My Life in bikes: Ola Stenegard

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‘My dad taught me to weld when I was about six years old’

BMW designer talks choppers, chainsaws and creating the S1000RR 

Did you come from a biking family?

Yes. Both my mum and dad rode bikes, all my brothers and their friends rode bikes too. My mum could ride before my dad. When they met he only rode a bicycle and she had a 200cc motorcycle so he had to move fast to get a motorcycle too.

At what age did you start riding?

I was surrounded by farmland and I was riding by the time I was about six. I couldn’t even afford a moped so we had to make our own. We had a good garage so we could fix everything. My dad taught me to weld when I was six or seven as he was sick of fixing stuff for me.

Chainsaw bikes

Tomas chainsaw moped, 1980
‘Those suckers were fast!’

What was the first bike you owned?

One thing we have a lot of in Sweden is chainsaws and old ones never get thrown away. We used to rebuild the engines and then build frames to put them in. The chainsaws were 150cc or 200cc two-strokes and they were really powerful. We put them in bicycle or moped frames that we could get for free. Those suckers were fast! The biggest issue was gearing but we used to run a slipper clutch off the chain. They might last a week at a time! I don’t think they ever ran long enough for us to properly crash them.

Did you even think at the time that designing bikes could be a job?

Not at all but then I entered a show that fuelled my love of building bikes. When I was about 14 I built a complete moped from scratch. That was when I learned to sketch out what I was going to build. That helped me to be able to build things once rather than twice each time. I took that to a big show after I booked everything from the ferry, to the hire car and the hotel with some of the money the show organisers gave to cover expenses. I still have that bike and it’s the only one I have kept all these years.

When did you get your first big motorcycle?

I got a Honda CB350 which I used to ride on the dirt roads near home. That was like unleashing hell compared to what I had ridden before! I made that into a scrambler-style bike early on, but once I got my licence at 18 I made it into a café racer. I borrowed money from my brother to buy a 1970 Triumph 650 and that was a proper Swedish-style 1970s chopper. Swedish style means clean, useable because we ride a lot, long forks and timeless. I used to build one or two a year.

Chopped triumph

Home-brewed biking
‘I used to build one or two a year’ 

When did the design work start?

I went to Pasadena Art and Design school in America and that was really expensive. I had to sell three motorcycles to help pay the fees but from there I got a job at Saab but I was done with cars pretty fast. I went to Indian but at that time there were a lot of problems with that company. And then I started at BMW.

Did you start as a junior designer?

Not really. I was given the HP2 Sport project because at the time [2003] no-one else at BMW was interested in sportsbikes. I moved straight onto the S1000RR after the HP2. I was thinking ‘how can you beat the HP2?’ But in the end the RR was incredible.

How do you follow the HP2? With the S1000RR. ‘It was incredible’

What’s in the garage now?

I have a BMW R nineT, which is my everyday bike. I modded it a little, but not too extreme as I commute to work on it. I always have a company GS too. It’s usually an F800GS but at the moment it’s an R1200GS. I also have a mid-70s springer frame 1700cc Harley shovelhead, and a 1960s Triumph custom. I have my other garage in Sweden where there are a load of motocross bikes for the kids, an old 2003 ZX-6R, a Sportster 883, KTM 125 Duke for my son, who is 16, and I borrow an S1000RR from the local shop for track riding.

Some of Ola’s other bikes

British metal

1970 Triumph 650
‘My brother lent me the money’

Swedish style chop

Cruising in 1991
‘Swedish style is clean and useable’

Hog roast

Harley-Davidson chop
‘I still have a couple of Harleys’

Photos: Hermann-Koepf BMW