Throughout his life, Rodolfo Frascoli has designed many world-renowned motorbikes, but history books will most probably remember him for being the guy who reinvented Suzuki Katana. 38 years after the original, when the act of reimagining classic bikes has now reached the 80’s, he realised that it was the right time to rethink that very same motorbike which had struck him so much.
There’s no biker in his 50s who doesn’t remember the Suzuki Katana 1100. When it was first introduced at end of the 80s represented a breaking point from classic motorcycle aesthetics.
A revolutionary project which made many people shake their heads. A friend of mine who bought it back in the day used to joke saying that it was so ugly to be, in its own way, beautiful.
38 years later Suzuki brings once again on the table the name of “Katana”, with a bike visually close to the original and enriched by a modern flavour. And for all the older bikers out there it was like jumping on a time machine.
That’s why at Eicma we didn’t lose our chance to interview its designer, Rodolfo Frascoli, to whom we asked a simple question: why did you want to revisit the Katana, 38 years later?
“I had this idea for something like the last 5 or 6 years. When I first saw the bike – I was a kid – it was like being slapped in the face. I really couldn’t say it was a beautiful bike, but it sure was different from anything else we had seen until then. And I was trying to understand my emotions because there were some things I was liking and others that I didn’t. But this was moving something deep inside of me.”
“Motorbike revival has been a thing since quite a while, but we’re slowing going forward in time. A few years ago it was all about the 60’s, then the 70’s. When we reached the 80’s, I realised it was time to remake the Katana. As soon as possible. Because in the 80’s that bike was incredible, so much so that the Katana brand was even stronger than Suzuki’s.”
So, it wasn’t Suzuki who first had this idea?
“The process behind this bike is extremely unusual. It all started from my vision, and compared to my project Suzuki only decided to change the rear light slightly, to make it a little more vintage. I had already done two projects for Suzuki Japan, but at that time it didn’t seem like a good strategy to submit a Katana redesign. What I did, then, was to work on my own, supported by friends and people I was working with, and last year I managed to showcase at Eicma a functioning prototype. It was a resounding success: the public there was enthusiast, everyone in Suzuki was enthusiast, riders in Japan were enthusiast. Suzuki then said: let’s do it!”
Let’s take a step back. Who is Rodolfo Frascoli?
“I’m a designer who’s been working since 1984. I’ve done projects for Gilera, Piaggio, Aprilia, Moto Guzzi, Moto Morini, Triumph, Yamaha, Polaris, and also for some Chinese and Indian companies. Everyone remembers me for the Moto Guzzi Griso, the Vespa GranTurismo and the Moto Morini Corsaro ZZ. Last year I designed Valentino Rossi’s bike along with Yamaha, based on the XJR1300. In 2017 I also designed the Triumph Tramontana, the racing version of Tiger. Since roughly ten years ago I’ve been managing my own private Design Bureau; back at home, I own a Griso, with which I rode for a few kilometres, before putting it back. Because I just can’t live without that bike”.
How did you start working?
“To me, it’s a passion first, and then a job. My father was an impressionist painter, from whom I’ve inherited my special touch. When I was about 13 years old when I had an epiphany: buying motorbikes magazines I realised my life had to go towards that direction. I began drawing, but back then there weren’t any design schools. My father was a factory worker, my mother a housewife. I couldn’t attend the Royal College of Art in London, which I didn’t even know existed at the time. I had to do things my own way, and when I was 18, I found my first job with Luciano Marabese – the father of many Piaggio, Gilera and Aprilia models – who immediately took me under his wing. I worked for many years with him.”
Let’s go back to Katana, and to the concept of rethinking past designs.
“Not all things old are necessarily good. There are some good ideas, while others just don’t make any sense in this day and age. The tail of my bike is much different from the original, which had a simple two-colour seat with a square light. How boring. I rethought it from scratch because if you don’t modernise the past, it becomes just something you have already seen over and over again. Instead, you always need to improve what has been previously done.”
How often Designers go back to the past, rather than looking for some fresh ideas?
“It depends on what we’re working on. With an Adventure or a Supersport, we’re always looking forward, using at most the earlier model as a reference. Classic bikes are a different kind of beasts. There’s the absolutely important 60’s front, with Triumph Bonneville or Ducati Scrambler. In these cases, you need to be one with the history of the brand and the model because studying and being informed is just not enough.”
How about the original Katana? How did that project come into existence?
“Last month, when I brought my bike in Cologne, the owner of the design firm which designed the first Katana, Hans Muth, wasn’t there, but I still got to meet who designed it. It was a project which broke with the past, with Suzuki asking Muth’s team to make something innovative, without delivering an accurate briefing beforehand. That way this lucky cut of the tank was born, pointing towards the tip cone. And with it a bike which has never been forgotten”.
In general, how is a bike conceived?
“The client gives you a briefing, explaining that you need to design a certain bike with certain inputs. They tell you what you can change, like if a new, different frame can be done or if you must keep the existing one. They give you details about the target, including price tag, because if you design a bike which is a work of art but costs 50.000 euros, well, you get to work for a month and then they kindly tell you to go to play being an artist somewhere else.”
“Of course, they give you frame body dimensions beforehand unless it’s a brand new project. In this case, you also get some room for your own ideas, keeping in mind there are some overall dimensions peculiar to the type of bike. Sometimes they add some suggestions, but I like to do things my own way, and you always have time to get things right.”
