One of the biggest names in the motorcycle industry’s narrow design pantheon is Ola Stenegärd, the strapping swedish concept and product design veteran who returned to the indian motorcycle fold a year ago.
He began honing his innate talent at the tender age of seven, when he built his first chopper on a bicycle frame. All his spare moments were spent in his brother’s workshop wielding various tools, welding equipment and hacksaws. At 15, Stenegärd took first prize at a motorcycle show in Stockholm with a moped he’d modified into an Arlen Ness-inspired chopper. After that, there was no stopping him – he customized every two-wheeler he came across into a chopper, with his favourites being American V-Twins.
Intent on making his passion his profession, Ola en-rolled at the University College of Art, Craft and Design in Stockholm in 1994, where he spent three years before heading across the Atlantic to the renowned ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. There he threw himself into American custom motorcycle and hot rod culture, before returning to Stockholm in 1998 to take his Master’s degree in Industrial Design.
Stenegärd combined his first job at SAAB Automobile with doing freelance work on the side for Öhlins, Unique Custom Cycle, and MCM Magazine.
He couldn’t get the US out of his system, though, and in 2001 he joined the team at Indian Motorcycle Company of America, a firm born from the merger of nine compa-nies and launched to revive the historic brand from 1901, which had ceased production five decades previously. Ola’s Californian interlude in Gilroy lasted 2 years, until the company’s management – undone by a combination of short-term thinking and simple greed – were forced to shut up shop.
Ola came back across the pond in 2003 and went to work for Europe’s biggest motorbike manufacturer, where he would stay for 15 years. In this phase of his career, he built a reputation as an influential designer who was res-ponsible for some significant new trends on the market and worked on several successful new models. Every time he went home to his wife Terese and their three children on the island of Gotland in Sweden, Ola headed straight for the garage to fire up his welding machine and angle grinder. He’s constantly working on choppers and other custom builds, which have earned him numerous prizes and accolades in many countries.
In March 2018 Ola Stenegärd was able to reconnect with his life-long passion for the design and customization of American V-twins when he was appointed Director of Product Design for Indian Motorcycle. Along with his uniquely indepth understanding of the European motor-bike market, he is infusing the brand with his sources of inspiration and his passion for what American customiza-tion embodies.
Ola, you’ve been back at Indian Motorcycle for almost a year now in this new phase of your career – what fresh impetus has it brought you?
Indian Motorcycle consists of a truly dedicated team of gearheads. What can be more inspiring? And the Mid-western spirit is kinda grounded and pragmatic. Keep it simple. Just roll up your sleeves and get it done. I really dig that. Steve Menneto is a great role model for this: you always see him at the stand in Sturgis for example, talking to customers. For hours at end. How many CEO’s do you see do that today? That rocks more then anything in my book!
I really love this mindset. Beacuse it’s easy for a corpora-tion to fall into the bottomless pit of beancounting and quarterly reports. But here at Indian it’s different: if we believe in what we do, we’ll make it a success.
Back when you were a kid building choppers in your brother’s workshop, did you ever dare dream that one day you’d reach such a strategic position within the first motorcycle brand in American history?
No way ever haha. This is nothing you can plan. For me just being able to draw motorcycles and get paid…was a dream similar to becoming an astronaut. And some days I still have to stop and pinch myself that this is actually happening, that I’m not only designing motorcycles for a living but actually doing so for one of the most iconic motorcycle brands that ever rolled the earth. Some days it just really blows my mind. Heck, I’m basically still doing what I did in kindergarten.
Where did you catch the bug for choppers? Was it the cult movie Easy Rider about two bikers riding through 1970s America on their choppers that made a lasting im-pression on you?
Well, growing up in Sweden, you’re kinda surrounded by choppers and bobbers and Detroit made cars. We have a strong fascination for American culture and anything powered by V2’s and V8’s. Especially the long, lean and clean choppers, so typical for Sweden, caught my eye and made an inerasable impression on me. The chopper scene in Sweden was always very active. Liberal laws and many small companies making parts, support the scene. And don’t forget our long dark winters haha. Plenty of time to get creative. So there is a very deeply rooted garage and diy culture here. And of course I also had Wyatt and Billy on the wall as a kid in the seventies! Got one of the legendary posters from my older brother who was into cars and bikes. And so was his hippie friends. They were my biggest heroes. So I was always hanging around them, as a lil’ kid, just taking it all in.
