By Steve Farrell
DESPITE its best efforts, MZ is still best known to most people as a manufacturer of stinking, low-tech commuter bikes. But now it has its sights set firmly on superbike riders – and it is convinced its plans will transform the way we look at the company.
MZ reckons its new range of large-capacity machines will persuade people like you to reject Japanese and Italian bikes in favour of a bike with a badge more commonly seen in the Third World.
We revealed in September that MZ had built a prototype of a 1000cc, fuel-injected parallel twin sports tourer, which it calls the 1000S. The 150mph, 130bhp machine is designed to compete with the likes of Honda’s VFR800, Ducati’s ST4, Triumph’s Sprint ST and Aprilia’s new Futura, offering a mixture of performance and practicality.
Now the firm has confirmed the engine used in the bike will form the basis for no less than 26 machines.
MZ now plans to put one model into production every six months, starting with the 1000S next year, and followed by a detuned 1000cc naked roadster, a 750cc budget naked bike and, later, a 1200-1500cc super-tourer and a lightweight, supercharged production racer. Eventually, the range will also include a full-dress supercharged tourer and an enduro bike.
The firm’s aim is to have a diverse enough range to take on everything from Suzuki’s SV650 to Honda’s SP-1, all using a variation of the same parallel twin engine. Its ambition is to become one of the top 10 manufacturers in the world by 2006.
We spoke to Petr Koerner, MZ’s sales director, and testing chief Juergen Zurn, to ask them just what MZ is working on at the moment.
Zurn said: " The 1200cc-1500cc bike is still in the planning stages, but it’s likely to be a Hayabusa-type high-performance tourer.
" The supercharged racer is already running and in the testing stages on the dyno. It uses the same chassis as the 1000S. We’ll build as many different bikes using this chassis as we can, to minimise production costs.
" The bodywork is also the same for each bike at the moment, but eventually the supercharged version will have more sporty ergonomics and more aggressive styling. It will be aimed at superbikes like Ducati’s 996. "
Zurn, who spent seven years working at Suzuki on Hayabusa and GSX-R development, says the final spec has yet to be confirmed, making it impossible to give performance figures. But he’s confident it will make at least 150bhp and weigh well under 200kg with a tank of petrol.
But the firm will still have a battle on its hands to shake off its dowdy image. Whereas a glamorous brand like Ducati has always shifted bikes – despite the firm’s less than perfect reliability record – anything with the MZ name on it will need to be at least as good as anything else in order to counter buyers’ prejudices. Even if the new range does look interesting, can the firm really persuade riders to forget about its past?
Koerner thinks so. He
said: " The reaction to the 1000S at the Munich Show was sensational and we are convinced this new line will be the future of MZ. "
Though MZ’s core market is Germany, where the firm is based, Koerner emphasises that British riders are crucial to the firm’s resurrection.
He said: " The old MZs may have been simple commuter bikes, but there was once a very strong market for them in the UK. They were very reliable machines and there are still MZ rider clubs today.
" We’re convinced we can rebuild that strong market in the UK by offering similar reliability and practicality, but this time in a package which will appeal to riders who see motorcycling as a leisure activity or sport. "
But Koerner is under no illusions it will be easy. He said: " We will have to work hard to improve our image. We’re working 18 hours a day to make it happen. "
If reliability and desirability aren’t enough to win over a portion of the UK market, then something else which might help tip the scales in MZ’s favour is price.
Though the firm refuses to confirm what any of its new range will cost, it is confident it will give its rivals a shock. It claims the 1000S will be cheaper then the VFR800, which costs £8350.
Zurn is also confident the strength of the Japanese yen will give MZ an advantage over Japanese distributors, who have to absorb the cost of exchange rates.
One thing that’s certain is that price will be crucial. Koerner said: " You can be sure of one thing – we’ll be competitive. We’ll have to be. "
WHY MZ HAD TO CHANGE
MZ’s old two-strokes may not have been the most exciting bikes in the world, but for many years they were the choice of riders from Europe to Africa.
Designed originally for communist East Germany, where income was low and waiting lists for cars were long, they provided reliable if unglamorous transport.
Koerner said: " Riders knew they could use them all year round, in all conditions. "
But then the market changed. Performance became more important and MZ sales collapsed. " People became more interested in riding for fun, sport or fashion, " said Koerner.
MZ tried to change. The rights to build the old 250cc and 350cc two-strokes were sold to its former importer in Turkey, while the German outfit launched the sporty Skorpion, which won design awards but failed to sell.
MZ temporarily adopted the name MuZ during a legal battle with the Turkish firm over rights to the badge. Those rights now lie firmly back in the hands of the new MZ factory in Zschopau, Germany, after it won the battle, but the firm is now keen to disassociate itself from its old image.
Koerner said: " We’re now completely independent. We have nothing to do with manufacturing the old two-strokes. The old factory has been liquidated – everything has gone. "
WHERE THE CASH IS COMING FROM
A massive injection of funds from MZ’s current owner, Malaysian giant the Hong Leong Group, has transformed the one-time manufacturer of budget two-strokes into a firm with genuine ability to take on the big boys.
The 1996 sale to Hong Leong is the latest development in a history stretching back decades. After World War Two, the firm we now know as MZ rose from the remnants of a company called IFA, itself the successor to pre-war automotive legend DKW, which had been going since 1922.
Though Petr Koerner refused to reveal the
total amount of cash that will be ploughed into MZ to develop the entire range,
he did admit: " It will be many millions. "
What is known is that funding for the development of the new MZ1000S sports tourer alone is expected to reach £3.3 million by the time the bike goes into production in 2002. Big manufacturers like Honda may spend more money, but this is definitely no paper and string affair cobbled together in a
To prepare for the bikes going into production, the firm is also spending money on increasing its workforce and boosting its network of distributors and dealers – not least in Britain.
Koerner said: " We currently have a network of 22 dealers in the UK and we intend to increase this number to 40. "
Though MZ has importers in 20 countries, it no longer has one in the UK. Instead, Koerner liaises with the firm’s UK dealers and supplies them with bikes directly from the factory, cutting out the middleman. " Our former distributor now supplies only spares and technical support to the UK market, " he said.
At the moment, the firm employs 200 people, but that’s expected to rise to 400 by next year.
Even before the new range hits the showrooms, MZ has taken the first step in transforming itself into a major hitter. A new range of scooters and off-road bikes launched since 1996 has helped it re-establish itself as a credible manufacturer, paving the way for bigger and better products.