British Superbike series. The result? First place.
The EVO2 and its development quickly gained momentum. In the second European Supermono season they won every race. In 2016, their third season, they were second place. Then in 2017 they won again. Looking for another challenge, they raced the 2018 British Supertwins series and won again!
Of course, having a portfolio with one model in it doesn’t make for much of a motorcycle company. This is where the GP2 comes in. “I knew about the 790 Twin in 2015,” admits Kramer. “I wanted to build a bike around it, but I was busy developing the EVO2, and KTM was busy developing the final production version of the engine.” Now that it’s here, there’s a clear sparkle in Kramer’s eye when talking about it with him – a new project, early in its development – that excites him much like the EVO2 did at this stage. Being the racer at heart, Kramer has big plans for the GP2, but it’s much too early to know what they are, though he did let slip that testing of big bore versions of the 790 engine is on his to-do list.
If you’ve gotten this far you might have noticed Kramer Motorcycles are a niche bike to the extreme. A track-only motorcycle in a time when sportbike sales are tanking? Surely a street-legal model is on the horizon, right? “Never say never,” Kramer admits, “but building a street-legal motorcycle requires more than some lights, a license plate holder and a side stand on the race bike.” Besides the regulatory hoops Kramer would have to jump through (and there are several), there’s also another consideration to think about: KTM. “First, I would need their blessing, because I don’t want to build a bike that could potentially compete with theirs.”
Ultimately, he’d like to have four steps on the racing ladder: the EVO2, GP2, a Superbike, and an entry level model, making for a complete range. Then, if demand is high enough, maybe a possible road-legal model could pop up. For now though, Kramer is focused on his racing machines.