How much time do you need to design a motorbike?
“Anywhere from a minute to ten months. Sometimes I get it right at my first attempt, sometimes I don’t. At the end of the day, the client gives you maximum three to four weeks. Therefore, the idea must come out one way or another!”
And what are the steps to develop an idea?
“It all begins with a pen sketch, then I work on my computer creating a 2D concept, with programs such as Photoshop. That’s’ what I bring to the factory for approval. Once they greenlight my concept, I make all visuals in 2D and preliminary surfaces in 3D. The model is built virtually, to understand and verify some key details. Such as check the capacity of the tank to fit the airbox, if handlebars movement have no impediments, if the seat is long enough, if there is enough clearance when leaning the bike, if it respects homologation requirements.”
“After this first inspectional phase, we get started with an extremely high-quality and high-priced clay modelling which allows you to bring to life the bike that until then has existed only in your dreams.”
“Once the motorbike is approved it’s scanning time. This is an exorbitantly demanding phase, involving every inch of the model and taking up to a year and a half.”
“Basically, if you don’t have to create the engine from scratch the design process of a motorbike takes two years, two years and a half, including the testing phase. If there’s need of a new engine, then we’re talking about three, even four years.”
What are the constraints of a designer when industrialisation and aerodynamics needs are factored in?
“We do have a certain freedom, except with super sports bikes, which have specific aerodynamics needs concerning penetration and load on the back. Similar limitations happen with super tourism bikes, which have huge fairings requiring attention to protection and turbulence. Then we have Adventure bikes, which once again involve keeping turbulence in check in their design process. With other bikes, we don’t experience aerodynamics problems, unless we have peculiar requirements from the manufacturer.”
“What truly limits our work are industrialisation costs and the need to contain them. For instance, the sheet of metal for the tank must have gently sloping surfaces; a fairing must be printed in a certain direction, without making too many pieces. Otherwise, you risk making a beautiful design, but you don’t get any smile from the decision makers and the bike is shelved. And you don’t work anymore. But these are all things that are acquired with experience, even the negative ones you went through in your early years.
“All young students, for example, make very stylish and sexy headlights, as beautiful as they are unrealizable in a factory. And then the engineers make them redo those lights all over again because the size of the light is not negotiable. You then make those changes ending up with a product that gets an “it’s not too bad”. And when this happens, it’s a dead end”.
Can you foresee any upcoming motorcycle equipment that will change the way the design industry works?
“Probably lights, and technology in general will reserve some surprises for us. Just look at cars, which usually anticipate us ten years. Not because car designers are better than us at this job, but because they have more budget available. In that industry, hundreds of millions of euros are spent, while with bikes we’re talking about 2-3 millions on average. Sometimes it’s not even that much, with just a million as a budget”.
“There is also an issue of physical space available, though: cars grow in size, while we want to keep bikes compact. Let’s take tails as an example: once they were huge, but today are designed to be as minimal as possible because everything must be around the pilot. Even if the passenger complains”.
In short, how will the bikes of the future look like?
“I never know how to answer this question! I believe they will have to have more and more character. Making a nice fairing is within everyone’s reach. But to create a general harmony it’s a bit harder, luckily for me. What really matters, in the end, is to make a bike with a unique personality. And this is something difficult because it takes style, and a bike that is consistent with the brand you’re working with”.
How many people work with you?
“I design by myself. I like to wake up in the morning and have this mission set for me. I have a network that assists me in 3d surfaces and in modelling. But my company is a 4.0 one: I don’t need to have people physically present, but rather we collaborate via Skype. And when there are clay models to do, I either make them directly at the client, or I do them on my own, assisted by two organisations I work with. Because I like to model.”
What kind of bike do you own?
“I own a Moto Morini Corsaro 1200, that I abused in any way and did every imaginable thing, including knee down. I have a Moto Guzzi Griso and a Triumph Tiger 1050, since I did not design the 1200. In my garage there here are also a couple of scooters. Oh, and I also have an old Aprilia Pegaso”.
These are all motorcycles designed by you. How does it make you feel when someone stops and takes a look at one of the bikes you designed?
“It feels fantastic, but it depends on what they say! I have a certain understatement, I don’t like being the centre of attention. This means that I might park one of my bikes and just wait nearby. I also like riding prototypes, because I do also enjoy making suggestions on ergonomics, something I can understand only by driving the bike myself. Then I park it waiting for a passer-by to make any comment. I don’t like to intervene, because otherwise, I would influence their judgment”.
“The enthusiast is somewhat enlightening at times. One takes care of the curve of the side, its radius, then the enthusiast shows up and says “what muffler did you put there? No way man, do it like that!”. And it’s enlightening, as I said. Because he looks at more down to earth details. Because it is true that a certain detail can be beautiful, but you must never forget the things that drive fans crazy.”
Have you done any marketing research on who will likely buy the Katana?
“No, we followed our guts. I think our customer base will sit at two extremes. On one side there are those like us, who knew the original and today they just can’t wait to ride the updated model. Then there are the youngsters, who are discovering the Katana for the first time today. But we also hope to capture the middle ground, those in their mid-30s”.
To know more about Rodolfo Frascoli you can check his website