Curious visitors sometimes stop at what they think is a motorcycle repair garage out in the hinterlands near Munich’s airport.
There they find assorted bikes parked among hydraulic hoists, black leather armchairs and loudspeakers blaring rock music. The bearded proprietor wears a baseball cap, earrings and horn-rimmed glasses, and his thick forearms are covered in tattoos. But ask for a service appointment and he’ll kindly explain in a Swedish accent that he doesn’t do repairs.
Instead, the workshop doubles as an office and party room for Ola Stenegard, chief designer at BMW’s motorcycle division. He prefers this location to the company’s stylish Munich headquarters.
He spotted a trend and a target group that, in their old-school outfits, sought a return to the origins of motorcycling, not technical perfection.
"Ola," as his colleagues refer to him with uncharacteristic familiarity, is far more than a designer: He’s also a trend scout and the living symbol of a new marketing image for motorcycles.
Until a few years ago, company traditionalists held close to BMW’s 90 years of motorcycle history. They were proud that motorcycles were built in Munich long before the first car. Engineering, performance and safety were extolled.
The Japanese might have been sportier, Harley-Davidson cooler and the Austrian KTM fans more youthful, but a BMW motorcycle offered dependability, comfort and state-of-the-art technology.
This image has changed radically in recent years, thanks in part to Mr. Stenegard, who came to BMW 12 years ago. For the first time, BMW has built a racing motorcycle and, right from the start, left the competition in the dust. The S1000 RR was Mr. Stenegard’s first “baby.”
At the other end of the spectrum, he has also used the brand’s tradition to respond to an emerging trend. Young people between 20 and 30, who had long been absent from the scene, were suddenly discovering freedom on two wheels. But they lacked money or didn’t fit with the more old-fashioned image of traditional bikes. They started altering decades-old machines to fit their tastes.
An alternative motorcycle scene rose beside the traditional one, first in Japan and the United States, then in Sweden, Spain and France.
In 2012, these young motorcyclists gathered for the first time in Biarritz on the Atlantic coast of France. Then the Glemseck Festival near Stuttgart began attracting this new generation of bikers: young, educated, attractive people on elaborately decorated bikes twice their age.
The scene grew rapidly and expanded around the globe. The first Waves & Wheels festival in Biarritz attracted about 80 bikers in 2012. Last year’s event drew 10,000 visitors and more are expected for this year’s gathering from June 13-16. In Germany, the 2016 Glemseck Festival 101 will be attract the same kind of crowd near Leonberg in early September.
Ola Stenegard was there from the beginning and one of the first in the industry to take it all seriously. He spotted a trend and a target group that, in their old-school outfits, sought a return to the origins of motorcycling, not technical perfection.
It was the opportunity he had been seeking. The motorcycle industry had been stagnant, content with aging customers that were already 50 years old on average. The older riders were often beer-bellied, after-work desperadoes maintaining the fantasy of freedom and adventure. Or they were freelancers with bulging bank accounts who ordered all the extras at Harley dealerships, paying well above €20,000 for a recreational vehicle.
“That’s way too much for young people,” said Mr. Stenegard.
The new scene is different, and Mr. Stenegard was quickly a part of it. BMW was the first manufacturer with its own stand at Biarritz. That’s where the idea for a modern motorcycle in a heritage look was born.
But with it came the special challenge of critical scrutiny from younger bikers who had started the new scene of refitted retro-bikes from the 1970s and 80s. There was a great danger that BMW would simply embarrass itself.
Mr. Stenegard took up the challenge, and hit the bull’s eye. BMW’s R nineT, reminiscent of the classic R90 from the 1970s, was such a hit two years ago that even now potential buyers have to wait months for delivery.
In the meantime, he broke with a further tradition in Munich. In earlier years, devotees of the brand considered it a group imperative to leave the original machine untouched. But Mr. Stenegard basically invited young people in the new motorcycle scene to make as many alterations as they wanted.
While older connoisseurs still prefer their BMW machines “untinkered,” Mr. Stenegard says. “Both paths are possible.”
Mr. Stenegard started his career path into the motorcycle world early in life on Sweden’s Gotland Island.
“By the time I was seven, I was crouched under motorcycles with wrenches and screwdrivers along with my brother.”
The “motorcycles” they worked on then were actually powered by the two-stroke engines salvaged from chainsaws he and his brother found in the barn. Connected with a shaft to a bicycle, their machine was ready to roll.
Mr. Stenegard has been in Munich since 2003 — and he’s still tinkering away. The challenge is to create a mix of motorcycles that meet the high demands of the BMW brand while reaching a new audience.
At first, he couldn’t understand why his German neighbors grumbled about the noise when he worked in the garage with an angle grinder on Sundays. That didn’t disturb anyone back in the vast reaches of his Swedish island home.
That’s why he eventually moved his workshop and office out in the boondocks by the Munich airport.
Colleagues can stop by his shed with their bikes. Hammers, screwdrivers and angle grinders are passed from hand to hand amid biker talk. They try out new things, drink beer and listen to rock music.
Out here in Ola's shed next to a cemetery, no one complains.
Christian Schnell is a correspondent with Handelsblatt, writing about the auto industry. To contact the author: [email protected]