There’s a distinct difference between a concept vehicle and an experimental vehicle, according to Hugo Eccles, co-owner and design director of Untitled Motorcycles. A concept vehicle is not seen as a real thing, doesn’t usually work, but is simply beautiful to look at. First glance at the Zero XP, the latest creation to come out of Untitled’s San Francisco studio, might give the impression that this futuristic motorcycle fits that description perfectly. As if plucked from a scene from Bladerunner, this unique electric motorcycle features angular lines and bodywork, bright distinctive LED lighting from tip to tail, and integrated displays in the top triple clamp and what would otherwise be referred to as the “fuel tank.” But the XP is no concept bike. XP stands for “Experimental Platform,” which is better than a concept vehicle. “This is a road registered bike that works,” Eccles insists proudly. “And you can ride it.”
The project started back in 2018, when Eccles received a phone call from the folks at Zero inviting him to participate in an “interesting project.” The formally trained industrial designer initially thought this would be a custom design of an existing model in Zero’s lineup. Nevertheless, he made his way to Zero’s Scott’s Valley headquarters to meet with the team, and was surprised to learn they had been working on an all new platform for 2019. Ten months before the public would lay eyes on it, Eccles was getting a sneak peak of the new SR/F. “I was blown away,” the designer remembers. After cultivating a relationship with the company for two years, his persistence finally paid off. Zero commissioned him to build a custom SR/F. “They said ‘We like your work, we trust you. Just go for it.’ When do you get that kind of opportunity?” Eccles knew he was taking part in something significant; a real game changer in the industry. ‘I had to check in every now and then and reassure them I wasn’t completely losing my mind and doing something completely off the wall.” But it didn’t take long before he hit a snag.
As an industrial designer, Eccles’ work has always been guided by a mantra he borrows from a design hero of his. Colin Chapman, design engineer and founder of Lotus cars, often used the phrase “Simplify, and add lightness,” and that’s exactly what Eccles set out to do. “I had a bit of an existential crisis at the beginning of the project,” he remembers. “[I] started engaging all my industrial design skills about [the bike], stripping it down to nothing and trying to build it back up, which is the usual method I use with gas bikes.” But suddenly the Zero SR/F had the British industrial designer stumped. “Once you take off all the decorative plastic, the kind of storage unit that looks like a gas tank, and all the rest, you don’t need to actually put that stuff back on,” Eccles realized. “So there was a moment where I thought I’m just gonna have to hand it back to them and say, ‘In all honesty there’s nothing else I can do here,’” he says with a chuckle. Thankfully, he moved past that creativity paralysis, and began crafting a new persona for the electric bike unlike anything else on the market.
The first step towards building the XP was a set of ground rules. “I didn’t want to mimic gasoline just for the sake of it,” Eccles explained. He finds other electric bikes on the market trying too hard to look like gasoline bikes, for the sake of familiarity and marketability. They lure customers in with a familiar shape and style, and then surprise the customer with the battery pack hidden under the fairings. With the XP, “I wanted this bike to be unmistakably and distinctively electric… to celebrate the electric-ness, not hide it behind panels and fairings.” With this being Eccles’ first electric custom bike, he knew that distinction needed to be celebrated, and not something to apologize for.
Riding the stripped down SR/F around town and through the nearby twisty roads gave Eccles plenty of inspiration for the direction to take his design. “The bike is really powerful, 140 ft lbs [of torque] which is about 40% more than a Panigale,” he explains. “It’s like a rocket, or a surface missile.. like flying a little jet,” making it clear that aerodynamics should play a huge part in the XP’s new persona. “Apart from the surfaces you need like footpegs and a seat and handlebars to control the bike, the other thing you really need is padded surfaces where you can push against with your knees. Originally those knee pads were kinda’ floating in this really strange aerodynamic quality,” he remembers. Gathering inspirations for a whole new style of a motorcycle, Hugo dove deep into the world of aerodynamics from a design perspective. Studying MotoGP bikes, race cars, and drag race bikes pointed him toward elements like winglets, scoops, diffusers, and cannards, that would ultimately contribute to the XP’s visual persona. While the bike has yet to be tested in a wind tunnel, Eccles insists “the panels are more representative and proposal in nature, [but] that would change when we run it in a wind tunnel.”
There was no shortage of terrestrial speed machines to inspire the XP’s inception, but Eccles took his obsession with aerodynamics to the sky as well. Even the color of the electric motorcycle is inspired by ventures in the slipstream. “The solid color came from this idea of experimental motorcycle which aligned with ideas of experimental aircraft,” Eccles notes, describing another rabbit hole he fell down during the design process. “It’s actually a government specification color, [named] Ghost Gray.” Not exactly an easy paint color to come by, since it’s a color the US Navy uses for their experimental aircraft. Nevertheless, it continued the theme for the XP, and in a way, helped breathe life into the bike as well. “It was really intended to look dull when it’s off,” Eccles explained, “and transform into this alive thing when it’s on. So when you turn it on, these lights that are hidden in the leading and trailing edges of the aerodynamic panels suddenly illuminate, and the bike comes alive.” In addition to the distinction between a living bike and a lifeless object, Eccles imagined the XP having a past life of racing. “The plainness [of the color] was this idea of a prototype race bike that’s had all its graphics stripped off of it. So, there’s a lot of stories behind this bike, I can tell you.”
The story Eccles really wanted to hit home with the XP’s futuristic design is, in fact, to represent not the future, but an alternative present. “If you could imagine a parallel reality at the turn of the century, instead of developing gasoline motorcycles, we actually developed electric motorcycles,” Eccles describes, referring to the early days of electric vehicles over a century ago. “We were a hair’s breadth from living in this reality where nobody has actually seen a gasoline vehicle because it never really existed. So the idea was what would a bike from today 2020 in that parallel reality look like?” Judging by the final outcome of Hugo Eccles’ head-turning Zero XP, that alternate reality where electric vehicles rule the road would be intriguing, indeed. Instead, we have the privilege of enjoying a reality that gives us the option between gas and electric, or to simply enjoy both. With a design masterpiece like the Zero XP setting the stage, the future of electric motorcycles will continue to captivate our attention.
Content & Photos by Julia LaPalme