Over three hundred years ago, the King of Sweden ordered a rifle factory be founded on Lake Vättern in Sweden. This week, next door to the Scores adult entertainment club on the west side of Manhattan, a set of new motorcycles was unveiled.
These two moments are related, across time and space, because they both have to do with Husqvarna. It’s a brand you might know best from the popular line of power tools, but Husqvarna has existed in some form or another since the late 1600s making muskets, sewing machines, and even typewriters. But it has also made motorcycles since 1903.
Husqvarna’s earliest motorcycles, as well as its traditional bikes, were known for being simple and lightweight. Not long before being sold off (the first time) to Italian manufacturer Cagiva, Husqvarna motorcycles were easily designed, adapted well to different riding settings and styles, and were considerably popular. Steve McQueen might have famously rode a Triumph TR6 trophy to near freedom in The Great Escape, but even he was known to hotfoot it in a Husqvarna in his later years.
Like nearly every other company making a motorized vehicle (regardless of wheel count) in the early 20th century, though, Husqvarna dabbled in racing. The company eventually became a commanding force in off-road competition, and it has exploited that niche ever since. The brand’s focus shifted.
A few years ago, though, the company tasked Maxime Thouvenin — a soft-spoken but affable Frenchman who was rising through the ranks of design studio Kiska — with reaching back into the past to pull Husqvarna’s street bike legacy into the future.
Thouvenin got into motorcycles as a hobby the same way many people develop a passion: his father rode. After studying industrial design at France’s Institut Supérieur de Design, he interned at Kiska, before taking another internship with BMW Motorrad in Munich. He was then hired back full time at Kiska to work on Austrian outfit KTM’s booming motorcycle business. (“When I came back the building was like 10 times the size,” he jokes.)
KTM eventually acquired Husqvarna, and Thouvenin was essentially handed the key. The new bikes are Thouvenin’s vision, coalesced. (He was even asked to design a full suite of accessories — a helmet, jacket, wallet, shoes, and other clothing — to go along with them.) After showing them off in various forms over the last few years at the Milan Motorcycle Show (or EICMA), Husqvarna and Thouvenin are finally releasing them into the world this spring.
The bikes are quite unlike anything else on the market. Tugging at Husqvarna’s heritage as an off-road force, they resemble the retro-futuristic scrambler bikes made by Triumph, but also the more flamboyant ones from Ducati. They are modern, but classic; futuristic, but familiar; most of all, they look cool as hell.
The Husqvarna bikes are distinguishable thanks to the collaboration between Thouvenin’s design team and Husqvarna’s engineers. The tank and seat of the new bikes form clean, almost rigid horizontal lines, while their exposed bellies invite you to poke and prod with your eyes (or hands) at all the mechanical bits that make the motos move. They are named Svartpilen 401 and Vitpilen 401, or “black arrow” and “white arrow” in Swedish; appropriate monikers, since they look like they’re moving forward even when they’re standing still.
They ought to be fun to ride, too, as both employ a 375cc single cylinder four-stroke engine that puts out 44 horsepower. With a dry weight of about 330 pounds, that should be more than enough to make Husqvarna’s new bikes feel speedy and spry. And if that leaves you hungry for more, there’s a bigger version of the Vitpilen (the Vitpilen 701) with a 693cc engine that puts down 75 horsepower. The 401 and 701 will retail for around $7,000 and $12,000, respectively.
Ahead of the final reveal of the new bikes, Thouvenin sat down with The Verge to talk about the task of resurrecting this part of the Husqvarna brand, while also tackling the problem of designing a bike at a time when motorcycles are at a relatively low point in popularity in the US. Steve Masterson, the president of Kiska’s North American shop, chimes in at the beginning and end.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sean O’Kane: These bikes have been around in the public eye for a little bit. Can you just break down for me the different forms that they’ve gone through? What’s the full portfolio?
