Monday, April 08, 2013

In conversation with Pierre Terblanche, motorcycle designer extraordinaire

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Pierre Terblanche (top) and some of the greatest bikes he's ever designed...

Born in South Africa in 1956, Pierre Terblanche has a Masters degree in Transport Design from the Royal College of Art, London. He started his career in design with Volkswagen’s advanced design studio in the mid-1980s, but moved to motorcycles in the late-1980s when he joined Ducati. Terblanche went on to work with Cagiva in the early-1990s, where he worked with Massimo Tamburini, came back to Ducati in 1997 and left the Italian company in 2006, when he started working as an independent design consultant. He then worked on various projects for Piaggio/Moto Guzzi and Norton and, earlier this year, joined the US-based Confederate Motorcycles.

Terblanche has a substantial body of work which he’s built up over the last quarter century. You can see his complete portfolio of work here, but the Terblanche-designed bikes we like most are the Cagiva 900 Gran Canyon, the Ducati Supermono, the Ducati MH900e and the Ducati SportClassic range. We also love the trio of Moto Guzzi ‘V12’ concept bikes which he designed back in 2009 and we really do believe Pierre is one of the most talented motorcycle designers of the modern era. So now that he’s with Confederate, we thought this is a good time to catch up with him for a quick chat about bikes and about his own thoughts on motorcycle design. Here’s what Pierre had to say to us:

On his decision to join Confederate Motorcycles

I needed a change. It is so easy to get in a rut with work and life. Some people say life begins at fifty, so I am well qualified to begin again! I have worked for some of the most interesting ‘normal’ companies that I loved the products of. Ducati, Cagiva, Moto Guzzi, Norton and some others that I cannot mention. Like many other designers, I have been a fan of the avant-garde work done by Confederate for a long time, and when the opportunity came to work for them it was a no-brainer.

On whether he thinks Confederate will, at some point in the future, also build bikes that regular people can afford to buy

I hope that we can design some beautiful, fresh interesting bikes infused with the American spirit that people all over the world can dream about... and then buy. Confederate may one day look at building more accessible bikes but they will always be have to be standout exciting projects. Never bland.

On how he moved to bikes after starting his career in design with cars in the late-1980s

I started to work in the automotive field because I was offered a great job in the VW Advanced Design Studio in Germany by Patrick Le Quement. At the time it was the best job going in Europe and I was very fortunate to spend just over three very fruitful years learning about the basics of design. I had always loved bikes more than cars because of the more hands-on approach where there is more to do for designers. Especially in Italy, where all layout of bikes, packaging and clay or hard models were made by the designers.

On how the motorcycle design process has changed over the last two decades

Everything has become more professional and structured. The introduction of CAD (Computer Aided Design) and CAS (Computer Aided Styling); companies now have teams of specialists who all do their part of the project. Before, much more was done by one or two experienced people. This is better in some ways but I believe that the old ad hoc way sometimes lets one come up with unexpected solutions.

On the Guzzi projects, very few – almost none – sketches were done, in the same way that the Hypermotard was designed for Ducati. Three days of cold turkey design time on a cardboard model. The results show and maybe are more intuitive [however] it doesn’t mean that it always works.

On his love for bikes and his favourite bikes from different decades

I love motorcycles. I got my first bike, a Honda SS50, when I was sixteen and my first big bike was a modified Ducati 750GT. Now that I live in Alabama, I will be doing a lot more riding again. I am planning to buy a KTM 690 Superduke and a Sport 1000 and an old two-stroke Bultaco to commute on. I love the sound and smell of the two-strokes.

My first true motorcycle love affair was with a Mk-1 Moto Guzzi Le Mans and to this day I love that bike. The Honda CB400 Four was also a great favourite. The other bikes I love are the Suzuki Katana 750s, the Ducati TT600/750 racers, the Bimota DB1, and the Ducati Paso 750. And of course the Britten. Of the show bikes, I love the Sachs Beast a lot.

Of the bikes currently in production I like the KTM 690 Superduke because of its light weight and simplicity, and the Zero electric bikes that are surprisingly fun to ride.

