As motorcycle powerplants evolve, it was only a matter of time before we started to see sophisticated customs powered by electricity. Untitled Motorcycles, based in San Francisco with a sister workshop in London, is guided by Co-founder and Design Director Hugo Eccles, and the multinational concern brings us a captivating electric custom—the Untitled Motorcycles Zero XP.
Raised in the countryside outside of London, and later self-transplanted to the United States, Eccles’ life experiences bring a unique perspective to his work. In addition to striking private party builds, Eccles has engaged in partnerships with Ducati, Moto Guzzi, Triumph, Yamaha, and, now, the California-based Zero Motorcycles.
Ultimate Motorcycling: When did you first become aware of motorcycles?
Hugo Eccles: I think most kids have a fascination with motorcycles, and I was no different. My very earliest motorcycle memory is my dad riding to work on his orange Suzuki GT250. We lived in the English countryside, and he would commute to London dressed in a suit and tie under his waterproof coverall—all very James Bond to my young mind.
UM: What was the first motorcycle you rode?
HE: I suppose the first motorcycle I rode on would be my dad’s orange Suzuki GT250. The first bike I actually rode was my grandad’s scooter, which I ‘borrowed’ when he was out, and low-sided on some wet grass. I probably spent more time cleaning off the mud than actually riding it! The first motorcycle I owned was a Yamaha TZR125, which I rode for years before getting my full motorcycle license and buying a beautiful Ducati Supersport 400.
UM: What sorts of motorcycles have you owned?
HE: Despite growing up in the English countryside, I’ve always lived in cities—London, New York, San Francisco—so I’ve owned mostly street bikes: Yamaha TZR125, Ducati Supersport 400, Kawasaki ZXR400, Ducati 748, Ducati Sport Classic 1000, Ducati Scrambler 800, Yamaha XSR900, and Zero SR/F. I just realized that’s a lot of Ducatis! For the past few years, my daily ride has been the [Untitled Motorcycles] Ducati Hyper Scrambler. I built the original a few years ago, and it’s still just so much fun to ride.
UM: You have a wide variety of clients, ranging from financial institutions, to computers, to footwear. How do motorcycles fit in and compare?
HE: They’re surprisingly similar. My background is originally in industrial design, and I use similar skills creating motorcycles. Industrial design is an incredibly varied profession and, over my 25-year career, I’ve designed everything from consumer electronics for household brands, to watches for TAG Heuer, to concept cars for Ford. When, in 2014, I moved to San Francisco and started designing and building motorcycles in earnest, I realized that, indirectly, I’d been designing the elements of motorcycles for years—watches have similarities to speedometers, furniture to motorcycle seats, consumer electronics for switchgear and controls, and so on.
UM: What drew you to industrial design?
HE: Many designers get into design because they’re really into ‘stuff,’ but strangely, for me, it was a dissatisfaction with objects that got me interested in the subject. Industrial design is continually interesting to me because it’s so varied, and my work has spanned everything from consumer electronics to medical products to industrial machinery. I’m essentially paid to be curious and to question how things can be better, and that’s a way of working I also bring to motorcycles. It allows me to draw inspiration from unlikely, non-vehicular sources, which often leads to unexpected solutions.
UM: Which production motorcycles, present or past, do you most admire from the standpoint of a designer?
HE: Ducati 916. Massimo Tamburini’s masterpiece that has influenced modern motorcycles for the past 26 years. Light, powerful, and beautiful handling. It had near-perfect weight distribution that always felt nimble yet planted. Just awesome, and one of the prettiest bikes Tamburini ever penned—okay, with the exception of the MV Agusta F4 Oro.
MV Agusta F4 Serie Oro—Tamburini’s follow-up to the Ducati 916. All-carbon bodywork, magnesium swingarm, and wheels—glorious! It’s the only motorcycle able to put the 916 to shame.
Britten V1000. I’m not sure if the Britten V1000 counts as a production motorcycle, but they did build 100 of them, so maybe it does. What John Britten and his team of engineers achieved 25 years ago was incredible then, and remains so today. I’ve seen a few of the remaining examples—just exquisite.
I’m also strongly influenced by car designers. Most influential is Marcello Gandini, who designed the Lamborghini Muira, Lamborghini Countach, Lancia Stratos, and many other amazing cars. The clarity of purpose of Gandini’s work was, and still is, extraordinary. I recently visited the Museo Alfa Romeo outside of Milan, and saw his 1968 Alfa Carabo in person. Although designed over half a century ago, its sheer audacity still puts most modern supercars to shame.
