Interview: Rich Christoph, designer of Indian's gorgeous FTR1200
Rich Christoph designed one of the most beautiful bikes we've ever seen – the Indian FTR1200 Custom – and then had the unenviable task of building something road-legal and production-ready out of it. At Intermot in Germany last week, we finally saw the results in Indian's gorgeous, brand new FTR1200 streetbike, which takes the iconic cruiser brand and re-invents it in the name of hard-charging street riding with trellis-framed style and a brand new motor.
In a seventeen-year career so far as a motorcycle designer for Victory, Harley-Davidson and Indian, Christoph has been hanging out for a chance to design something more dynamic than a cruiser, so when Indian decided to go flat track racing a couple of years ago, he seized his chance. Since then, life has got a little crazy – it must be a helluva buzz watching one of your creations go flying through the air at Caesar's Palace with Travis Pastrana on board, and while the new FTR is a huge leap for Indian, it also places Christoph right up there in the pantheon of iconic motorcycle designers whose names bikers might actually get to know.
Christoph spoke to New Atlas about the Custom, the FTR1200 streetbike, the design process and the blessed path that's led him to this point.
Loz: How did you end up being a bike designer, Rich?
I followed my heart. Period. It's that simple. Because I grew up on a farm, grew up in a corn field bailing hay, working on farm implements and tractors and stuff, I never thought I'd be doing this for a living. So first of all, I'm super blessed.
But what allowed me to be here is I just followed my heart. Things kept pulling me into design. I wound up in Detroit, ended up designing with Meridian Automotive, and went to college for creative studies. Then I went to UW Stout after that, in Industrial Design, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. And I got an internship with Polaris, who had Victory Motorcycle at the time.
So I drew my first real motorcycle in 2001-2002 at Victory Motorcycle for Polaris, and that's when I fell in love. It's the perfect blend of mechanical – and I spent my whole life wrenching on cars and tractors – and now I had this body I could wrap over it. This musculature, this detail, the surfacing that went with all the beautiful mechanical details. So for me, it was love at first sketch, and I knew from then on that I was going to design motorcycles.
So I graduated, went to Harley-Davidson for seven years, worked on the Nightster, 48, 72, LiveWire, early concept stuff, some CVO stuff. And I was really blessed there to be able to work with Willie G and the design team there.
And then when Indian was purchased in 2011 for this next phase, I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of two iconic motorcycle companies. And they didn't have any motorcycles so I knew they were going to build something brand new, from the ground up, and that for me was the opportunity to take a step forward in my career and actually get hold of an entire motorcycle from a clean piece of paper.
Loz: And which bike was that?
That was the Scout. I worked on the Scout Bobber with Mike Song, then I did the FTR750 race bike with Jared Mees and the race team, did 750 A and B bodies. I did the Concept, the FTR1200C Concept that you guys saw last year, and then also I got to design this motorcycle [the FTR1200 streetbike]. So I'm just super blessed, I just followed my heart and I never had "no" in my mind. It never crossed my mind that it might be impossible or that I couldn't do it. Just a relentless pursuit of my dreams.
Loz: That's awesome, brother! So let's talk a bit about the difference between the Custom concept and the production bike here. Obviously there's a bunch of things that need to change when you start bringing road certification into the picture …
Loz: What were the big ticket items that messed with you?
Well, the biggest thing for me is that you're starting with something that was so sculpturally perfect and in proportion, and it was just an exercise in beauty and proportion, and it hit the sweet spot on flat track, and it just made it really easy to work with. Obviously S&S helped us on that bike as well, to do a simple, clean frame, and a high pipe, and the hips and all the bone lines in carbon.
And it was so beautiful, and so masterful and so simple, right? Just a hot bike. And people fell in love with it – but it was never a bike you could marry! First of all, you're gonna burn your leg after about 20 kilometers. And the same time, you're gonna run out of gas. And it's a super hard seat, one piece carbon fiber. And yes, it's sexy as hell, but it's as illegal as all get out! I mean, nothing about that motorcycle could legally be sold, anywhere in the world.
So yeah, you had everybody falling in love with that thing. But if you look at this bike, the FTR1200 for the street, it's the same forms, bone lines and silhouette as the FTR1200C. I know, because they're exactly overlaid in CAD. And you've got to cut and trim a seat outta there, you've gotta trim the handles outta there, you gotta get structure out of the aluminum subframe. You've gotta get parting lines in the chest so the bike will actually come apart and go together.
And then you have fuel tank volume that'll actually get you somewhere. And then the comfort factor. And a tail light. Real controls, mirror, headlight, and all the homologation stuff that allows you to sell it all over the world.
Loz: Let's talk about the frame. Obviously the trellis is much more prominent on this bike, and it hides the motor a little bit. On the concept, you're using the Scout motor, with all that nice detailing on the sides, but the motor's much more hidden here. What's going on with that?
The reason the Custom frame works is simply because it never went through development. That frame never had to survive a VTS or engineering shaker test, or you name it. It never had to survive impact tests, or wheelie tests … You know what I mean? That bike is a weapon, and it'll do what it needs to do, but who knows for how long? We never fully vetted it.
The best and the strongest way to make a motorcycle frame is to go straight from the steering head down to the swingarm pivot, for strength, right? And you need the most direct path. You can see we're also picking up on a head mount here on the front lower portion.
