Sergio Robbiano poses with the MDA Design Award and the Bimota DB5 at Intermot 2004.
Bimota. There's a one-word sentence that implies many words. Or maybe a better sentence would be: Bimota? There's a lot in that name. What's it mean? Why has it been reborn from its controversial death? Just what is the character of this loaded moniker?
More than any other brand of motorcycle manufacturer, big or small, alive or forgotten, the Italian, Bimota company is all about ultimate performance evenly blended with sculptural beauty. Every Bimota conceived has been a work of art for performance's sake with performance for art's sake. To take a twist of yet another esthetic platitude, a Bimota embodies form following function and function following form. Bimotas are beautiful because of how well they perform, while many of its components are also just plain stinkin' beautiful because, well, because they just look damn right. So the name Bimota has stock. Although a little tainted at the turn of the century, but still it holds stock.
In 2004, the Bimota
name was reborn by new owners of the company's assets whose first order of business was to hire a designer of incomparable skills who could help return the manufacturer back to its original mission of offering limited edition, high art and high performance motorcycles. The man chosen to fill those big shoes is Sergio Robbiano. Who is this guy and is he up to the task?
Well, Robbiano didn't waste a second proving he's up to the task. With a small team of builders and engineers, Robbiano put on those big shoes and danced his way from a blank sheet of paper to a finished rolling, rideable prototype in 11 months, showing off the new Bimota DB5 at the 2004 Intermot show in Munich, winning the Motorcycle Design Award (MDA) in the Supersport category. And, if that's not enough, the DB5 also won the popular fan vote a month later at the Milan show, for the most beautiful new motorcycle. Yup, Robbiano's got big feet and those shoes fit just fine.
Fittingly, Robbiano found his way to Bimota's door by way of tutelage with Massimo Tamburini, the company's founding designer and whose last name put the "ta" in Bimota, the "Bi" and "mo" likewise pulled from the first two letters of the names of the other two original owners: Msrs. Bianchi and Morri. Tamburini designed every Bimota from the company's inception in 1975, up through the late-'80s. Throughout Tamburini's term, Bimota was the world leader in cutting edge chassis design, using Ducati and various Japanese engines to power its hand-built perimeter-framed bikes during a period when most motorcycles had simple, single, steel-backbone frames. It all started with the Honda 750-powered HB1. Although Tamburini didn't invent the perimeter frame - the concept was used by Zundap and others close to the beginning of the last century - he was the first to give it its modern application that was soon copied by the larger manufacturers and now used on every sportbike built by every manufacturer today.
Here is a look at Sergio Robbiano's final design layout for the Bimota DB5 before the design team began developing the prototype.
As a side note, the model designations for Bimota motorcycles use the first letter of what brand engine the model carries, followed by a B for Bimota and the consecutive numbering of how many Bimota models have now used that brand engine. For example, the YB9 is the ninth Bimota to use a Yamaha engine. The SB6 and SB7 are the sixth and seventh Bimotas having Suzuki engines. Because of the custom of most motorcycle's having numerical designations that reference a bike's displacement, some get confused by Bimota's system and don't realize the SB6 uses a GSX-R1100 engine while the SB7 is powered by a GSX-R750 unit, and the YB9 sports an FZR600 engine. And so the all-new DB5 is the fifth Ducati-engined Bimota. Every now and then the company gets fancy, such as with the Deci, which is Italian for 10, the bike actually being the YB10. And by the way, Dieci is pronounced Dee-eh-chee. Which reminds me, Bimota is pronounced Bee-mo-ta. Those Etalians don't ever, ever use our hard "I."
Leaving Bimota, Tamburini handed the design studio over to a kid named Marconi, who was there nearly to the end of the company's downfall, briefly being replaced by a designer whose products never made it to the marketplace. A couple years ago Bimota closed it doors despite the company's prideful win that same year in World Superbike with Anthony Gobert piloting an SB8.
But any story about Bimota's excellence and innovative designs needs to follow Tamburini's trail more than Bimota's. When Tamburini left the company its products never matched the quality, genius and honesty of detail that his bikes had. And following Tamburini proves he was Bimota's heart because that genius of creativity that defined Bimota went out the door with him and continues pouring out of his every design.
