A look at the design and inspiration behind a motorcycle concept that challenged the norm.
Much to the surprise of faculty and students alike, the star of the Royal College of Art (RCA) Transportation Design thesis show in 1985 was a motorcycle, not a car. RCA student Douglas Barber not only bucked the trend that RCA students designed cars, but he also applied some truly novel rider-centric thinking to his thesis project, creating a motorcycle with adjustable handlebars, foot pegs, and a seat cushion that adapted to different riders and riding styles. He based his concept in accurate detail on the technologically advanced Yamaha FZ750. With five valves per cylinder and an inclined engine block, the FZ750 delivered excellent power while also lowering the center of gravity for better handling.
To create a motorcycle design that matched Yamaha’s futuristic drivetrain, Douglas incorporated the equally innovative hub-centric steering front suspension from the Bimota Tesi, which was an Italian motorcycle introduced in prototype form at the 1983 Milan Motorcycle Salon. After creating detailed drawings of his motorcycle’s hard points, Douglas used traditional transportation clay modeling methods, combined with precision-machined metal components, to create a half-scale model for his thesis show.
With its combination of rider-centric function, integrated design that tied the engine, exhaust, and suspension components into the bodywork, and styling as futuristic as the drivetrain technology, Douglas’ concept wowed audiences and stole the show at the graduate exhibition. It was ultimately featured in the pages of the German design magazine Form. When frog’s founder, Hartmut Esslinger, saw the magazine, he tracked down Douglas and eventually hired him.
At the time, frog’s California office was engaged in a multi-year retainer contract with Apple. While the work was innovative and lucrative, it also involved a lot of rectilinear forms with a prescriptive system of vents. According to former frogs, the designers and model makers in the California studio were eager for a change of pace and an opportunity to “think different.” When German motorcycle magazine Motorrad approached Hartmut to redesign the Yamaha FZ750, he happily accepted the challenge and — in his signature style — massively over delivered.
He assembled a star team: industrial designers Fritz Wurster and Sigmar Willnauer; Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) designers Felix Abarca and Fred Polito; and model-makers Gert Teschner and Raymond Gradwohl. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of this milestone project, we sat down with many of the frogs involved, including Douglas, Gert, Raymond, and Sigmar. We also spoke with Joseph Becker, curator of Architecture and Design at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), where the frog motorcycle is permanently in residence, and with two co-founders of electric motorcycle company Alta Motors, Derek Dorresteyn and Marc Fenigstein.
Much like Douglas’ thesis work, the Motorrad challenge was a response to the way that Yamaha wrapped the FZ750’s futuristic heart under an ordinary skin. Several frogs were motorcycle enthusiasts and amateur racers, and they too were excited by the new engine, but baffled by the styling. “Yamaha introduced the radical technology of five valves per cylinder, but the bike looked the same as every other bike,” Gert said.
With all the passion in the studio, and Douglas’ work in mind, Hartmut knew that Motorrad’s question was worth answering, and not just by churning out superficial concept eye candy. Neither Hartmut nor the rest of the frog team were motorcycle experts, but they embraced the challenge and addressed it using the design methodologies that had made frog famous. frog’s work was impeccably researched, incredibly detailed, and grounded in the larger context of motorcycle, rider, road, and traffic. Fred and Felix created 3-D CAD of the complete motorcycle, built using accurate dimensions of the production Yamaha FZ750. The animated light cycles of 1982’s Tron notwithstanding, Raymond and other members of the team believe this to be one of the world’s earliest computer-designed motorcycles. With Intergraph CAD workstations costing upwards of $250,000 — around $560,000 in today’s dollars — frog was one of the only design shops in the world that owned the necessary technology.
The concept also integrated many innovative safety features, some based on research at the University of Bochum in Germany, others purely frog’s. These included a fairing design that reduced drag and offered additional protection for the rider in case of side impact, an extra set of wide-beam lights below the headlights to increase the rider’s view of the road while cornering, and heightened visibility to nearby drivers with its high-contrast orange accents and dual headlights.