On the Ducati that’s his own personal favourite, and how he might have done things differently had he designed the Panigale

My favourite Ducati will have to be either the Ducati 860 NCR Corsa endurance racer or the TT600/750racers. I like the 1199 because it is a great bit of design and the latest, most modern Ducati. The Panigale is a great bit of work. I think Gianni Fabbro has done a wonderful job. However ‘the times they are a-changin’ as Dylan says, and the heat and homologation issues will force us to radically re-think motorcycles going forward.

See the Japanese version of the Panigale with a much bigger additional exhaust stuck on the side to make it legal. (That is due to stricter ‘application’ of the law and not stricter laws.) Heat and catalytic converter placement will make V-twins ever more difficult to package.

For what the Panigale is meant to be – an uncompromising track day bike – I wouldn't do anything different. In terms of styling, the Panigale wins, hands down. It’s small, compact, integrated, cool and interesting to look at. It’s beautiful, mainly because it is a pure racer on the road. [However] if one wanted a usable road bike there are some issues to look at – like heat management wind protection. But the way that the market has changed, this is not even an issue. The people that want a usable motorcycle buy a Multistrada or a BMW GS.

On his thoughts on retro design and retro-styled bikes

I like them. Harley has been building 300,000 a year for a long time so it seems a lot of other people like them as well. Yes! Harleys are retro-theme bikes, even if we don't think about them as such. There is something reassuring and beautiful about the steam engine mechanical-ness of these retro-themed bikes. The latest trend with young bikers in many cities around the world is the retro café-racer. I think because they are often simpler and their air-cooled engines are more beautiful.

I loved the original Ducati Sport SS and GT and thought that there was a good market for people like myself – around 46 years of age – who just wanted to have a beautiful fun bike.

On the experience of working with Massimo Tamburini, at Cagiva

Working with Mr Tamburini was a great, interesting experience. I learnt a hell of a lot about motorcycles and working with him de-mystified the design of the chassis and many other parts of the bike. I believe that first of all we both love bikes. Mr Tamburini is much more a race-replica type of guy who was never really that interested in other forms of biking. I love design in general and the design of any type of project, be it a car, boat, aircraft or motorcycle fascinates me.

On the design brief given to him for the three concept bikes that he created for Moto Guzzi in 2009

The design brief was loose, in the sense that we wanted to do a modern Guzzi Le Mans for the EICMA show. After the incredible reaction by the public and press, the decision to not build them is the greatest disappointments of my career. The bikes came, were seen, and they conquered! And then were never to be seen again. No other photos or magazine articles were ever published and journalists who asked to see them and write about them were denied access. Who knows why... especially now that air-cooled medium-powered bikes are back in vogue and the top-selling bike in the Guzzi range is the V7?? The eternal, or rather infernal, mystery of the motorcycle industry. Or motorcycle managers.

On motorcycle design vs motorcycle marketing

I think that if the designers start designing the bikes that they really love themselves, things start happening. There are so many things still to do, but marketing gets in the way. Show me one new concept to have come out of a marketing department in the last twenty years!!

On his thoughts on European vs Japanese motorcycle design, and which school of thought is more interesting

It depends of what you mean by design or interesting. Aesthetics, function or just plain styling? Currently, the Europeans are doing more interesting things on the styling side than the Japanese, who seem to be very purist-engineering driven. The Japanese coming from years of building motorcycles to fit all, have difficulty in designing bikes that do only 40 percent of a good job in being as highly focused as the Italians. But maybe this will change, as the market for high volume superbikes has died out. I believe that the Japanese, Honda and Yamaha, will soon start competing more directly with Ducati, Aprilia and BMW.

On electric bikes and whether these can ever be as beautiful as conventional machines

I believe that electric bikes are a very interesting challenge. The things that they don't have is so liberating – no exhausts, heat, gearboxes, shifters and related stuff. Sooner or later, someone will design an electric bike that is more than just a traditional bike with the engines swapped out. I can’t wait!

Battery technology will improve as it already has over the last decade. Not quick enough? Maybe not for some people, but I recently rode a couple of electric bikes. The future is here. As to being as beautiful? They will be, they will be beautifully different, for sure.

We thank Pierre for taking the time to speak to Faster and Faster and we wish him all the best for all his future work and projects

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