After Tamburini left Bimota he went to work at the Cagiva Research Center (CRC) located in the Republic of San Marino, which is a tiny independent state just inside the Adriatic coast of Italy. It's sort of what Monaco is to France. Tamburini's tenure started during the initial period of that company's ownership of Ducati, and so while there Tamburini designed the Mito and 916. Yeah, that'd be THE 916. The bike that defined sportbikes for over a decade and which was so well conceived it took it a dozen years for it to age 12 months. And even now that bike is still pure sex. Not a bad item to have on any resume. Ducati was eventually sold off to another group but the design studio stayed under ownership of Cagiva who had recently acquired the rights to the MV Agusta name. And yup, Tamburini is who designed the MV F4. So it's no contest, Tamburini is the man.
Here's a look at the November 2003 line drawings of the Bimota DB5 before Robbiano and his team began the task of creating a bike from nothing.
Sergio Robbiano, a native of Genova, Italy, dreamed since his early school-days, of designing motorcycles. Like any artistic biker, Robbiano would draw sketches of his visions in his notebook in Jr. high. He went on to earn a Masters degree in Industrial Design at the Politecnico di Design di Milano and then set up his own graphic design firm, but his childhood dream still tugged at him. So he called Tamburini at CRC and two months later he found himself working alongside the master during the evolution of the 916 and into the design of the MV Agusta.
After working with Tamburini for 15 years, and loving every moment of it, the opportunity finally opened for Robbiano to ply his finely honed skills where Tamburini had established himself, back at Bimota. Robbiano told us, "First of all I must say thanks again to Mr. Tamburini. He taught me many secrets about frames, suspension, and mechanical needs of a motorcycle. From the beginning I understood that was only way to design beautiful bikes. There are a thousand measurements that work together and a designer must find the correct balance."
The new Bimota headquarters is located at the original company's address in Rimini, Italy, a resort town on the country's northeast coast. Rimini is best known as the childhood home of film director Federico Fellini, for whom there is a brand new museum that opened in 2003. Rimini is also just a few miles northeast of CRC. In other words, Robbiano can still do lunch with Tamburini. Or, the two of them can test bikes together at the nearby Santa Monica road course, formally known as di Misano Adriatico Circuit.
But today's task of building a performance bike at a small company is much more difficult than when Bimota first started. All of the Japanese manufactures have pushed performance to an unbelievable level and their chassis designs are now properly in pace with their powerplants. Bikes like the new GSX-R1000 or YZF-R1 incorporate the latest available for design and manufacturing using trick welding systems and forging technologies that didn't exist merely a few years ago. Aluminum perimeter chassis design from Japan has undergone a 20-year refinement to become lighter, stronger, and tougher. So what's a kid from Genova gunna do?
Well, if you can't win by someone else's rules. make up your own. Do it differently.
So, the Ducati 1000cc air-cooled engined DB5's frame is a combination of welded chrome-moly trellis and machined-billet swingarm plates, mated to a sexy swingarm that uniquely continues the frame's theme by using welded steel tubes attached to machined-billet axle plates. Robbiano refers to each of those chassis components as composite-trellis. It gives the bike sort of the look of a papa frame closely followed by a baby frame. And it works, both technically and esthetically. And the DB5's swingarm is the component Robbiano is most proud of. "It's absolutely a new concept but perfectly harmonized with the classic frame of the bike. The DB5 is a future bike mixed with classic old Bimotas."
The Bimota DB5 rolling chassis looked sweet and was ready to be wrapped in the sharp bodywork by June '04.
Alberto Strada was the lead engineer working with Robbiano on the DB5 project. It was Strada's task to specify the bike's geometry and component location, defining the parameters allowed for Robbiano's design. The best way to describe the difference between an engineer and a designer is, the first of those two makes something work while the second makes it work for a human. For instance, an engineer specified how many heat elements are in your toaster and how hot they need to get and what tension needs to be on the release coil. A designer clothed those mechanisms in chrome and black plastic, or whatever fashion might dictate, and made a handsome knob that's comfortable to press and easy to access. And an engineer designed what's inside your cell phone while a designer designed what you hold in your hand. That all said, there is no hard line drawn between the two and many times they reach over into each other's fields.