So it's just kinda how FEA and all the engineering data pulled and stretched the overall section of the frame in side view for strength, weight, efficiency, that kind of stuff. That's what led us into doing not a perimeter frame, but more a trellis style frame.
Loz: It looks much more 3-dimensional in real life than in the photos, the way it wraps around the front bit here.
Exactly, and you have to design that in. Obviously, if you look at a ceiling truss or a ceiling joist, it's just straight tubes with triangles in it. But stick that on the side of a motorcycle and there's nothing sexy about it at all. So that's the trick, and that's where the design comes in. How you organize the tubes to attach, where do the section changes happen, and how can you wrap around this engine and give the bike a chest, and a waist, and then hips, and a tail. And capture all the lines, and highlights, and organize all that to be a theme that still maps onto that FTR1200C silhouette.
It's a lot of things to organize in your head, but it's a very close working relationship between engineering and design. The bike needs to function first and foremost, but it also needs to be sexy and beautiful and attractive, to hit the emotional cues.
Loz: I think you might've done it!
You know what, I think we did pretty good.
Loz: What are the key design elements that would specify that it's a flat tracker?
It's two things, really. It's a riding position that puts the rider right forward over the controls, looking down the fork tubes. And it's the size of the wheels. 19-19 is the setup for flat track. We have a 19-18, but the rolling diameter on the 18 is about the same as a 19, so you get that big tire silhouette right away that says flat track.
And obviously, the simple body, the silhouette, the lines … Not obstructing your transition from the seat to the chest, just like the FTR race bikes.
Loz: It's almost like the bodywork just sits on top.
Yeah, basically. It allows the rider to move forward and back. The riding position is very forward, very commanding, but on a flat track bike they also need to be able to slide back. That's why the silhouette on that custom bike is so long. And there's just no way you can pull that off here.
The fuel tank's in here [points to the seat and subframe area], so doing that long of a seat, proportionally it'll just never look good. But that was the proportion that everyone loved on the Custom, so we knew we had to have it right on this bike as well.
Loz: What are your favorite little details that you put into the FTR1200?
So I think the #1 success with this bike was keeping it compact. It's so easy in this day and age to make a motorcycle, especially a 1200cc, where the components just start to sneak away from each other, sort of float away from each other, and it starts to look big and bulky. On this bike, we had to keep everything super compact, super tight, fight for every millimeter from front to tail, in all the components packaging and wiring stuff.
One of the details I do like the best was how we executed the subframe. Because it kinda harkens back to the trellis - but we couldn't do steel tube back there, because it took away too much fuel volume to get the single sided shock in. So we ended up sculpting this tail to give it the hips, and give it the lines and the character.
So you've got your heavy chest, and your shoulders and the stance, and the power, right? And it all exits and rises up and accelerates out of the bike. So for us, that was key also to capture what the Custom did, these highlights on the subframe and the trellis-looking structure on it, I think we sculpted and executed that really brilliantly. That's one of my favorite pieces.
Loz: One more question, about the headlight. On the Custom, it's flat back against the bars, almost like a race plate.
Tolerance. Tolerance, yeah. You have to have a full-blown wiring harness. The Custom has two wires that go up and power the headlight, and there's nothing else there, right? Super simple.
So for this, you have wiring for the display, for the turn signals. You have wiring for the headlight itself. That just won't package tightly like it does on the Custom. The Custom had no concern about anything production or reality-based other than just turning the light on.
So for this, it's a tolerance stack up. You have to make sure you don't pinch your wiring. You have to make sure the headlight bucket fits. Make sure you get mounts in there for accessories, XYZ, everything gets spaced apart a little bit. Just longevity and durability. So it grew going forward.
Loz: Cool. And just on a general note, when you started designing bikes, did you have an idea in mind for your dream bike that you'd love to build?
Yeah. This bike. I would go for a one-piece carbon fiber body on this bike, and the high exhaust. And I'd burn my leg, and I'd just deal with it (laughs) because I don't have to worry about having lawyers on my case when I design it for myself and burn my own ass.
Loz: So this is exactly your kinda style.
Yeah! I grew up on sportbikes, sport standards and dirt bikes. So I was used to this forward riding position up on the seat. I've been waiting my whole life to finally design this motorcycle right here. It's a total dream come true for me. This is the bike, and this is the riding position, and this is the engine. It's a real V-Twin, and it's a race championship, and it's Indian Motorcycle, one of the most iconic brands in history, so I couldn't be happier. It's a dream come true.
Loz: Congratulations buddy, the FTR1200 has been the talk of the show, so well done! I hope it opens up a whole new side of the market for you guys, this is a segment that Indian hasn't touched so far, so if you can draw in a few hooligans …
What's great is that the flat track racing opened up the chance to do this and connect the dots. We couldn't just go and do a sports standard - it wouldn't relate to anything, we'd have nothing to pull it from. So going and winning back-to-back AMA flat track championships? That allowed us to take this step forward, and be legitimate, and have a real story. It's not fake, we're not making it up. It's been a clear progression for us.
And it's been a wonderful journey, and I'm so glad we did it. But if we hadn't done the flat track racing, I don't know if this bike would exist.
Loz: Awesome. Thanks for your time Rich, it's been great talking to you!