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Can Great Motorcycles Be Designed By Committee?

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One reason for the rise in popularity of “garage built” motorcycles may be the nature of the creative process itself. It is generally accepted that the most creative ideas arise from a single human brain. In fact, the best incubator is the human brain after first waking from sleep.

Large corporations, for the most part, reach the final design of a production motorcycle “by committee”. In other words, by infusing the machine with the thoughts and concerns of many different individuals and corporate departments. Sometimes this works, and sometimes this doesn’t, but it can be argued that it rarely results in anything “inspired”.

One of the greatest single motorcycles ever designed and built was purely the product of one man, John Britten. Honda’s most iconic models, in the opinion of many, came at a time when the motorcycle division was guided by the principles of Soichiro Honda.

The problem with corporate committees can be the dilution of an inspirational concept, and the “tacking on” of disparate ideas and concerns — leading to a less organic whole. Some might say a product that lacks “soul”.

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Of course, not all ideas springing from the mind of an individual have merit or inspire others. There are plenty of garage-built bikes that inspire nothing more than disgust, or worse.  They look, and perhaps perform, like crap.

Steve Jobs (please refrain from an Apple vs. Android vs. Windows fanboy war in our comments section) bucked several corporate trends when it came to designing new products. He eschewed customer surveys, for instance,  which are arguably just another form of committeeism when it comes to design ideas or evolution. As a result, many of Apple’s products broke new ground and offered something existing customers “didn’t know they wanted.”

Perhaps this is one of the fundamental problems facing manufacturers as they grow larger and more bureaucratic … and the reason they can be beaten to the punch by inspired entrepreneurs (Elon Musk comes to mind).

 


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47 Comments

  1. Provologna says:

    Elon Musk’s ideas “inspired?” I am sure some or most of his ideas are inspired, less sure about all of them.

    Re. SpaceX’s marketing plan that billionaires like SpaceX CEO Musk should part with hundreds of thousands dollars (or more) to enjoy the wonders (and bragging rights of course) associated with leisure time space travel.

    From the start of Musk’s marketing push, MSM happily participated in Musk’s farce, giving Musk millions of dollars of free advertising. You could not partake of any MSM source without hearing about the soon-coming joys of leisure time space travel coming soon to a rocket launch pad near your favorite major city.

    Then two or three crashes later, killing at least one pilot…Hey! What’s with this refund check in the mail for my space flight deposit? I bought new clothes for my flight! Why the sudden MSM blackout on SpaceX activities?

    Can you imagine the “crash” (no pun intended) in SpaceX stock if/when the first 55-70 year old civilian dies in a rocket crash with flames and crater larger than a small city? Video repeated non-stop for about six months everywhere you look?

    Not saying leisure time space travel shall never happen. Just saying it’s a bit farther off than Musk and the MSM sycophants advertised circa 2011.

    Musk invented Paypal, which charges 3% for purchase transaction. I saw a lecture where an award winning PhD./financial educator said the out of pocket cost for such transaction to a bank is about 1/4%. I recently started a Dwolla account, because they charge zero (but domestic US only, no international ala Paypal).

    I suspect Musk’s greatest and most inspired work may be in marketing.

    • Dave says:

      Elon Musk’s reusable spacecraft have flown freight missions to the ISS, luxury space tourism was never the priority.

      His car company has delivered 100k electric cars and is projected to deliver another 75k in 2016, before releasing a electric car that claims a 200+ mile range @ <$40k, *without a dealer network*.

      PayPal charges because they can. They've become a global standard for small/personal fund transfer (and he sold it years ago).

      He is well on the way to changing the energy management landscape (giga factory).

      He under 50 years old. i'm betting the guy is going to go to be a very important figure in recorded human history.

      Marketing? You're thinking about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates..

    • GeneB says:

      I’m not sure it’s fair to blame all the crashes in the US private space industry on Elon since he only lost 1 unmanned vehicle. Orbital Sciences lost one and Scaled Composites (better known by their sponsor, Virgin Galactic) lost one and suffered the death of a test pilot.

      Space tourism aside, Elon Musk and Jeff Bazos (Amazon founder) can be considered inspired by building rocket companies to compete against the likes of Lockheed and Boeing to show it can be done faster, cheaper and reusable for getting people and supplied to the space station and getting satellites into orbit.

  2. SVGeezer says:

    “(please refrain from an Apple vs. Android vs. Windows fanboy war in our comments section)”

    Wait! There are Windows FANBOYS?? (after Windows 8??)

