I have been writing a column for the French magazine Café Racer for over a decade. When I remember, I post some of them on this blog. I changed the format a while ago, to Love & Hate. I cover something I love and something I hate in motorcycling. In truth, I don't hate much, but 'Love & Mildly Irritated By' isn't a snappy title. Anyway, here's one from the middle of the 2022. GI
HATE: Feature Creep
I hadn’t heard the phrase ‘feature creep’ until two weeks ago, now I can’t stop thinking about it. I wasn’t aware of the name, but I was familiar with the concept. It’s at the very root of capitalism, but don’t get the impression I’m anti-capitalist, though I wouldn’t mind the brakes being applied. It would be good to see some thought beyond just trying to screw every cent out of the population, but that’s a bit too heavy for a page in a motorcycle magazine, so let’s steer back on course.
Feature creep is the unceasing incremental changes and additions to a well-loved and respected design that allow a manufacturer to keep talking about their product, in an aim attract new and returning customers. It’s also called progress. Writing that makes me sound like some swivel-eyed flat earther. ‘Gary, first you opposed the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride, now what? You’re against progress?’
Well… Er… Bear with me.
Let’s use an example we are all familiar with: the Ducati Monster. When the Miguel Angel Galuzzi-designed M900 Monster first appeared at the 1992 Köln show (above), it was as pure an example of motorcycle design as I can envisage. Galuzzi wanted Ducati to build a bike that was the essence of motorcycling. A 125cc commuter is the essence of motorcycling too, but the Monster was as simple as a nursery rhyme, yet still hugely attractive, muscular and glamorous in a way no 125cc commuter can be. Galuzzi is reported to have said, ‘all you need is a seat, tank, engine, two wheels and bars’. The world didn’t realise it needed the Monster. It was a throwback. In essence a café racer, launched a year before Triumph’s original Speed Triple.
But, you are thinking, Galuzzi designed that bike 30 years ago, of course things are going to change and improve. And I agree. Motorcycle manufacturers are under huge pressure to improve safety, while lowering emissions and noise. In the last three decades they have had to find room for more electronic hardware forced upon them, to control mandatory ABS and increasingly sophisticated fuel injection systems that improve economy and lower emissions. EU regulations made Ducati stop building the original air-cooled 900SS engine. They had no choice, we were led to believe. They had to give the Monster a liquid-cooled engine. But did they? Royal Enfield still make an air-cooled twin that is sold around the world, and throughout Europe. So, Ducati could have developed an air-cooled engine, but they chose not to. Of course, it might not have made financial sense for the Italians to develop a new air-cooled engine, but it was strategic, and an example of the direction Ducati were moving: more expensive, higher performance, with an air of exclusivity despite sales figures far, far higher than at any time in Ducati’s history. I understand these decisions. It was their choice. A liquid-cooled engine is easier to get through emissions testing, while still offering the kind of performance Ducati wanted to deliver. All facts.
Now look at the current Monster, released in 2021 (below), and tell me, with your hand on your heart, if it were painted metallic blue or green and didn’t have any logos on it that you would immediately think it was a Ducati, not a Suzuki, Yamaha or Kawasaki. Glance at the 1993 M900 Monster. It could only be a Ducati.
The Monster used to be ‘a seat, tank, engine, two wheels and bars’. Ducati say it’s still the same, but now it has a TPFT screen, three riding modes and the steel frame has gone, in place of castings either side of the stressed member engine. We, the consumers, are convinced we need this. They are some of the very first selling points Ducati shares with us in their literature and on their website. Ducati claim the 937cc Monster now makes 111bhp, where the 1993 original made just over 70. The 2022 model is very slightly heavier but looks far more dense. The Scrambler has come into the line-up as the entry level model, but that will increase in complexity, the way the Monster did, because the Monster is like virtually everything in motorcycling. Everything gets faster, higher specification, more complicated. This is feature creep.
Take the purity of the M900 Monster, and 30 years later only the name and the colour remains, because everyone is convinced if you’re not going forwards, you’re going backwards. I used to believe it. I don’t any more. We don’t need to keep going forwards.
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