Each decade of the 20th Century produced its icons of design; products that distilled the vibe of an era into 3 dimensions.  These cars, motorcycles, armoires and toasters were rarely the top sellers of their time, and often outright shunned by consumers, but this only pushed them into the realm of Collector’s Items – death for production, but life for connoisseurs.  In 2018, we’re having a moment of increasing appreciation for 1980s design, as witnessed by rapidly escalating prices for two of the motorcycles included in this list (the Honda Motocompo and Vetter Mystery Ship), and a flurry of activity on social media appreciating what was formerly derided and discarded.  It’s the old story, the bell curve of collectability from nadir to zenith, and the wave is just forming for a price peak on the best of 1980s motorcycle design.  These bikes aren’t the best sellers, or the biggest winners, or even the best looking, but they’re definitely design icons and points of reference for the motorcycle industry of the 1980s.  So, in chronological order…

Craig Vetter’s 1980 Mystery Ship

1980 Vetter Mystery Ship

Craig Vetter had an outsize influence in motorcycling, beyond his personal fame or fortune, although he’s had plenty of both.  While the motorcycles he designed for production were strictly limited-edition specials (including the 1973 Triumph X75 Hurricane – you’ll find that on our upcoming 1970s Design list!), his Windjammer fairing and hard bags were seemingly everywhere in the 1970s and ’80s, and pushed the OEM manufacturers to include streamlined wind protection on their production touring motorcycles.

Far more interesting, though, was his cosmically-inspired Mystery Ship design of 1980.  Built in a limited edition of just 10 machines, the Mystery Ship was a unique set of bodywork atop a Kawasaki KZ-1000.  The fairing protects the rider from (some) wind, and a unibody tank/seat unit incorporates racing-style side panels with numbers, a mashup of touring + racing that’s slightly to the left of Vetter’s mashup of chopper + cafe racer for his Triumph Hurricane.  That mix – racing/touring – is exactly the same formula as the Japanese Bosozoku style, and the Mystery Ship would fit right in even today on a mad dash through Tokyo with a gang of flashy youths (although the’ve incorporated more chopper cues since the 1980s).

The Kawasaki underpinnings were upgraded with magnesium Dymag wheels, a four-into-1 Yoshimura exhaust, upgraded racing brakes, a six-gallon fuel cell, and a Lockhart oil cooler hidden in the fairing.  The sale price was $10,000, which was considered outrageous at the time at 3X the price of the base KZ-1000, but Vetter said this was below the actual production cost, and he lost money on every sale.  At least there were only ten built (7 of which were sold)!  The most recent sale of a Mystery Ship at Mecum’s 2018 Las Vegas auction fetched $33,000 –  still 3X the price of a perfect KZ-1000!

It’s been suggested the Mystery Ship directly influenced the design of the 1982 Honda CX500 Turbo, and anticipated the shape of motorcycles throughout the later 1980s and ’90s, with fairings integrated seamlessly with bodywork.  The design world watched Vetter’s work very closely, as his finger was hard on the pulse of the moment.  The Mystery Ship is an incredible visual statement, and if Mecum’s Las Vegas auction is any indication, this once-forgotten design will again have its day in the sun.

1980 Target Design ED-1

The 1980 Target ED-1

Target Design was formed as a triumverate of ex-BMW designers including Hans Muth, Jan Fellstrom, and Hans-Georg Kasten, who set up shop near Munich in the town of Seefeld. Hans Muth designed quite a few legendary BMW cars and motorcycles, including the R90S, R100S, and R65LS.  The Target breakaways intended to offer their design services to other companies, and their first motorcycle design was an entry into a 1980 Motorrad Revue magazine contest for a ‘motorcycle of the future’.  The contest saw entries by Porsche Design and Ital Design, but the Target ED-1 (European Design 1), based on an MV Agusta four, was victorious for its flowing lines and interesting mix of radical bodywork over a fairly standard chassis.