Maxime Thouvenin: So as you said we started with the 401s, the Vitpilen and Svartpilen [concept] show bikes, and then of course we worked to turn these bikes into production. And in the meantime we presented the Vitpilen 701 show bike which is the following bike in the lineup.
Steve Masterson: The design was very strategic with Husqvarna. Kiska has been working with KTM since 1992. So every single bike since then has been designed by Kiska, and over that time we’ve created the largest European brand in the world.
So we had the chance with Husqvarna to actually sit down and say, okay, what took us 25 years to do, we now need to do it in three or four years. So Maxime was able to sort of sit down with the Kiska design team — which isn’t just a team of transportation designers. It’s also brand and marketing people business people, R&D — and think, ‘Okay, what are the engine platforms we can use? What are the ranges that we should be looking at? What’s the whole raison d’être behind Husqvarna?’
From a very early stage, and from Maxime’s hand, came a whole range, a whole story of what Husqvarna would be — right from the get go. So it wasn’t just let’s design one bike and then see how it goes, design another bike. It was always a much more strategic approach.
SO: Was that a lot to deal with? Being an industrial designer having worked on physical products to now having in your hands sort of all of these things that surround it?
MT: It was a big challenge, yeah for sure [laughs]. But I mean, so interesting. I mean, to do that with such a brand with such a history and such a heritage and to have this chance to create this new story around it. It was fascinating for sure.
SO: Once you started moving along that path of helping shape the brand, what were some of the first things that really stuck out to you as things that needed to be a part of what represents the company? What were some of the qualities that you latched onto first?
MT: With the street bikes, with Husqvarna returning to the street segment after 50 years, there were lots of discussions, and of course design exploration, to really figure out, ‘Okay, how are we going to do that?’ I mean, that’s a big one. Like, let’s not rush to design something.
And I think that, yeah, the brand promise, ‘pioneering’ was something... we had to bring Husqvarna back to the street with a Husqvarna approach. It had to be something right, something special. It couldn’t have been a quick return for a few years, no, this was really the return of the street segment on the long term. So that was the big discussion.
The Vitpilen 401 has a slightly different style than the Svartpilen 401, with a higher display, a single-piece seat, and a white finish to the tank.
If you look at today’s market you’ve got all these super high-tech performance-oriented bikes, quite often aggressive, expressing more and more power. Quite often over-styled.
And then we saw the classic scene getting bigger and bigger every year. With classic bikes and cafe racers, and so on. And so manufacturers were making neo-retro bikes. And fair enough. The demand is big.
But we thought, wait, there must be an alternative to that. Husqvarna is pioneering, that means innovative, what can we do? And the idea was to capture the essence of what motorcycles were in the past and what people were missing with modern bikes. And to do that but in the most modern, progressive way. Basically to really offer an alternative to what was out there.
SO: What were some of those things that motorcycles were doing back then that you wanted to capture?
MT: How motorcycles were approachable. I think everybody was riding motorcycles in the ‘70s, like everybody. Men, women, that was the thing. So we wanted to actually capture that and create an approachable motorcycle. They’re very simple, very reduced. Not intimidating at all. Very enticing. As an object, but also as a riding experience, we wanted to create lightweight bikes that were really compact. And this is what it’s been missing for years.
[With the new bikes] it’s about capturing this flavor of the past. In the US, when Triumph was big, they were compact bikes, they were very simple bikes. A tank, a front engine, a seat, and it was not about weight, it was just about having fun riding.
The Vitpilen 701 is a bigger, heavier, and faster bike. It also costs about $5,000 more.
SO: I think in the tech-focused world we and our readers live in at The Verge, we’re all used to wanting a new product every year, maybe every half year. And sometimes we’ll look at a project that takes four years and say, why did it take four years to do that? Can you tell me what the process was like working on these bikes over a number of years? Did you feel like that was or wasn’t enough time?
MT: For us to go from a show bike to a production bike, and see the bikes on the street in three years for the 401 and a bit more than two years for the 701, it felt very short for us. [laughs] Very short. What we also didn’t want to do is to rush the design and the development and miss the last percentage of quality of what we wanted to achieve. So it was important to be very true to these show bikes and really take exactly the time that was needed to achieve that, which again was really short.
