A Life of Design: Heinrich Full Interview

Photography: Heiko Mandl, BMW

Edgar Heinrich worked at the BMW Motorrad Design Studio, apart from a short interruption, since 1987. At the end of 2023, he decided it was time to retire from his leading position and handed the design department’s reins over to Alexander Buckan.

Without any conspicuous image cultivation, at his core, Heinrich is a true Bavarian and a real motorcycle nerd.

For more than three decades, he played a decisive role in shaping the BMW Motorrad design language and product range. In 2012, he took over the Design Studio as the head of design.

In his own garage, he works on 14 predominantly classic, modified machines. He hasn’t shied away even from completely restoring a Honda CB500 Four engine.

Heinrich also worked for three years at Bajaj in India as chief designer while intensively studying the local culture. With his outstanding motorcycle expertise and—above all—his experience as a motorcyclist himself, he is an absolute luminary.

Not bad for someone who says he "was only able to make some sketches" when he left school

I visited Heinrich at BMW’s extensive design department in Munich just before he hung up his gloves.

When did you realize that you could make something out of your artistic talent?

In primary school, I scribbled all over my notebooks. Later, when I was a teenager, I was scolded by my teachers for wasting my time on such "nonsense."

I was fascinated by the sheer power of technical machines and mechanized semantics, so I liked to draw cranes, trucks, and excavators—plus "rally tanks" with chains underneath and a Formula One-like car body above.

How did motorcycles come into play?

I bought a Suzuki T250 from my older brother when I was 17. Riding with him and his buddies really made me fall in love with motorcycles, while a Suzuki SP370 Enduro made me discover the beauty of off-road riding.

In the beginning, I had several Suzukis. I then came across Honda, and they never gave me any problems.

When it comes to classic bikes, BMWs and Hondas are really the best. The other day, I took a Honda four-cylinder CB500 Four apart and rebuilt it. That was a treat.

Before motorcycles, I understand you studied architecture.

After high school, I didn't really have a plan or a talent. I would have liked to do something with sketching and model making, so I started with architecture.

When we were standing in a field designing a farm building, the professor came up to me and asked me what I was doing there. He thought I was in the wrong place with my drawing talent!

So, I switched to studying design in Munich. In the beginning, the studies were rather dull, a bit too spiritual, philosophical, and esoteric for me.

An internship at the Iveco truck company near Ulm changed my approach: I was designing trucks and doing the trim of coaches. That was cool.

Of course, motorcycles were always my passion. I could have continued my career with trucks, tractors, or construction machinery, but working as a car designer never really interested me.

You got in touch with BMW through your thesis, correct?

To obtain support for my thesis, I wrote to all motorcycle companies in Germany (that is, Japanese importers and BMW) because I wanted to build a true-scale motorcycle. That seemed easier to me than a scale model because there were already many parts available.

"Unfortunately," only BMW got back to me. At the time, BMW was the least cool brand of all for me. I then came up with a motorcycle for young people with 27 horsepower, the R50S with a pressed steel frame, a secondary drive belt, and a helmet compartment.

As I said, BMW was pretty uncool for me back then because of the strange ergonomics and the submissive rider posture. They had a narrow handlebar with a special bend for a body-hugging elbow position. For me, a motorbike is only complete when the rider is sitting on it, so it was important to me to ensure a cool riding position.

How did your career start at BMW?

I started working for BMW in 1987. I was a freelancer for a year, then they hired me.

In the design department of K.V. Gevert, there were three employees at that time: Karl-Heinz Abe, Wolfgang Seehaus, and Glynn Kerr, who left in 1989 and whose position I practically took over to participate in the facelift of the K 100 RS. As I was quite good at sketching, maybe even a little better than the others, I was allowed to do the graphics of the K 1, including the big logo on the fairing.

We chose wild colors: a yellow engine, a bright red fairing… There was no strategy behind it, we had quite a lot of freedom and just did wild things and cool sketches.

Then we moved on to the R 100 R and finally the 259 R series, with the new four-valve boxer. For this new model, four or five renowned designers submitted designs, but I was chosen for that bike as a youngster. Karl-Heinz Abe then did the GS and the R.

Were there any special issues with the new four-valve boxer 259 R?

I wanted to finally get rid of the undynamic, upward-pointing engine position of the old boxer models, which was caused by the geometry of the universal joint of the final driveshaft. That's why the crankshaft was higher at the front than at the back, which worked against a sporty silhouette.

Instead, we turned the cylinder heads slightly downward as a little trick, while the crankshaft retained its inclined position.

How did the asymmetry then come about on BMW motorbikes?

It was about the restyling of the 1150 GS from 1999 onward. We had almost no budget, but I wanted to give the bike a new face and get away from the “truck headlight” of the 1100.

We got a hold of an existing headlight with asymmetrical housing from the company group and found it interesting from the start. I like asymmetry when it is functionally driven and not for pure design reasons. On the R 1100 S, for example, this principle meant that we had fewer parting lines on the top of the tank.