UM: What is special about designing a motorcycle?
HE: My background is somewhat unusual for the motorcycle world in that I’m neither a trained mechanic nor an automotive designer, but an industrial designer. I approach designing a motorcycle in a similar way to any other industrial design project. For starters, I’m conscientious about not deciding what a build is going to be until I’ve got a clear idea of what I’m working with.
Typically, I’ll strip a motorcycle down to its rolling chassis to get a sense of its underlying character. Once that’s done, I begin to reshape the machine with the other functional elements—fuel tank, carbs, exhaust, and so on—which are all opportunities for redesign and reduction. An extreme example of this was the process of designing the Hyper Scrambler, which I’ve described, only half-jokingly, as continually removing components until the motorcycle stopped working, and then reinstalling that last part. It’s actually not that far from the truth. Lotus Cars founder Colin Chapman said it much more eloquently: “Simplify, then add lightness.”
UM: You have lived and worked in the UK and the US. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each from a designer’s perspective?
HE: I was born and raised in England and have lived in the US for 13 years. I love both equally, but differently. Living in the UK gave me the opportunity to experience, and be influenced by, the Old World beauty of both England and Europe. There’s definitely a European design sensibility in my work, but I feel that there’s more opportunity here in the New World, especially in California with its spirit of innovation. It’s exciting that the heart of the electric motorcycle industry is right here in Northern California.
UM: How was partnering with Zero, compared to larger manufacturers?
HE: I’ve been a design director for years, so I’m comfortable working with, and strategizing for, both large corporations and smaller startups. Zero is the longest-running electric motorcycle brand in the USA—they’ve been around for 14 years—and they’re one of the most influential in the industry. The nice thing about working with a company of Zero’s scale is that it afforded me a level of access, and that would be a challenge with a larger corporation. Zero were incredibly generous with sharing technical information and expertise, which definitely benefited the project overall.
UM: What is it like working with motorcycle manufacturers as clients, as opposed to individuals?
HE: Both are partnerships, but each with a different emphasis. With individual clients, it’s more personal, and the process involves me getting to know that person really well. With a company, there are some similarities in that, to do both the project and their investment justice, I need to understand the ‘personality’ of the brand and design something true to that. When I work with manufacturers, I strive to be respectful of their heritage, but not too reverential of it. This allows me to take the brand to unexpected, but still relevant, places.
UM: Are there any specific challenges when designing an electric motorcycle?
HE: When the partnership with Zero started, I was much more familiar with internal combustion engines and their limitations and opportunities. There was a pretty steep learning curve getting myself to a point of familiarity and confidence with the new technology so I could have serious conversations with Zero’s technical teams. But my ‘ignorance’ of electric motorcycles also allowed me to discard what I ‘knew’ about motorcycles, and design without reference to the combustion engine status quo. A big part of the XP project was challenging the expectations and assumptions of what a motorcycle should be, going back to first principles, and almost starting from scratch.
UM: Is an electric powerplant an advantage or liability when designing a custom motorcycle?
HE: There’s a huge amount of creative freedom when designing an electric motorcycle. There are approximately 80 percent fewer parts than in a combustion motorcycle and fewer formal elements—no exhaust, no carbs, etc. So, on one hand, there’s this great opportunity, unconstrained by the traditional combustion limitations. On the other hand, because there are fewer elements, there’s almost an obligation to make those elements so much better. The lack of limitations is, in a perverse way, actually quite frightening for a designer. I definitely had a moment of existential crisis with the XP, where I stared into the void, and the void stared back at me. Needless to say, I got past it. On balance, I’d say designing for electric is definitely an advantage since it offers so many new opportunities.
UM: What is it like to ride the Untitled Motorcycles Zero XP? Is it an urban motorcycle, or a sport motorcycle, or something else?
HE: When designing the XP, I resisted the temptation to think of it in conventional terms as the technology is much more flexible than conventional motorcycles. The rider can change the XP’s characteristics on the fly—literally at the press of a button—so it can behave like a cruiser on the highway, and like a supermoto on the twisties. Whatever mode you ride in, the sensation of 140 ft-lbs of torque—almost twice the power of a conventional superbike—delivered continuously and linearly, is mind-blowing. Probably the closest analogy is like piloting a small jet.
Untitled Motorcycles Zero XP Photo Gallery