You’re in charge of the product design department at Indian Motorcycle. How is it organized between the three product families of the Chief, the Scout and now the FTR?
The team is very versatile and experienced in the field of motorcycles and can take a stab at any type of bike or segment or market we would like to approach. It’s an international team with lots of industry experience as well as experience from other brands. And their genuine pas-sion for motorcycles always shines through. This makes the team very strong.
Given the cultural differences between the American market and the growing international market for Indian Motorcycle, consumer expectations aren’t the same – so how does Indian Motorcycle approach its product de-sign?
Indian Motorcycle is a very strong brand. It has that kind of magic that time can’t kill. And in my opinion it does not come with any “luggage”. This is a brand that has the po-tential to go anywhere it wants to go. This is what makes this brand so special.
And I think the Pioneer Spirit of Indian Motorcycle is im-portant. Something that really inspires me. We want to carve our own road. Not to follow. I think the FTR is a perfect example. Not only bringing a Flat Track inspired bike to the street, but also to go racing with the 750. This philosophy shines through in the other products too. Any-thing is possible. The teams international mix and expe-rience as well as our 2 studios is really the foundation for being a global player and understand different markets and their customer expectations.
You may often be out in the field, how do you split your time between the US and Europe to make sure you stay in touch with your markets and are up on the latest trends?
I split my time between the main studio at the headquar-ter in Minnepolis and our european branch in Switzerland. Indian is global company so the infrastructure is all in place and makes it easy to work from different corners of the globe. We put great value in our team having the possability to rotate between the studios.
That way they can always stay connected to both markets and can live and breath the customer experience.
In the early 1990s, it took a Japanese manufacturer between five and seven years to specify a totally new product and bring it to market. Indian Motorcycle ma-naged to completely reinvent itself within 27 months, achieving incredible success with the Chief range from 2013 onwards. How long do we have to wait until the designs you’ve currently got on your drawing board hit the market?
Indian development times are definitely faster than the industry standard. Small teams and short communication channels are key. That being said it always varies depen-ding on models and how extensive the platforms are. The Chief range was maybe a bit extreme but also shows the capacity our development center has.
You’ve always been a big fan and heavily involved in customization, and you’re in touch with lots of influen-tial guys like Roland Sands. Don’t you find it frustrating, when you’re designing a product, to have to work within the manufacturers’ industrial constraints and comply with market regulations?
Not really. On one hand I just love working in my garage on bikes. It’s a very decompressing kind of activity. It gives great tranquility to your mind working with your hands and shaping parts for these rolling mechanical wonders. Forget mediation, yoga or seeing a shrink. Building bikes rock more than anything!
Equally, I absolutely love working for a big corporation that is totally committed to doing great things. And this is what we do every day at Indian. To work on this level, envisioning the future, creating great products that will enrich other people’s lives, working in a passionate team with great people, well hey, it’s a dream for any designer! Bottom line, I do need both: my own small personal ga-rage and the big cooperate garage! It’s a “motorcycle life balance” thing haha.
Do you still have time to ride a motorbike and enjoy the variety of the Indian range?
Riding has always been the corner stone of my life…any-thing from commuting to work or riding in a pack with my clubmates from Plebs Choppers, or going to Sturgis with the design team or splitting lanes with Roland Sands in LA. It’s all pretty darn hard to beat!
Which Indian model would you choose to personally customize, and what would it look like when you’d fi-nished?
Would love to cut up a Scout bobber a bit, to use as a daily commuter. That’s such a badass bike and great base to work on. All the bones are already in the right places. And Odins beard I need an FTR!
And then (ah dang, this is too predictable)… I’m need a Chief motor, so I can build a Swedish style chopper.18” over forks. Hardtail. I have already collected a lot of parts for this one haha…