Anyway, in the unique design of the DB5 swingarm the heavier portion of it that's made from steel is closest to the pivot point so its contribution to unsprung weight is minimal, while the lighter aluminum plates at the end of the arms are ridged yet light. In essence, Robbiano's team created a cantilevered arm that changes alloys to specifically address the differing needs at its two ends. It's smart, elegant, efficient, and a damn nice looking component. It's what good design is all about.
"With the DB5 I had this great opportunity; I could start from a white paper and I could design frame and rear swing arm like I wanted," says Robbiano. "I discussed with Alberto the measurements we wanted on the bike and about the principal components and their position. Alberto was enthusiastic about the new swingarm design and started mechanical test just to confirm our idea. The results were excellent and better than the DB4 aluminum swingarm."
Robbiano refers to the DB5's swingarm as having the "Colombo edge." It's an Italian saying for something that in hindsight was easy and obvious yet had never been done before. American designers have a similar saying, which is KISS, meaning: Keep it Simple, Stupid.
The DB5 design goals were to make it a modern sportbike with retro hints. To that end the bike has a nearly full fairing with sharp edges similar to a modern Moto GP bike, yet the fairing ends quickly to the rear allowing the engine to be viewed. It's sort of a dressed naked bike. And all of the DB5's components are of the latest technology, such as the radial-mount Brembo calipers, upside down Ohlins forks, dual rotors, OZ rims, and an under seat exhaust, which although new to many production bikes harks back to the Bimota SB6 of the mid-1990s.
One of Robbiano's favorite components on the DB5 is the trellis-CNC aluminum-plate hybrid swingarm.
As with any great designer, even though the DB5 was received with rave reviews, even though it has already won awards, Robbiano is dissatisfied and has new ideas he'd like to use on his next bike. But great design is never finished and can always be improved. That's the good thing about having a due date for completion; it forces a guy to let go.
"I had two important goals (going into the design phase of the DB5): the new technology on the swingarm and a 'MotoGP look' that would leave the engine in the view like a naked bike."
And that's why Robbiano wasn't just surprised to win the MDA, "I was shocked. The MDA award is absolutely the top for a motorcycle designer; your bike is voted as the most important design of the world and I was very honored to bring Bimota back among the big names." And of the Milan show Robbiano said, "In one way, the public vote in Italy was more surprising. Italians generally love Japanese bikes more and the Italian market has not been so important for Bimota in the last years. Probably this thing is going to change."
Looking to the future Robbiano recognizes the depth of the tasks before him. "The four Japanese companies are working better and better making it a problem for others. We have to do something new and really different and at the same time beautiful."
The other bikes in Bimota's immediate stable are a revamped SB8K that comes in either the Santa Monica version (named after the neighboring test track mentioned earlier) and the Gobert version. That last version clearly shows a uniquely Italian type of loyalty; heart matters, even in business. And also in the plans is a Tesi 2D, with center-hub steering. Hopefully the front end has been tweaked a bit.
Under its previous owners, Bimotas were priced in the low $20,000 range, and had a difficult time finding a market for their products, especially in the States. The new DB5 is priced at about $20,000 more, coming in somewhere in the mid-$40,000 range. What this means in the marketplace is difficult to tell. The knee-jerk prediction would be abject and immediate failure. Know anyone looking for a gifted designer?
Sergio Robbiano "For Bimota the priority was to make again a "Bimota" after many years. About designing the shape, we wanted a very light, sporty and Italian bike; it is something very easy to say but very difficult to do."
But we're not foolish enough to prognosticate on market trends. It could be that a more exclusive Bimota at a higher price tag will appeal to a market correctly sized to make the company successful. In the last ten years the bike market has gone through many changes boldly reflected through my television screen on a daily basis. Paul Sr., Jr., Mikey and Jesse James are household names, bikers are now respectable citizens, Michael Jordan owns a roadracing team and the Robb Report has a bike mag... what happened? Maybe Bimota just needed to wait for America to catch up to the program and now the timing is right? The only thing for sure is, no one knows. So we'll keep you posted.
But no mater what happens, a hearty thanks to Robbiano for living a kid's dream to the max.
For more information about Robbiano and Bimota, he invites everyone to visit his website: www.robbianodesign.com
Talk about Sergio Robbiano & Bimota's DB5 in the MCUSA Forum