The Man Behind BMW Design
16 August 2023
Edgar Heinrich, Head of Design at BMW Motorrad, has been working in the design department, apart from a short interruption, since 1987. Designer of the R1200GS and others, he’s a real motorcycle nerd.
WORDS: Klaus Nennewitz PHOTOS: Heiko Mandl
Formore than three decades, Edgar Heinrich has played a decisive role in shaping the design and product range of BMW motorcycles. Since 2012 he has been responsible for BMW motorbikes as Head of Design. In his own workshop, he works on 14 predominantly classic, modified motorcycles. With his outstanding motorbike expertise and experience as a motorcyclist, he is a luminary - not bad for someone who says that after leaving school he “was only able to make some drawings”. We visited him in BMW’s design department in the north of Munich, which will soon bring some surprises...
EARLY ARTISTIC TALENT
“In primary school I scribbled over my notebooks, and at grammar school I was scolded by my teachers for “nonsense”. I was fascinated by the sheer power of technical and mechanoid machines, so I liked to draw cranes, trucks and caterpillars, plus “rally tanks” with chains underneath and the body of Formula 1 cars. I was popular with my classmates because of my deliberately weird anatomy drawings, for example smoker’s legs, cuts through smoker’s lungs and other details.
THEN CAME THE MOTORCYCLES
I bought a Suzuki T250 from my older brother when I was 17. After I was allowed to ride with him and his buddies more often, I really fell in love with motorcycles. “When I was old enough, I bought a Honda CB400, but a Suzuki SP370 Enduro made a big change for me; I was really fascinated by the versatility while off road riding with the wide handlebars, which allowed great control.
Unfortunately, I sold the bike again, but last summer I got myself another one to restore. In the beginning I had several Suzukis, but they weren’t that reliable, plus they were a bit lame. Then I came across Honda, they never gave me any problems. When it comes to classic bikes, BMWs and Hondas are really the best. The other day I took a Honda fourcylinder CB500 Four apart and rebuilt it, that was a treat. Motorbike trips came slowly for me, the first rides were to Italy on a minimal budget; I didn’t do the really big tours to Africa until the Nineties.
FINDING HIS WAY
“After my A-levels, I really didn’t have a plan, but I wanted to do something with drawing and model making. Since my brother was already living in Rosenheim near Munich, it made sense to try architecture there. I didn’t really have any talent at all, except for drawing and wrenching or manual work. I had dropped mathematics in the eleventh grade, but I could keep my head above water with descriptive geometry and statistics. Then, when we were standing in the field during architecture studies, sketching a farm, the professor came up to me and asked me what I was doing there, because he thought I was in the wrong place with my drawing talent! By chance I had a contact with the University of Applied Sciences for Design in Munich and found great interest in the design drafts and the models exhibited there. So, I switched to study Design. At the beginning the studies were rather dull, but an internship at Iveco truck company changed my approach: I was drawing trucks and painted buses, that was cool. “Of course, motorbikes were always my passion. I could have continued my career with trucks, tractors or construction machinery, but to work as a car designer never really interested me.
BMW FIRST CONTACT
“To obtain support for my diploma thesis, I wrote to all the motorcycle companies in Germany (the Japanese importers and BMW) because I wanted to make a motorbike on a scale of 1:1, which seemed easier to me than a scale model because there were already many parts available. Only BMW answered me, which was the least cool brand of all for me at the time.
“I came up with a motorbike for young people with 27hp (the affordable performance class for young riders at the time), my “R50S”, with a pressed steel frame, secondary drive belt and helmet compartment. At the time, I was quite taken with the work that Jan Feldstrom from Target Design had done with the Katana. “As I said, BMW was pretty uncool for me back then, also because of the strange ergonomics and the submissive rider posture (narrow handlebars with a special bend for a bodyhugging elbow position). For me, a motorbike is only complete when the rider is sitting on it, so it was important to me to ensure a cool riding position. That’s why it had to be possible to sit ‘on’ my bike and the suspension had to be functional to feel the new ergonomics. Wolfgang Seehaus, who worked in the design department under Klaus Volker Gevert, sponsored me in the project. And Markus Poschner (project leader of the S1000RR) provided me with the parts.
