Behind the Scenes: KTM RC8

KTM’s RC8 marks the dawn of a new era for the Austrian firm. Join us as we go behind the scenes

There is an air of excitement combined with nervous tension around KTM’s factory in Mattighofen. Everyone is buzzing, like expectant parents waiting for their firstborn. The secret is out, the world knows what the Austrian firm has in store, but that’s as far as it goes. Beyond this only the boys in orange know the real truth, and they can’t wait for the rest of the world to join them in the experience. It’s exciting times, but there is also a palatable air of anxiety.

It’s hard to underplay just how important and exciting KTM’s RC8 is, to both KTM and the biking community. Not only is this a totally new machine from ground up, it also signifies the Austrian firm’s first huge step into the superbike class. Its styling is revolutionary, engine design unique and built by a company that simply doesn’t accept failure. This bike has the potential to create the same buzz around KTM that the 916 did around Ducati back in 1994. And look where that got them.

But it’s also one hell of a risk. KTM has an enormous amount resting on the RC8. Not only has it invested huge financial sums in the project, failure would bring with it a gigantic loss of face and a tarnished reputation that a company growing as fast as KTM currently is, would struggle to shrug off. But they aren’t afraid to take risks and put their neck on the line. Exciting times indeed, and we’d been granted exclusive access to all the major players in the project. I travelled over to the Austrian factory and spoke to Hubert Trunkenpolz, one of KTM’s directors (and the T in KTM), Wolfgang Felber, the man whose idea the RC8 was and also its builder, Gerald Kiska who has designed the look of every current KTM model and Andreas Bilek, the RC8’s engine designer. After the most in-depth investigation KTM has ever allowed into its new project, we can now bring you the full story behind the bike that could be the catalyst to really catapult KTM to the front of the pack .

Conception

Tokyo Motorcycle Show, 2003. If you were an up-and-coming manufacturer, where would you choose to launch a new model that was designed to give the Japanese a bloody nose? Right on their own doorstep. Which is exactly what KTM did with the RC8. It was unveiled as a radical concept at the ‘big four’s’ own show, a show where the Japanese desperately try and upstage one another with ever more radical concept bikes. The RC8 stole all the attention, it was bold, gutsy and had design concepts that had never been seen before. KTM had just announced its intentions to the world, and done it in a very public and high profile way. The bike then spent a year touring European shows while KTM gathered public opinion before their new bike disappeared for nearly four years. Where did it go?

“The project was delayed, cancelled, because we were doing MotoGP racing and we thought about a superbike with a V4 or a V6 cylinder engine. A lot of things were considered,” explains Wolfgang Felber, the RC8’s project manager. “Finally we decided we wanted to make the whole range with a V-twin engine, so we finalised the project. That was in July 2005.”

The Birth

“The reaction in Milan when we finally showed the motorcycle confirmed it was 100% the right move,” Hubert Trunkenpolz smiles as he remembers the world unveiling of the RC8. “It was what was expected and what was missing from KTM’s range. With the KTM brand’s ‘ready to race’ philosophy we knew we should step into the superbike sector, it is the champion’s league. For us it was the summit of what we wanted to achieve.”

And this reaction has translated into sales. Despite initially planning to produce a cautious 2,000 units in the first year KTM has found itself having to double the production run to nearly 4,000. But this itself has the potential to cause the company disaster. When a manufacturer launches a new model it has to ensure that all its dealers are adequately trained when it comes to servicing and general maintenance, which is where KTM is facing its biggest challenge.

Despite its ever-growing on-road range many KTM dealers are still predominantly off-road focused, which is a big issue for all concerned.

“The hardest part at the moment is re-educating dealers, sometimes it can be like moving a mountain,” said Trunkenpolz. “It takes time to get dealers up to road bike levels of standards, you need a guy in the workshop who can fix them, one in the shop who speaks the same language as a superbike rider, accessories, everything has to meet the expectations of the customer.”

This is KTM’s greatest challenge with the RC8, and one that can’t be overcome with clever engineering or a dedicated team. Sportsbike riders are a finnicky bunch, and trying to convince them away from the Japanese machinery will be tricky. Despite costing less than a 1098 at £10,695 the RC8 will still be more expensive than a Japanese 1000, and being a twin it won’t have the same power figures.

“It’s a tough sector, riders have high expectations, and we will need to make sure that our bike is always state of the art,” said Trunkenpolz. “We don’t want to be mainstream, we don’t want to be everyone’s darling, whether you like this type of design or not there is nothing in between, this is good, it is what we are looking for.”

And this is the key to the RC8, and KTM’s success. As Triumph learnt with its TT600 there is no point in simply copying the Japanese, they are bigger and will win a fair fight. So you have to go a different route, create a bike that will actively attract riders to it, rather than wait for them to approach. Has KTM achieved this with the RC8? If the reaction at the NEC show, and other international shows, is anything to go by, then yes. The draw of a radical looking superbike is starting to bring riders into the KTM brand, or at least make them aware it is now a serious player and tempt them from the Japanese, which is all they want.

“The R6 has so many design tips from us, the Japanese test things then are fast to copy,” said Trunkenpolz. “People appreciate if you are the one to take the risk first, you can gain sympathy from people. Our look will always polarise opinions. Like it or hate it, as long as KTM is being talked about then we are
very happy indeed.”

And After Birth...

So what’s next for KTM and the RC8? The first pre-production run of around 100 bikes is currently being made in the factory to test the assembly line. Once these pass the rigorous tests the RC8 will go into full production in late February. Expect to see it tested in magazines in March and in dealers a few weeks later. So that’s the road bike, what about the racer?

The first stage is prove its competitiveness on the world stage at superstock level in 2007. The team is ready, the race bike has already been tested and all that remains is to confirm the riders. Then comes 2009, when there is every chance that KTM will move to World Superbikes. Although the main players are still cagey to admit this there is a level of confidence within the factory that the RC8 is good enough to be a contender at the very least. A lot of it depends on how well Ducati’s 1098 deals with the latest rule changes. The RC8’s motor is comparable to the stock 1098’s and, like the Ducati, has plenty more to come, both in road and race trim.

KTM has taken an enomous risk with the RC8. If it goes wrong, it’s going to get ugly. But it is a risk that looks like paying off if the early signals are anything to go by. Pre-sales in the first year have already exceeded expectations and if WSB success follows we could well be looking back in five year’s time saying “remember when they just did dirt-bikes..?”

The men behind the RC8 project

The designer, Gerald Kiska: "The RC8 was inspired by KTM’s off-road bikes. I tried to bring the design language that I developed for their off-road bikes to the street market..."

The engine builder, Andreas Bilek: "Although we targeted the engine at 180bhp as its design limit, the RC8 will only have 155bhp, we are keeping something in reserve for the future!"

The project manager, Wolfgang Felber: "We invested a lot of time making the bike clean, if you look at it you can’t see many wires, cables, or tubes and the cockpit is clean."

The director of sales and marketing, Hubert Trunkenpolz: "It has been very cost intensive, but the reaction in Milan when we finally show the motorcycle confirmed it was 100% the right move."

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