Alex Earle is a car designer currently working at Volkswagen/Audi’s design studio in Santa Monica. A native of Salt Lake City, he moved to California to study car design at Art Center, and stayed. While working his day job, he decided he needed a manageable design project: building his own motorbike! He’d fallen in love with Monster, the bestselling Ducati motorbike designed by Miguel Angel Galluzzi that launched the trend for “naked bikes.” Earle set about adapting the Monster and has gone on to design and make five by hand. “What better way to support environmental sustainabilty than to give a design icon a second life?,” he says. Along the way, he’s learned about what’s involved in crafting a bike, in LA, from scratch.
DnA talked to him about the design process as well as what this week’s LA Auto Show means to him and other car designers. He explains how digitization has changed the way cars and bikes are made, and marketed.
DnA: What are you working on at Audi?
Alex Earle: We do occasional “blue sky” projects and the LA design competition that they host at the auto show, but generally we are working on next generation, production cars.
DnA: How did motorbikes come into the picture?
AE: I wanted to do something independently that was manageable and didn’t require a lot of space. Just to store a car is difficult. But I didn’t have strong interest in motorcycles until I saw this Ducati Monster on the street in Denver and it stopped me in my tracks. That was in 1994. I purchased one and started work on my first bike. Then, about three years ago, Audi acquired Ducati and I found myself working on Ducati bikes officially; I found my experience with the Monster gave me a head start understanding the particular, signature mechanical architecture of Ducatis.
DnA: So tell us about your homage to the Monster.
AE: Mine is called The Earle MotorsTracker.
I used this carburated 900 motor that requires far fewer electronics than you’d typically find on newer bikes and an extraordinarily simple fuel delivery so it’s very easy to plumb (no fuel injection); aircooled Ducati engines are very clean so the nice ‘L-twin’ configuration is clear.
I used a lot of the frame from that Monster bike but otherwise everything is new. I have changed the seat height and foot peg position of the bike, so the rider’s position is much more aggressive and you ride it like a dirt bike; high up on the tank with your leg kicked out in front of the wheel- supermotard style.
The green one was my prototype to work out the bugs; the plan now is to build five replicas at a much higher level, with the whole bodywork monocoque of carbon fiber, simplified and reduced to the max, and hopefully around 20 pounds lighter.
The goal is to sell these as high-end signature bikes; a highly functional piece of art that collectors could add to their stable. They work equally well as a canyon carving toy or parked next to your Superleggera and Black Shadow. They also sound amazing!
DnA: Is there a difference between designing cars and bikes?
In motorcycle design you don’t have all the dimensions laid out. The designer is responsible for trying it out and figuring out if it’s comfortable. When a bike is first developed for production, the seat shape and position has been largely determined by one individual designer’s physical make-up. You won’t know how well you’ve done until you physically sit on it. It is very difficult to establish a single, standard for total ergonomics.
With cars on the other hand it is all determined by the package in the computer. We have the centerline and wheel base and the outer envelope of the car pre-determined based on extensive data about singular human form and standardized components.
But with bikes there is no data that sets out, say, the distance between your knees and the tank handlebars. It took me my first two motorcycles to get the shape of how my seat would feel.
DnA: So this is an ambitious personal project. How have you been able to get the parts made?
AE: It’s all about the rapid prototyping — the whole idea was to test how quickly things can happen while building the perfect beast; that’s what drives people to do this even though the plan went awry and it wound up taking much longer than anticipated.
But the beauty of working in the Los Angeles area is that there is a small but fanatical group of fabricators that can realize just about anything you can dream up. Guys have 3-d scanners, big, 5-axis mills, 3-d printers, and most importantly, a deep well of experience and expertise with carbon, engineering, engine and exhaust dynamics, etc.
DnA: So let’s switch to another topic that I imagine is relevant to car designers, the LA Auto show. Are you going and do you expect to find anything interesting?
AE: I am definitely going to the show, because it’s where I get to meet with other people in the industry and get a glimpse of what they’ve been working on. But my expectations are usually not too high because so few of the big premieres happen here. I find generally the stuff you see at the auto show is what you can find in showrooms; just condensed into a manageable format.
The auto shows used to be very important to us car designers. I would be sent to the big shows and collect 10 kilos of brochures and I would take 200 photos and present the research to the studio. Now it’s like they don’t send us to shows. That’s because whenever we get a new project we look everything up online.
Car shows are cool for people who are buying cars and don’t know what car they want. For designers it’s simply a chance to step out of the confines of the studio and meet each other. It’s not like some big learning experience anymore.
DnA: Is this connected to the digitization of car design?
AE: Yes. It’s a completely different world; it’s so convenient to access images of every possible view that we often neglect to look at actual cars in the environment. Something is lost in understanding the true scale and proportion, how themes and details are revealed or diminished. At the same time, I feel like the level of detail and refinement has been vastly improved by this improved accessability.
The same is true of marketing. That’s moved online. If you look at the new Ford Mustang that’s going to be on show at the LA Auto Show, that car was basically first released on the internet. They don’t need to spend however many million dollars to present it at an auto show and get a relatively small number people to see it in person. They can release it somewhere remote — which is what they did, in Spain, I think — and get 15 of the most influential people in the auto industry to come see it, and then have them post it online and instantly millions see it. They don’t need a giant car show unveiling.