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Profile: BMW’s David Robb & Two Wheel Design

Like his counterpart Chris Bangle, David Robb has taken some flak during his 13-year tenure as the design boss for BMW’s motorcycle business.

Like his counterpart Chris Bangle, David Robb has taken some flak during his 13-year tenure as the design boss for BMW’s motorcycle business. Told by senior BMW management to take motorcycle design in a new direction, Robb stretched the design ethos to more prominently display BMW’s engineering prowess as the company expanded into new segments, including cruisers and enduro models. “We have a great chance, that I think was being missed, to show people there is something unique about the engineering of our bikes,” he says. Robb took significant criticism for the design of the R 1150 GS in 1999, specifically the “duck bill” front fender design and headlamp configuration, which made it look like it was squinting. “It’s funny to look at it now,” Robb says. “People were up in arms over the front fender and now everyone is doing it.”

Having designed vehicle interiors and exteriors during his early days at BMW, along with stints at Audi and Chrysler, Robb says being on the motorcycle side of the business is altogether different, from the reduced layers of management, to the typically short development time cycle of two years, to the passion shown by customers. “It’s also very visceral because you literally feel exactly what the motorcycle is doing,” he says. Robb points to the swing arm of the R 1200 GS as the perfect example of how engineering and design work hand-in-hand to defy convention. “The old swing arm was very angular, almost like it came off a tractor. Because we had to change the transmission configuration with the latest version, we asked ourselves: ‘How can we make the swing arm look more muscular?’ Then we took that more athletic design to engineering.” The engineering staff resisted at first, but they discovered a non-linear swing arm provided better force distribution and the design was adopted. Likewise, the design team looked at the bike’s rear hub and discussed punching a hole through the center of the hub to improve appearance. Once again, engineering discovered that removing this metal did not sacrifice the performance of either the wheel or suspension in aggressive off-road maneuvers. The end result: several pounds were taken out of the overall weight and several euros were saved in raw material costs.

This will be a daunting year for Robb and his team as BMW is in the midst of one of the biggest launches in its history. There are six new bikes on tap (compared to an average of two new motorcycles annually), including two R Series touring models, the much-anticipated K 1200 GT replacement, and a new enduro model. However, Robb is eager for feedback on the new mid-range F 800 S and ST sports line that debuts early next year: “This is a very unique solution in the segment, and something you’ve never seen from us before,” he says of the three-piece bodywork and unique “fly line.” It is a look he says is reminiscent of a “prancing gazelle,” and one sure to cause new controversy. 

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