How to Bring a Classic (Steve McQueen–Approved) Motorcycle Design Back to Life

by Drew Turney
- Jun 6 2018 - 5 min read
motorcycle design husqvarna svartpilen 701
KISKA designed this Svartpilen 701 concept bike as an update of the iconic 1955 Silverpilen for KTM, owner of Husqvarna Motorcycles. Courtesy Schedl R.

As anyone worth their salt working in advertising will tell you, the secret to selling is to make an emotional connection. If you offer a lifestyle, fashion, or aspirational purchase, you’re not selling a product—you’re selling a feeling.

KISKA understands that like few other industrial-design studios, which made it the perfect choice to bring back and update the iconic Silverpilen (Silver Arrow) motorcycle. As the designer for KTM (owner of the Husqvarna brand that built the Silverpilen), KISKA took inspiration from the original 1955 machine to create two gorgeous new models, the SVARTPILEN (Black Arrow) and VITPILEN (White Arrow).

And as design lead Craig Dent explains, the common language is emotion. “If the products we make don’t provoke an emotional response in the customers, we’re not doing a good job,” he says from the company’s Austrian office. (KISKA also has locations in Germany, the United States, and China, employing more than 230 designers.)

To design provocatively, Dent and his team of designers also look far beyond the object in front of them. As a result, the SVARTPILEN and VITPILEN richly illustrate KISKA’s process of designing the entire experience and brand behind the product.

“It’s one big story; it’s how everything comes together,” Dent says. “Our vision for all our clients is to offer them exactly that, not just to receive a briefing about a product they want in their lineup. We’re much too curious about their brand to do that, and most of the time, we find ourselves jumping in deep and analyzing and questioning everything they stand for.”

Reaching From the Trenches to the Stars

So how do you remain a starry-eyed dreamer when the economic or practical realities—like a looming presentation deadline or the race to make a beautiful part that works well—come crashing in?

“You’ve perfectly summed up our everyday work,” Dent says about the challenge of retaining a big-picture view. “My responsibility is to stay tuned out from the nitty-gritty, from the details. So even though our teams are working on the actual nuts and bolts, we ask, ‘Is this still going along with the vision we have for that brand? Are the solutions the engineering team’s coming out with still playing to the emotional design?’ If we were sitting on the doorstep of the KTM engineers and could just say ‘hi’ every day, we’d lose sight of the emotional response we want to create and fall straight into ‘Okay, that’s the easiest solution, let’s just go with it.’ Having distance gives us a zoomed-out approach.”

motorcycle design silverpilen
This VITPILEN 701 (White Arrow) is one of two models KISKA designed to reimagine the 1955 Husqvarna Silverpilen. Courtesy Mitterbauer H.

The Past, Today

What made the Silverpilen the one to bring back? The ’50s and ’60s were something of a heyday for Husqvarna. In later years, the brand passed from owner to owner, none of whom looked after it very well. But in those days, it was the epitome of cool, winning motocross races worldwide and transporting Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, making the coolest movie star on the planet even cooler.

The design and engineering of the time was what Dent calls “beautifully simple, beautifully reduced.” “We’re fascinated by the mechanical beauty products had back then,” he says. “You look at it and understand it, instantly knowing what the thing can do or what you could do with it, and that’s exciting. In today’s world, it’s easy to just cover something up, try to wrap everything we get from the engineers almost in a mask. That isn’t cool.”

Instead, KISKA takes what Dent calls an inside-out approach, where he looks closely at the core and comes up with an architecture that expresses its fundamental simplicity. “We were so inspired by the honest, authentic approach those bikes had,” he says. “We tried to do exactly that with a modern interpretation, modern architecture, and modern way of putting things together.”

Modern Process, Classic Inspiration

KISKA’s approach—where emotional response is the constant touchstone—is no easy feat. But the company found the right techniques and tools to realize the SVARTPILEN and VITPILEN with this goal in mind.

Everything starts with pencil sketches on paper. Design staff clear their desks and schedules, put headphones on, and aren’t interrupted for three or four weeks; Dent says it’s where the magic happens. They look for a new and innovative result that stirs emotions, both within the company and with the client.

The next step is realizing those sketches in CAD, and Dent calls Autodesk Alias the “go-to” software to translate 2D sketches into 3D designs. But to elicit emotion, even a 3D picture on a flat screen is limiting.

motorcycle design Vitpilen 401 Aero
KISKA wanted to combine a retro simplicity with a forward-thinking architecture, as seen here with the VITPILEN 401 Aero. Courtesy Schedl R.

Next comes 3D milling into a design prototype. Data collated through CAD software is converted into toolpaths with Autodesk clay-milling CAM software. KISKA’s in-house mill runs the resulting G-codes to create the clay model. Then the clay model is lovingly crafted and finished in such detail that it becomes the basis for the final designs for manufacturing.

After it’s painted the right colors and taking up the same space it will in the real world, it’s scanned at very high resolution, and the data is fed back into the CAD workflow, where surfaces and volumes are rebuilt exactly to specifications.

VR also helps the process along. When the 3D data is plugged into a virtual-reality system, it lets the user pick up, spin, turn, and inspect the design from every angle, coming as close to a finished reality as possible prior to the milling stage.

To the untrained eye, a lot of motorcycles today look like something out of manga (not surprising given that in 2014, Japanese motorcycle manufacturers occupied three of the four top spots in the US market), with brand personalities expressed by lurid colors, plastic coatings, and computerized mechanics.

The design of the new Husqvarna models seems like a positioning statement away from that aesthetic—an aspect that Dent says he could talk about forever.

“There have been a lot of interpretations of classic bikes in the market lately,” he says. “But Husqvarna was always pioneering, and we wanted to be forward-thinking, not just harkening back to the past. Whereas others have tried to do retro design on their bikes, we wanted to be cutting-edge, superminimalistic, and really progressive in our approach but still have this simplicity that the products back then had.”

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