    It’s kinda off topic, but it has put me in a disoriented state. (now excuse me as I try to stop MS from updating Windows 7 to Windows 10)

    Oh, and many bikes I really like are standard Corporate output. (Does a Daytona 675 count? I think it does)

  3. Mick says:

    I think that a committee of the right people can make a good motorcycle. Unfortunately, today the committees making the street bikes seem to be comprised mostly of people who have no passion for them. They seem to be making products. Not motorcycles.

    Everything is seems to be a bandwagon bike. Some bike sells well because it has an ugly front end and bang! Every new bike suddenly enters the ugly front end competition. Thank goodness that trend it wearing off. Now it’s scramblers that are too fragile to use off road. Or dirt bike looking things that weigh as much as touring bikes.

    Products.

  4. Motorhead says:

    The solo designer is a beautiful thing. But then engineering and financial people must enter the equation. “Does it actually work?” is the engineer’s question. “Can we make a profit?” is the financial guy’s concern. Eric Buell designed wonderful bikes, but then engineers and finance had to step in and make it both manufacturable and profitable, and mess it up. Britten may have hit the same issue, had he survived to make thousands of copies.

  5. Norm G. says:

    Q: Can Great Motorcycles Be Designed By Committee?

    A: not so much. however, they can certainly be “manufactured” by committee but that’s about it.

    “We have no time to discuss this in committee…” ~ Han Solo

  6. wjf says:

    most bikes now don’t differ much from mnf to mnf with the exception of color.
    Look at 250 four stroke dirt bikes, and 450s, and 600cc sport bikes…
    if company X showed up with a radical design that worked, would you buy it?

  7. Duc Dynasty says:

    Nope.

  8. Tim says:

    I believe styling by committee is probably a bad idea, in general. A good stylist may not be a good engineer, and vice versa. There is no way the MV Agusta’s designed by Massimo Tamburini would have been nearly as gorgeous if designed by committee. If you have someone with the talent of Tamburini, you give them a green light and let them do their thing. On the other hand, engineering by committee, or team, is probably a good thing given the complexity of engines, suspension, etc. I can see where there is value in brainstorming the mechanical parts.

    • TimC says:

      VISUAL design/styling vs. overall vehicle design is a good distinction to note. I’d be interested in how many vehicles are STYLED by only one person. I would argue the truly great ones probably are? Or I’d at least like to hope so!

      The original 911 is an interesting potential counter-example – there’s not-entirely-baseless controversy around whether Butzi Porsche really styled it on his own.

  9. TimC says:

    As much as I think it’s great when one person has a vision, and Britten (both man and bike) were/are fantastic, I have to concur that it’s not really a realistic proposition that modern, usable, ROAD (or off-road – i.e, not one-off racing machines) bikes are really able to NOT be designed “by committee.” There’s too much specialization etc. It’s possible that the MOTUS comes close (ride reports are rare, CityBike got their hands on one a couple issues ago).

    Another way of putting it: Look how many fantastic bikes there are right now. BMW is basically doing exciting stuff, KTM possibly even more so (almost to a fault?!). As others mentioned, the R1. The Africa Twin is starting to get good reports and I can’t imagine a bike that’s probably been through more committees to get it “just right” than that….

    • Norm G. says:

      re: “BMW is basically doing exciting stuff”

      and whoever thought the words “BMW” and “exciting” would be used in the same sentence…?

      • mickey says:

        New world eh Norm? In another 15 or 20 years there will be motorcyclists riding hopped up Beemers that will have no clue that BMW was once the most understated, stoic, mundane motorcycle company around for 60 years. Kind of like the Buick of motorcycles.

  10. Jeremy in TX says:

    Committees may not match inspired individuals when it comes to producing something beautiful, but the result is usually something significantly more rideable, reliable and affordable. I’ll choose that over “inspired” ten times out of ten.

  11. bmbktmracer says:

    I think great things can be designed and built when the leader of the project is talented, smart, and passionate. Great leaders are also humble and know that their big ideas can be honed and perfected by specialists.

  12. David M says:

    My take is that far too many great designs get dumbed down & watered down by management to appeal to the widest possible audience. This may be a bad example on a motorcycle site, but do you recall when Chevrolet introduced the Volt ? Somewhat sexy for a Chevy. By the time it went into production, it was another plain vanilla Chevrolet. That’s the world we live in. The alternative is, in many cases, to attract a smaller segment of the market and lose the economies of scale in manufacturing. That usually makes them unaffordable. It’s a tough balance and a big gamble but an easy call when you’re rolling the dice with someone else’s money.

    • Dave says:

      Volt may be a better example of a concept that was designed without the constraints of the DOT’s of the world. Add a bumper here, a hood height requirement there, the realities of mass production, and your design no longer looks the same.