For a long time, asymmetry was an unmistakable feature of our machines. Many people tried to copy the GS, but no one really dared to copy the “spout” together with the asymmetry. In 2004, with the first 1200 GS, we really implemented the concept in a coherent way.

Which projects did you work on next?

At that time, I was also traveling a lot to meet our suppliers abroad, especially in Italy, and then for a few months at our design studio Designworks USA in California near Santa Barbara. It was interesting to learn why cruise control, big panniers, sound systems, and a long range were important in the U.S.

I even tried smoking behind the big fairing on the RT on a ride through the Mojave Desert to see how it worked.

The K 1200 S and R were the next projects. The concept bikes were cool, with a semi-transparent green fairing, but the whole package with the forward-leaning cylinder bank was not easy to put together.

Why did you move to Bajaj in India in 2009?

I just felt the urge for change after being at BMW for 22 years by then. I was doing two or three bikes at a time and had no staff responsibility.

Actually, it was okay—the perfect setup for a designer. That was until this headhunter called me and offered me the job in India. While it was gray and cold in Munich, I went to Pune over Christmas to have a look. I finally agreed to take the job and moved over with my family.

It was an easy-going time because you could experience wild things every day. Technically, Bajaj was very well equipped—they were very advanced in virtual skills and they had a super competent head of development.

I was able to learn a lot about cost structures and brand development there and I enjoyed working with Indian colleagues. I’m still in touch with some of them today. The people are focused and on schedule; the young people are very flexible, modern in their thinking, and very well trained.

What made you come back to Munich in 2012?

I had always kept in touch with Hendrik von Kuenheim (BMW Motorrad’s managing director between 2008-2012) and Adrian van Hooydonk (BMW Group head of design). When David Robb left in 2012, I got a call from Munich. There were also private reasons for me to go back to Germany.

Starting as the overall head of BMW Motorrad Design Studio was a real challenge. In India, I had a different area of responsibility and I was still drawing a lot, but had nevertheless understood that design meant more than just drawing beautiful motorcycles.

Incidentally, I returned to BMW on July 1, 2012, at the same time as Stephan Schaller, who was the BMW Motorrad managing director between 2012-2018. Together with him, we managed to take the design strategy to a new level.

He understood the potential of emotional design and, together, we got started with new kinds of concept bikes. When we presented the first Concept Ninety at Villa d'Este in 2013, the motorcycle world was totally surprised. We had really managed to convey pure emotion.

Schaller thought it was cool because, all of a sudden, the whole BMW group had taken notice of us. By the way, Roland Sands built the bike, but the design came from our Munich studio.

Could you explain what motorcycle design at BMW is all about?

There are companies that focus more on the family feeling, where all models have certain similarities across the board. You can do that, but we prefer a segment-typical design language and certain visual features that we use for certain models.

For the GS, for example, that would be “Rough and Tough” with basic geometric shapes familiar from the outdoor sector. Now, look at the panniers of an RT and a GS—they have the same functionality but have to look different. For the GS, they should preferably look like ammunition boxes, while the RT cases should be aerodynamic and high quality.

Everyone recognizes what comes across as visually dangerous, dynamic, boring, or reassuring. The CE 04 scooter, for example, speaks in an urban, almost architectural language of form—meanwhile, the CE 02 borrows from childish schemas. It’s nice, friendly, a jokester.

Semantics teaches us that you don't understand the function of the part because you have studied design, but because it is stored in your cerebellum.

You have to learn how to use these tools. I like to deal with the psychology of perception. Think about what children perceive first. Colors, outlines? No, proportions!

That's why the basic proportions have to be right. Gold-plated footrests are often a convulsive attempt to conceal flaws in the big picture. But there is also the freedom of art.

Another small example—during my university studies, we had the task of arranging 15 matches in such a way that they express different concepts, such as danger, joy, fun, or harmony. This kind of exercise works amazingly well and shows you how you can work with simple basic shapes to express emotions.

Now that you’re enjoying retirement, do you still work in your own workshop?

I have 14 motorbikes of my own. My favorite machine is a modified BMW HP 2. When wrenching on older motorcycles, you often discover interesting things.

My experience is that old American bikes lose their bolts, while old English ones lose oil. The electronics on the Italian classics are often faulty, and older Japanese bikes are rather boring for me (with exceptions, of course), as are the old BMWs, but the last two are very reliable.

What do you see in the future of motorcycling?

The next generations of sports and mid-range bikes might already feature the last combustion engines, but I think electric mobility is extremely exciting. We are at a point that’s like the 1920s, with a lot of possibilities.

You only have to go to a motorcycle museum to see what they tried 100 years ago. Electric is opening up a huge field that is still without limits—there are many different concepts to be developed.

For example, in 2025, BMW is set to present its first fully electric production motorcycle.