In 1991, Austrian motorcycle manufacturer KTM was forced into bankruptcy and a split into four independent companies. By 2015, it had fully risen from the ashes to become the best-selling European bike brand. How did that happen? One word: KISKA.
In a motorcycle landscape full of companies trying to fill the middle ground and produce all sorts of hybrid-purpose bikes, KTM has gone the opposite with race ready dirt bikes, bat shit crazy naked sportbikes, and long distance worthy adventure bikes—which makes their success and rise over the other European brands even more interesting. No fluff, no middle ground, no scramblers, and no full size toned down versions.
And while their “best selling brand in Europe”claim bit caught me off guard, it turns out they’re aren’t getting creative with the numbers. KTM claims a 2015 sales of over 180,000 units while BMW claims 136,963 units, Ducati claims 54,800 units, and Husqvarna 21,513 units. I couldn’t find 2015 numbers for Triumph, but they sold 54,432 in 2014.
To find out how they pulled it off, I went to KTM’s first ever design and technology event at their headquarters in Mattighofen, Austria. That’s where I found out the secret behind KTM’s success lies with one man and his tiny design firm.
I first saw the name KISKA alongside Husqvarna’s show-stopping Svartpilen 401 and Vitpilen 401 on display at the 2014 EICMA show in Milan. I found those two bikes more desirable than any others at the show, which should have been my first clue that they weren’t created by a custom bike builder or through a one-off collaboration with Husqvarna (or rather, KTM, which bought Husky in 2013.)
In 1990, Gerald Kiska (below) founded KISKA, a one-man shop focused on product design. In 1991, KTM held a design contest for the design of an LC4-based motorcycle. Kiska and his then small team—just five employees—won. Afterward, KTM filed for bankruptcy and was split up into four divisions: bicycles, radiators, motorcycles, and tooling.
When Stefan Pierer took the reins of the reborn KTM motorcycle division in 1992, the KISKA partnership continued and grew. Since then, KISKA has been responsible not only for those slick Huskys at EICMA, but for the design of every single KTM motorcycle since 1992, from the original Duke onward.
Today, KISKA has 150 employees from 28 countries and is based in an airy 50,000 square foot facility at the foot of Mt. Untersburg in Anif, Austria. In the lobby sits two of KISKA’s most banzai creations—the KTM X-Bow and Super Duke R—alongside a display table showcasing a few other KISKA projects, including some Zeiss binoculars and an robust laser spirit-level. The building and team embody the organized, confident minimalism that so often seems to breed good industrial design.
Kiska has been very cunning about what they call “co-creating desirable brands through design” with KTM.
Grating marketing speak? Absolutely. But, he has some points to back it up. While KISKA started with just bike design, they’ve grown to now handle everything, including their YouTube videos. That “Beast” launch video for the Super Duke 1290 R, that was all KISKA.
KISKA actually handles all aspects of a new KTM’s development and launch, from the strategic identification and definition of a new product package, to design conception and development through to the creation of its website and sale materials.
It was also KISKA who was on the ground all across Europe talking to young people about what they wanted in a learner motorcycle. European teens want to buy big bikes but the licensing system won’t let them, so the 125 / 200 / 390 Dukes have a big-bike—rather than stunt bike-feel.
Kiska seems laser-focused on what kinds of products he wants to create. Outside of the 390s, which are aimed at new riders, all of KTM’s bikes deliver on the “ready to race” promise.
After Gerald Kiska’s presentation, senior KISKA designer Craig Dent took us through some of the iterative design processes that led to the current shapes of KTM’s motocross bikes. One that stood out was the front fender. The goal was a fender that offered good mud protection but didn’t get full of dirt—no racer wants to cart around 2 kg of caked-on mud—that was both light and stiff.
In the case of the leftmost fender, the spinning front wheel touches the inside of the fender when the suspension is fully compressed and flicks the mud off but the design results in a very flexible, floppy fender. The second fender is stiff and light, but not auto-cleaning; mud gets caked into the grooves. Third fender? Stiff and auto-cleaning, but mud gets caked onto the top of the fender. As you can see, the fourth fender is ideal. It graces KTM’s current bikes.
Craig was also proud of the transformation from Super Duke R to Super Duke GT. Another series of slides proved that the GT is just a Super Duke R with protection, and remains true to KTM’s “Ready to Race” spirit. A Super Duke R with a bit more bodywork, a larger tank, and a stronger subframe? Am I the only one who thinks that sounds like a dream come true?