      The problem is business. An individual can design a great motorcycle, but of that motorcycle doesn’t already appeal to a large number of people, and it’s not made to, then it will never likely see production. Without the promise of sales, there’s no compelling reason to produce (for a manufacturer).

  13. Jlewis50 says:

    Very few special motorcycles are made but committee. I think design is a spiritual deal that takes ones vision and boldness to change the parameters or current product design.
    Each manufacturer has persons that exist in their organizations that exhibit this boldness. The issue is many corporations need a “value” offering that doesn’t take risks. Risks can be great or a dismal failures. I think of the Gt Yamahas with the Dr Parker front suspension. Very innovative but didn’t sell.

    • bikerrandy says:

      I remember the GT1000 Yamahas w/the Dr. Parker front suspension. Back then Elf GP bikes had a single sided front suspension and it was interesting. Maybe that’s where Yamaha thought the public was ready for a similar street bike with it. Problem was the GT1000 front end looked really heavy and kind of took over the look of the whole bike! A GT bike with chain drive wasn’t cool either. Might have been a nice bike, but not many customers bit.

      • Joe says:

        As I recall, Parker was very disappointed with the way Yamaha engineers changed his concept. He never envisioned a sport tourer but rather a pure sportbike.
        The “committee” completely changed it

  14. azi says:

    Replace the word “committee” with “team”, which would go someway in explaining successes. The GSXR750 is another example of a great motorcycle created through teamwork.

    I don’t think it’s individual versus group design – more likely it’s good versus bad design culture.

  15. Starmag says:

    Watch this. it’s worth it;
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5INXKcgZoA

    For me most one off “custom” bikes are hideous,but John proves the exception. Mad genius who apparently drove himself and his helpers like dogs. One bike with so many radical concepts all at the same time built in his garage.

    You can thank Honda san for your now leak free and reliable motorcycles and cars.

    Good to see some else remembers Irimajiri san who might be the closest to Mr. Britten in the corporate world. It would surprise me if Mr. Buell wasn’t a fan of all three.

  16. teamkitty says:

    Watched this a few years back. Incredible man. Incredible machine. Incredible story. Check it out. http://www.nzonscreen.com/title/britten-backyard-visionary-1993

  17. pearsonm says:

    Know what a camel is?

    It’s a horse, designed by a committee.

  18. Tank says:

    I don’t care who designs the motorcycle, just make it affordable.

  19. MGNorge says:

    “Can Great Motorcycles Be Designed By Committee?” I’d say yes they can but obviously aren’t cited for the individualism that might come from a single visionary. I recall one Mr. Shoichiro Irimajiri, a senior engineer with Honda some thought would take the helm after Mr. Honda stepped down. He is credited with inspiration of the NR “oval” piston bikes, the CX series of V-twins, the 6-cylinder CBX and the RC166 GP engine. From there they went into typical Japanese committee. All acclaimed for what they were reaching various success in their missions. I consider his vision as being a powerful force at that time within Honda.

  20. pacer says:

    There are many competent yet beautiful motorcycles in this world. Most are the product of a committee. Do you think the new Thruxton is garage built, or maybe the YZR-M1? Passion for the end result is the ingredient that is sometimes forgotten, not how many minds work on it.

  21. Curly says:

    I see many “Garage Built” efforts that are failures as bikes because they try so hard to be art that they are useless. On the other side I can name many models built by corporate committee that are great examples of what a team of talented engineers can do when given a difficult goal and the resources to attain it. Example in point, the Yamaha R6, a bike so good that it is still a dominant track weapon after nine model years with only detail changes.

    Oh, nice try Mr. Negative, we aren’t taking the bait.

  22. Honyock says:

    The design and construction of a motorcycle requires a wide variety of talents and skills. While Britten may have been able to build the whole thing himself, much of the actual work was done by associates who followed his design and construction plans faithfully. It is not difficult to assume that Britten chose these team members precisely because he believed that they could accomplish the work more quickly than he could himself. Thus the quality of the product reflects the quality of the team, which reflects the quality of the leader who chose the members. Some leaders can get away with Management by Tantrum techniques, but it is only the leader who can channel the differences of the specialist members of the team into a fruitful resolution of creative tension who will build synergy rather than the least common denominator.

  23. Mr. Negative says:

    I’m sorry, but that Britten could only be described as hideous.

    • Jdilpkle says:

      I’m going to assume you are being facetious.

    • Dino says:

      Don’t judge that book by its cover… I can’t remember all the details of engineering that he did with this bike, but there were many differences in the way this bike worked that set it apart from full factory efforts, and his several bikes always ran up front with their various riders..

