The "World's Ugliest Bike" Award
Tim was in his element. "Have you seen what they've written about the TDM?" he quipped down the phone, his words punctuated by the usual gratuitous expletives. Having worked with Yamaha on the TDM project from day one, I had of course read the article and said so, but Tim, a friend since our schooldays, was determined to continue . "It says here that it is", he cleared his throat for effect, "without doubt the ugliest bike in the world!". I repeated solemnly that I was familiar with the article's content, but wasn't obliged to agree with the journalist's opinion. "The world's ugliest bike" he repeated, letting the full meaning of the words sink in, "and you designed it!". That fact seemed to give him a certain pride.
The argument that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is a phrase I'm told regularly, usually as a defence for something hideously ugly. Style is subjective, they expand, and therefore can't be generalized. Whereas that may be true on an individual level, over a wider audience there will be a tendency for opinion to agree on aesthetic rights and wrongs. For example, there's probably someone out there who finds Madelene Albright attractive. Such a preference doesn't necessarily make him wrong, although most people would consider him in need of a psychiatrist, or at least an optician. Change the subject to Julia Roberts, and you're more likely to get a positive concensus - nature has, after all, laid down the ground rules for our perception of beauty. The strength of that consensus can be measured, and more importantly for the consumer product industry, predicted, so en-masse, style is objective. If not, designers would be redundant, as would beauty queens.
A variety of industrial design awards exist to honour products of outstanding merit, but there is nothing purely devoted to motorcycle styling. Such an accolade is overdue, and could become an annual event. It should not be allowed to get political though, so to avoid taking it all too seriously there could be further categories, such as an annual plagiarism award for the most blatant case of copying. But best of all, how about a prize for the worst bike design? Now, that would be fun.
There have been so many delightfully appalling bike designs over the years, it seems a pity if they went entirely unrecognized. And to kick off, I'd like to suggest an "all-time worst" award. Motorcycle styling didn't really settle down for the first hundred years, so we'll start from the advent of the motorcycle designer proper in the late Seventies. That makes epochal styling disasters like the Ariel Leader a protected species out of range of this critique. Anyway, with historic bikes, oddity adds to the appeal.
Certain modern designs have already been publicly slated, such as the Morbidelli V-8, which was so bad it went back twice for a re-think and still failed to please. To place the award here would be to unfairly discredit Giancarlo Morbidelli, a successful producer of woodworking machinery and committed bike enthusiast who realized a dream to produce the ultimate road bike. For this he should be admired, whereas the actual styling culprits were Pininfarina, who got off lightly. One bad bike is easily forgotten after half a century of exquisite Ferraris.
Plenty of further candidates exist, thanks often to product designers who didn't understand bikes, and to engineers who didn't understand style. Philippe Starck's first attempt at a scooter, the "Lama", was something Aprilia would doubtless prefer forgotten, as critics likened the design to a self-propelled urinal. Then there's oddball car-builder Franco Sbarro, who joins a queue of claimants for the invention of the centre-less wheel. He displayed two bike models at the Geneva Automobile Show which destroyed the whole point of his light-looking rims by having heavy, slab-sided bodies. Mr. Sbarro now runs a design school in Switzerland. Hmmm.
Even experienced designers sometimes get it wrong. Hans Muth, in his early post-Target years, proved that a Katana's body style doesn't fit comfortably on a Harley-Davidson, but displayed it anyway at the 1984 Cologne IFMA show. Early Buells were no beauties either. Then there was the ghastly French BFG Odyssee, complete with Citroen-engine, or BMW's K-1, which boasted superior aerodynamics but was shaped like a house brick, so buyers weren't easily convinced. The first 1100 GS almost made the K-1 seem attractive, but it sold well, despite the looks. Fortunately for BMW, their in-house failures have been magnificently outdone by their consultants, notably Luigi Colani, whose proposals made prototype form, but fortunately for everyone else never made production. The humility of this award would certainly be good for Colani's ego, having boasted in the French press that he was "the great (design) champion of the century - definitively - all the world says so". After seeing his BMW, the world might not be so sure.
Finally, there's the European feet-forward brigade. These fanatics seem totally void of design sense, with curiosities like the SCL Voyager, which actually featured a Volvo seat, looking again more like a bathroom fitting than a motorcycle.
So what was the worlds ugliest ever bike? Let's have a vote. If you know of anything worse than these examples, then please write in. We could all do with a good laugh.
Glynn Kerr, February 2001