Underneath Target’s stunning bodywork was an MV Agusta 750 4-cylinder with shaft drive, and a Yamaha 4 leading shoe racing front brake.  The swooping bodywork gave an organic profile to the bike, with the faired-in front headlamp dipping low over the tire-hugging plastic front fender, and a humped gas tank flowing smoothly into a seat unit with integral bum-stop and taillamp.  To contemporary eyes, it looks shark-like and vaguely familiar, which is because the design was immediately adapted by Target for Suzuki for a new model based on the GS-1000 roadster, known as the Katana.  The Katana is considered the most influential motorcycle design of the 1980s, but since it’s nearly identical to the ED-1, that’s the bike on our 1980s Design list.

A small batch (or at least one) of ED-1 replicas was built a few years ago and floated for sale in Europe, at a very high price, but MV Agusta 4-cylinders have that effect on people.  It’s an amazing design that pushes all the right buttons, looking menacing, animalistic, and futuristic all at once.

1981 Honda Motocompo NCZ 50

The 1981 Honda Motocompo and Honda City car it was designed for [Honda]
Honda is tremendous successful at selling small and smaller motorcycles around the world.  Their ‘Cub’ series has been around 60 years and has sold in the tens of Millions, and their design team branched out many times to use the indestructible motor in a variety of chassis configurations. But the Motocompo NCZ 50 has nothing to do with the cub, or any of Honda’s scooters, although it does share a 2-stroke engine with other Honda products.

The Motocompo was sold as an integral accessory to the Honda City microcar in 1981, a ‘trunk bike’ designed to fold up neatly into a suitcase-sized box so it could easily be stowed in a special compartment of the City’s rear hatch.  The idea, one presumes, is to drive the City near to areas where no cars can travel, then use the Motocompo to reach further into the urban web.

The City’s luggage compartment was designed specifically for the Motocompo. The tiny motorcycle’s handlebars, seat, and footpegs fold into the scooter’s rectangular plastic bodywork, into cleverly designed recesses and hand-carry recesses. While Honda projected sales of 8000 Citys and 10,000 Motocompos per month (both were  Japanese Domestic Market only), it was the City that reached these sales targets, but over 3 years ‘only’ 53,369 Motocompos were sold.  The end of Motocompo production was 1983, and an average of 3000/month were built.  Hardly a failure, but neither was the Motocompo greeted with a firestorm of approval.

Nevertheless, the design of the Motocompo is ingenous, and perhaps the only real inheritor of the ‘Motosacoche’ concept, being truly a ‘moto in(to) a suitcase’! The design is impeccably 1980s, with its flush, integrated head- and taillamps, retractable everything, and terrific graphics.  Best of all, the City/Motocompo advertising campaign was launched with the British ska band Madness providing entertainment and music for the ad.  It, too, is a highlight of 1980s design!

1981-6 Honda ELF racers

The 1983 ELF-2 GP racer [Honda]
ELF is a state-owned French oil company, that sought publicity by sponsoring radical French motorsports designs in F1, F2, and F3 auto racing with Matra and Renault, and with motorcycles in the radical designs of Andre de Cortanza.  ELF marketing director Francois Guiter had worked with de Cortanza on the Renault racing project (including the LeMans-winning A442 turbo), and knowing his expansive knowledge of engineering on two and four wheels, and his enthusiasm for motorcycle endurance racing, directed the financial resources of ELF to develop some of his radical chassis ideas.

The ELF-E endurance acer of 1983

De Cortanza’s initial design, the ELF-X, was built in 1978 (and we’ll include it in our 1970s Design article), around a Yamaha TZ750 engine.  The ELF-X used the engine as a stressed member and had almost no ‘frame’ to speak of, using a swingarm at the front and rear of the machine, and a hub-center steered front wheel.  His aim was to eliminate the frame, lower the center of gravity, eliminate fork dive under braking, and reduce weight, at which he was successful.  But the design needed further development.