Then Craig took us into the design lab itself, where we found about 20 designers, clay modelers, and CAD drafters. A dozen bikes sat before us, but the vast majority were covered to escape our prying eyes. We did get a close look, however, at a clay model of the Super Duke GT, as well as the Husqvarna 701 Vitpilen from EICMA 2015.
When KTM asks KISKA to design a new bike, KISKA holds an internal design competition where five or six designers submit sketches, and the best idea wins. From there, CAD designers turn the sketches into 3D models, which are then printed in clay. Craig explained that in real life, everything looks different from in 3D, so they have to modify the clay, and then the drawings, and then reprint until it looks just right.
Just behind the clay Super Duke GT hung a big board with words and graphics that KISKA uses to define the very different KTM and Husqvarna design languages. The graphic below underlines how complex and rigorously defined brand identities are.
At this point, I started to wonder if my nearly two-decade fascination with all things KTM had all been carefully engineered by the folks working between these walls—folks working not even at KTM, but for KISKA.
Despite only having ridden a 200 EXC, a 390 Duke, and a 690 SMC, I’ve always thought that the original LC4 Duke must be a riot to ride, the KTM 990 Adventure would be more to my liking than a BMW GS, and that if I were going to buy a supermoto, it’d be a 450 EXC.
But while KTM seems to stand for “Hot, Wild, and Austrian,” it seems like KISKA is moving Husqvarna toward “Ready to Hipster.”
While the 21,513 Husqvarnas sold last year might be little more than white KTMs, the radical Svartpilen and Vitpilen concept bikes indicate that future Husqvarnas will be increasingly different from the KTM lineup.
If KISKA’s design lab brought sketches to life, KTM’s R&D labs were the opposite—scores of prototype and production parts were being bent and twisted to destruction. Though a production motorcycle must stand up to years of abuse, an overbuilt bike will be portly and sluggish. The solution is to send sensor-covered bikes out to be torture-tested.
The test-bikes are wheelied, smashed into curbs, and jumped two-up. Off-road bikes obviously get more extreme abuse. Once the engineers have discovered the maximum loading a bike’s parts see in rough use, they construct devices that replicate those loads on the parts and then cycle them thousands or hundreds of thousands of times. This approximates the roughest use a bike could see in its lifetime.
Somewhat surprisingly, this type of abuse lets engineers create lighter parts. Rather than guessing what a bike might see and creating parts based on calculations, cycling real-world loads allows the engineers to create lighter parts without sacrificing durability.
The hard part is creating the machines that do the fork-bending, bar-bending, and peg-stomping. Many such tools exist in the automotive world, but the comparatively small motorcycle industry must design and construct the machines themselves. It’s tough, complicated work; in all, KTM spent over 50 million Euros on R&D in 2015.
Another R&D room we peeked into held a 1290 Super Duke GT on a dyno, heavily adorned with vibration sensors. The sensors monitor the vibration as the big V-Twin spins up through the gears. A technician can then pour over the data. Because the dyno itself doesn’t cause the bike to vibrate, any vibration data gathered from the sensors is guaranteed to be emanating from the bike itself.
The idea is to locate any unwanted or unpleasant vibrations and then find out how to eliminate their effects on the rider or on the bike’s sensitive electronics. Possible solutions involve different engine mounts, repositioning the electronics, or isolating the handlebars or seat with rubber bumpers.
Elsewhere, a racing 350 SX-F carried more sensors than a MotoGP bike. It wore suspension displacement sensors, swingarm strain gauges, a GPS, and a dozen other bits and bobs to gather information. The tour guide said it all took three man-years to configure.
It has been amazing to see how a tiny, once-bankrupt specialist bike manufacturer has grown into the behemoth it is today. Being a specialist motorcycle manufacturer is tough—witness the demise of Gas Gas, Bultaco, Montessa, Cannondale, and EBR—and it’s good to see at least one of the little guys rise from nothing and become a behemoth.
Nick Goddard will give any rideable a chance. When he’s not riding a stand-up electric scooter, the latest superbike, or an ultimate wheel, he’s contemplating how BlaBlaCar and free-floating vehicle share will change the transportation landscape. See more of his work here.