STARTING WORK AT BMW
“I started working for BMW in 1987. First as a freelancer for a year, then they hired me. In the design-department of K.V.Gevert there were three employees at that time: Karl-Heinz Abe, Wolfgang Seehaus and Glynn Kerr, who left in 1989 and whose position I took over to participate in the facelift of the K100RS. As I was quite good at drawing, maybe even a bit better than the others, I was allowed to do the graphics of the K1, including the big airing logo. There’s a funny story about this model: I came into the model making department at that time and there was a big piece of red cake made of clay (modelling clay) on the desk with two broomsticks sticking out of it. That was the model of the front mudguard of the K1 with two placeholders for the fork tubes! “We chose wild colours: yellow engine, bright red fairing, there was no strategy behind it, we had quite a lot of freedom and just did wild things and cool sketches. “Then we moved on to the R100R and, finally, the 259R series, the new four-valve platform.
For this new model, 4-5 renowned designers submitted designs, but actually I was chosen for that bike as a youngster, Karl-Heinz Abe then did the GS and the R. “I wanted to get rid of the undynamic, upwardpointing engine position of the old boxer models, which was caused by the geometry of the universal joint of the final driveshaft. That’s why the crankshaft was higher at the front than at the back, which worked against a sporty silhouette. We then turned the cylinder heads slightly downwards as a little trick, while the crankshaft retained its inclined position.
BMW’S ASYMMETRICAL GS DESIGN
“This was about the restyling of the GS, the 1150 from 1999. We had almost no budget, but I wanted to give the bike a new face and get away from the “truck” headlight of the 1100. We then got hold of an existing headlight housing from the company group with an asymmetrical housing and saw this could be accommodated quite well in the installation space without the front section having to become excessively larger. I like asymmetry when it is functionally driven and not for pure design reasons. “For a long time, this was an unmistakable feature of our machines: many people tried to copy the GS, but no one really dared to copy the “spout” together with the asymmetry. In 2004, with the first 1200GS, we really implemented the concept in a coherent way. By the way, the “spout” was absolutely functionally driven: the R1100GS reached quite high speeds at that time with its 80hp, and the shape of the front fender improved the downforce and thus brought stability, as well as efficient flow to the oil cooler.
SMOKE TESTING IN MOJAVE
“At that time I was travelling a lot to meet our suppliers abroad, especially in Italy and then in our design studio Designworks USA in California. That was interesting to really understand why cruise control, big suitcases, sound systems as well as a long range were important in the US. I even tried smoking behind the big fairing on the RT on the ride through the Mojave Desert to see how it worked. “Then came the K1200S and R, the concept bikes were really cool, with a semi-transparent green fairing. The package with the forward leaning cylinder bank was not easy to resolve.
A CHANGING DESIGN PROCESS
“I shaped the bike of my diploma thesis with PU foam, on which putty was then applied so the model could be painted. Then came the clay models and after the turn of the millennium the optical scanners and finally the development directly in the computer with Alias and CAD. “In the past, motorbikes were quite simple to design so that the four main development groups body, electrics, chassis and drivetrain only had to coordinate at the interfaces during development. If we had continued in this way, the bikes would have become bigger and bigger at some point. Today, this complexity can only be managed through an integrative and virtual approach, which is what we have been doing since the first S1000. “Pure clay models are the exception today, the R18 was the last project of this kind, because we simply wanted to show real and valuable hardware, the visual appearance and the value were more important for the model than the pure technical performance.
“There was a lot of speculation about this and all I can say is that I didn’t leave because there were conflicts. With Dave Robb (chief designer BMW Motorrad 1993-2012) it was a super symbiosis, he did a lot of publicity work in addition to his design duties, while I concentrated on the design of the bikes. “I just felt the urge for change after being in the design department at BMW for 22 years. I was doing 2-3 bikes at a time and had no staff responsibility. Actually it was ok, the perfect setup for a designer... until this headhunter called me and offered me the job in India. While it was grey and cold in Munich, I went to Pune over Christmas to have a look and finally agreed and took my family with me. “Technically, Bajaj was very well equipped, they were very advanced in virtual skills and they had a super competent head of development. I was able to learn a lot about cost structures and brand development there. Bajaj had around 20 bikes in its range, but they hardly differed from each other. We then started to really look at what the market needed and came up with ways to set up different segments. Allrounders for the city, then an ultra-robust and reliable machine for the countryside, on which the farmer could also transport the harvest, and finally a sporty model family for the real motorcyclists. These three product lines were clearly differentiated and for the first time we used design as a means of communication. We completely and successfully restructured the company orientation, brand strategy and design strategy.