The 1981 Honda ELF-R record-breaker

That development was dramatically boosted when Honda tested the ELF-X in late 1979, and offered de Cortanza a factory racing 1000cc Honda RSC engine to work with, as a kind of external technical research project.  The RSC motor was a typically Honda racing four-cylinder four-stroke DOHC engine, and far more robust than the Yamaha two-stroke four, thus a far more rigid unit for building a frameless motorcycle.  The new ELF-E (for Endurance) was entered in the World Endurance Championship from 1981-83, and was developed continuously to cure issues of handling and braking for a highly-stressed hub-center motorcycle.  The ELF-E and ELF-2 (a proper GP racer also backed by Honda) projects were the first modern development program for such a design, although hub-center steered bikes have been around since at least 1905.

The ELF-R record-breaker [Honda]
Honda gained tremendous R&D value from the ELF/de Cortanza project, and immediately incorporated some of these ideas into their production and GP racing motorcycles, including a single-sided swingarm (in magnesium on the ELF but aluminum on their roadsters), improved braking and suspension systems, and the use of carbon fiber for the chassis.  The reliability issues with these new technologies, and their rapid solutions for racing, proved a perfect laboratory to develop new ideas in real-world racing, without risking Honda’s reputation as a GP winner.

Back side of the ELF-R [Honda]
A super-streamlined version of the ELF was built for record-breaking – the ELF-R.  A totally new set of bodywork was designed with a conical ‘dustbin’ fairing and NACA ducts for cooling the motor and brakes, the first time these were used on a motorcycle.  With the same HRC-1000 engine as their other racers, in 1986 the Elf R reached 200mph in Nardo, Italy, and riders H. Auriol, E. Courly and C. de Liard took 6 World Speed Records.

Back side of the 1983 ELF-E

The final Honda/ELF collaboration was the ELF-2 through ELF-5 series of GP racers through 1988.  Each tried radical new ideas (like push-pull steering via the handlebars, which didn’t work out so well), and while they win any of their races or race series, they added a measure of unpredictability to GP racing that proved extremely interesting and exciting, to a degree that hasn’t been equalled since.  And, their quirky shapes broke new ground, stimulating the motorcycle industry to try new ideas.

1984 Fantic Sprinter

The 1984 Fantic Sprinter [Classic Driver]
Fantic Motors was formed in Italy in 1968, building enduro bikes, go-karts, and mopeds.  Their most famous model of the 1970s was the Chopper, a miniature Easy Rider moped accompanied by cheeky advertising that was simultaneously outrageous and genius.   Their Chopper and TI models were the fastest mopeds available in the 1970s, reaching 70mph, and gained them a reputation for both great performance and cool design.

[Classic Driver]
In the 1980s, Fantic did amazing things in off-road competition, taking three Observed Trials World Championships, and winning the Scottish Six-Days Trial seven times!  While their specialized off-road machines had a terrific reputation and sold well, they incorporated their technical know-how into an amazing design in 1984 – the Sprinter.

The 1984 Fantic Sprinter used a traditional pressed-steel beam chassis and 50cc two-stroke motor (the C2 HL KS by Minarelli) with a centrifugal clutch, but the overall design was a mashup of motocross and Memphis design that could only have been built in the 1980s.  The plastic bodywork is a unibody design, and the engine pivots opposite the rear wheel, with which its visually unified by a long drive cover for the chain.  The shapes, the graphics, the knurled rubber dust seal on the front forks, the wheels painted to match the bodywork, all added up to a tidy, unified design that was absolutely unique, and completely of its moment.

[Fantic Motor Legend]
The Sprinter might have fulfilled Oscar Wilde’s quote, “Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern. One is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly.”  While perfectly embodying 1980s design, it was quickly a relic of the same, and seemed to vanish from the scene for 30 years.  They’re having a moment though, as images of Sprinters for sale in Hungary or Italy float through social media, and the world awakens to the groovy ’80s perfection delivered by Fantic, as if from the Gods of the New Wave.

