David Robb Interview!

Kevin Ash
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When this website broke the news of David Robb's sudden departure as Head of Design from BMW, it was always going to be big. Sure enough, the news spread like the flame front in a full throttle S1000RR engine: very fast, and right across the bike spectrum.

Robb himself was a little surprised at the excitement and decided to keep his head down for a while. BMW meanwhile had been hoping to put a lid on the news until a replacement for Robb had been found, so the two could be announced together, but it didn't quite work out that way: instead, in the absence of hard information, the rumours bred, fed on themselves and became increasingly ridiculous.

What this all did confirm was that Robb is one of modern motorcycling's best known and most influential characters, and what he does, matters to people. It's no celebrity fad either, his career as Head of Design started in 1993, and it started with him asking a basic question that was to shape BMW design and model development from then on: "I wanted to know why BMW was only making touring bikes,” he says. “We had 19 models covering just two and a half market segments, and we were fighting ourselves for these sectors.”

In fact, as he says, a process of change was already taking place as BMW had introduced the then-radical Telelever suspension and the new high-cam boxer engines, while the Funduro was being built in an innovative agreement with Aprilia. But change was badly needed as BMW had stagnated, stuck at sixth position in the German market and generally doing even worse elsewhere.

BMW K1200RSBMW K1200RSRobb's response was the controversial K1200RS, which with its cutting edge styling and 130bhp engine shattering the company's previous self-imposed 100bhp limit, certainly made an impact. It wasn't universally acclaimed: the UK market wasn't happy about the weight and some others didn't like the looks, but there was sufficient interest for Robb to be allowed to make his next moves.

He certainly did that, embarking on a new model programme which impressed almost as much with its sheer numbers as the originality of the bikes coming out. Yet with a few under his belt - or as he's keen to stress, his design team's belt - patterns, themes and a BMW way started to emerge, a force stronger than any individual bike.

It's here where Robb's legacy lies. "I feel if I've given BMW anything it's an outlet for its soul and passion, it wasn't what BMW did well before. Now each product has its own personality within an extended family. It's this more than any particular detail which I've left, if anything. And BMW was pipe and slippers 18 years ago- not any more."

He's changed attitudes too, especially towards making mistakes: "In the US (Robb's homeland), a design professor will allow his students to crash and get something completely wrong, even though he knows it will happen. It lets them learn the best way, through their mistakes. A German professor though doesn't want to have a bad student as it's seen as a reflection of him, it spoils his reputation, so he will guide his students away from getting things wrong and they don't make the same mistakes."

So with all that behind him, with BMW now number one in Germany and a major player in many other important markets, with bikes unthinkable only a few years ago, such as the S1000RR, with the GS brand looking almost unassailable, with BMW off-road bikes, insanely powerful streetfighters and most recently, executive scooters- well, what went wrong?

David has an agreement with BMW so he's not letting on too much, but he does say most of the rumours are very wide of the mark: "It wasn't a confrontational thing. There was no big row with von Kuenheim (BMW Motorrad General Director), but it did happen quickly. The details won't be revealed, but a few things came together, and suddenly leaving became an option, and one I found attractive. It was a professional thing, and I thought I was becoming too comfortable.
"And maybe I just retired to have a life-"

That last claim doesn't quite ring true though, especially as wheels are already turning - two at a time, of course. David has no intention of putting his feet up and watching TV for the rest of his life. Or, indeed, of spending all his time in his more exhilarating pursuits such as flying his stunt plane. He's a bike designer and one of the very best bike designers to boot, I guarantee he will be back in the bike industry, and not too far into the future either. He's ruling nothing out either, but while the possibility of starting his own consultancy surfaced in our chat, my money though is on Robb resurfacing with another manufacturer.

And that's going to start a fresh round of rumours- but when you read about it here, it won't be rumour.