According to scientists, human respond to movement, contrast, then color, in that order. Before we start even thinking about what we see, our animal brains filter for these three conditions, presumably to help us hunt, or avoid being hunted. This is probably why television and animated websites are so addictive, and perhaps also helps explain our fascination with motorcycles.
Designers spend most of their time developing the latter two conditions, manipulating them to suggest the first. ‘Looking like it’s going 160km/h standing still’ may be a styling cliche, but it is no accident when it happens. Of all the tools in a motorcycle designer’s basket, however, color is most often underplayed or ignored outright by manufacturers. Corporate branding demands strict adhesion to a limited palette of colors so as to communicate immediate brand identification. Even a slight deviation from established brand hues can mislead or put off prospective consumers.
If it sounds like I am exaggerating, consider for a moment Yamaha and its split-personality color policy during the ‘90s. Traditionally, Yamaha was white with red stripes or ‘speed blocks,’ a color palette that in the late ‘70s was modified in the US to one of yellow, black, and white, and to another of cobalt blue. Yamaha’s head office stubbornly demanded that each model come in all three color schemes in all major markets, in addition to neutrals like grey, black, and special-edition colors, leading to spiraling costs and making inventory and making inventory control a nightmare.
The public latched on to the US schemes in roughly equal minorities, while the white-and-red typically languished in dealer showrooms until motorcycles were deeply discounted. The truth finally dawned when Yamaha Motors Europe commissioned an independent study that revealed two ugly realities: virtually no one identified red or white with the Yamaha brand, and the most popular color was silver. Cobalt blue was formalized as the corporate color in 2009, except in the logo, which is still red because a blue tuning fork is a registered trademark of Yamaha Instruments, a totally separate company.
Colors are difficult and often frustrating design elements on motorcycles. BMW has spent a quarter of a century forcing sophisticated, metallic, automotive-inspired hues on a motorcycle public for whom a white racing strip is considered bold. The beautiful, deep, and very premium shades of turquoise, aubergine, or frosted-glass green were lost on the motorcycle press, for whom any color that could not be found on a kindergarten color wheel was flaky.
Some brands are linked to a specific color to such a degree that it has become a limitation. KTM is synonymous with brilliant orange, a color that is applied to all things and all forms of corporate material. The origin of this color choice turns out to be random, and not a carefully crafted branding decision. Back in the early ‘90s, when KTM was an obscure, dying European motorcycle company, they sponsored a local design competition which a certain Gerhard Kiska entered and won. Kiska, a man who would leverage design skill to become one of the world’s foremost design studio chiefs and gain a seat on the KTM board, was back then tasked with building a full-scale design mock-up.
The young man put everything into the body design and ended up using a pot of leftover orange paint he had kicking around, because he ran out of time. Kiska laughingly told the Motorcycle Design Association dinner in 2006 how he crafted some bullshit story on the spot, claiming that he had been inspired by a sunset reflected on the snow-capped Austrian Alps, a story the KTM people swallowed whole.
Over the years KTM has flirted with lime green, two-tone bronze and even navy blue, but it is Pantone 1585C orange that is canon.
Bombardier’s iconic Ski-Doo became yellow because founder Joseph-Armand Bombardier demanded the most durable paint available, which in 1950s Quebec was the stuff they used to paint double lines on roads. When Bombardier made the legendary Can-Am brand of motorcycles they shifted gears again, because the plastic fuel tanks of the day could not be painted, and the color of the material was necessarily white. Yellow, orange, and black-striped stickers took over, and the brand was forever after known for them.
Today we can emulate any color and any treatment we like, on virtually all materials. Blue tint anodized, blow-molded and fuel-resistant ABS plastic is as easy to achieve as classic gloss black on steel, and yet scan the modern motorcycle ecosystem and what you will see is a forest of black, greys, and reds, punctuated by the odd blue or chrome twinkle. Motorcyclists are a fickle bunch, and complex color on anything other than a full-fledged race replica are unwelcome.