BACK TO MUNICH, ROLAND SANDS AND THE R NINE T
“I had always kept good contacts with Hendrik von Kuenheim (Managing Director BMW Motorrad 2008-2012) and Adrian van Hooydonk (Head of BMW Group Design). When David Robb left in 2012, I got a call from Munich. There were also private reasons for me to go back to Germany. “To be honest, I have to say that after three years I was a bit frustrated, because I wanted to travel a lot in India, but it is extremely exhausting and annoying, no matter which means of transport you use. The exoticism had taken on a grey haze and during a trip to Munich, even the cold winter got me excited again. “Starting as the overall head of BMW Motorrad Design was a real challenge. In India, I had a different area of responsibility and I was still drawing a lot, but had nevertheless understood that design meant more than just drawing beautiful motorbikes. “I had started back at BMW on July 1, 2012 at the same time as Stephan Schaller (Managing Director BMW Motorrad 2012-2018). Together, we managed to take the design strategy to a new level. He understood the potential of emotional design and together we started with a new kind of concept bike. When we presented the first Concept Ninety at Villa d’Este in 2013, the motorbike world was totally surprised, we had really managed to convey pure emotion. Schaller thought it was cool, because all of a sudden the whole BMW-group had taken notice of us. By the way, Roland Sands built the bike, but the design came from our Munich studio.
“Dr. Markus Schramm (Managing Director BMW Motorrad since 2018) is a real motorbike freak and had previously made a name for himself in the car division as chief strategist. He brought his brand strategy to Motorrad as a new component and linked it to the design strategy. This logic has proven to be very successful. “In the past it was about building and selling motorbikes, today you have to give people experiences. When I started at BMW, our machines were functional and reliable. But sure, function is hygiene: if it says BMW on it, it has to work, and they do that extremely well now. And today you can buy the image of the cool guy who has a muddy GS Adventure or a casual R18 in front of his house with our bikes. This brand strategy is carried throughout the company, everyone in the team lives it. But you don’t learn motorbike design at university, all our employees are motorbike nerds, most of them have a lot of experience from racing or as mechanics.
Could you explain to us what the BMW motorbike design is all about? “Well, there are companies that focus more on the family feeling, where all models have certain similarities across the board. You can do that, but we prefer a segment-typical design language and certain visual features that we use for certain models.
“For the GS, for example, that would be Rough and Tough with basic geometric shapes familiar from the outdoor sector. Now look at the cases of an RT and a GS: they have the same functionality, but have to look different, for the GS preferably like an ammunition box, the RT cases are aerodynamic and high quality. Everyone recognises what comes across as visually dangerous, dynamic, boring or reassuring. The CE-04, for example, speaks an urban, almost architectural language of form; the CE-02 borrows from childish schemes: nice, friendly, a jokester.
“Semantics teaches us that you don’t understand the function of the part because you have studied design, but because it is stored in your cerebellum. “You have to learn how to use these tools. I like to deal with the psychology of perception: what do children perceive first? Colours, outlines? No, it’s proportions! That’s why the basic proportions have to be right. Gold-plated footrests are often a convulsive attempt to conceal flaws in the big picture. But there is also the freedom of art.
STILL A MOTORCYCLE ENTHUSIAST
“I have 14 motorbikes of my own, my favourite machine is a modified BMW HP2. When working on older motorbikes, you often discover off-putting things. My experience is that old US bikes lose their bolts, old English ones lose oil and the electrics on the Italian classics are often faulty, while older Japanese bikes are rather boring for me (with exceptions, of course), as are the old BMWs, but the last two are very reliable. “I love everything that has to do with Offroad, not so much Sport bikes on the racetrack, they are too uncomfortable for me.
“I’ve made a lot of cool bikes and had the chance to do things differently. The next generations of sports and mid-range bikes might already feature the last combustion engines, but I see electric mobility as extremely exciting. We are at a point like in the 1920s with a lot of possibilities. You only have to go to a motorbike museum to see what they tried 100 years ago. Electric is opening up a huge field that is still without guard rails, there are many different concepts for solutions. In 2025, we will present the first fully electric production motorbike from BMW Motorrad.”
Article kindly provided by kiwirider.co.nz
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