You’ve got to imagine that if you look at the show bikes and the production bikes — I hope, and so far that’s the — they look very, very similar to the show bike. But there’s not a square centimeter that’s the same, actually. So we had to rework everything and find solutions with R&D and the engineers to make that happen.
SO: I’ve seen interviews where you’ve framed the idea of these limitations — time frame that you’re working with, or some of the regulations that you have to stay within — as problems that you need to solve. What’s the difference between working on bikes in a practical, problem solving way and more freewheeling, boundless design work?
MT: It’s two very different tasks for sure, but for me what we did is a good example of what’s really satisfying as a designer. Because we’ve got the show bikes, where we have no limits. It’s like the ultimate design we want, and it’s there, and it’s great. To bring that into production, I’m not lying, it’s really frustrating sometimes. [Laughs] It hurts sometimes. For sure. But the whole challenge is, let’s make it happen, let’s try to find a solution. Sometimes a problem creates a new way of doing things, or makes you question your design approach, and you find new solutions.
SO: Husqvarna has a very deep history across a lot of different disciplines, and I would imagine that’s appetizing for a designer, in the sense that if you really do want to reference things or call on things that the brand has been associated with, you have a very deep well to work with. Were there specific things you went back to for inspiration?
MT: We really looked forward. Husqvarna has always been pioneering, and even at the time they were doing those things, it was like crazy innovative what they did. And that’s what we are doing now. So we’re not looking at what Husqvarna did in the past and trying to bring it back.
In a way, because of its heritage and how they always thrived for innovation, we’re doing that too. I think the Scandinavian approach is something that also links the whole story here. Husqvarna always did things to provide something to people, to go forward, and their way of doing something was always... being approachable is not something new, they always did something approachable for people. It’s a very Swedish or Scandinavian design approach. It’s all functional, very minimalist, very reduced in everything they did. And this perfectly makes sense with what we’re trying to achieve now, because that is also very much Scandinavian.
SO: The motorcycle industry is in a really interesting place; just the other week Harley-Davidson shut down a factory and laid off people at another one. What does it feel like to to make a bike in a time like this, or do those things not really come into your mind too much?
MT: No, of course that’s something that’s always kind of there, when you look at what’s happening. But maybe it’s another good reason to go in a new direction, actually. It’s hard to say.
SM: In 1995, we were selling 1.2 million units. Today it’s 485,000. Looking at that, the motorcycle industry is in decline. In 1995, there were 3.4 million registered motorcycle users. Today there’s 8.4 [million]. So the market is changing.
The great thing about millennials is you change taxi riding, you change eating out, and you’re changing motorcycle riding as well. So to make the new motorcycle market into a successful thriving market again, it’s got to adapt and change. This is where we rely on Maxime and what he’s trying to do in making it approachable. This isn’t just about having the right product, it’s about having the right experience.
Even Harley-Davidson realizes, you know, they’ve got to get more riders, they’ve got to get people to experience the riding experience. So yes, the market’s changed. How people are consuming the product has changed. They don’t want to have to be completely kitted out in leather with all the latest gear, and getting the bike serviced. They just want to be able to put on a pair of jeans, and a leather jacket, and a helmet, and just go and ride.
SO: With that in mind, pulling back from the design study side of these new bikes, what does it feel like to finally get to hop on and ride this thing that you’ve designed?
MT: It’s a great feeling for sure. I also tried the prototypes along the way, so it’s not like we do one drawing and then two years later we sit on it and it feels good. [Laughs].
But it’s not exactly how you picture it before it happens. You know, when I was a kid you’d say ‘Oh, that was a drawing and now you can sit on it!’ In reality, there’s just so much development in between. And when the bikes ride like this, I mean even better, because they’re so much fun to ride.
Correction: This article previously referred to Thouvenin as Austrian. He is French.