1986 Colani Egli MRD-1

The 1986 Egli-Colani MRD-1 record-breaker without sponsor logos

We’ve profiled ultra-groovy designer Luigi Colani in our ‘the Future is Now’ article;  Colani oozes the 1970s with his signature organic curves, simultaneously modern and erotic in a style he calls ‘biodynamic’.  His fluid product designs have been manufactured by numerous companies – all sorts of objects from cameras to semi-trailers were built to his sensuous standards.  But Colani had a thing for motorcycles, recognizing their inherent mechanical intimacy with the human body, and in his art he simply merged the human body with the motorcycle itself, making glossy, hybrid creatures.

He found a real-world opportunity for his integration of his human + motorcycle hybrids in an unusual pairing with Fritz Egli, the Swiss designer whose spine-frame, limited production motorcycles had brought Vincent engines into modernity (in the ’60s and ’70s), and improved both the handling and looks of Japanese fours.  The MRD-1 was the ultimate Egli, with its patented spine frame built around a racing, turbocharged Kawasaki Z-1 engine with 1428cc capacity.  The MRD-1 was a monster built for going very, very fast, and Colani was tapped to design the aerodynamic bodywork to raise its its top speed potential, and its profile.

The MRD-1 was built to take speed records, and Colani integrated the rider with the streamlining, in an unusual twist on 1920s and ’30s record breakers wearing teardrop helmets.  The rider’s head was tucked under the bodywork, but his back carried the flush-fitting top of the bike’s canopy!  The rider for the record attempt was 21-year old Urs Wenger, an Egli employee. The Colani-Egli MRD-1 produced 320hp from its turbocharged, nitrous-breathing engine, and broke the World Land Speed Record for 10km from a standing start, at 170.26mph (272.41kmh); his top speed was 330kmh (198mph) – interestingly, the record was previously held by the Honda ELF-R, ridden by Ron Haslam at 265.4kmh.

Colani’s bodywork proved unstable at speed, and in the attempt the body-hugging cockpit hatch had to be abandoned – strange things happen above 150mph in the wind!  The bike still took the record (how could it not with such a monster engine?), and photographs of Colani’s bodywork spread around the world, amazing everyone that such bodaciousness emerged from this pairing of eccentric German/Swiss designers.

1988 BMW K-1

After decades of building ‘old man bikes’, and even after the fantastic R90S and R100S, BMW still needed to shake up their image.  The BMW K1 was an aesthetically radical design first proposed at the 1984 Cologne Motor Show as the aerodynamic ‘Racer’ prototype, using their ‘flying brick’ K100 four-cylinder chassis and motor.  The K-1 used the two-piece front fender and a seven-piece fairing similar to the Racer, which was essentially a marketing exercise to transform BMW’s image.

The K-1 was a very different animal than the K100 it was based on, and used BMW’s first four-valve cylinder heads, with high compression and sports camshafts.  It bumped against a voluntary 100hp power limit for German motorcycles (that didn’t last long!), but relied on very effective wind tunnel development for a remarkable 0.38 coefficient of drag, the lowest of any motorcycle in the industry.  But, at 512lbs dry, the 100hp wasn’t enough to make the K-1 a true sports bike (compared to a typical Japanese 600cc four at the time), but the design was stable at its 150mph top speed.  Not quick but certainly fast.

The K-1 successfully shook up the public’s image of BMW with its wild ketchup red and mustard yellow paint scheme and total chassis coverage.  It looked futuristic (if a bit heavy), and delivered on its promise of speed and new technology, even though it was slightly under-developed regarding heat retention and huge turning radius (20′!).

The K-1 invites metaphoric descriptions of its shapes – Transformer on 2 wheels, the flying yoghurt carton, etc.  Like most of the machines on this list, it’s a love-or-hate motorcycle, but any student of design gives the machine the respect it deserves as a pioneer of modern total enclosure and wind-cheating shapes, and a surprisingly bold statement from what was previously perceived as a conservative manufacturer.


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