The Interview - David Robb

Ever wondered why BMW’s bikes now look reasonably interesting? Meet David Robb, BMW’s vice president of motorcycle design – a man with a slightly interesting life…

My dad was a missionary
My dad was a missionary so we travelled around a lot when I was younger. I was born in Boston, America, but raised in Kobe, Japan, in the 1960s. Then, when I was 13, my family went back to The States and we spent some time in first California, then Michigan where I went to high school, and finally Texas where I finished school. From there I went back to LA and worked as a gas jockey (petrol pump assistant) filling up cars and making sure they were clean, then I found out about a place called The Art Centre. I didn’t even know there was a thing called design, and it turned out this was one of the best schools in the world and it wasn’t far from where I lived. It was expensive and I couldn’t afford it, but I got a scholarship and that’s where it all started.

Design had always been a part of my life
I didn’t realise it but I’d been doing design all my life. As a kid I was always drawing pictures and making models. I’d do aeroplanes, cars, tanks, battleships, hot rods, anything that moved really.

I either wanted to be a designer or a pilot

I’ve always loved aeroplanes and always wanted to be a pilot, I even skydived and hang-glided a bit when I was 18, but I sat down with my parents and they said ‘what do you want to do?’ I loved flying but in the mid-1970s a lot of pilots were coming back from the Vietnam War, jobs were hard to get and I was really bad at maths. Nowadays you have a little computer to do it all for you, but at that time it was all done by mental arithmetic, so if I was a designer I could be a pilot later, but if I was a pilot I’d never design cars, so I went to design school.

I started at Chrysler
After I finished college it was like the US football drafts, all the students were picked to go to interviews and Chrysler asked me to join them. I requested work in the Advanced Studio, it was the R&D area and I got to do the wild stuff! Unfortunately eleven months later the company was in dire straits and made 20,000 people redundant, I had about five weeks of employment before I was out on the streets. I took the few hundred dollars I had and bought a one-way ticket to Frankfurt…

I had six job offers in three weeks
When I landed I had a three-week rail pass and a few addresses. We forget today how easy it is to travel, but without the internet I had to write to friends to find addresses of people to organise interviews. My idea was to get a job with Opel. I got off the plane and went straight to them, within an hour and a half they had offered me a job but I decided to see some other people. By the end of it I had offers from Porsche, Fiat, Ferrari, Audi and a few others. I decided Audi was the best option so I went to work for them, then I met my wife.

My wife was a punk, I had an afro…
I was in Austria at a friend’s house and I met this punk German lady who was living in London studying design. I had an afro at the time as my hair is really curly, thankfully that didn’t put her off and we dated for a while and were married within a year later. It would have been sooner but I was a foreigner and Germany was quite old fashioned in the 1980s, I had to put posters up in the village announcing our proposed marriage so anyone could protest it if they wanted to. Nobody said anything, probably because they didn’t know who I was!

I built a bike in my wife’s studio
We decided to settle down in Munich and I took a job with BMW designing cars. I’ve been there ever since, 25 years in total now but it wasn’t until 1993 that they asked if I would be interested in doing anything with bikes. I had been building a bike in my wife’s studio as a hobby so when the boss asked I just said ‘come with me…’

We had to change people’s perceptions of the bikes
When I started we were selling 30,000 bikes, we now do over 100,000. BMW has always been an innovative company, but about eight years ago we noticed that the car side was known as premium and dynamic, but the bikes were seen as dependable and durable, not exciting. We decided to line the two arms up and make dynamic, sporty and aggressive bikes that belong to the marque.

We have changed our music, not our philosophy…
BMW bikes haven’t really changed, they’ve always been innovative, it’s just that people are now starting to pay attention. Before we were playing classical or country music, now we’re playing heavy metal and people are starting to listen.

Asymmetric doesn’t mean lopsided
The BMW asymmetric headlight look isn’t a styling decision, it’s down to engineering. We didn’t sit around and say ‘we have to make our bikes look different’, we simply solved engineering problems. The first bike with the look was the 1998 R1100S and it came about because the speedo was a long unit but the electronic rev counter was narrow This meant we were limited on space on one side but not the other. We solved this by fitting the H4 headlight (square one) behind the speedo as it’s a short light and the long telescopic unit (round light) behind the narrow rev counter where there was a lot of room. If we hadn’t adopted the asymmetric light look we’d have had to move the nose of the bike out, which we didn’t want to do. Asymmetric doesn’t mean lopsided, it’s actually quite a balanced look.

One of my sons is a rapper, the other is a tap dancer
Although he’s finished school and is working in films and directing my eldest son, Dan, is a really talented freestyle rapper. My youngest, Tim, is a championship tap dancer, but he’s still at university.

One of my brothers is a rock star, the other looks after Metallica
Doug sings in a band called Hoobastank, they had a big number one in the US, Canada, Australia and a few other places with a song called ‘The Reason.’ My other brother, Tom, is the head of security for Metallica. The whole family went to see Metallica perform last year and it was a great gig.

I got my pilot’s licence in the end…
My hobby is competition aerobatic flying. Last year I won the German championship as a novice but now I’ve moved up a class and it’s a lot harder. I fly the same planes as they use in the Red Bull air races.