      One detail you can see in the photo… The rear shock is positioned in front of the engine. It centralised mass, and kept the shock from cooking its oil by the heat of the engine. no other race bikes were doing that I think. Some Harleys have the shock under the engine, but that is for other reasons (ride height, aesthetics, etc..)

    • Scott says:

      Other than the “period-correct” neon pink and blue paint, the Britten is a piece of mechanical art.

      • TimC says:

        Including the “period-correct” neon pink and blue paint, the Britten is a piece of mechanical art.

    • HS1-RD-CX100-VFR says:

      Put down the fortifide wine and move away from your keyboard.

      The Britten is rightly considered by most enthusiasts to be one of the greatest motorycles in history.

      You must think that:
      the Chrysler Building is a shack
      Bryce Canyon at sunset pales in comparison to Rugby, North Dakota at mid-afternoon
      Texas BBQ Brisket sucks against Burger King
      Stevie Ray Vaughn is no Richard Carpenter

    • Magnus says:

      How can a bike that pulls wheelies beside a race Ducati at full speed be considered hideous? Unless you’re the rider on said Ducati…that would be horrific. Yes, the Britten IS hideous😏

  24. peter h says:

    The idea that creativity springs from one human brain is anomalous and not the rule. This idea is based on cultural myths and ideology. In truth it is more of a “we stand on the shoulders of giants” type of thing – a cooperative thing. Creatures like Mozart, Tesla, or Einstein are rare: the exception, not the rule.

    Even the bike you picture was a group venture – certainly directed by one man’s initial vision but designed and fabricated by a small group of like minded people. They weren’t there just to torque nuts.

    The Jobs allusion is equally not true. Though the cult of Jobs was carefully constructed, he was mainly a marketer, and very good one. The ideas behind Apple were drawn from Xerox and Amiga – the engineering was done by a group of people most notably Wozniak. It was a confluence of thought and available tech that made Apple possible.

    Another example of confluence is the movie film projector: It was simultaneously created in France, America, and England. In itself,it was a confluence of existing tech leveraged to handle a new demand.

    The problem is not that groups of people will always design a mediocrity (how many great bikes have been created by corporations?) it is when priorities get pulled in too many directions.

    • xLaYN says:

      Bravo!!! +1, nice perspective!

    • Chip Harding says:

      The Apple II was Wozniak’s (and it was really something special, engineering-wise), but Wozniak was out of Apple very early on. It’s pretty fair to say that machine was a unique product of a lone genius. Just not Jobs.

      The product development process Jobs presided over in the last decade of his life was interesting, and produced some really special stuff, but it was decidedly a team effort. Jobs wasn’t originating ideas so much as hiring brilliant people and rejecting a lot of what they came up with. I do software UI design, and believe me, the iPod and the iPhone were something special, as finished products. I don’t care who did a touch screen first; that’s like saying “Dark Side of the Moon” is nothing special because those guys didn’t invent the diatonic scale. Or Rossi’s nothing special because any idiot can buy a motorcycle.

      I’m not an Apple fanboy; I hate the MacOS (though I love GarageBand) and Windows programming pays my bills. But I know good work when I see it.

  25. Bob says:

    The Britten was prototypical, in the sense that it was “one-off” built by a tremendously talented engineer for racing in a specific class. Garage built bikes are prototypical as well, being built to satisfy the criteria of the builder. Sometimes they move us, sometimes not. Bikes built for company profit take ideas from their instigators and are refined by committee, engineering and accounting. They are built to appeal to many potential buyers and thus they appear to be less “inspired” to any particular one of them. Design by committee often results in tremendously consistent and refined products. What comes to mind is the original CBX, which was a beautiful execution of an idea, surely with the input of many designers to develop its final form. My opinion on the original question, therefore, is “yes”.

    • bikerrandy says:

      I hope Honda never expected to sell many CBXs, for they were not practical at all. All show and that’s about it. They weren’t much faster than the inline 4s of the time, got terrible gas mileage, and hope you never lay 1 down what with the outside cylinders sticking out! Doubt a committee designed it.

      • Provologna says:

        I rode with a friend who owned several CBX, and I had the great privilege or riding them. At the time I owned a couple Suzuki GS1000S.

        One of my friend’s CBX was OEM black ’79, with ’78 cams (79 were softer for emissions), Honda Sport Kit, Denco 6-1 header, jet kit professionally installed by a full time pro race mechanic, pro metal bearing swing arm bushings replaced the horrible nylon/plastic, S&W shocks, fork redone, etc, etc.

        There are two groups of motorcyclists in the world. Those who rode a CBX like the one described above, and those who would prefer ANY I-4 of that era (for street bike use).

        Blipping the throttle on that bike at a stop light was a few mm short of orgasmic.