I've written a bi-monthly column for French magazine, Cafe Racer magazine for about ten years. I've posted a couple before. If you click the Inman Column link you can see them. Here's a recent one.
I sometimes wonder if this column should be renamed Bullshit Detector, because it seems not a week passes, in the motorcycle world, without me wanting to highlight some clownish marketing decision or pompous narcissist ‘independent’ who is confusing the joy and relative simplicity of riding with their own self-importance and insecurities. My gut reaction is to call it out, so I have to steer myself away from it to concentrate on the good, the positive, the honest and not get bogged down in the nipple-deep swamp bunkum.
On balance, the motorcycle world is still more honesty and purity of message, still, increasingly, it’s tinted with a filter of nonsense. Both sides were in full effect on the recent Husqvarna Svartpilen 701 launch.
So, let’s start with that positivity. This is the bike I’ve been waiting my whole life for. I crave light bikes and simplicity, but for decades had failed to put my money where my thought process was. Like the memory of a minor trauma being unlocked by therapy, riding, first, Husqvarna’s Vitpilen 701, then just this week, the new Svartpilen 701, made me realise it was their distant relative that put me off owning road going singles 20 years ago. I bought a first generation KTM Duke in 1999, you see. This street supermoto was built so long ago, it was back before everything KTM had turned orange. My first generation Duke was a deep metallic purple and I fell for its looks and attitude, but felt like I was constantly wringing its neck to get anywhere in my new semi-rural setting. I should’ve bought it when I was a city dweller, not as a new transplant to small town Lincolnshire. I sold it and bought a Suzuki GSX-R and have convinced myself, ever since, that three and four cylinders are my thing and to stray from that path is wasting my time and money. Singles were, as far as I was concerned, for competing in races that lasted no more than five minutes at a time.
Nothing that KTM has built since had the looks that tempted me back onto a mono and who else was serious about singles? Yamaha re-energised the corpse of the SR, but it wasn’t fast enough for me, neither was their MT-03. Suzukis DRs were the same. That meant singles were still off the menu.
Meanwhile, KTM’s road bike division continued to hone what they do: making confrontationally contemporary streetbikes, then painting them orange. In 2013 they bought Husqvarna, a name in motorcycling that dated back to 1903, but hadn’t been Swedish since 1987. The Husqvarna brand started its European tour when it was acquired by the Cagiva MV Agusta group in the mid-’80s, before BMW Motorrad bought the brand in 2007 (remember the Nuda?). Then it was acquired by KTM. As a marque it must have some appeal because I can’t think of another name that has been passed between such heavyweights who all thought they had what it takes to make it a success again. Being brutal perhaps there’s not quite enough appeal in the wider world because Husqvarna is still a brand trying to find its audience in a crammed market. Still, only five years into their ownership, the Austrians have increased Huskie sales from below 15,000 units to nearly 50,000, though the majority are dirt bikes, motocross and enduro bikes extremely closely related to their KTM relatives, with which they share the majority of components.
KTM and Husqvarna are designed by the same agency, KISKA, the Austrian outfit that reinvigorated KTM, made them orange, and have steered them, their look, advertising, merchandising and overall direction since the mid-1990s. KISKA employee and Frenchman, Maxime Thouvenin, has designed all Husqvarna’s road bikes, and you can count the current range on one hand.
Because KTM and Husqvarna now share so much infrastructure, a decision was made to divide the two brands with a river of bullshit. I’m extrapolating here, I’m sure the internal memo didn’t use the words river or bullshit.
The Vitpilen and Svartpilen (that’s White Arrow and Black Arrow, in Swedish, by the way) are available in 373cc and 693cc options, and are referred to by their catchier numbers 401 and 701. I have no problem adding a few phantom CCs to make a more memorable number. Both the little and big arrows have KTM frames, swingarms, engines and other components. This makes sense. To first develop, then homologate, seriously good road bikes takes huge amounts of time and money, so much it would make it hard for a company of Husqvarna’s size, in 2013 at least, to get off the ground. So Husqvarna share a platform with their big brother. And that’s where the problem starts. KISKA (they ask for their name to be written in capitals. I’m only doing it to point out how daft it is) has decided that the styling used for current Husqvarna street bikes means they ‘could never be a KTM’. That is a direct quote from their head of marketing. I look him in the eyes. You’re telling me that if KTM had never bought Husqvarna there is no way they could have developed and released the ‘arrows’ bikes as a new range under the KTM umbrella? He nods. ‘Look, at the Svartpilen,’ I’m urged, ‘it has curves and a round headlight.’
At this point I realised that when openly challenged the marketing argument springs a leak and begins to sink. The KTM Group’s website states their ‘corporate success is grounded in strengthening the core values of its two primary brands… Every product will always deliver on the promise implicit in the READY TO RACE philosophy for KTM and PIONEERING SINCE 1903 for Husqvarna…’
Would putting a round headlight on a KTM so undermine their carefully crafted, and undoubtedly successful, marketing sell that it is impossible for anyone at the company to consider doing it? I remind the marketing boss that we are a broad family of consumers that grew up with a company that made the Monkey bike, NR750, Fireblade, Africa Twin, RCV, GoldWing and NSR500, and it didn’t seem to confuse us or stop Honda becoming the biggest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. Are we as fickle as music fans who abandon a band if their second album is not exactly the same tone as their first? Would a KTM with a round headlight or a black petrol tank cause every potential purchaser to stare blankly in the dealership window with a 404 error message blinking in their glassy eyes? Of course not.
I ask other Husqvarna marketing people the same question. ‘Well, you see, KTM are “READY TO RACE”, they are the aggressive, performance brand.’ So, I ask, if I bought a Husqvarna 450 dirt bike is it not ready to race? What do I need to do to it before I can race it? The marketing replicant smiles back. ‘Husqvarna are simple. Progressive.’ But they are the same bikes in different clothes!
‘They’re completely distinct, with their own core values,’ I keep being told. Only this wafer-thin veneer of hashtags can differentiate two bikes that share 90% of their most important components. I understand marketing. I’m a fan. Clever advertising is memorable. Motorcyclists love red Ducatis, green Kawasakis and Rossi’s sun and moon. But either Kiska (sorry, KISKA) truly believe that a KTM cannot, and never will be able to, have a single round headlight, because it is totally at odds with their ‘core values’ and they’re believing their own hype to an almost manic level or they’re trying to sell us a line of marketing that is unbelievable any sane adult allows them to wash over them. In one ear, out the other. Like, perhaps, I should have. Because I want a Svartpilen 701 so badly. But then I’d want it if it was a KTM SchwarzerPfiel, just as long as it wasn’t orange…