With a design finalized, Gert carved a 1:2.5 scale model by hand from high-density foam, which Sigmar photographed in the frog studio and submitted to Motorrad. Competing for space in the same feature were beautiful marker and airbrush renderings by four other prominent designers, but the frog work was given front-and-center status. The refinement and completeness of the foam model set the work apart by highlighting frog’s research and consideration of context. Upon publication of the magazine, Yamaha took notice, and the concept was so well received that the company provided a production FZ750 for the frog team to disassemble and use as the basis of a rolling full-scale model. Hartmut and the rest of the frog team took the opportunity to make some minor refinements to the design, embodied in a final airbrush rendering — part of Friedhelm Engler’s internship application — that still hangs in our Munich studio.
The production FZ750 from Yamaha was torn down, and Gert and Fritz created a full-scale rolling prototype of the frog 750 from foam, Plexiglas, and fiberglass. Dietmar Henneka, a longtime friend of Hartmut’s, photographed the bike overlooking the Pacific on the green hills of Highway 9 above Los Gatos. Everyone from the frog studio came out for the shoot — shoes and shirts optional — to enjoy the California sunshine and celebrate the freewheeling work-hard-play-hard attitude that set frog apart from the rest of Silicon Valley. According to Raymond, “anything went at frog, and it was cutting edge — people wore their bathing suits and flip-flops to work in the summer. As long as you got the work done, no questions were asked.” In this fully refined state, the frog 750 was featured once again in the pages of Motorrad, as well as on the covers of Cycle Guide and BusinessWeek.
The frog 750 resonated because it pushed hard against motorcycle conventions of the time. The bike looked wildly different, but it also invited motorcyclists to hop on and ride. Most motorcycles of the early 1980s celebrated the engine as a piece of machine art rather than using design in pursuit of emotion. Customers felt this lack of passion, and according to Derek of Alta Motors, “people were losing their way in their relationship with motorcycles — each brand had been making the same engine for 40-plus years, and it was just this machine on display.” In contrast, frog painted the engine black and covered it up, leaving only the bright red crankcase cover as a celebration of the machined precision inside. The sport bikes of the time focused on replicating grand prix racers and looking fast, while the visual language of the frog 750 served to remind both riders and those around them to pay attention to safety. Most importantly, frog’s work was fresh and unique because it considered the motorcycle and the rider together in the greater context of riding, rather than designing the motorcycle in isolation on a pedestal. According to Douglas, the true value of the design was in “the human-centered experiential elements. That’s where the gold nuggets are.”
The resonance did not just end with the readers of Motorrad and Cycle Guide. The frog 750 captured the essence of cool California rebellion that Hartmut and the rest of the California studio exemplified both professionally and personally. While maintaining the clean and balanced design of Europe’s best, there is a little something extra in the motorcycle — a dash of surfing, a splash of that California sunshine that drew everyone out to the photo shoot. “There’s a strong element of rebelliousness around the motorcycle,” said Joseph, from SFMOMA, “and that’s really emblematic of frog and of Northern California design at the time — pushing the envelope, taking risks, being bold.”
The frog 750 has an enduring legacy. Yamaha never produced the bike, but several design elements from the frog 750 found life in the 1987 Honda Hurricane, which Honda sent as a gift to Hartmut when it launched. In subsequent years, other motorcycles paid subtler tribute to frog’s novel design. These included the Ducati Paso, the BMW K1, and bikes from Bimota, Buell, and Moto Marini. It was displayed for several years at Yamaha headquarters, and then at the frog studios in Palo Alto and San Francisco. It was nicknamed the Rana (Latin for “frog”) and given fresh decals, rebranding it from Yamaha to Rana. Honda became a client, and we produced several concepts for the company, including the Grasshopper trial bike and the Warrior motorcycle. According to Hartmut, Disney was so inspired by the motorcycle that it called frog and asked us to design a cruise ship. Other Rana concepts followed from later generations of frogs in San Francisco, New York, and Munich. As a part of the SFMOMA permanent collection, the bike — inducted in 2012 — has since been featured in two exhibitions and will also be highlighted in the 2016 catalog when the museum reopens after a period of construction.
At frog we see ongoing opportunities in motorcycle design. Many new technologies are now available that can improve rider comfort and safety, but they have not been holistically integrated by manufacturers. Motorcycles have diverged into a dozen different form factors that serve niche functions or match aesthetic archetypes, but they often do not demonstrate a holistic approach or challenge the rules like the frog 750. As we look forward, we pay homage to the frogs who brought us the Rana; the work they did made history and taught us that revolutionary ideas cannot be undertaken lightly. As Joseph said, “If you’re really going to challenge the norm, you still have to be taken seriously. You can’t just be punk.”